3 common mistakes when choosing a web design agency

Finding the right web design agency is tough -- very tough. It's never an "apples to apples" comparison. I'm not even sure if it's an "apples to oranges" one, either. Agencies range in price, methodology, creative capability, core competencies, pricing models, technology, and a multitude of other factors that might or might not be relevant. Some factors are obviously more important than others, and firms use a variety of approaches in an attempt to help them narrow the field to ultimately pick the right agency. However, there are a few mistakes that people seem to make time and time again. Below, we explore three of the most common and egregious errors.

Asking for spec work
Spec work might have been the norm in the old days, but there is nothing more insulting and less relevant than being asked for spec work today. Beyond the fact that you're being asked to do unpaid work, the idea that it helps a firm to choose an agency couldn't be further from the truth.

Good design is a product of talented, motivated, and dedicated creative professionals going through a lengthy and established process. Skipping this process means that the spec designs will not be correlated to the creative capability of the agency.

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Would you really want to hire an agency that didn't develop a creative brief, establish user personas, develop a strategic site architecture, develop wireframes, create a copy platform, etc., before beginning the design process? Skipping this would be akin to skipping the plans when building a house and just hiring someone to lay bricks and hammer nails without a plan. That's not exactly the best way to build a home, and it's definitely not the best idea when crafting the most visible piece of your brand.

Just remember, don't ask for spec work -- ever. It's insulting to the agency and isn't a good indicator of the creative capability of the agency or the design you'll ultimately launch.

Not understanding the difference between estimates and project fees
Agencies typically provide project estimates or project fees when delivering a proposal. While there is nothing really wrong with either approach, failing to understand the difference can be a costly oversight. Most good firms are very transparent about their fee structure and attempt in good faith to make sure that project estimates are in line with the actual expected costs.

Other agencies don't give estimates, but rather fixed project fees. We happen to be in this group as well and put the burden of estimating the deliverables for a project on us. With the project fee agencies, you have a set fee based on deliverables, not hours.

Knowing which fee structure each agency uses is crucial to making the right choice. Both have their benefits, but unfortunately many clients have found themselves handing over much more than intended due to an optimistic project estimate.

There are plenty of good agencies that give project estimates, but it's important that this be brought up when you check with the agency's references. Were they able to deliver the project near the estimate, or did they abuse the privilege and stretch for more hours?

RFP hell
Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with RFPs -- but good agencies get a lot of them. This means that if an RFP is bloated, asks a ton of irrelevant questions, and is a full 45 pages of administrative BS, the best agencies will just chunk it. By trying to be thorough, you might actually hurt your ability to have the best agencies respond.

At NeboWeb, we have a few rules about RFPs. First, we always contact the sender, even if it says not to. Think about it: If you want an agency to put in hours, or even weeks of work to reply to you RFP, you at least should have the decency to jump on a call and answer a few questions.

Second, we always ask how many agencies it was sent to. If it's more than 10, we don't respond. That means the sender didn't put any forethought or care into which agencies might be a good fit for the project. Good work comes from talented, hard-working people from both the agency and the client side.

If you essentially spammed out your RFP to 40 agencies, that says a lot about how much you value the project. The more choices you have, the harder the decision, and the more likely you will make a poor choice. It basically turns into a crapshoot. Don't believe me? There's research that bears this out -- check out "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer, to see the latest research and findings on multi-variable purchasing decisions.

Lastly, we always ask about budget. We're not expecting that a potential client give us an exact figure (although that is nice), but building a site is very similar to building a house. You wouldn't ask a contractor to just quote you on a four-bedroom, two-bath house. The budgets would vary widely depending on the amenities, the features, the neighborhood, etc.

A website is very similar. It's not enough to know the number of pages and technology. Do we use video elements throughout the site? Do we include a Flash tour? What cool factors are we including to add to the user experience? This is analogous to deciding whether you want granite counters, a pool in the backyard, etc. We could look at the same RFP and come up with a broad range of budgets we could work with to complete the project.

Hence, a different mindset sets in. Agencies, assuming price will be the most important factor, ditch all of the more creative ideas and respond with a barebones quote. To simply have agencies race to the bottom for the most simplified and cheap solution in an effort to win the project was probably not the goal of your RFP process.

Conclusion
All too often companies make these mistakes without even realizing it. It's easy to do, especially without someone on the team who has worked in the agency world. Fortunately, the mistakes that companies tend to make when choosing an agency are easily correctable. A little shift in perspective and a heightened awareness of the agency process will yield better decisions as well as more satisfying (and more effective) work.

Brian Easter is a founder of NeboWeb. Kimm Lincoln, director of search engine marketing at NeboWeb, and Chris Allison, SEO and social media specialist at NeboWeb, also contributed to this article.

On Twitter? Follow NeboWeb at @NeboWeb. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

 

Comments

Tim McGuinness
Tim McGuinness February 4, 2011 at 3:46 PM

In MHO, the best approach is take a piece approach to good design. What I mean is layer your project into multiple stages, so you can get best practice partners at each stage:

1. Visual/Communication engagement - great user experience design for the overall website - a partner for the primary website design
2. Customer Service subsite engagement - bring in a solid partner that understands your customer service needs to build the ongoing communication tools on your site
3. Social Engagement - strange as it may seem few web designers really understand the parallel world of social marketing, so they don't really know how to integrate it into a website.
4. SEO - get these guys in and out of the project. Their like exterminators, once the roaches are gone, say good buy. SEO people are good at tags and attributes, that's it. If you need support for search engine maintenance, then let them play that role. Let them get you to the first page of google if they can, but don't expect more (in traditional contexts)
5. Reputation Builders - not primary web marketing, but rather a specialty that fills in the gaps always left by marketers and SEO types. This group with take you from a handful of links to thousands. They can also provide a continuous stream of content to feed SEO and visitor engagement requirements.

Jim Stelluto
Jim Stelluto July 28, 2010 at 5:07 PM

Brian-
Wonderful post. Great points. More people need to understand the makings of a creative project and the expense tied to it. Very well said.

Chris Karlo
Chris Karlo July 27, 2010 at 9:26 AM

Brian -

I think you make many excellent points here. We at Mercury New Media (www.mercurynewmedia.com) have long ago abandoned spec work as it constitutes a large opportunity cost and doesn't provide any real insight to a prospective client beyond what our portfolio of work provides.

RFP's are also a challenge to properly respond to without conducting basic due diligence, as you suggest. This is one reason we shy away from government RFP projects.

Good article with on-point insights or at least points well aligned with how we run our business.

Michael Hubbard
Michael Hubbard July 27, 2010 at 8:36 AM

I agree with your RFP assessments, and am indifferent to the spec work comments... My issue with spec work is that clients don't do design - so they want to know that you can nail it - so I get why they ask for it. I think too many agencies are offended thinking they're giving away their brilliant ideas for free, when truth be told, there are just a ton of hack's in the industry. Again - I'd prefer to not have to do spec work, but as a media guy - I can't visualize, so I get why clients ask for it.

Where I disagree is your comments on fixed bids versus estimates. It's a nice sales pitch you made - but you can't bash the RFP process and then say you are willing to do a fixed bid. Unless you truly know the client, the needs, wants and desires, a fixed bid, just like spec work, is not something our industry should be getting into either. To me, estimates are the way to go with the agency thoroughly explaining what could cause the agency to miss those estimates: Change of scope by client; Agency missing the mark on design concepts; etc. If the agency thoroughly explains their process, what goes into the estimate, and how that estimate could be right or wrong - then I think you're going to have a winning relationship between clients and agencies.