Updated January 2020
Website builders and me – why I charge over $5,000 for a semi-custom website
I read an article by Smashing Magazine that detailed how web agencies like mine need to step it up and offer more value than just building a website. It’s a misnomer that many of us find difficult to penetrate. The idea that our livelihood is going away because of websites like Squarespace, Weebly, Shopify or Wix, is not accurate.
I agree with the basic premise of the Smashing Magazine article, that with page builders becoming easier it can make buying web services suspect. But the author admits that we still need professional developers for the highly custom websites. He’s just not giving the right reasons.
Why would a consumer pay more and wait longer to get the same value?
It’s the same question we all hear, “Why should I pay you $5,000 for a website when I can build one for free?” I think the author misses the point of why we exist or why there is even a market in the first place.
Yes, websites are commoditized and are becoming more user-friendly for a business owner to build their own website, and still look good (at least better than when they had FrontPage or Dreamweaver on their computers). We’ve been saying this for years though; each new iteration of a page builder starts the debate again that our business is dying.
I applaud the changes and can’t wait to see how, in the years to come, Artificial Intelligence will take it to the next level.
But I don't sell $5,000 websites.
I sell $5,000 marketing platforms and 20 years’ experience. I sell internet marketing and generate leads. Are my web designs revolutionary? Will they win a Webby award? Will the Met ever call me to design a site for them? Probably not.
Do my websites look like the rest of them out there; a header, a hero image, three service boxes, a call to action, and footer? Yup, they do. Five years ago, they weren’t ground-breaking. Ten years ago, same. 15 years ago, well ick, we shouldn’t go there. Needless to say, I am not a Monet, Frida or Warhol. I have Political Science and Public Administration degrees and not a design degree.
With years of experience, I know what works.
Now, I have seen some pretty cool looking Squarespace and Shopify websites and bookmarked them as inspiration. They were gorgeous, and the design was outside the box thinking. I am sure though that a professional built the website and implemented them on these platforms.
Why does it take so long for us to build websites?
You can ask any agency or developer why it takes so long; two words – content delivery. From the outset, yes, using page builders seems faster. I mean, you create your account, connect your domain, and that’s it! But now what?
Hell, I wish it was that easy…
- Which photos should I use?
- I found these photos on Google that are free. I can use those, right?
- What should I say on my homepage?
- I’ll create a Service page and just list my services just like my competitor. I guess I can just copy/paste, right?
- Why doesn’t my logo fit?
- So… ‘Quality service. Satisfied customers. Affordable.’ That’s me!
- Those colors in my logo don’t match the template’s colors. Hmm, hex codes?
- I just need the right meta tags on my website for Google to put me at #1, right?
- I don’t want anyone to call me so I’ll use my email address. But how do I set up my email with my new domain?
- Should I use my home address on my contact page?
- This photo my mom took of me at my sister’s wedding will look great on my About page!
- I need new photos, I think I need a photographer but she’s not available for 3 weeks.
- I read that I should have Google Analytics. Where do I get that? They want me to create an account?
I’d be curious to know how many of these sites sit dormant or unfinished?
Why would a consumer pay more?
Established best practices and improved browser technologies allow website builders to deliver a lot of value out of the box.
If you look under the hood on most of these websites, you’ll see an untrained web marketer in action.
Below is what I found after spending 8 minutes on Weebly’s Featured websites page:
- One website named their primary homepage image, ‘untitled-presentation.jpg’ with an alt tag ‘picture'. Their product images are just as generic; ‘/product-100816-573-edit_6.jpg’ and no alt tag. For accessibility and SEO, is that best practice?
- Someone should tell one Weebly customer their site is completely broken and that when I open it, music immediately starts to play. Is that best practice?
- Another Weebly customer might want to incorporate some way of capturing emails for her wedding planning company. Because no newly engaged bride-to-be spends time researching event planners or needs advice on planning a wedding. Is that best practice?
- Another uses 112 words in their Meta Title and keyword stuffs it. Is that best practice?
Website builders can help with things like the basic user experience, email automation and analytics reporting, but they still expect the business owners to do things themselves. They’re a tool, not a consultant.
Advanced website builders like Weebly, Squarespace and Wix all give you the tools you need to design and build your basic brochure website. They fill that need and offer a broad range of options for the DIY (do it yourself) website market.
And we need them to fill that need.
I don’t want to build websites for $20/month, with a month-to-month contract, and 24/7 support. No, thank you.
As the author says, these page builders are tools. Much like what my plumber uses; but I can’t fix my own pipes. Much like what my car mechanic uses; but I can’t change the oil in my car anymore.
Much like the guy that packs my meals in a box…
See, I love my pre-packaged meal that someone made for me and is delivered to my doorstep each Wednesday night. You know, there is a guy that chooses 3 meals for me each week and lets me pick 2 of them. They are not gourmet meals. They are not beautiful, artful creations. I am sure Gordon Ramsay would be appalled. They are basic family meals. He measured the exact ingredients I needed in the exact amount. He collected it in a nice box with ice because he knows by now that transportation can be a problem. He then shipped it and included a card with pictures and instructions. He gave me exactly the right product using his tools so I could do the things I enjoy doing and the family could have a nice meal.
That is ROI. Return on my investment. A family meal that everyone enjoyed.
Alternatively, I could go to the store, spend an hour finding the right ingredients, get distracted because I remember that we ran out of toilet paper, and my daughter needs lunch meat for school, and my husband needs his chips, salsa and beer. I could then stand in a long line to pay for it, get home to unpack it all, then clean, chop and cook it. Finally, I could throw away the extra jar because the recipe called for 1 Tablespoon of honey and no one in my family eats honey.
Or… I could pay a premium, for a guy with his tools, and have it delivered.
Why $5,000 or more for a website?
While I am building my client's website, I consult with them and guide them through the process. I am the guy packaging the meal, so they don’t have to.
I help choose the right photos, optimize them, add alt tags, then rename the file from ‘img3445.jpg' to ‘houston-manufacturing-coolants.jpg' because I know it’s good for SEO and accessibility.
I help choose the right keywords for each page using informed research and SEO tools. I remind them that the logo they sent is too small and needs to be transparent. Then I explain what a vector image is. Then I politely mention that their logo is a little outdated and could use a refresh. I ask for current marketing material so we are consistent with the brand. Got none? Well, we'll take care of that too. Finally, I'll explain why we don’t need to make the logo bigger!
Will the DIY website builders do that?
While I am building their website, I help my customers pull their content together with worksheets and checklists. I remind them that three sentences do not constitute a page of content, and give them some examples and a word count goal. I explain why their mission statement does not belong on the homepage. I help them collect and compile the right information to add to their website. Then I edit that content and remove the fluff and the jargon words.
I coach customers during the build on what information is critical for their website to work: testimonials; videos; maps; landing pages; forms instead of email addresses; calls to action etc. I show them where and how to get that information and also explain that those sliding images ‘just don’t work anymore' (and suggesting what to replace it with). I even give them a list of local photographers to call or offer advice if they insist on doing it themselves.
I give my customers a nice little packaged lightbox of photos from my stock photo subscription that I researched and collected so they wouldn’t have to spend hours finding the right photo (then downloading them one-by-one, only to find out 2 or 3 of them are useless – much like that honey!).
I guide them on how to collect reviews. I explain what a ‘call to action' is. I explain why a special landing page for their new, patented software for their vaccine fridge is best so we can market it properly, rather than build a new website for it or rely on a homepage link. I will help them set up a MailChimp account, configure it, and get the code they need to include on their website.
Will the advanced website platform do that?
While I am building their website, I help them capture their domains from employees who disappeared (and now we don't know who has access). So instead of spending $500 on a domain owned by someone else, I save them money by providing the email they need, prewritten, to their domain registrar to fix the problem.
Tip: Email TemplatesEmail templates are great if customers don’t know the right words to use when they talk to their web host, domain name registrar or IT vendor. Often they don’t know how to ask the right question in the right way to get the right answer.
Heck, sometimes I even call the vendors for my customers because we seem to go round and round. Then I reply to them when they freak out about that email that tells them their domain is expiring. I tell them it’s a scam and to just ignore it. I remind them of their domain name registrar and that if they need their username or registered email, I can send it. Oh, and here is a link and a screenshot of where to request a new password. That's customer service.
Will the DIY website builders do that?
While I am building their website, I want to include their Google map on their contact page, but I notice that the phone number is incorrect. I help them to understand why claiming their Google accounts and correcting their NAPs are important. I show them that the 1-star reviews they received on GlassDoor, Google, or Yelp (of which they are surprised to see) require a response, and encourage them to start sending happy customers to the sites to counteract it. Then I provide guidance on how to respond to the bad review and give them a template to help them rather than just leave them hanging.
I might assist them in claiming the account while on the phone with them and upload their logo immediately. I also point out the Facebook account that they didn’t know they had. They are usually surprised to find out that it was created by a Facebook bot and has a post from a realtor who uploaded a photo of her client’s contract and tagged them … in Facebook … publicly. Lucky I'm on the case.
I wonder if the DIY website would offer that information?
Fresh after a lunch break, as I continue building their website, I research the best tools based on the customer's business processes. New to e-commerce and want to sell 5 items? Let’s configure it so their customers get the right email with the right information, set up the shipping and delivery areas, taxes and merchant account. Don’t have that information? Not sure how or where to look for it? Which merchant should you use? I’ll even research and give you all the details you need to make an informed decision.
Do the DIY website builders do that?
With the website made, I don't stop there. I transfer it to a live server, test the forms and analytics, double check links and images and test the performance. I help them with their ‘what now?' questions and provide another list of ideas on what to do with their new website. Then a handover of the document that we created for them containing their online credentials, their Google account, merchant as well as website logins. But you know who they’ll email when they can’t remember their password or userID!
Gosh, I wonder if your advanced website platforms offer that?
Wait, what was that they just asked me? They got a card from Google Adwords. It includes a $100 credit to subscribe their medical clinic to Google Adwords Express for quick leads. Should they do it?
For those customers that want the models that SquareSpace, Wix, Shopify and the like provide, I tell them to go for it. I've sent new entrepreneurs there many times. They were grateful for my honesty when I told them to spend their $2,000 annual budget on tools that will generate leads now rather than spending their entire marketing budget on a website. I told them to set up a quick one-page website, so folks have a place to go for contact info and maybe a portfolio.
One of those people just came back to me in March, after 2 years with a site her employee made on one of the platforms mentioned above. It was time. She was upping her game.
Another example of the importance of a professional web consultant is one where my customer's son built a site on one of these platforms for his new spa. My customer called to see if I could help get some leads for him. The site had been up for 3 months and they just couldn't figure out why they were not getting any leads. The first thing I told her to do was remove the homepage photo of her son and his wife in front of Porta-Potty. Then I had to explain to them that if you never include the words ‘Houston' or ‘Spa' anywhere on your website, no search engine will have an inkling what it is you do.
I wonder why the website builder companies didn't tell them that?
Website Maintenance and Care Plans
…a business might need a one-off landing page, a campaign-specific lead-capture form or a new third-party integration. This level of self-serve customization is at the core of website-building platforms and doesn’t cost more money. Potential clients understand this.
This is false. If you are experienced with websites, sure, build your campaign-specific lead-capture form. I know how to replace the toilet flapper in my bathroom. I’ve done it before. I am pretty sure I could do it again. But this time, something went wrong. Now the water is constantly running. Great. I don't know how to fix that.
Folks in this web development industry sometimes forget that most people don't understand how to set up MailChimp and import 2,000 emails they've collected over the years (and maybe should not import because it’s over 3 years old). They might forget that it potentially needs to be properly formatted in a spreadsheet to import or brand the email itself with the correct autoresponders. Then, it' back to your website to create that landing page and finally integrate it. And, of course, some customers don't understand why their new landing page that was so easily built and so easily integrated with MailChimp is not working.
If you ask some DIY website companies, they will blame the email server provider or the vendor. The vendor, of course, wants to blame the website, and round and round you go.
Hours later you have that landing page. Whew! Looks good! Let the leads roll in!
A week later, nothing. Then you email or online chat with someone at the DIY – because they don't offer phone support, “Hey! No one has subscribed!” You are certain that there must be something wrong with either the website or MailChimp. How much time do you think they will spend testing, reviewing the website log, or even logging into your MailChimp to find possible errors?
You will wait 12-24 hours for a response, and then they will ask you to provide the URL and your password for approval to look into it because you forgot to include it in your original request. You reply and wait other 1-2 hours or more as they ask even further questions to confirm things (and include a link to their troubleshooting page to find out how to fix it – aaagh!). Even worse, they send you to their forum. You can't figure it out so reply asking for more help. They tell you it's working on their end, so you'll need to ask MailChimp. And off you go.
Turns out, it wasn't the form. No one bothered to point out that weird image you placed at the top of your one-off, easy to create landing page (that, yes, is professional looking) thoroughly confused your customers into thinking that you built refrigerators and not repair large, industrial-sized freezers in Texas. Or that photo you included of you and your wife in front of your new wellness spa had, just to the left behind your wife, a big blue latrine. Not to mention the grammar and spelling mistakes! Or the fact that you didn't share it anywhere. Or even the fact that you have a bunch of 1-star reviews on your Google page. Agggh!
Our Role in Website Care Plans
It’s hard to imagine agencies building and supporting a website in that way for just $20 or $30 each month, but if agencies don’t find a way to make that happen (or provide the additional value proportional to the higher cost), customers will use the builders.
Again, the author assumes that maintenance plans are just content updates. As I mentioned above, it is much, much more than that. Yes, you get free email support but what does that support look like? How many emails, chats and calls does it take? At what point do you pull your hair out?
By the way, Squarespace does not offer phone support.
Here are some examples of how I help my clients with my care plan service:
- As part of their Care Plan, that special Event plugin the client is using doesn't quite work. They aren't getting emails, and they need to change where people land after subscribing, but it's not very clear on how to do that; then we find out that emails are not working at all because their IT person changed internal server so they couldn’t see the website while they were in the office. My solution was to give them a unique IP address for their website. We fixed it.
- That SSL we installed breaks because their marketing guy embedded a widget that broke the encryption. Instead of just telling him what’s wrong, we gave him recommendations to fix it and provided a temporary solution with a single email. Not 5 emails over the course of 3 days while the store was live during his busiest time and customers would be getting an encryption warning.
- Then there was that 10 MB image another customer uploaded which slowed the website to a crawl. We didn't just tell our customer what it was and how to fix it. We downloaded it, compressed it, renamed it from image123.jpg to custom-pool-design.jpg (with an alt tag), and re-uploaded it within 24 hours. It did not take 5 emails back and forth. It took one email to us to fix it.
- If a widget from their 3rd party vendor breaks their appointment page… we fix it.
- If the site goes down because the customer forgot to pay their domain renewal… we fix it.
- If the blog post they send us to upload is missing a featured image, or it’s missing a paragraph… we fix it.
I wonder if the DIY website builders' team would do that?
I will pick up the phone (or at least I will call back because my phone is swamped with spam callers). They don't have to dial 1 or 2 or fill out a survey when we are done. They know me. They ask for me or a team member by name. They might have an issue, so we talk about it. I remind them why we decided on this one feature we built 9 months ago because I documented it in their project folder.
Or I pick up the phone and give them some advice on how to improve their process with their e-commerce site, and to consider a subscription tool instead of manually duplicating orders every month.
Or I pick up the phone and we talk about how best to set up a Delivery Zone to charge additional fees if it’s outside their regular area. Then I realize that the cart should be reorganised, so it makes more sense.
I wonder if the DIY models cover this out of the box problem?
That’s the difference. That’s the value. That’s UVP.
One Last Thing!
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