It’s a question that comes up a lot, for obvious reasons. It’s also one that most agencies don’t like to talk about on their website. It’s the elephant in the room.
Well, we’re not most agencies (and we love elephants), so let’s get into it.
You can think about buying a website in the same way you’d think about buying a car. On a basic level they all do the same thing. Yet there are a ton of options at different price points, varying from a few hundred dollars to a few hundred thousand.
When it comes to the kind of website you decide to invest in, it all depends on your specific needs, your organizational goals, and what you can contribute (i.e., Do you already have a logo? Do you have up-to-date messaging? Can you write the content?). As you can see, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to building a website. But let’s break down some common website projects, ballpark costs, and the factors that can affect cost so you know what to expect.
The DIY Approach
Estimated Cost: Free to $5,000
If you’re a small organization on a shoestring budget, you may want to consider the do-it-yourself approach. A few years ago, that was a scary thought if you didn’t know anything about design, code, or the internet. But today, platforms like Wix, Squarespace, and WordPress offer incredibly affordable online tools to build simple and beautiful sites without really having to get your hands dirty in things you are unfamiliar with. You’ll still need to be a little tech savvy, but you won’t need a degree in Computer Science or Graphic Design.
Sites in the DIY category tend to be small in terms of content (~20 pages or less) and simple in functionality. Think of them like online “brochures” — purely informational, without features like transactional donations, e-commerce, or petitions.
- Timeline. You can set up DIY sites according to your own timeline and get it up and running fast depending on how hard you’re willing to work.
- Inexpensive. Services like Squarespace or WordPress offer low subscription or one-time fees to buy a pre-existing designed theme. Other expenses, like hosting and DNS costs are usually included in these fees.
- You’ll learn a lot. ‘Nough said.
- Design. You’ll need to stick to design templates or themes offered by the service you’re using. This isn’t always a drawback; after all, these can be well suited depending on your look. Your output and final website will look good, but may end up looking just like some of your competitors’ sites.
- Functionality. You’re limited to only the features that the chosen platform supports, which may or may not be an issue depending on the scope of your needs.
- Level of effort. You’ll be doing most of the work.
The Slightly Custom Approach
Estimated Cost: $5,000 – $25,000
If the DIY idea doesn’t work for you, then you’ll likely need to hire a professional. Perhaps you found a theme you like on ThemeForest or WooThemes, and you’ve even drafted a site map, but you’re unsure how to proceed. You want to be strategic, but you don’t know where to start. Maybe you have no idea how websites work or how to set them up, and you have no time to learn. Perhaps you need help with your brand’s look, messaging development, or graphic support.
With a slightly custom approach, you’ll have a professional partner to help you with strategy and technical customizations. This gives you more flexibility (though you’ll more than likely still be using a pre-designed theme), more time to focus on your own work, and peace of mind that everything will be set up correctly. In short, you can rest easy knowing you’re getting a solid end product.
- Professional guidance. Take stress out of the equation by trusting the people who know more about websites than you do to handle all the heavy lifting. You’ll get lots of great suggestions about big-picture strategy and design.
- Low cost. You’re paying for a level of service that will get you up and running without tearing your hair out over what kind of hosting plan you need, what page of your site should go where, or the thousands of other crazy-irritating tech issues that undoubtedly spring up.
- Save time. Put your own precious time toward focusing on non-tech related things, like writing content for the pages of your new site or growing your social media presence.
- You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. While the slightly-custom approach will save you time, sleep, and anxiety, this price point won’t give you the whole package. For example, you won’t get help with developing your brand identity (i.e., logo or custom visual design). You will not get the benefit of information architecture wireframe development. You’ll forego custom analytics set up. There’ll be little or no Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and content strategy. If these are things you’ve decided can wait, or that you can live without, then it’s not a big deal.
- There are still limitations. Keep in mind that in this price range, the web pro you hired is still going to be using an out-of-the-box theme. This can be frustrating; you may have specific ideas that you’d love to see put into action, but oftentimes your chosen theme can’t accommodate them. You must accept that the entirety of your vision for your website may not come to fruition.
In our opinion, there is a clear distinction between the two approaches above and the two that follow. When it comes to needs, you should know at a minimum whether you fall in the category above or below and this will help you have conversations and make a decision about what kind of services you need.
The Custom Approach
Estimated Cost: $25,000 – $75,000
The custom approach is appropriate when you need a significant amount of website guidance, strategy, tailoring for design and functionality, and overall vision. You know your organization has some big objectives to meet. You’re looking for help translating who you are as an organization to the digital landscape. You want your online presence to be profound, unique, and highly optimized. You recognize the value of creating this presence, and understand that the level of financial investment in this project will justify your future ROI.
Are you raising awareness for a cause? Is your goal to increase donations? Who are your audiences? The custom approach allows teams like Visceral to architect, design and build — from the ground up — a website that’s tailored to your unique needs.
A lot more time goes into a project like this. That’s why they have longer timelines and higher price tags. But this approach offers much more flexibility in terms of how your audience interacts with and responds to your mission, your brand, and the actions you are guiding them to take.
- No one will have the same website as you. Period. This is a significant advantage to making your brand stand out in a positive way. Not only does it show you care deeply about your organization’s mission, it shows you care about the quality of your user experience (UX). Never underestimate the power of great UX — if your users find your website is hard to navigate or not compelling, you’re in trouble.
- You have a complete team of experts to help. In a custom project, you have a full team of UX architects, designers, programmers, marketing / analytics experts, and content / SEO specialists to help you. The team covers every aspect of a website build and they’re fully invested in helping you achieve your objectives. A great agency will have a team of experienced individuals with a diverse range of expertise who you can view not just as a vendor, but as a partner. This team and the project process is how you end up with a website that meets your goals.
- Scalability and growth are non-issues. We have clients come to us all the time with the same complaint — they’ve “outgrown” their current website. This is a common issue, and one that’s unfortunately inherent to the restrictive nature of DIY and slightly-custom projects. If built well, a custom-designed website removes this issue entirely. You’ll be able to take into account scalability, which means your website can develop as your organization develops, without stress or complication.
- Every aspect of your site is synchronized. Every decision, from design to content to technical features, is working together to create an experience that connects with your audiences and meets your desired goals. There’s no aspect of your site that you just can’t get right, or something you supremely dislike but just have to “put up with.”
- It takes time and money. Simply put, a custom-designed website won’t come cheap or without a fair amount effort from your staff members. While your digital agency will be handling all of the technical aspects of building your website, they can’t do it in a vacuum. They’ll need input from your staff members to get a solid feel for your website’s goals and objectives. And as the project progresses, the agency will also need to have regular communication with you about detail and strategy to ensure everything’s on track. Many organizations grossly underestimate the amount of time this can take for their own staff members. You’ll need to be sure that whoever you designate to be your internal contact(s) on the project is both available and responsive, or else the project can quickly stall out.
The Total Package Approach
Estimated Cost: $75,000+
This approach isn’t much different than the custom design approach — it just expands upon it. Projects of this magnitude are very large in size (page counts in the hundreds, or even thousands) and/or have very specialized requirements. Some common examples of things that would push a project into this price range include:
- Re-branding efforts to create a new visual identity and/or messaging platform
- Conducting a photo or video shoot to create assets for the site and the organization
- Automated migration of thousands of pages/resources from an old site to the new one
- Complex e-commerce or membership components
- Stakeholders – every project has them, but do you have a lot or a particular bunch? You need your agency to help navigate that and it takes time to do so
- Third-party integrations into the new site such as Grants Management Systems or Customer Relationship Management platforms (CRMs)
Factors that will Increase Cost
Number of revisions – Most agencies (ours included) budget for 2-3 rounds of revisions during Information Architecture and Design phases. This is generally more than enough to gather and incorporate feedback. If you need several extra rounds because you need to involve multiple stakeholders at various points during the reviews and cannot consolidate feedback, that adds time and cost.
Still, other agencies conduct their processes in different ways which will affect the budget. Some operate using Agile, Sprint, or other frameworks that stress continuous revisions. Knowing this ahead of time will prepare you and set proper expectations.
Custom functionality – Things like custom databases with advanced searching and filtering capabilities can add tremendous value to your website, but they can also add work and cost. Contact us to discuss your needs and find the most efficient, cost-effective solutions.
Translations – Having your website in multiple languages is a great way to tap into a global audience. However, creating and maintaining multiple versions of your content in various languages can be quite resource-intensive. If you need to outsource your content to translation companies, this can get pricey.
3rd-Party integrations – Syncing your website with your CRM system, donation platform, email marketing vendor, and some custom business application your IT department created in 2003 is all possible. But integrations like that need to be carefully planned for, built to tailored specifications, and thoroughly tested, which translates to greater cost.
Factors that will Decrease Cost
Organization purpose and clarity – Knowing who you are, what you do, and why you do it is important for many reasons. But it’s especially critical when embarking on a project like a website rebuild where you’re going to have to talk about yourself… a lot. It’s okay to use the project itself to assist you somewhat in getting there, but it’s really important to have a strong awareness of identity before you start. For example, say you really don’t know your purpose, but you’re hoping this website project will clarify that. We’d be wary about jumping right in; instead, we’d suggest you complete a pre-site branding exercise to make sure we’re working to meet your organization’s true purpose and branding goals.
Content – Hiring subject matter experts and/or talented copywriters can get expensive. If your organization can write the content (we’ll provide guidelines) in-house, that saves time and money. That being said, make sure you know when you can and can’t support content writing. If you don’t have someone in-house who is a strong writer — or if you do, but they don’t have time to write regular content for your site — hiring a writer is your best bet (and we can help you find that person).
Assets – If you already have a logo, brand guidelines, and a library of images and videos we can use, then we don’t have to spend time and money creating them.
Timely and thorough interaction – This might be obvious, but staying engaged with your digital agency at every deliverable checkpoint will ensure the project stays on time and on budget. Be honest with yourself and the agency about deadlines. Are the deadlines you’re setting realistic for the internal operations schedule of your organization? Be clear with your agency about what’s working, what’s not, and why. Offer them clear suggestions on how to get it right — remember, no one knows your organization better than you.
The answer to the “What does a website cost?” question is a resounding “It depends.” So start by having an honest conversation with your team about what your priorities for the project are and what you can realistically afford to spend. Then talk to your vendor, or contact us, to develop a plan that maximizes the use of your budget and gives you a stunning final product.