So you know you need to get an online presence or shape up the one you’ve got. You’ve searched Google and found a thousand different digital agencies. What now? Who do you approach?
We thought it might be helpful to offer a few pointers for choosing a web design and creative digital marketing partner; not just how to spot the really bad ones, but also how to find the most suitable ones given your precise requirements. I won’t be so patronising as to tell you to do credit checks, meet the people who would be doing the work, look at their portfolio pieces and potentially speak to some of their clients. (Let’s face it: If you don’t know how to avoid dodgy suppliers by now, no amount of article reading is going to change that! It’s just common sense.)
Instead I want to explain the different service levels offered by suppliers at different positions within the creative digital industry. I want to help you to specify precisely what it is you need from a web design/marketing partner and then understand which types of supplier might be right for the job.
Size of digital agency
I’m going to assume, since you are reading a blog on our web site, that you are looking for a small-to-medium sized creative digital agency to help you engage customers through the application of design theory, branding and clever language on user-friendly digital interfaces. So, I won’t discuss the Goliath-sized, global breed of agency – such as McCann Erikson, Ogilvy, JWT, DDB, Saatchi et al. – who get involved with media-planning, supermarket distribution and billboard/TV advertising etc. They are, traditionally speaking, media houses who offer creative as an after-thought (in many regards – I’m sure they’d have something to say about that). Instead, we’ll stick to the agencies who primarily offer creative services in the digital realm.
You need an agency who can create a strong online brand presence, cleanly designed communications and the right tools to stay current with customers. There are plenty of these smaller teams with specialist skills, working with big brands, SME’s and start-ups on local and national campaigns. This is where Attain Design is positioned in the market.
As such we’re more flexible than the bigger agencies, not to mention cheaper. Our team is strong but lean, we all work in very close collaboration and each client gets the full attention of the team on every project, whether big or small. Our modest size means we can remain responsive while still having the resources to deliver bespoke projects, on time and to a wide range of specifications.
Location is another important factor to consider when deciding which agency to use. Specialist agencies place the utmost importance on every single client, and for that reason the ability to make visits ‘on the fly’ and still speak to the top brass can prove invaluable.
If you’re after anything slightly away from the norm, you may find you’ll have to root out an agency that offers precisely the right mix of services. You may not need a particular service if you are happy with your current provisions, or perhaps you’d rather keep it in-house. Others may be absolutely imperative to outsource, despite being somewhat unusual. The key is knowing which questions to ask…
What can a mid-sized agency offer?
Marketing | Research & Strategy
If you want the best chance of getting a good return-on-investment, you need to understand your market. With a small investment at the first step, you can ensure that your campaign will be targeted, focused and efficient. Without research, the whole campaign could be a misfire. You have to ask yourself: What price would you put on that piece of mind?
You may also want help deciding precisely how to justify a premium price; or how to develop a more competitive product in a price-sensitive market. Which channels are best for engaging different market segments? What would be the most efficient way of utilising your marketing budget? Only an agency with real-world marketing experience and expertise will be able answer questions like these. There are many exceptional marketers in smaller to medium-sized agencies who can offer sound advice.
Ask yourself if you need help planning or if you’re already confident with your own strategic ability. If you want marketing strategy services, be specific and make sure the agency has a suitable skill-base and can demonstrate it.
Creative | Design Process & User Experience
There is no standard design process. Each designer will work however they feel most comfortable. However, your concern is finding a process that you, the client, are most comfortable with. There are a few angles to look into including estimated timescale, number of creative concepts supplied, procedures for amends, any restrictions imposed on amends, copyright assignment… things of that nature.
You might also want animation, video or copywriting to compliment the design. Perhaps you need a responsive web design or a mobile-specific web design. These are not skills that every creative digital agency can offer.
If you know you’ll want a specific type of content or copy producing, make sure you ask agencies to show examples before committing to work with them. Also, you should always get clear information on the processes involved. If they get cagey, walk!
Finally remember to consider your requirements for other design work. Can the agency design for print too if needed? Business cards? What about logo design and branding? After all, it’s important that your brand looks seamless at every consumer touch-point. Web design and graphic design are two very different things from a designers perspective and not all design houses are comfortable with both, so ask!
Development | Code, Functionality & Support
There are many different coding languages, web platforms and functionality types to choose from. For example we develop on the Magento eCommerce platform and we can build on a range of content-management systems such as WordPress; but there are some we just won’t touch (for good reason, I might add). Any developer worth their salt would be happy to discuss the relative benefits, so don’t let people bamboozle you: This is crucial to making the right decision.
Ask your potential suppliers about development timescales, to be up-front about how easily the platform will integrate with wider technologies, how easy it is to change or add functionality and how much training and on-going support you are entitled to.
Another technical point worth asking about is hosting. This is simply the provision of server space to put the website on so that it can be accessed via the internet. Be careful not to get tied in to anything unnecessarily, but beware of the demands of managing your own hosting.
Promotion | Search, Email, Social, Offline & Advertising
Some web design companies will be able to provide you with additional services once your web design project is completed. Perhaps they could manage your social media activity to save you time; or design and send email campaigns for you; perhaps they could help you to get found in Google, either organically or through PPC advertising.
You should think very seriously about how you will promote your web site. It takes time or money or both. If you feel you might need help, it’s important that you make this clear from the outset when discussing project requirements with a digital agency. If you’re unsure, you need to gather info and weigh up your options.
Are there cheaper alternatives to digital agencies?
Of course there are also freelancers, online website builders, cheap boilerplate sites from the like of Yell and BT, and various other template options to consider. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions there, but I do implore you to at least speak to one good medium-sized agency as part of the process. I believe it’s important to understand the value in having a tailored website with design and functionality targeted precisely at your market, expressing all of the core value unique to your brand. You will logically get the best results from a strategically bespoke service aimed at generating business growth and ROI, provided by a skilled, professional, dedicated team of full-time specialists with resource and experience behind them.
There is always wiggle room and scalability when it comes to budget. To many of us, that’s the beauty of marketing. A good agency should be flexible and knowledgeable enough to be able to answer a client’s brief with more than one viable solution. Within reason, a smaller budget should still be able to generate a proportionately good ROI.
Another consideration here is the length of time that the company or freelancer offering the services has been established. If they have been around for 5 years or more, you can probably rest assured that they stay abreast of new technologies and their practical applications for clients – if they had been giving bad advice or providing outdated solutions they would have gone out of business a long time ago!
The golden rules are:
- Do your normal financial checks etc.
- Don’t be convinced that anything is too complicated to be explained. It really isn’t.
- Ask to see examples of work.
- Consider your requirements for a logo, branding and offline design too.
- Be careful to consider the next steps: Hosting, SEO and wider online promotion.
- Ensure the online platforms used will be flexible enough to grow with your business.
Get a clear understanding of timescales, expectations and requirements on both sides; the amends processes; copyright assignment and provisions for support and training before committing to anything. Embarking on a web design project can open up new horizons for business growth if planned correctly and done properly. New technologies, new branding opportunities, new marketing avenues and smoother internal processes are all easily achievable; and with the right foot forward, it can be fun as well as profitable.