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Last month I had the pleasure of speaking at WordCamp Chicago. My presentation was titled Solutions Before Development – Creating WordPress Products That Actually Sell.
If you’re considering building WordPress themes and launching a theme shop, this talk is a must see video for you.
My presentation followed this outline:
- The Internal Fight
- The Concept Was Simple
- In the beginning… We were completely and utterly clueless
- At First We Were Just Another WordPress Theme Store
- Find Your Niche
- Holy Cow, It Worked!
- Start With a Plan Evaluate
- The Small Town Solution
- Develop a Marketing Strategy
- Know That Good Design is Critical
- Structured Code Was Key
- Pay for a True Code Audit
- It’s a Team Effort
- Use the Right Tools
- Understand Your Cost Structure
- Plan for Trouble
- What WordPress magic will you create?
A video of my presentation was recently uploaded to WordPress.tv and is available for viewing:
Recently my sister decided to launch a website and blog. With my encouragement she selected WordPress as her platform of choice and then set out to locate a WordPress consultant. Why didn’t she come to me you ask? Well honestly, I didn’t want to work with family and I could not begin to meet her list of needs. Sisterhood aside, we both knew we were not an ideal fit for each other.
She wanted a cute blog with minimal website functionality and that isn’t my strength. I’m a B2B or B2C girl who likes to work with small businesses and not so much individual bloggers. I wasn’t a good fit for her and we both knew it. While I did coach her along the website design process, she did pretty good all on her own. She found a great graphic artist who created an awesome WordPress design for her. I didn’t agree with everything he did, but I do think he answered her unique needs and she has a WordPress design that is perfectly matched to her needs.
This experience with my sister reminded me that different websites and blogs need different talent sets and while we web designers may want to be everything to everyone, we simply cannot do it. We have limits, areas of expertise, and a niche within which we fit. We have to acknowledge these limitations and strengths both for our future clients and ourselves. I didn’t fully understand this when I launched my internet marketing firm, but I do now.
So what should you look for when hiring a website designer? While this will vary based on your individual needs, there are fifteen criteria and/or questions that I consider fairly universal to the process of selecting a website designer. This may not be all-inclusive, but it is a great starting point for locating and interviewing a consultants or design firms.
Fifteen Must Ask Questions for Your Future Website Designer
- What CMS packaged do you use? Is it open source or proprietary? If you don’t know the definitions of those two terms, research them and you’ll thank me later. Open source means the website design software it is widely available, while proprietary means it is solely used by the website designer. Proprietary would also mean the website designer probably wrote it himself and the website itself is HTML based. What doesn’t this mean to you? Open source means you are free to update and select website designers at your leisure. Proprietary means you are tied to your website designer for life. The only CMS I use it WordPress, because I feel clients should be able to come and go as they please and not based on my needs or wants.
- Can your design portfolio meet my esthetic needs? Remember my sister who wanted a cute farm blog? She needed a graphic designer, not an internet marketing expert. Take a look at my WordPress portfolio. Do you see anything cute? Nope, you see business and branding. Now you understand why we didn’t bond over her WordPress design project. If you are looking for a new website designer, review the potential designer’s portfolio well before you reach out to them for conversation. You’ll save both of you a lot of time and frustration.
- Do you adhere to web design best practices? This may seem silly, but not every web designer understands best practices. Usability is still huge issue with even the best graphic designers. My sister asked me if she should add a “key to help explain her social icons” and my response was “any website that requires a key or tutorial is not based on solid design or best practices” then I told her to change the icons. Cute is great, but functionality and usability trump cute any day of the week.
- As a web designer, how knowledgeable are you with organic search engine optimization? If you think you can worry about SEO after design, think again. Strong search engine optimization begins with website design and the architecture of your website or blog. Rush ahead with design without thinking about SEO and you’ll regret it long-term. I won’t even start designing a new WordPress website without first having a full understanding of a client’s marketing needs and SEO objectives.
- Do you use social media and do you feel it is important? Don’t skip this question, because social media is not going away anytime soon. In fact, it is growing at amazing rates of user adoption. Facebook, Twitter, and locally focused websites like Foursquare are taking over the internet and they are powerhouses of traffic and engagement. A new website should embrace social media and encourage engagement. Your new website designer should be active on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. If they aren’t, then you ask yourself why and if they can really serve your needs.
- What exactly are your project deliverables? Can they meet my individual needs? Let me return to my sister. She hired a graphic designer and he delivered. She didn’t hire a website developer. She got exactly what she paid for, which was a beautiful WordPress website design. She didn’t get hosting set up, organic SEO, page build out, WordPress plugin set up, Google Analytics integration, an XML sitemap, a robot.txt file, or even submission to the search engines. She didn’t pay for it. She also didn’t ask for it. She’s a newbie so she didn’t really know she needed all of that other “stuff” and she has me to help coach her along. But not everyone has a free website designer on call, so decide what you need and make sure your potential website designer can deliver it. Your new website won’t produce results if you can’t figure out how to get your content uploaded or submit your finished site to search engines.
- What is the full scope of your services offering? This is a big one, because similar to project deliverables, designer capabilities are as diverse as clients’ needs. If you need copywriting assistance, organic SEO, or even assistance with public relations, you typically won’t get this from a graphic designer. My sister didn’t need any of these, so a graphic designer was perfect for her. Most small businesses need a full service design house or an experienced internet marketer. They lack in house marketing resources and need someone to provide a complete website development project with the option for post-launch support. Know your own needs and make sure you pick a firm that meets those needs in both the short-term and long-term.
- How would you categorize your project management skills and what tools do you use to manage website design project? What? Isn’t it the client’s job to manage the website project? Honestly, most clients don’t comprehend all of the steps necessary to launch so expecting them to manage unknown deliverables is unrealistic. I provide prospects with a written project plan and then once they sign on as clients I transfer this plan to Basecamp so we can jointly manage the project electronically. I learned this the hard way unfortunately. One of my first clients was classic for expecting me to write content, locate images, and do way more than our contract called for when signed. He lied about project volume and frequently told me he did not know “it” was his responsibility. I learned my lesson and now I list of tasks and assignments in Basecamp and assign owners so there is no room for misunderstandings. This helps me stay organized and it helps my clients see the immense list of to do items that need to be accomplished to launch successfully. It keeps us both on task and on target.
- Are you comfortable with my brand and do you understand my marketing message? This is important to small businesses because they frequently lack an in-house marketing team. If there in not a full-time marketer to monitor the brand and message, someone needs to do it and it falls on the web designer. Your website fails if it doesn’t grab your audience and convert them into your desired outcome. No messaging and no conversion equals failure. While industry experience is not always necessary, if you have a sophisticated product or service, then it is needed. I have had multiple clients within the ERP industry because I was in the ERP industry for eight years. I not only was a marketer for an ERP software developer, at other times I demonstrated the product, sold the software, and trained users on it. I got the concept of ERP and I understood CIO-speak and selling to the C-level decision maker. While this isn’t important to every industry, it is to the ERP industry and you need to get C-level selling to help craft out an effective website that can sell a product the size of an ERP system. If you fall within this type of niche, then you need to thoroughly interview your future web designer to make sure they “get it”. If they don’t, it isn’t their fault. Just keep looking until you do find someone who gets your industry and your product or service offering.
- Do you think we have a good rapport with each other? Yes, I’m asking if you like the designer. I receive calls from people needing websites and they are so opposite of my personality I don’t even quote the opportunity. I am passionate about internet marketing, I really do know my stuff, and I will tell you when I think you are off base and headed down the wrong path. If you don’t like this approach and simply want your designer to unconditionally agree with you, then I am not the right website designer for you. Run, run away from me quickly. On the other hand, you may find me refreshing and you may like my passion and conviction. If that is the case, we are destined for a long-term and successful relationship.
- What is your availability? Are you accepting new website design projects? Some of us are really good at what we do and we fill up for months. Many times throughout the year I’m at capacity and I feel as though my head may spin off. Other times I’m not and I’m open to new projects and/or consultations. If you’ve found someone of quality, don’t assume their schedule is wide open and they can start immediately and devote 40 hours a week to you. It most likely won’t happen. Ask your potential designer for a possible start date and how long the project will take to go-live. If they cannot meet your timing constraints, thank them for their honesty and keep looking.
- Are your terms and requirements flexible? I don’t mean yoga flexible, I mean “go with the flow” and gets the idea that life and business happens. I have a new client who had a family emergency come up and he dropped off the face off the earth in mid-December. I told Steve I understood and we will pick back up once he gets his mother-in-law back on the road to recovery. He has a business to run and his mother-in-law just took the free time that was slated for website launch. I get this and I also get that I am not his top priority. I may nag at you, but I understand you need to keep your business running even if I’m waiting on content. I get you may need to reschedule our appointment three times due to your client needs. I don’t like it, but I get it and I’ll work around it. All I ask is for you to allow the same should my five-year-old son come down with the bubonic plague.
- Can you work within my budget? This is a big one. My sister’s graphic designer was contracted at a fourth of my standard rate. I didn’t understand how he could do this until I realized our deliverables were completely different. In life you get what you pay for and website designers fit within this theory. Reduced budget means reduced deliverables or reduced abilities. You cannot expect the best of the best on a shoestring budget, so be realistic and find someone who meets your financial constraints. WordPress consultants range from $50 to $300 per hour and WordPress websites can range from $500 to $50,000. If you only need a $500 website, then great, but know you are getting a $500 website. With most things you purchase, it is relative. My pricing falls into that middle of the road category of $100 per hour and websites ranging from $3,000 to $15,000. I believe my rates match my skill set and my target market. While I’ve given free websites to nonprofits, I don’t discount and I don’t believe in cost creep. If you can’t afford me, I understand and I believe you should continue to look until you find a consultant that can work within your budget.
- Can you provide references? I’m happy to provide prospective clients with contacts to speak with prior to signing contracts. Not every website designer can or will do this for prospects. This is especially true if they are just starting out in website design. If the potential website designer was referred to you by a trusted advisor, you really don’t need additional references. If you randomly found the designer via the internet, you should validate their abilities with a reference prior to signing contracts. In doing so, please be respectful to your potential designer and their clients. Don’t ask for a reference unless the designer is your chosen partner. In my case, most of my clients would be C-level executives who are busy, so I only provide their name to prospects if needed. Their time is valuable and the reference is a gift so I try my best not to abuse it.
- Do you want or can you support long-term relationships and website support? I firmly believe long-term relationships are a privilege and not a right. I need to earn your business and in many cases I want to earn your business for the long-term. That being the case, not everyone wants or needs me long-term and this is okay too. Hire me on retainer, by project, or even hourly. I don’t care, because I’m fairly flexible as long as my calendar has availability. But I am not every web designer. Not every graphic designer or website consultant wants or can support long-term clients. If you need support after launch, make sure you’ve asked your future website designer if they can or want to manage you as a client moving forward.
Web designers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors and we are definitely not a one size fits all type of offering. Don’t assume a potential web designer is good or bad until you can compare his or her skill set to your unique needs. What may be a poor designer for you, may be an exceptional designer for someone else.
Like I said, this list of qualification questions is my list and Rebecca’s view of the world. Your list may differ some and you may even add another fifteen questions or criteria onto mine. But that’s okay, because you are thinking about what is important to you and you are providing yourself with selection criteria that will help you narrow your search field. You now have a list of questions that will help you pick a website designer that is a good fit for you and your website project. In the end, that’s what matters most.