We talk with many companies, associations, and nonprofits about their upcoming projects to design and develop a new website, or about an advanced data integration project.  Like many web strategy, design and developmoent firms, we don’t work with everyone we meet, but the breadth of conversations gives us unique insight into how organizations conceive of their project’s budget. At times, we meet clients who, to put it bluntly, have unrealistic expectations and a lack of understanding when it comes to the cost of web and technology services. More often than not, it’s not because they’re not capable, it’s because they’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Organizations tend to pick arbitrarily round numbers (trust us) that are based on the previous year’s budget (“but we spent this last year”), a special grant (“the donor had this nice round number”), a time period (“it’s only three months, so it must be this cost”) or some other number that’s not corrolated with the money in the bank and what an organization is trying to achieve.  

We often recommend the following approach.  And, yes, we stole this budgeting approach from former Secretary of State George Shultz when he was asked how one should deveop the nation’s national security budget.  If it works on a national scale, certainly on a web project, yes?  Here are the three questions which form the approach:

1) What results are we trying to achieve?  

2) How do we achieve those results?   

3) How much does the “how” cost? 

The answer to number 3 will always give you your budget. If your bank account can’t afford the objectives, redefine the objectives until you can afford them.  We all have budgets professionally and personally. We understand, because we do too! But, if you hire a web development firm for an unreasonably low amount and buy based solely on price, you will not meet your objectives and you will more often than not pay more over the long-term.  Budgets and objectives must be aligned, and that eternal web project truth is primarily why the fixed-price RFP process is often the cause of heartburn, both by the firm and client. In fact, RFPs are often developed from a long list of objectives shared by a multitude of stakeholders – a good thing if the objectives are part of an integrated strategy.  But, at some some point, the budgeted dollar amount is established, and that dollar amount becomes the defining objective.  We hear this often, “Could you sharpen your pencil to meet our budget, but please don’t remove any services required to meet our still required objectives?” It’s a fair question from those seeking to extend their dollars as far as possible, but to be truly successful, clients refining objectives is needed along with web firms sharpening their pencils.  

What about question number 2?  

Determining how you achieve your objectives can be approached in different ways, of course, some of which may have variable costs.  For example, when it comes to design, perhaps a standard layout with a modest amount of web strategy is needed. Or maybe you have complex omni-channel web marketing and communication needs that could only be delivered by an advanced content management platform stylized with creative design techniques like material design. We get it. Each of these approaches has a wildly different budget requirement.  That’s why we need to define the objectives carefully, so both the client and firm don’t bring a shovel to a job that requires a backhoe or vice versa. 

Once you determine how to achieve your objectives working internally and gathering market research from external web firms, that’s when you truly will know your budget. It is always helpful to talk to an experienced firm to get a better picture of what your objectives might be and request multiple proposals – not just to gather budgets, but to determine if the objectives are accurate. Seems obvious, but we encourage you to speak with all the firms you can and share as much as you can with them – they won’t bite and the established reputable firms will not take you for a ride either.  

One last word of advice, don’t call any firm and say my board is sitting down tomorrow, “Can you give me a ballpark by tomorrow?  I just need a number.”  

Please contact us if you are interested in a web design, development or integration project requiring our experienced web strategists, designers, and web engineers.  

A global team with offices in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, Ca., we provide digital strategy, digital marketing, web design, and creative for brands you know and nonprofits you love.

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