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Working With Premium Themes

July 12, 2016
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We’ve all seen it — the vividly pictorial mountain landscape as the main hero image for the newest theme out there. It screams out professionalism and beauty all in the same sweeping breath. It entices us to click ‘buy’ or ‘activate’ and then…nothing…”wait..where’d the cool picture go?” Working with premium themes (and free ones) can be a discouraging activity, but it can also be a largely rewarding experience when you figure it out!

I recently redesigned my portfolio website at adamlamagna.com, and what I mean when I say “redesigned” is that I used a pre-made theme. It’s called Uncode – Creative Multiuse WordPress Theme, it was hard to use at first, but I’m going to shed some light on that in the following post. I’ve used several premium themes on a number of my digital properties. The ones I’m familiar with are Divi, Nexus, and Harmony by Elegant Themes, Brook by Korra, and Uncode by undsgn. I’m also familiar with some free themes like Sydney by aThemes, and pretty much the entire suite of WordPress.org’s 20-something series—TwentySixteen, TwentyFifteen, etc. Working with themes is a skill that should be learned by everyone (my little sister learned how to do it) so people can have the freedom to put there stuff out there!

First, the differences between free and premium themes…

I’m not sure if there is a huge difference working with premium themes versus free themes, both need to be configured (some more than others), most are compatible with the suite of popular plugins including page builders, and given an eye for design… sites can look downright professional regardless of whether or not they cost money. So, I would say this answer depends greatly on your budget because the only real difference I see is the cost.

Premium themes do sometimes include premium plugins that you would have to pay money for if you didn’t buy the theme. They’ll also include pre-made templates (which is nice if you don’t have that eye for design like myself!), but some free ones include templates too. Years ago, a WordPress user would be browsing the themes repository and find a theme they liked, usually because they thought it looked cool. They clicked on the button to activate the ‘live preview’ and fell in love with the theme. But when they installed the theme and activated it, it looked nothing like the live preview! Now, that’s only sometimes the case. With many free and almost all premium themes, there will be pages, posts, portfolio pieces that are pre-made and configured for you. Most times, all you have to do is import the ‘dummy’ content with it, and you’ve got your site. Now just substitute your own content; images and text, and you can be up and running in a day or two depending on the size of your site.

The premium theme battle…

I’m torn between the premium themes I’ve used. For the sake of this post and not making it too long, I’m going to review 3 premium themes that I’ve used and have familiarity with. They are:

  • Divi by Elegant Themes
  • Brook by Korra
  • Uncode by undsgn

I’m also going to look at a few different factors:

  • Documentation
  • Support
  • Configuration Process
  • Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness
  • Responsive
  • Cost

Let’s begin…

DIVI BY ELEGANT THEMES

About two (or so) years ago, the Divi theme made a splash! It was released in 2013 as the most intuitive page builder and theme on the market. I personally know a lot of designers that use Divi to this day because Elegant Themes keeps iterating on it that improves the experience and the output. It is a cool and versatile theme.

Divi’s documentation is pretty vast and easy to understand, they also have video tutorials explaining the page builder and theme options. When I dove into building my first Divi website, it was pretty straightforward. All you do is click ‘Use The Divi Builder’ and you can start to create cool layouts.

Screenshot of Divi builder


It’s pretty intuitive right off the bat. As you can see from the above screenshot, it asks you to insert columns. You can choose how many.


Screenshot of Divi Builder columns


After you’ve decided how many columns that particular row will be, you can start adding modules, and the list of modules is pretty vast; images, text, headings, contact forms, call-to-actions, blurbs, etc.


Screenshot of Divi builder modules


Again, it’s pretty straightforward without having to read tons of documentation. So we click on a module, let’s create a ‘blurb’ – it’ll ask you for some information, like the title of your blurb, if you want to make your blurb a link, if you’d like to use an icon, etc. But the cool thing about the Divi Builder is that there’s instructions right in the module itself. See below:

screenshot of the blurb module on Divi


If you’re not all that familiar with modules or building websites in general, then those instructions really come in handy! What’s the end layout look like, though? Well, let’s see.

DiviBuild
The Divi Builder on top, and its output on the bottom

Now, it might not look like much, but it took me about 5 minutes to make that layout. And the more familiar you get with the modules and Divi Builder, the quicker you’ll be able to do it. Divi also has ‘Theme Options’ which are kind of like the global site settings. You can add your logo, favicon, integrate with MailChimp, enable social media icons and responsive shortcodes, fonts, smooth scrolling, and more. Responsively, the layout breaks down the way it should, with the left columns going above the right ones.

So, overall:

  • Documentation: Good documentation, easy to understand.
  • Support: Really great, quick to respond and informative.
  • Configuration Process: Relatively straightforward in the Theme Options
  • Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness: Super easy, build pages in minutes. Easy to get started without reading the documentation, but the deeper you dig into the modules, the more a beginner will need help and have to refer to the documentation or support.
  • Responsive: Works well on tablet and mobile.
  • Cost: Elegant Themes has a yearly (or a one-time lifetime) subscription model. I would recommend paying the extra dollars for the lifetime membership. See here for more details: https://www.elegantthemes.com/join.php

Overall, Divi is a pretty kick-ass theme!

BROOK BY KORRA

I find Brook to be a light and responsive theme that can’t be configured with a page builder (well…unless you add one in with a plugin, but let’s not!). Regardless, it does have a some good things going for it! It seems to me that Brook is geared toward blog sites, in fact this site that you’re reading now is done with the Brook theme! Again, it doesn’t have a page builder, so the way to configure the homepage is a little trickier. You’ve got to have your homepage as your latest post page, which you’ll find in WordPress core under Settings —> Reading. Now, you will need some content before this theme looks remotely close to what the ‘live preview’ looks like on Themeforest, and they give you an option to import the demo content. Right from the beginning the theme was a little more difficult to work with than the Divi theme, but I really liked the look of the live preview, so I knew I could get it to work.

But I had to read the documentation, and if it’s one thing Brook had going for it—it’s the documentation. It’s plentiful and easy to digest, from installing WP and getting the child-theme setup to widgets and theme options.


Brook Theme customizer


The Theme Options for Brook are in the native Theme Customizer seen above. It gives you options to add a logo and favicon in the General tab. You can change the layout of the header, sidebar, and footer. You can pick your own typography, color sets, and background and do a lot more.

One thing I noticed was that in order to get the carousel on the homepage to work properly, you had to crop all your featured images to be the same size. Otherwise the carousel will scale up to the largest sized photo in your featured images. But within a post, there are more options to add a certain sized featured image for different areas, the theme just recommends that you install the Advanced Custom Fields plugin. If your post was going to be in a widget area in your footer and you wanted to use a square image instead of a rectangular one, there’s options to do that. In fact, there are more post setting options to choose from when using the Brook theme and Advanced Custom Fields:

Back-end of Brook post settings


There are also different WYSIWYG formats and elements. So if you’d like to add a dropcap, like at the beginning of this sentence, you can! It adds a little more flavor to your site to be able to put cool elements in your post. You can also add different font sizes, icons, highlighted text, cool buttons and links, image sliders, Google maps, and more! I think it’s a really cool theme to use if you’re blogging about anything, but it’s not super intuitive, you have to read the documentation in order to get it!

  • Documentation: Plenty and easy to understand!
  • Support: Good support.
  • Configuration Process: Pretty straightforward with the Theme Customizer that is native to WordPress, but the homepage is a little more difficult to configure and the documentation will need to be referenced.
  • Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness: Not really easy. For beginners, this theme might be a little difficult to get right, but read the documentation and reach out to support with any questions.
  • Responsive: Works well on tablet and mobile, they even have a tablet and mobile screen option to choose from in the Theme Customizer, it’ll give you a break down of what your page will look like.
  • Cost: $44 on Themeforest.

Overall: This theme might not be for a beginner, but it is a super cool theme to use. I love it! People have commented to me that my blog looks really cool, and I agree. It’s simple, light, not too flashy, and it puts the content front and center (which is important!)

UNCODE BY UNDSGN

My new portfolio site that I mentioned above was done with Uncode, and I will say that this was the most difficult theme to use out of all 3 of them, and this one has a page builder. The page builder is Visual Composer, but Uncode’s customized version of it. When I downloaded Uncode and imported the demo content, it broke my site. I will say that this is a hosting provider issue, apparently I did not have enough memory space with my hosting provider, so that was an issue. Simple fix though, I just called up my hosting provider and they told me how to add more memory. I will say with all the themes I’ve used, I’ve never had one that has maxed out my memory.

When you install Uncode, it tells you to install about 9 different plugins to work the way the live preview does. It has two premium slider plugins included, Layer 5 and Revolution slider, so that’s cool.  And they also have upwards of 60 different layouts preconfigured with the Visual Composer (VC). Which was nice, because if I didn’t have those page layouts already configured, I’d have no idea how to create them. VC is pretty intense.


Visual Composer screenshot


It can separate the elements by content or structure, widgets or WooCommerce (if you have that installed, you don’t need it if you’re not selling anything). But then when you drill down, the options for a single element are super complex. Because there’s not only the element, but the container that it’s in. You can adjust the row settings, the column settings, the element settings. Divi was the same way, but not nearly as many options as Uncode, which could be good or bad depending on how much freedom you want with your layout.

Icon settings for visual composer
Element settings

Row settings - Visual Composer
Row settings

 

Column settings - Visual Composer
Column settings

So, for every element, you essentially have 3 different components to adjust. And you have to watch out for the overrides. Let’s say you leave a color blank, well it’s going to grab the default color that you have configured in your ‘Uncode Theme Options’ – it took me a while to figure out what was going on when I couldn’t get the text to be light on a dark background, even though I had those settings placed in the element. It was because of the default settings in Theme Options here:

Uncode Theme Options
Uncode Theme Options

There are a lot of different theme options, from typography to social media (connections) to individual pages, posts, portfolio pieces, and content blocks. What are content blocks, you ask? Well, they are Uncode’s very own custom post type. Built in to make cool headers, footers, or other content to be used globally if need be. But you have to make sure that when you are adding a layout, you either need to override the theme options, or the look will be what the defaults are set at.

Content blocks took me awhile to figure out too. When you look at a page from the front end:

Classic Agency page - Uncode theme


It looks super cool!! But then look at that same page from the back-end:

Classic Agency - Uncode - backend


You’ll notice that the Heading text in the back-end page is not “Thinkers & Designers” like the front-end page says it is. And the featured image in the right hand corner is not the featured image on the page, so how does this exist? Good question, it exists in content blocks. If you scroll all the way down on the back-end of the page, you’ll notice this little area:

Page options Uncode


Page Options —> Header, and you can select the type of header that you want, which will be placed at the top of the front-end output of the page. The page layout with Visual Composer will start below the content block header, unless you don’t have a content block selected. There are little intricacies like this across the entire site. I was pulling my hair out at times, but the support is really awesome! They also have a lot of documentation, I would strongly recommend starting there because even for a seasoned site builder, who’s used to configuring themes, this one took me awhile.

LAMA website - home page

Now, I will say that the end product looks really cool and the design is worth the hassle, but be prepared to connect with support if you are a beginner…and even if you’re not.

  • Documentation: Lots of it!
  • Support: Great support.
  • Configuration Process: Not straightforward, there are lots of interconnecting pieces to this theme and you have to be familiar with all of them to get stuff to work, and to troubleshoot.
  • Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness: Not really easy. The Visual Composer was not that intuitive for me because there are just soooo many options. After a few days you’ll get used to it and be able to design layouts quicker.
  • Responsive: Works well on tablet and mobile.
  • Cost: $59 on Themeforest.

Overall: This theme did frustrate me, more so than the Brook theme, which I thought was way easier to use. Uncode is big, it’s a lot of code, it’s got a lot going on. But the design is freaking awesome, so it’s definitely worth it in my mind. There’s a cool plugin called VC-Particle Background that I use on my homepage, check it out – adamlamagna.com

Continuing to work with premium themes…

I’ll most likely always work with premium themes, I do think they’re fun to use and can look really really good if configured properly. If you’re just starting out and not sure whether a premium theme is right for you, check out some of these links below!

How to Get the Most Out of a Premium WordPress Theme

Everything You Need to Know About Buying a Premium WordPress Theme

Enjoy your day!

Performing Keyword Research

June 27, 2016
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Google only loves you when everyone else does.

I forget who said it, but it’s true, Google takes notice when everyone starts to love you. SEO has been around ever since search engine rank pages (SERPs) have gotten more and more competitive. And as the world wide web continues to scale, I imagine seeing results off of your SEO efforts will become harder and harder to recognize. The reason I’m interested in SEO is because it’s kind of like a game of chess. It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at it or how much you sweet-talk it, good SEO is a long and strategic game. And good SEO implementation always starts with one thing — research. Specifically, keyword research.

Keyword research is the foundation to any good SEO campaign. Now for those of you new to the tech world and SEO, it stands for Search Engine Optimization. It’s a methodology of strategies, techniques, and tactics used to increase the amount of visitors to your website by obtaining a high-ranking placement in the search results of a SERP. You don’t have to be born of royal blood to have good SEO, you don’t need to be the daughter of a hip-hop mogul; you just need to outsmart the competition.

Search terms to search for…

To start, you’ll want to have a keyword in mind. A keyword that you’ll want your website or your web page/post to rank for. Let’s start with an easy example:

My father blogs about wine at TheWitIsOut.com and he wants to rank for terms like “red wine” and “best wine” — only issue is that these search terms are extremely hard to rank for. Why? Because they are considered ‘head’ terms or terms that are most frequently searched which usually carries with it some steep competition. But head terms can also be ambiguous and not as relevant as other terms. When deciding what keywords you’d like your site to rank for, you want to look at 3 different areas:

  1. Relevance: the keyword needs to accurately reflect the nature of your product, services, or offerings
  2. Volume: the number of searches per month for a particular keyword
  3. Competition: the number of websites or web pages competing for a particular keyword or search term

Ideally, you’d like to find a keyword or search term that has a high number of searches (volume) and a low number of competing websites (competition), and is highly pertinent to your offering (relevance) — if we can just find that keyword, we’ll be all set – LOL!

Tools for searching for search terms…

Although SEO can be a bit of trial and error because search engines (and their algorithms) constantly change, Google does offer some really cool tools to aid in our keyword research. Remember earlier when I talked about head terms and how they are the more frequent terms that are searched. Keywords like ‘red wine,’ ‘car’ and ‘Mac’ – Well, there are also terms called long-tail terms, these are the terms that we’ll be looking at.

Head vs. Long-tail

  • ‘red wine’ —— ‘2003 red wine cabernet’
  • ‘car’ —— ‘2013 Hyundai Accent’
  • ‘Mac’ —— ‘ used Macbook Pro’

Just a few examples – but we can test all these examples for volume and competition with a little tool called the Keyword Planner. Now, you’ll need to sign up for an account with Google Adwords, but don’t fret, you don’t have to spend any money if you don’t want to. The thing that we’re interested in are the tools.

The Keyword Planner will ask you where you’d like to start, and just click on the “search for new keywords” which will pop open a form that looks like this:

Keyword Planner form

Now, if you’ll notice at the top you can enter in certain phrases or keywords. You can also select a product category. Or target a certain region or state or city, and you can change filters to show only closely related keywords or broadly related keywords. Let’s type in ‘red wine’ and see what comes back.

Keyword Planner results for 'red wine' search term

 

As you can see, the average monthly search is about 110k searches. In the graph, we can see that December is the month with the most searches (most likely because of the holiday season) and surprisingly the competition is only at a medium right now, not high! So, that’s interesting. But it does give us a number of other keyword ideas that could potentially help in our SEO efforts.

Keyword Planner keyword research ideas

The Keyword Planner suggests different keywords for us. Look at the first one in the list ‘best red wine’ – this one has got a lot of volume (which is good), but it’s also got a boat ton of competition (which is not so good!). But let’s go down to ‘types of red wine’ – this volume is also pretty high at 12k average monthly searches, but the competition is pretty low. You can download this list into an Excel or Google sheet to get more accurate information. Let’s do that.

Keyword Planner Google Sheet keyword research

As you can see, we get a complete list of recommended search terms and actual numbers to go with their competition, not just a level of high, medium, or low. Now if we look at ‘types of red wine’ we’ll see that the average monthly searches is still at 12k, but the competition is .04 – that’s super low! Super low! So, before you go and use this as your keyword, you have to put yourself in the shoes of your user (or the searcher). Would this search term be good for my dad to use on his blog? I’m not quite sure yet. I always get a little weary when the search term seems relevant and there’s a high number of searches (volume), but the competition is really low. So let’s dive deeper.

My dad blogs about wine; wineries, vintage wine, wine reviews, wine ratings and the like. His ideal visitor is someone who is interested in wine and wants to get good recommendations, but also someone who is just starting to get interested in wine—the novice wine taster. If you put yourself in the shoes of the person searching for ‘types of red wine’ what do you think they are looking for? Probably types of red wine – lol! But the issue is this — we don’t know their intent. Maybe they are searching for types of red wine because they want to buy some, or maybe they just want to learn what types of red wine are out there. If you look at the next search term down ‘benefits of red wine’ – it’s the same thing (high volume, low competition) but my guess is that people searching for that term are concerned about the dietary or health aspects of wine. But still, it could be a good term to try and rank for if you have a wine blog. Either way, I think both of those would be good for my father’s site.

Another tool you can use is Google Trends. Google Trends will show you how often a particular search term is entered and compare it to search volume across various regions of the world and will compare it to different search terms as well. One thing I like to do is singular vs. plural. In the example ‘types of red wine’ we can see if the keyword phrase ‘type of red wine’ is searched more often. Let’s take a look:

Google Trends comparison

As we can see, ‘types of red wine’ are searched more often than ‘type of red wine’ — so I think it’s safe to say that we can go with ‘types of red wine’ as our keyword phrase.

Keyword distribution…

You’ll want to distribute your keywords appropriately across your website and the easiest way to do that is in a spreadsheet. Ugh, not another spreadsheet! Yup! Map out your entire site and list these categories:

  • Pages
  • Keywords
  • URLs
  • Titles (preferably under 65 characters)
  • Meta-descriptions (preferably under 65 characters) – these don’t so much help with SEO anymore, but they will help with your click-thru rate. And being under 65 characters, you can be sure the search engine won’t truncate any of the text that’s viewed to the user
  • H1’s (the biggest header on your page or post)

You can populate a spreadsheet with your existing content, this’ll make it easy to spot duplicates. Search engines want unique and relevant information. Unique and relevant…

Things to remember with keyword research…

Remember, you have to look at the keyword attributes of relevance, volume, and competition. Relevant keywords are much more likely to drive conversions on your site, than ones that are broadly related. Volume is the number of average monthly searches and you can find this using Google Adwords Keyword Planner, as well as the competition, which is the number of other sites trying to rank or compete for the same keyword phrase. You can download the Keyword Planner results to a spreadsheet which give you a much better reflection of the competition in numeric results.

The other thing you need to remember is that SEO is an on-going process. It’s a long and strategic game. So, you need to evaluate your SEO and keyword research continually. The industry changes constantly, the market changes constantly, the competition changes constantly. You need to be able to adapt to the change as well, so evaluate your keywords on a quarterly basis, see if traffic or conversions on your site are going up or down and re-adjust. More to come on the topic of SEO.

The Needs of Web Proposal Writing

June 25, 2016
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Casting a wide net, web proposal writing is probably one of the most daunting yet creative activities one can do in the tech space. Proposals can be the gateway to a super awesome project that soars to success and makes the client very happy…or it can lead to a resounding “we’ve gone with another agency, but thanks for all the time you put into this” reply from your prospect. Proposals can also be the beginning of revision after revision to get the prospect’s challenge mapped to the right solution through hours of project scope development. Ahh…the possibilities…I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone that’s liked proposal writing as much as I do. 

For some, proposals are merely an estimate of what it would cost to get a project done. For others, it’s a templated document where little changes are made except for the company name and date. For me, proposal writing is a journey. It’s a journey of discovery, understanding the challenge, mapping the right solution, building a relationship, and finally presenting that journey with conviction and delivery. 

Many agencies churn out proposals like a shoe factory because they feel proposal writing is just a formality, a number, another template, a means to an end. But it’s not. A proposal is the gift one gives to a company or brand to solve their problem. And that needs to be done with thought and care, strategy and information, good design and presentation, and maybe even a little love. I am not an expert by any means, but I have years of experience writing proposals for web agencies. I wanted to share my evolution of proposal writing and how the actions that proceed the proposal writing process are of the utmost importance.  In order to write strong proposals, you need to ask smart questions.

Proposal writing starts with a question…

As many biz dev people know, proposal writing starts with a single question:

“What is the challenge that needs to be solved?”

This starts the conversation! Now, often times, companies and the people who work for those companies may not know the true answer to this question. And that’s where things like qualifying and scopingQuestion Mark  really help in identifying a few things.

The way I would usually start the process is by having a phone call with the prospect to understand their needs and objectives. One question I always liked asking or opening with was “what do you want the world to know you succeeded at when this project is finished?” – it’s a great way to get them jazzed about the project and get them feeling good about the conversation they’re having. Keep in mind, they are probably having similar conversations with other biz dev people at other agencies, so anything that’s a little different might surprise them and make you stand out.

The absolute must-knows when writing web proposals..

  1. NEEDS — every company has a need (maybe many) that should be addressed and this may require some digging on your part to really understand those needs. There’s nothing worse than writing a proposal and totally missing the mark on the objective!
  2. AUTHORITY — establishing this is very important. Who is the true decision-maker? But this can be tricky in the beginning stages of scoping a project. Since big brands/orgs will usually send those lower on the totem pole to vet agencies, this may take some prying (and some demonstration on your part that your agency is good) to get to the right person.
  3. TIMELINE — understanding expectations around when a company wants their project to be finished can make or break the proposal writing process. If they have a huge project, but want it done in 3 weeks, that would put the fire out instead of lighting a fire, catch my drift? Onto the next proposal.
  4. BUDGET — getting a sense of what your prospect is willing to pay for their desired outcome is really important. Many people don’t want to give you a number and say “well, just write the proposal with the price tag you think should go in it” – ugh!! That’s a sure-fire way to failure. So, make sure you get some sense of what they are willing to pay, even if it’s saying “projects like that typically fall somewhere between $30k and $50k, does that sound like it would be within your budget?” – anything’s better than no number at all.

Now that you’ve taken care of the absolutes, you can move into the decision making part of the proposal writing process. That’s right…you need to decide whether or not this fits within your parameters. That’s something only you can answer, but I would look at a few things:

  • Lead source: where did your prospect come from? Are they a referral or did they find you in a Google search? I’d opt to go for the one who came in from someone you know than the one who just searched “web agency boston” and came to your site.
  • Project Challenge: is this project challenging for your team and their skill levels? How long would it take them to do, are there any aspects of the project you’re unsure of?
  • Timeline / Budget: is the budget where it needs to be for the project? We all know different agencies charge different prices and can deliver projects at different paces. Does the prospect have a reasonable timeline?
  • Project Match: is the project good for your agency, your brand reputation? Would it be something you’d want to put your name on? I know many agencies who won’t work with the cigarette companies or adult entertainment companies because they don’t want to put that out in the world. So…ask yourself if this is something you’d be proud of when the project is finished.
  • Location: is this company nearby? Can you meet with them in person? In the age of digital, many projects are all done online, and that’s ok. But maybe you’re an agency that likes to meet face to face. Or maybe the client is in Shanghai and you’re located in New York, that’ll make for many a late night!
  • Gut feel: I think this is a good one to mention. Your instinct — how do you feel about the project as a whole, the people you’re engaged with, the company’s objective? Do you think you have a shot at winning? That’s always a tough question to answer (I never thought I’d lose any bid, lol!).

Really scoping the web project and minimizing the creep..

We’ve all heard it—Scope Creep—the infamous added feature that sneaks its way in after the project discovery session when a new stakeholder rears their head and says “hey, but what about this…”

Well, sometimes scope creep is inevitable, but if you can minimize that while you’re scoping, the web proposal writing process will be a little easier.

There are really only two ways to mitigate against scope creep. One way is to understand the full breadth of the project, which can be really difficult, right? Sometimes things just pop up or change happens due to a shift in business, market, or whatever. The second way is to use parameters or boundaries in your web proposal writing. I like to do a combination of both.

Obviously, every project you encounter is going to be different, so depending on what needs/objectives your potential client has, it will guide the questions that you follow up with. If a prospect tells you that they want you to do a branding and logo design, are you going to ask them if they want to use a membership plugin or module? Probably not. So, instead of articulating what to ask on every type of project (that might be impossible, or entirely too long of a blog post), I’m going to type out a mock call so you can get an idea of where to take things.

I’ll set the stage for this scope call…

The potential client wants to do a redesign of their website — they are a travel blog that want their users to sign up for their newsletter and they offer readers ratings and reviews of travel destinations. You’ve spoke to them one time and have gotten the logistical stuff out of the way (Needs, Authority, Timeline, Budget). Here’s the email you were sent with information from Tony at TotallyTravel Blog (fictitious blog..or so I hope!).

Hi Adam,

Thanks for the intro call, I liked learning a little more about your agency and your approach to a website redesign. Here's a little more information on our project. We have TotallyTravelBlog.com that's a custom PHP homegrown content management system. We have about 5 writers that write content for us, but would love to have more. We also have a newsletter that goes out once a month and our goal is to build our subscriber list. We offer travel ratings and reviews on our site and we would like to improve our SEO. We can definitely hop on another call to go over any questions you might have.

Best regards,

Tony

Ok — first and foremost with a prospect like this, they will almost always send you some sort of RFP RFP on blackboard(request for proposal), so you’ll have information of the basics and maybe even a little bit more. I’ve never read an RFP that’s given me everything I need to write a proposal. So you’ll need to get on a call.

But, right off the bat, we know a few things, right? They are in the media space because they blog about travel, and they have subscribers, so what does that entail? They also have writers (so think WordPress roles), and they’re concerned with their SEO (what does that look like?). Here’s a mock call:

Begin Conversation

Adam: Hey Tony, it’s Adam calling from Being AJiLe, how are you?

Potential Client: Good, good, Adam, and yourself?

Adam: I’m fantastic, thanks for asking. So, I’ve received the information you sent over on the project and I do have some questions. The first one is about the PHP CMS, how much legacy data do you have? I imagine there’s going to be quite the migration involved with this redesign, correct?

Potential Client: Yes, so all the posts will need to be migrated to the new CMS.

Adam: Ok, cool. But just to clarify, the posts aren’t all that need to be migrated, correct? I imagine there are images, authors, tags, categories, and other content types that will need to be moved over as well?

Potential Client: Yes, yes, all that stuff will need to be migrated as well.

Adam: Ok, awesome. What would be super helpful is if we could get an idea of how many content types you have and maybe we could even get a sample of the content types to get a gauge for how relationships are set up? (Sidenote: how many content types are important to know, usually content types (or post types in WP) are going to have different outputs, which could mean unique designs. Also relationships between content types can get tricky with migrations. On this one, more than likely, certain scripts will have to be written to map relationships to content types)

Potential Client: Sure, no problem, I can get that for you.

Adam: Perfect! Now you said in your email that you have about 5 writers? What does their workflow look like with the current CMS? (Sidenote: this will give me an idea of what permissions might look like, and if there’s any way to minimize steps to make things easier for them)

Potential Client: Yeah, so this is big problem internally. We actually have our authors write the posts in Google Docs, they share it with our two editors that approve the posts and then work with our web admin to put them in the current CMS. It’s been quite the hindrance, so that’s why we’d like to migrate CMS’s. We’ve heard good things about WordPress.

Adam: Yeah, so WordPress has got certain user roles written into the CMS. So, your whole workflow that you have right now could be done a lot smoother with WordPress. We could assign your writers roles of either contributors or authors depending on permission levels and they could work right within the CMS instead of outside of it. Editors and admins, also WordPress user roles, would be able to approve things in WP and could push content live. The whole workflow would be much easier to handle.

Potential Client: Ok, that’s great and exactly what we’re looking for.

Adam: Cool, yeah I think WordPress might be a really good fit for you guys, but you also said that you offer certain ratings and reviews? How is that currently done?

Potential Client: We integrate with TripAdvisor

Adam: Ok, interesting. Do you know if it’s just a snippet of code that’s pulled from TripAdvisor or are you using some sort of API?

Potential Client: I believe we just take snippets of code that TripAdvisor offers and insert it into our website.

Adam: Ok, I’ll have to do a little digging into TripAdvisor and see what technologies they offer, they could have a widget or plugin that might work with WordPress. If not, then we’ll have to take a deeper look.

Potential Client: Ok, sounds good.

Adam: Awesome, ok so since you’re in the media and publishing world, I have to ask about ads, will there be any ad-serving on the site?

Potential Client: Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s our biggest money generator. We use Double Click for Publishers.

Adam: Ok, cool, I know of a good DFP plugin for responsive sites and ad-serving, so that should be pretty straightforward. But you said that ad-serving was your biggest money generator, what other revenue do you get off of the site?

Potential Client: Oh, yes, we syndicate our content to a few other blogs in the travel industry.

Adam: Ok, and is that done through an XML or RSS feed?

Potential Client: Yes, they go out through a simple RSS feed that other travel blogs can grab on the site and we have certain agreements with them.

Adam: Ok, that makes sense. Another question I have is around your subscribers. Are these subscribers to your blog, or are they members of your site, do they get certain perks, or are they just subscribing to an email list?

Potential Client: Yeah, so we don’t have any members on our site, although that’s something that we’ve been thinking about doing and offering perks. But right now we only have subscribers through our email list for our monthly newsletter, and users also sign up to get updated blog posts.

Adam: Gotcha, so your readers can sign up to an email list to get blog posts or the monthly email newsletter, do you use a certain email newsletter provider like Constant Contact or something similar?

Potential Client: Yes, we use MailChimp. That’s what we use to send out our monthly newsletter and blog posts to users who subscribe.

Adam: (Sidenote: awesome, MailChimp is pretty easy to integrate with. There’s a plugin for that!). Ok, that’s fantastic. Now you said earlier that your team was thinking about maybe doing some kind of membership on your site, can you talk a little about that?

Potential Client: Yes, so there’s been some talk internally about offering tiered memberships where members could get access to travel deals. But I don’t see that happening for at least a year or more, we’d like to get this redesign done first and then maybe do something a little more with memberships.

Adam: Ok, cool, it’s just good to know because before anyone starts building the platform in WordPress, it’s something that we could potentially prepare for. It would obviously cost more money, but I know there are some pretty cool membership technologies that work well with WordPress like MemberMouse or Membership 2 Pro from WPMUDev. So, that’s good that we’re talking about it, I could send you some more info on those membership technologies to see if it’s something that your team might want to think about implementing sooner.

Potential Client: Yeah, that would be great, I’d definitely take a look and at the very least will have the information for if/when it happens down the line. Thanks!

Adam: Sure, no problem! Ok, I just have a few more questions. Since this is a redesign, I have to ask about actual design. Is there any rebranding initiative involved with this like logo design, brand guidelines or standards, or will all that stuff be provided?

Potential Client: Yeah, we went through a rebranding initiative about a year and a half ago, so we have everything that you need there.

Adam: Ok, great, and in terms of information architecture, would you like to revise the menu? Maybe do a little user testing to see if the terminology connects with your users?

Potential Client: Yeah, you know, I didn’t think about that. That definitely sounds interesting and something worth doing.

Adam: Ok, great, and you mentioned that you wanted to improve your SEO. Are you looking for an on-page SEO specialist or were you just talking about the technical aspects of SEO? Making sure your tags are all set properly, alt image text and meta data is setup, etc.?

Potential Client: Yes, that’s what I mean. I think we have good content, but I’m not sure what goes into SEO on the technical side, so we would be looking to our agency of choice to help us out with that.

Adam: Yeah, fantastic, so we definitely design and build with SEO best practices in mind.

Potential Client: Ok that sounds good!

Adam: Well, Tony, it’s been an absolute pleasure, thanks so much for giving me all this information. I think I have a good handle on things and I’ll start putting together the proposal. Sometimes as I’m putting together the proposal and discussing it with the team, more questions arise, will you be available to discuss if I have any more questions?

Potential Client: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Just give me a call or shoot me an email and we’ll connect.

Adam: Thanks, again!

End of Conversation

Let’s breakdown the call for the web proposal writing process..

First thing I wanted to know about was the migration, that could end up being a big piece of the project depending on how much legacy data there is, and remember that scripts will most likely have to be written to migrate all the content, but 301 redirects as well from legacy content because they still want to maintain (and improve) SEO.

I also asked about author workflow, this won’t be too difficult because it’s already a part of what WordPress does natively, but it’s good to get clarification. Noticed how I kept repeating what the Potential Client (PC) said, that just reinforces things. I also got the PC to uncover a pain point that they are having internally — remember that when you start to write the proposal — challenges to solutions!

Then I talked about the ratings/reviews, and the PC revealed that they integrate with TripAdvisor. You would have to do a little more digging here. I would search if there were any plugins that do this TripAdvisor owl eyes(honestly, I’m not sure if there are), but if not then TripAdvisor might have snippets of code to use. But keep in mind, with any 3rd party, that there might be some speedbumps that could slow down the project. If you use any 3rd party, you need to play by their rules, and that means things aren’t entirely within your control. So..I would put some buffer time (and price) in the proposal for this implementation.

I also asked about ad-serving. Often times, people in the media publishing world will just consider this a part of the package and not mention it. Remember, that these things are so ingrained in their heads as just being a part of their world that sometimes they’ll forget you’re not a part of their world. And the PC also said something that caught my ear – he said “our biggest money generator” – so that means there’s got to be other “money generators” right? Well, looks like there are, good thing I asked! I always err on the side of caution on things like this and ask. I’d rather end up looking a little stupid in their eyes than having an unhealthy project down the line. You can always play off the “looking stupid” part by saying “yeah, I thought that was the case, but just wanted to be 100% sure.” Ask, ask, ask—you’ll thank yourself in the long run and so will your team!

Then we got to the subscribers, and in Tony’s (PC) email I wasn’t sure if he had members on his site or just email list subscribers. But I asked him about members and uncovered it was something that they were thinking about internally. Now, this could be an opportunity to potentially upsell or increase the scope. I said I would get him the information and he’d take it from there. Now, you can get that info to him pretty quick and you can reach out to him in a few days to see if it’s something he’s had time to discuss with his team. He might not have, but it’s always good to get out in front of that stuff because when you’re in the midst of a project and another stakeholder enters the picture who wants the membership piece to the site, you can say “hey, we talked about that, it’s going to be $XX amount more.” You never know when the opportunity will arise. I sold one of the biggest projects of my career after I thought I had lost it! (Story for another day)

Then just to finalize, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a rebranding initiative along with the redesign, believe me, there are people out there who will get that messed up. It’s just a matter of semantics sometimes and it pays to be clear. And then we talked about SEO, because let’s face it, SEO is a beast within itself. Many people who have homegrown CMS’s don’t have great implementation on the technical SEO. Things as simple as setting up their H1 to H6 tags could be poor. Often times they don’t have meta-descriptions or tags, alt image text, an XML sitemap, or a robots.txt file. And if you want to get really fancy you can talk about microformatting, schema.org might have certain microformatting tags that it can classify their content as. Oooooo.

The needs of web proposal writing..

Now, that was obviously a mock call, but I did have very similar conversations and I went more in-depth than I did in this post. But notice how I left the communication lines open. I told him how when writing the proposal and talking with the team, often times, other questions arise. Set the expectation that they will be hearing from you again before they receive the proposal. That will also set an expectation that they’re not going to get the proposal in a day or two. Remember to leave the door open.

The trick to writing solid proposals is asking smart questions. And more importantly, it’s about asking the right follow-up questions. I know many people think web proposal writing is just a formality, but I think it’s one of the most creative activities one can do in the tech world. Why, you ask? Well…I’ll show you on the next post when I write about my web proposal writing evolution.

 

The Cost of Doing Business with a Web Agency

March 3, 2016
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I got asked a really great question last weekend and figure I would expand on it in a blog post. The question was “what’s the difference between a $2,500 project/website and a $15,000 project/website?” This, believe it or not, is one of the most probing questions I’ve ever been asked. Hence, the need to write a blog post on it.

So…what is the difference?

I’ll tell you as I see it, and I want to preface this by saying, my word is not absolute. This is completely my opinion and my thoughts that stem from the experiences I have working at a small agency and a larger one. The smaller agency charged anywhere from $2k – $20k per project and the larger agency charged anywhere from $50k – $250k per project. I would love to say that the difference is level of effort, but that’s not necessarily true. I think what we have to do first, is look at the variances of what we’re talking about. There are many, many variances in agency types or tiers, types of projects or websites, and variances within those projects.

So what kind of an agency is right for your business, what are the pro’s and con’s of each?

Types of Agencies

In the design and development world there are all types of designers and developers ranging from freelancers to mega-web agencies, small design shops to professional engineering firms. There are marketing agencies, social media agencies, and SEO agencies. For the sake of this post, I’m going to concentrate on the different types of website design/development agencies, the ones that do strategy, design, and development. This will be mostly for people or companies looking to get a website designed and built.

  1. Freelancers: These are the hardest ones to put in a category, because like agencies, freelancers can range a great deal. There are the novice freelancers, many of them do projects for next to nothing, sometimes they actually charge nothing. They’re just starting out and want to grow their portfolios. But then, there are other freelancers out there who are phenomenal. Usually these freelancers are expensive and don’t take on many projects because their plate is already full. You can usually find freelancers ranging from the novice to the expert on sites like Upwork or Elance, just make sure to check out their ratings and reviews.
    • Advantages: One person owns the project from start to finish (not being shuffled between people); Almost always less expensive than agencies; Can usually get the job done very quickly
    • Disadvantages: One person owns the project from start to finish (so, stability could be an issue depending on the freelancer), if they run into a speed bump that could mean the end of the project; Skill set is usually limited to one area like development or design, not both — unless you find that unicorn freelancer, they are out there!
  2. Small ‘Everywhere’ Web Agency (2 – 10 employees): These agencies are very common and popping up everywhere (hence, the ‘everywhere’), and like freelancers, they can range a great deal. Most small web agencies don’t have a focus in terms of industry. They’ll work with a lot of companies ranging from lawyers to restaurants to local businesses. The owners often times act as project/account managers and the staff is limited in their experience. That’s not to say that these agencies aren’t good, there are good ones out there, but they mostly do simple marketing redesigns, blogs, and brochure-style websites.
    • Advantages: Prices can range, but usually it’s within a small businesses’ budget. Often times you can get redesigns done for $2k to $10k; These agencies are friendly and will treat you like family, and they’ll go the extra mile to keep you as a client.
    • Disadvantages: They sometimes use templates for design, so you’ll see many clients that have the same navigation bar or search box style; Sometimes they’ll modify themes instead of making custom ones; And often times they don’t have an in-depth process when it comes to the strategy surrounding the project.
  3. Boutique Web Agency (5 – 25 employees): These agencies are the ones that usually have sharp focus in a niche industry, like “we only work with non-profits,” which makes them really great in that one (or two ) specific vertical(s). Their process is somewhat refined and they have a small team. They usually have top-tier talent (one or two rockstars) and project or account managers. They work with medium-sized business and most likely have a few enterprise level clients.
    • Advantages: Focused verticals, know the specific industry inside and out; Refined strategy processes; Top-tier development and/or design talent; Most likely have good project management skills
    • Disadvantages: They have small teams that are most likely working on a number of different projects; May push out the start date depending on workload; Often times rely on the top-tier talent to take the bulk of the projects
  4. Professional Web Firm (25 – 75 employees): These firms are the ones that have focus in a few different industries and market themselves that way, but they’ll also push their own boundaries and take on projects outside their industries (not all the time!). They usually have a sales department (or sales guy) and marketing team. They’ll have dedicated project teams and a handful of project managers. They’ll also have a solid leadership team to motivate and corral the team members when needed. They have processes set in place and incrementally improve them. They consider strategy a big part of the web game and use it to deliver solid projects. They have full day discovery workshops and probably do user testing to confirm hypotheses. They work with big companies and enterprise brands, but still have a few small to medium businesses that they got when they were starting out.
    • Advantages: Custom work, you’ll get a unique website that’s built for your users (hopefully!); There will be an outlined process; Roles and responsibilities will be defined; Strategic thinkers that will use data to make informed decisions; Will assign a dedicated project manager; Top-tier talent
    • Disadvantages: They’re expensive; And they’re not the quickest on project timelines, they plan and plan, and that takes time; Often times they overload their team because of client demands
  5. Mega Web Agency (100+ employees): These are the large agencies that take on a number of different verticals, they almost always have distributed teams and work on some really big projects. They’ll have every type of agency person including user experience designers, digital strategists, marketers, software engineers, strategy partners, and a large leadership team with dozens of years of combined experience. They usually don’t take on projects for less than $250k (I know some that start at $500k or even above!). They work with brand names (think Google) and they’ll do mostly (if not only) custom work.
    • Advantages: Super custom work tailored to your users; Strategy will be the biggest part of the project; They’ll usually work in sprints and test at the end of each sprint to verify concepts and prototypes; Quality Assurance will be meticulous
    • Disadvantages: You need to be a huge company to work with these guys, because they are expensive; There might be a waiting list to work with them; There will most likely be a number of people in on the project at different phases/stages of the project, so you’ll meet new people constantly

What about agencies with 75 to 100 employees?

Good question! Well, this is by no means a complete list. I’ve noticed the farther I go in web services (or just web in general) there are soooo many types of agencies out there. There’s also the Digital Body Shop which usually has anywhere from 50 – 100 employees, and they do a bunch of different projects in different verticals and work with a myriad of industries.

Just remember, this stems from my own experiences and the people I’ve talked with.

Let’s get into project type and what their average costs are with the different agencies.

Types of Projects / Types of Websites

Like agencies, there are definitely a myriad of different projects and websites that can be created, designed, and built. Some are simple, and some are super complex. So, I’ll list out the most common projects most people are likely to encounter and most agencies and/or freelancers would take on. To limit things (because this is already a long post!!), I’m going to just do pricing for the 3 web agencies in the middle: Small Agency, Boutique Agency, and Professional Agency. Please keep in mind, these are averages (prices all depend on the scope) and can realistically range from $1,000 to millions!

  1. Blog: This is perhaps the simplest type of site which mainly consists of a content management system (like WordPress) and updated content coming out on a regular basis.
    • Price:
      • Small: $1,000 – $5,000
      • Boutique: $3,000 – $15,000
      • Professional: $10,000 – $35,000
  2. Microsites: These can be deceiving. Just the term ‘microsite’ sounds small, but I assure you they can be the opposite of that! Microsites are usually when a company wants to promote an event or showcase a certain branch or department of their company. Often times there is video or images, CTA’s (calls-to-action) prompting the user to do something like signup for a service or check out certain resources. They can be cool ways to get more awareness.
    • Price:
      • Small: $2,000 – $8,000
      • Boutique: $5,000 – $25,000
      • Professional: $25,000 – $75,000
  3. Marketing Site: These are called different things, sometimes Informational sites, or Brochure-style sites, but essentially these sites just market your company or cause or whatever! They can be a little trickier than blogs because often times they require implementation of ad-serving, email newsletters, videos, or image galleries. I’ve seen these sites range anywhere from $5,000 to $80k, depending on what’s involved with them.
    • Price:
      • Small: $2,000 – $10,000
      • Boutique: $10,000 – $50,000
      • Professional: $35,000 – $100,000
  4. Site/Application Build: These are a little trickier to price because they almost always involve doing some type of integration with another system. Like integrating with a booking engine or an events registration system. These builds can be complex and should be handled by top-tier talent. Be careful to go with a price that’s too low (there is such a thing!) because they should be priced accordingly – they are hard projects to work on!
    • Price:
      • Small: $8,000 – $20,000
      • Boutique: $35,000 – $120,000
      • Professional: $75,000 – $250,000
  5. Membership Portals / Member-Based Sites: These can be fun projects and if done right can come out really well. With WordPress there are some default membership properties like Editor, Author, Subscriber, etc. But a good agency can do almost anything with these and other CMS’s, like Drupal, let you customize your user roles. But because the needs of a client can vary a great deal depending on what they want their membership site experience to be like can determine how much the project will cost.
    • Price:
      • Small: $5,000 – $25,000
      • Boutique: $30,000 – $150,000
      • Professional: $75,000 – $300,000
  6. Ongoing Support: Obviously this all depends on the size/scope/scale of your digital property and what your needs are, but usually prices start at the following amounts.
    • Price:
      • Small: starting at $100 per month
      • Boutique: starting at $500 per month
      • Professional: starting at $1,000 per month

Again, this is not a complete list. There really are multiple (sometimes endless) types of sites that you could potentially do. You could also have a hybrid of sites, like a Microsite within a Membership-Based Site, oh the possibilities!!

I guess that’s what I like about the web, the possibilities, they are endless!

But I hope this sheds a little light on what types of agencies are out there, what they typically charge for web projects, and what to expect from them if you ever need their services.

So, to answer the original question, I’m not sure what the difference between a $2,500 website and a $15,000 website is. I would say there are different types of agencies that price projects out differently depending on their market size, location, and client type. But with that being said, I really hope that a $100,000 project from a professional agency comes out better than a $10,000 project from a small agency,  but I tell people it’s like buying a car – “You can get a Hyundai Accent for $15k and you could get a Lamborghini for $250k (is the Lambo better? Maybe..) but they’ll both get you from point A to point B!”

How much does a website cost?

October 10, 2014
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After being in the tech space for almost two years, I’ve learned quite a bit when it comes to the pricing of web projects. So…how much does a website cost?

A website costs time, it costs value, it costs behavior, and it costs relationships.

A websites’s cost is dependent on the time is takes, the value it brings, the behavior it causes, and the relationships it has.

Cost all depends…

Many agencies have hourly rates. Our blended rate is $150 per hour, we take our top strategists, our designers, and our developers and average out a blended rate. This is based on time. How long do we think the website will take to build? How many man hours? How many months? Websites can cost time, but they can also cost value.

How much value will building this website bring to your organization if we do right? How much value will you lose if we don’t do it? Value can be really hard to measure, but it’s something that you as a business development associate can help showcase by having your agency come up with an awesome and innovative web solution.

Behavior is another interesting thing to look at. What will the website do? How many features does it have? How much functionality do you need? Someone once told me about the Bermuda Triangle of pricing web projects: Quality, Functionality, and their relation to Cost. Most companies that have a small budget can choose either quality or functionality, but you can choose both.

And finally relationships. Will this be a good and easy relationship? Are they going to be a problem client? Will they listen to my advice?

The reality is, that websites can range from $1,000 to $1 million, it all depends on what you want! I read this incredible article, it’s a bit a the long side, but well worth the read. It’s all about agency costs and why we hate estimating. For anyone who’s been in my shoes, it’s really tough when someone asks you to give them a number, “well, just give me a number” – no, that’s a bad idea

Why? Because in order for me to give you an accurate number, I need to know more about what you’re trying to do. The solution is there, but it usually takes uncovering. I need to know things like business objectives, any creative objectives, what’s your timeline, what’s your budget. People have a tough time telling me that last one – budget. But I need to tell you why it’s so important. Budget dictates a lot of the solution finding process. It tells me that if you only have $15k to work with, then we probably can’t do any custom design for you, but we could take a pre-made template off the shelf and configure for you to be your own.

It’s a hard web to weave, and budget is crucial. If you don’t want to tell me your actually budget because of competition and the like, then I still need a range. Are you working with 10k or 100k. And beyond that I need to know what’s your timeline look like? Do you have a realistic timeframe? I ask a lot of questions, but this helps me get the answers I need to make a great proposal for you on your next project.

And just to let you know, not everything for a website takes 15 minutes. I love that one – “hey, I need you to put some forms on this site, that should only take a few minutes, right?” – WRONG! Working with working software is tricky, and can be daunting. So, keep in mind that it’s a process, anything you want to do (with the exception of writing a post, that’s relatively straightforward) will take time and therefore, money.

Check out this incredible article that I was talking about, it’s really amazing, but make sure you’ve got some time because it’s long!

How much does a custom WordPress site cost?

Have any website ideas, or are thinking about putting together that next blog? Let me know.