By Zack Rosen June 15, 2017
There are tens of thousands of website design and development agencies in the United States alone. Which is the right one for your business? Many marketers don’t know where to start.
At Pantheon we work with thousands of web development agencies, and as a partner at Chapter Three, I was closely involved in hundreds of client website projects. I get asked just about every day to recommend a web design and development agency. I wrote this post to help guide friends and colleagues through the process of hiring the best agency for their business.
If you have the right framework and approach, I believe choosing the right agency can be straight-forward. Use this post to arm yourself with a framework and interview questions to help you choose the right agency partner.
First, Answer: What resources do we have internally?
Building websites requires a wide variety of skills. Here’s a an overview of the roles you will need to fill:
Brand Strategy and Positioning
Fontend Development (xHTML/CSS/JS)
CMS Implementation (Drupal/WordPress)
Hosting/DevOps (unless you’re hosted on Pantheon, of course)
Unless you have $250K+ design and development budget for your project, you won’t be able to hire a specialist for each of these areas. Start your search by doing an internal inventory to answer: which roles can we fill using existing talent on our team?
Each skill you can eliminate from the mix of requirements will make the job of finding an agency partner much easier. Plus, having an in-house resource who already knows your business will speed things up.
What are the key skillsets we’re looking for in an agency partner?
There are three major skillsets required to build websites: strategy, design, and development. Agencies generally lead in one or two of these areas, and rarely specialize in all three. So generally you will either need a large ($250K+) budget to hire multiple firms, or you will need to prioritize some skillsets over others.
If you can drive strategy internally, then hire for design and development. If you can drive strategy and design, then you may just need someone to develop a website to your own design specifications. Knowing exactly what type of work you need—and what you don’t—is crucial to choosing the right agency.
What’s our rough scope and budget?
There’s a staggering price range for web development. Some agencies are specialized to work within a fixed $10-$20K budget. To do this successfully, they build their design and development process around a fixed and repeatable process.
Other agencies need a $200K budget just to get started. They may serve clients that have important design/identity challenges, or technically complex website with many content types and thousands of pages of content. To manage those kinds of projects you need a dedicated team of specialists, and a project management process to oversee a multi-month effort with numerous stakeholders.
It’s important to know what your budget range is ahead of time so you can focus your search on agencies that are a fit.
Do we need somebody onsite?
If you are working through strategy and design, it might make sense to have someone willing to work in your location. If you have narrowed the scope to implementation, it can be easier to work remotely. A lot of this will come down to the kind of working relationship you need with your agency. In general, the more stakeholders they need to work with, the more important it will be to have someone on-site.
Ask your network for references
The best place to start drawing up your list of potential agency partners is by surveying your own network. This would be my hit-list of who to ask for references and introductions to website design agencies (in descending order):
Co-workers on my marketing team
Colleagues at other marketing teams at similar size companies/industry verticals
Wider ecosystem of technology partners and vendors
The key question to ask is: “Which website design/development agencies have you worked with before, and would recommend working with again?”
You want to segment out the “well my friend/cousin/person I met works at this agency” kind of referrals from qualified referrals. By qualified I mean, the person has direct working experience with the agency.
Research agencies online
In addition to referrals, you can do your own independent online research of agencies work. There is no obvious centralized resource for this yet, unfortunately, but there are a number of good starting points:
Pantheon’s agency finder
Drupal.org’s searchable directory
Sortfolio’s online directory
I also recommend finding websites you admire in the wild, asking for an introduction to their head of digital marketing, and asking them who they hired. Legwork here can go a long way.
Interview agencies like you would employees
I recommend approaching hiring an agency like you would hiring an employee. If you have a highly qualified referral, then you may only need to speak with one or two agencies. If you don’t have a highly qualified referral, I recommend having early interviews with 3-6 agencies, and the narrowing it down to 2-3 whom you should meet multiple times and ask to submit bids.
Here are the questions I recommend asking during your interviews:
What are the sites you are most proud of in your portfolio, and why? Make sure you are aligned on what makes for a good website.
Who is your favorite client to work with? Why? What makes for a really good working client relationship? Use this to get a sense of the sophistication and experience of your agency. Experienced agencies have a highly developed philosophy of how to build constructive long term client relationships.
What are the top three ways projects can go off the rails? How do you de-risk each of these areas? Experienced agencies have thought hard about this and have insightful answers.
What are you better at than your competition? Make sure this maps well to your needs.
If we were to augment your services by hiring a second agency, which area of specialization should they cover? Another way to understand where the agency specializes in and make sure it maps to your needs.
From there, you should get into the details of your project. Agencies will flex their strategic planning, design, or technical muscles during their sales process to prove their value. You should design your RFP and evaluation process to test how well their skillsets meet your needs. (How to do this is a whole different blog post).
Lastly, but most importantly, ask your agencies for references. Any agency that can’t provide references probably should be ruled out. Just ask: "Can you please put me in touch with a few clients who are similar to us in needs and budget who can speak about their experience working with your agency?"
When you are connected with the reference client, here is what I recommend asking them:
How long were you engaged with the agency as a client?
What was the project you hired the agency for?
What services did they provide? (design, development, strategy)
What was the ballpark budget they had to work with?
Was the project delivered on-time and on-budget? If not, what could the agency have improved in their planning and process to improve?
What was the agency great at?
What were the areas/skillsets they could most improve?
Would you hire them for your next project? Why or why not?
What do they need from their clients to best set them up to be successful?
Apply what you learned in the interview
The agency you choose has probably worked with dozens, if not hundreds, of clients. Much of the value you are getting in working with an agency is the ability to apply the lessons they have learned along the way.
Doing a thorough job on your agency selection process will help out greatly when it comes time to kick off a project. You should finish with a good understanding of what your team is going to do, what key skills the agency is going to bring the table, and wisdom from the agency and their clients on how to best set up the project to succeed.
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