If you think about it, the development of a website is a unique marketing initiative that spans across many functions: strategy, planning, content, design, copywriting, photography, development, programming, SEO, video and possibly more. In other words, a website is more than just design and code—it’s purpose is to be a tool for marketing and business development.
Developing the right kind of website requires the right kind of agency. Here are 9 things to look for and consider when hiring a web design and development agency:
1. A strategic process and approach
Web development is a complex endeavor with many moving pieces, all with far-reaching and interconnected implications. As with any construction project, success requires the proper approach and a thorough and intentional process. When considering web agencies, be sure they can articulate a strategic process from start to finish. Ideally, it is one that has been refined by many years of “lessons learned” and continuously augmented for emerging best practices. Seek to understand their overall approach, how their process plays out, what takes place at each stage and what your involvement will be at each step. An agency’s process should give you a sense of confidence in their ability to deliver a successful project for your firm.
2. Impressive portfolio of custom web experience
You’ll want to take a hard look at the portfolio of every potential web agency you consider and spend some time browsing websites they have produced. It starts with looking at style and design. Do you like what you see? Is their design striking and appealing to you or does it leave much to be desired? Are their websites custom, or do they simply use pre-built themes that they tailor for each client? But don’t just look at design, you’ll also want to consider other aspects such as user experience, functionality, mobile responsiveness, lead generation and site performance. Are their websites easy to navigate? Do they use some creative and innovative functionality? Do they perform well on mobile devices? While a good agency is always improving and evolving, past websites are certainly an indication of future websites.
3. They practice what they preach
Web development is a constantly changing practice, and therefore involves staying ahead of the curve and up to date on the latest trends, best practices, technology and approaches. You’ll certainly want to look for an agency that’s a subject-matter expert and thought leader in their space. These are firms who lead, not follow. They create educational content, speak at conferences and have a voice in the industry. It’s also important that they practice what they preach so take a hard look at their website. Does it fit the criteria of best practices and industry standards? Do they demonstrate expertise through content marketing? Do they employ lead generation strategies on their website? An agency’s own website should be one of their most powerful marketing tools.
There are a lot of agencies that are strictly in the web development business and only build websites. This makes them experts in the technical process of web design and development, but it doesn’t make them experts in a website for a firm in your specific industry. While they may have done a website for a similar firm, that experience doesn’t automatically give them industry expertise. Keep in mind that in order to guide and consult you through the process of planning, designing and building a strategic tool for marketing and business development, they will need an in-depth understanding of marketing in your industry, including the sales cycle, the procurement/selection process, etc. Especially in more complex B2B industries, critical components such as content strategy and site architecture necessitate industry expertise.
It’s also important to look for an agency that has expertise in industries outside yours. While working exclusively within one industry might bring incredible value, it can also lead to a “cookie-cutter” approach and a lot of regurgitated ideas. Specializing in more than one vertical gives an agency additional insight, expanded creativity and opportunities to learn from those experiences gained outside the industry box.
5. In-house development
Another consideration for a web redesign partner is in-house development. In addition to industry marketing expertise, it is important to hire an agency that also has development expertise and capabilities in-house. There are a lot of marketing agencies that design websites and simply outsource the development or “coding” to a 3rd party development shop. [Full disclosure — our agency was in this camp at one point in time, but as websites have evolved, it became clear that in-house development was not only good for us, but was best for our clients and their websites.]
Today’s websites are increasingly complex and the nature of things like responsive design and content management systems require a collaborative and more agile process. Design and development should take places on a parallel path, with extensive involvement and input of both parties at all phases of the process. Having developers in-house not only increases efficiency, but the collaboration also leads to a better end product for the client.
Another thing to look for in a potential agency partner is in-house capabilities for a variety of other “add-ons” that are typically part of a website redesign. This generally includes marketing strategy, branding, copywriting, content marketing, lead generation, marketing automation and SEO, among others. Once you’ve identified the overall scope of your website redesign, look for a partner who can provide you all or most of your needs under one roof.
While what is visible on the outside is crucial, another major component of a website redesign is the content management system (CMS). Many marketers assume that a WordPress website is a WordPress website, regardless of who builds it. This could not be further from the truth. CMS platforms such as WordPress, Drupal and Expression Engine have many core features and functionality, but all are essentially clay that needs to be molded and customized by the developer following best practices. A custom website should be built on an intuitive, highly-customized CMS that is specific to the content and features of your website. Each developer builds a CMS website differently, so it’s important to select a partner who can demonstrate intuitive and customized CMS back-ends.
The best way to get a feel for how a potential web agency builds a CMS is to request a demonstration of the back-end of one or more of their existing websites. Have them log in to an existing website they built and walk you through how the back-end is organized, how content gets added and adjusted, and how they’ve customized it for the unique needs of that particular client. This is an area that is often overlooked in the evaluation process, but one that has lasting ramifications to the success of the project.
8. Good team chemistry
A website redesign project is an iterative process that will involve a significant amount of collaboration and communication between your team and the marketing agency. Everything discussed up until this point is based on the capabilities of a potential web partner, but the importance of a good cultural fit can’t be overestimated. You need to feel confident that you’ll enjoy working with the agency throughout the project duration (and beyond). During the interview process, be sure to consider the personalities, styles and approach of the people involved. Can you see your team working well with theirs, or do you sense potential personality conflicts that raise a red flag? You will be spending weeks — possibly even months — with these people so a solid working relationship is essential.
9. Solid references
Finally, it’s important to speak with other clients who have worked with an agency to hear their perceptions. Do their experiences align with what you have ascertained in your own due diligence? Are they easy and enjoyable to work with? Would they work with them again? Would they recommend the agency? Is there anything you should look out for? No agency is perfect and no website redesign will occur without at least one or two hiccups. However, it’s important to hear from past clients that the agency delivered.
Choosing the right website redesign partner
Selecting the right web development agency is a big decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly and without proper evaluation. While there are certainly other factors, these 9 things represent critical traits you should look for when selecting an agency to build a strategic marketing and business development focused website.