(There are lots of ways to skin a cat, as they say. And there are lots of ways to go about creating a website. There isn’t a single “right way” to develop a website, but there are many mistakes and oversights that can be made to detract from getting the best results. Additionally, it’s not just about price-value; remember that YOUR time is valuable too. Inexperienced agencies, freelancers, or a patchwork team that lack experience and process can lead to a frustration, inefficient use of your time, delays, and increased downstream costs.
The perspectives herein are based on 22 years of digital marketing experience including production of over 200 websites for companies of all shapes and sizes, from varying vantage points–as a customer, freelance consultant, and agency strategist.
What You’ll Learn
This guide designed to help small and mid-sized businesses set proper expectations with regard to costs and benefits of different approaches to developing this very important business asset. After reading this guide, you’ll understand:
- The main categories of scope in the development of a website
- How to organize your website requirements
- How much to expect to pay for a website based on the scope requirements
- How the scope and cost are impacted based on the approach to development
- When to use freelancers vs agencies for your project
Website scopes can vary so widely in size and scope and quality, that they defy generalization. So we invoke the 80/20 rule: the generalizations we use here may describe 80% of situations at best.
What Does it Cost to Build a Professional Website?
Most small and mid-sized business websites will cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on two main factors: (1) Strategic Importance, (2) Quality, and (3) Complexity.
How Strategic is Your Website?
A website that is minimally tied to strategic business objectives will typically be smaller, less complex, and require less intensive design and development requirements. A website that plays a vital role in growth goals will require more strategic thought, branding, customization, messaging and content, user journey mapping, optimization, and technical integration.
While there are some rare exceptions, in 2023, an optimized website is by far the most important marketing asset a company can have. This is true whether you are Amazon, or Bob’s Landscaping. Major brands know this an invest hundreds of thousands in their websites, with additional ongoing investment as the website plays a pivotal role in virtually EVERY promotion and throughout the entire customer journey.
If you are a small business owner, the same is true, albeit you won’t have the means to spend what a large enterprise does. Nonetheless, the question is really, how much is your marketing budget, and what % of that can and should be invested into your primary marketing asset.
Only you can answer this question. But it comes down to how aggressive your growth goals are. If you are content at the status quo, chances are you can get buy with a basic website on the low end of the cost spectrum. However, if you are serious about customer and revenue growth, a $5000 website not only won’t cut it, it will COST you big time down the road by making all your future marketing and promotional efforts less effective.
How Important is Quality?
Quality refers to a number of things in website production. A website is a creative communications asset as well as technology asset. High quality websites better engage visitors and attract them to the brand and product or service offerings. They tell a story and drive brand preference. They maximize conversion rates by clearly differentiating and presenting compelling value propositions and calls to action.
Quality also comes into play in the project experience. Inexperienced designers and agencies usually lack process and thoroughness, leading to delays, frustration and wasted time.
I bet if I asked 100 small business owners how important a high quality website is to their business objectives, 99 of them would answer “very important!” Similarly if I asked them to rate the value of their time, 99 would say “very valuable!” Yet, in my experience, well over half hire cheap providers with weak portfolios. Partially this is because small businesses value affordability as much as quality, but that’s not the whole story. It’s also because “layman’s framework” for evaluating a website design.
Making SOUND WEBSITE Decisions
Wine vs websites
I like to drink wine. But my palette isn’t very developed, and I can’t discern between a fine wine and a good budget wine. So I buy wines that taste good to me, at a price point beyond which I can’t tell the difference anyway. That approach works fine for wine, but terribly for websites. What matters in the website purchase decision is return on investment (not personal preference), and that’s determined by how your customers resonate and engage with the content and brand narrative.
When it comes to the design and production of one of your most important business assets, hourly rates are NOT the most relevant factor. Look at the total project fees and then when comparing bids, closely compare specific deliverables across all aspects of the project: Design, Technology, Features, Content, SEO, etc. More on this later.
Even with a clearly defined scope of work, multiple providers may provide cost estimates that are thousands of dollars apart. How and why is that?
Here are some explanations why one vendor may charge more than another:
- They have better, more expensive talent
- They are allocating more time for strategy
- They are more experienced and thorough
- They are competing with a less experienced agency that is willing to shave margins and/or is desperate for work
As with any investment, you must always find the cost-benefit threshold. However, it is imperative to understand not only the price tag, but also the cost and value drivers so that the best decision can be made for maximum return on investment.
I strongly suggest hiring an independent web strategist/consultant to perform a website audit and write business and functional requirements BEFORE soliciting proposals.
If you or your team lack the marketing and web strategy expertise to write your requirements and evaluate proposals objectively, I strongly suggest hiring an independent web strategist/consultant to perform a website audit and write business and functional requirements BEFORE soliciting proposals. The consultant should also participate in the vendor selection process.
Three Website Scope Scenarios
While there is a spectrum of use-cases for any website, we can simplify by thinking of these three basic website scope levels:
- Online Brochure
- Business Tool
- Growth Hub
These general scope categories can be visualized on a spectrum from minimally to highly strategic, or, minimally to highly central to revenue and growth. We’ll discuss each of these scopes in more detail, but here’s a snapshot:
|Online Brochure||Business Tool||Growth Hub|
|Who It’s For||Some restaurants, gift shops, small services companies not trying to grow||Small and mid-sized businesses who need web presence to get found and/or generate demand||Growth focused, high volume B2C companies and high ticket B2B companies needing to generate and nurture leads|
|Primary Function||convenience for customers||self serve sales and support tool||growth engine driving sales and marketing efficiency|
|Size & Scope||a few pages of basic info||detailed product / service / functional pages||engagement paths for all target personas designed for conversion|
|Technology||Basic, usually created using a template-based builder like Squarespace or Wix||Basic, with some integrations, optimized for search and conversion; Often WordPress platform||Fully integrated with sales and marketing tools; behavioral tracking & automation; Managed WordPress or enterprise platform|
|Hosting||Inexpensive, shared hosting||Managed hosting, VPS or dedicated server||
Managed hosting, VPS or dedicated server
|Development Cost||$1000 – $6000||$8000 – $25,000||$18,000 – $50,000|
Your actual use case may not fall neatly into one box. The goal initially is to identify the approach with which your needs most closely align.
Let’s look at each approach in more detail.
The Online Brochure Website
There are plenty of businesses and situations for which a website may be a necessary asset, but not strategic for growth. For example:
- You may not even be trying to grow (small owner-operated service businesses with no desire to expand personnel)
- Some businesses still operate in very traditional channel sales models (e.g. niche B2B products and supply chain companies) where business is done almost exclusively through relationship selling to a few dealers or distributors
- You might have a business that is driven entirely by local / foot traffic (e.g. gift shops, coffee shops)
In situations like these, a website may principally serve as an online brochure–that is, an online repository where stakeholders can find basic information about your business and product or service offering.
Characteristics of Online Brochure Websites
Websites in this category tend to have the following characteristics:
- 4 to 8 pages
- Basic information that rarely changes about the company and products and services
- Easily findable contact information
- Varying levels of design quality
- No special functionality or technology integrations
- Very low website traffic
Usually, online brochure websites are at least in part driven by price sensitivity, and thus more predominant for very small companies and sole proprietors. Because of this, they are usually created by solo freelancers or using template-based website creation tools such as Squarespace or Wix.
Some template-based website solutions can be quite beautiful and inexpensive. The trade-off is flexibility, control, and customization.
Cost of an Online Brochure Website
Even within this category the cost of building a website can vary dramatically depending on a number of factors. For the typical Online Brochure website, you can expect to pay as little as zero if you have time on your hands and feel comfortable using a tool like Squarespace. On the other hand, you may spend up to $6000 or more if you want a more experienced freelancer to handle it all.
Here are the key drivers of cost related to a basic website project and what you can expect to page in each range:
|Who does the work||DIY||Less experienced freelancer||More experienced freelancer / small agency|
|Size||Up to you||4-6 pages||7-10 pages|
|Design Scope||Up to you||1-2 revisions||2-3 revisions|
|Design Quality||Template with minimal modification||Template with minimal modification||Template with some customization|
|Content||You organize and write all content and provide to designer||Freelancer provides guidance and editing||Freelancer / agency produces some/all content|
|Search Optimization||Most likely none||Essential on-page elements, e.g. titles, meta descriptions, etc||Page content written for SEO; keyword research; basic technical SEO|
|Special functionality or integrations||Most likely none||Most likely none||Minimal|
|EXPECTED COST||Free/Low Cost||$2000 – $3500||$3500 – $6000|
The Business Tool Website
The main difference between an Online Brochure approach and a website that serves as a Business Tool, is a recognition that the website is responsible for helping to achieve specific business objectives. As such, it must meet a higher bar with regard to branding and design, as well as the ability to attract and engage new and existing customers. Business Tool websites recognize that prospective customers and other stakeholders are seeking detailed information to help influence their purchase decision. At this stage, website analytics become more important.
Characteristics of Business Tool Websites
Websites in this category tend to have the following characteristics:
- 12 to 20 core pages
- More detailed products and services pages that help visitors engage and convert (make a connection with the company via a phone call, form submission, book a meeting, request a quote, etc)
- Pages or section supporting functional areas of the business, such as employment or vendor support
- Design and messaging is aligned with brand
- Higher level of performance in terms of speed, reliability, and search engine optimization (SEO)
- Interactive or rich content, e.g. video, demos, feature selectors, pricing tools, etc.
- Blog functionality with active publishing of new content
- Clear measurable actions the visitor can take to engage with the website / company
- Higher quality, more customized design
- Some special functionality or integrations unique to the customer journey
- Integrated reporting and goal tracking
Companies that seek Business Tool websites are usually small and mid-sized businesses with the resources to invest in a more unique and professional web presence. While template-based CMSs like Squarespace and Wix can be used in this category, websites built on more flexible platforms like WordPress are more common and offer more scalability, and performance.
And because of their added size and some complexity, DIY is rarely an option. Most websites in this range are built by experienced freelancers and agencies.
Cost of a Business Tool Website
The range of a typical Business Tool website can range dramatically. You can expect to pay somewhere between $8,000 and $25,000 depending on a variety of factors. So let’s narrow that down…
In addition to supporting more pages and customization, websites in this middle category take a more strategic approach, usually delivered by an agency. More attention is paid to maximizing the specific actions visitors should take, namely attracting prospective customers and providing self serve information to bring them closer to a purchase decision. The same is true for other stakeholders such as prospective employees, or donors.
Thus, the crux of the strategy and scoping process for a Business Tool website lies in understanding the needs and opportunities for each functional area. How can the website help generate more employment candidates? How can it reduce support costs through self serve support content? How can it help us get found on search engines?
And it is at this level that more special functionality and integrations can be supported, such as:
- Integrated job board with backend editing
- Customized tools for entering, displaying, and managing offers
- Auto social publishing tool integrations
- Blogging tools
- Landing pages and click funnels to maximize conversions on digital campaigns
- Customized reporting and goal tracking
- Contact forms with email auto-responders
Here are the key drivers of cost related to a mid-level website project and what you can expect to page in each range:
|Who does the work||Experienced freelancer||Small agency||Mid-sized agency|
|Size||10 – 15 pages*||15 – 20 pages*||20+ pages*|
|Strategy||Basic site structure, discovery, design direction||Deeper design/brand integration, wireframing||Strategically structuring site and pages for target personas|
|Design Quality||Template with customization||Template with significant customization||Fully custom design, not using template|
|Design Scope||Choose template, 2-3 rounds of revision||Choose template, 3-4 rounds of revision||2 unique concepts, plus 3-4 rounds of revision|
|Content||Agency provides guidance and editing on content provided by internal team||Agency participates in content creation process||Agency produces all content|
|Search Optimization||Essential on-page elements, e.g. titles, meta descriptions, etc||Keyword research; Core pages fully optimized for strategic keywords; basic technical SEO||Comprehensive Audit; advanced technical optimization|
|Special functionality or integrations||Some / Basic||Moderate||Significant|
|EXPECTED COST||$8,000 – $10,000||$12,000 – $16,000||$18,000 – $25,000|
*not including blog and e-commerce pages
The Growth Hub Website
A website that is acting as the growth hub for your brand is one that is playing a central role in generating and nurturing leads, impacting sales and marketing alignment, and driving return on marketing investment (ROMI).
Organizations that have committed to the inbound methodology as their primary marketing and growth strategy will need a growth hub website.
Characteristics of Growth Hub Websites
Websites in this category tend to have the following characteristics:
- 30 – 50 pages, not including dynamically generated / database driven pages
- Integrated “growth stack” of tools to align and manage marketing and sales funnels and activities
- Blog that is integrated with social channels and SEO strategy to drive new inbound traffic and leads
- Page structure, categorical content aligned with personas and lifecycle stages, that helps identify user needs and trigger relevant and timely 1:1 communications
- Detailed user tracking and integration with CRM, enabling timely and relevant communications from sales
- Website behavior and interaction drives automated email nurturing and dynamic content
- Highly optimized for search across multiple persona lifecycles
- Multiple content offers targeted at each stage of the marketing funnel
In the following categories and many other niche categories, an inbound approach and growth hub website are essential to drive revenue growth:
- most B2B companies
- high ticket products and services with longer sales cycles and highly researched purchase decisions
- B2C companies with higher ticket offerings such as private educational organizations, health and wellness services, professional and financial services, and real estate
- high frequency or repeat purchase categories
subscription services, e.g. SAAS or other high lifetime value (LTV) services
Cost of a Growth Hub Website
As you would expect, this level of sophistication comes at a cost. However, for the right types of organizations, an inbound-enabled website offers a much stronger return on investment potential. Just a few years ago this level of sophistication would have been unattainable for small businesses. Today, many tools exist that are affordable and allow small businesses to start small and work their way up.
While there are some exceptions, most small and mid-sized companies do not have the internal resources ready to hit the ground running with a new inbound marketing strategy and generate positive ROI. Thus, in addition to the initial website development and growth stack implementation costs, Growth Hub websites typically also require ongoing retainer-based inbound marketing support services in order to ensure success and positive ROI.
Inbound retainers are the subject for another forthcoming post. But for the purposes of this discussion, be ready to bring on external support at roughly the same level as a mid-level PTE to FTE (roughly $5000 to $10,000/mo) depending on how much internal staff can contribute and the aggressiveness of your growth targets.
If that doesn’t scare you off, here are the key drivers of cost related to a growth hub website project and what you can expect to page in each range:
|Who does the work||Inbound web agency||Inbound web agency||Inbound web agency|
|Size||<30 pages||30-50 pages||50+ pages|
|Strategy||strategically structuring site and pages for one target persona||strategically structuring site and pages for two target personas||strategically structuring site and pages for three personas|
|Design Quality||Template with significant customization||Fully custom design, not using template||Fully custom design, not using template|
|Design Scope||Choose template, 2-3 rounds of revision||2 unique concepts, plus 3-4 rounds of revision||2 unique concepts, plus 3-4 rounds of revision|
|Content||Agency produces initial blog content plus 1 premium asset||Agency creates initial blog content and 2 premium assets||Agency creates blog content and premium assets for each persona|
|Search Optimization||Comprehensive Audit; advanced technical optimization||Strategic KW optimization for each persona / need||Strategic KW optimization for each persona / need|
|Special functionality or integrations||Tool integration, Onboarding, training||Tool integration, Onboarding, training||Tool integration, Onboarding, training|
|EXPECTED COST||$18,000 – $25,000||$25,000 – $35,000||$35,000 – $50,000|
*not including blog and e-commerce pages
The reality is each website project is unique, and these are just guidelines to help you flesh out your needs and set reasonable budgets in the early stages of planning.
Organize your Website Requirements
You may have noticed in each of the three use-cases we presented, that the tables were organized by cost drivers. These drivers are a great way to organize your requirements document. A detailed requirements document or RFP is essential to reducing the variance in proposals and help you make an informed decision and accurately compare costs and benefits.
Make sure your requirements document details the following needs:
- How many pages and page-types do you need?
- How important is design quality to your strategy?
- How differentiated does the design need to be? Can it be a template, or does it need to be fully custom?
- How many concepts do you want?
- Do you know what you want and are you able to describe it in terms a designer can understand? (If not, plan for more concepts and revisions)
- Do you have, or will you be writing your own content and supplying to the designer/agency? Or do you need the agency to write your content?
- How much content and editing will be needed by the agency?
Search Engine Optimization
- How important is it for your website to rank highly on search?
- How many relevant keywords do you want to rank highly on? (Is the pool of keywords diffused or concentrated)
- How much competition is there for your strategic keywords, and what are your current positions?
- What platform will the site be built on?
- Are any special features, plug-ins or integrations needed?
- Is any e-commerce functionality needed?
- Are there any special business management needs, such as workflow management tools or database integrations?
VENDOR EVALUATION (FREE DOWNLOAD)
Once you have your requirements documented, you can start soliciting proposals. As we covered earlier, even with clear requirements, proposals can be quite different from one another, based on each agencies approach and recommendations. Here’s a nifty tool we’ve created to help you make an objective decision based on your unique needs.
Website Decision Tool
This tool gives you a weighted scoring approach to objectively compare vendor website proposals.
Some additional considerations we didn’t address in this guide that can impact the cost of your website project include: branding, e-commerce configuration, photography/videography, custom illustration/artwork, custom interactive tool development, and hosting requirements.
Be sure to think through each of these considerations and include in your requirements document if relevant.
We hope you found this guide useful.
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