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Top 10 Things to Consider Before You Hire a Digital Design Agency, or…

(The 10 Things Your Best Friend would Tell You if She Owned a Design Agency)

You know the drill.  When you have a big decision to make that’s outside your knowledge wheelhouse, you check-in with a trusted friend for advice.

You twist your knee playing tennis, so you call your old college pal the orthopedic surgeon for advice.

“I’ll make a few calls and get you a couple of names. Make sure you insist on an MRI. And take your old x-rays in – explain your past trauma to that knee – still can’t believe you fell off that table sophomore year. Ask about insurance coverage – a lot of the best surgeons are independent now, and you don’t want any surprises. Your doc should have a go-to physical therapy team – it’s one thing to have a successful surgery, but what happens afterwards is equally important.”

So you’ve decided it’s time for a new website. When you type in your website address on your iPhone, it loads at a glacial pace and the text is microscopic. You’re ticked because you just spent $75K building a new one four years ago. Of course you’ve had two other iPhones since then –  Why does this stuff keep changing so fast?!

No, it’s not fair, but the digital landscape is changing at an exponential pace and you have to keep up if you want to remain competitive and frankly, relevant.

As managing director of a Bay Area digital design firm, here is the advice I give to my best friends when they call me:

  1. DEFINE YOUR GOALS – CLARITY IS QUEEN. As with all strategic planning, understanding your clarity of purpose is paramount. If it’s not clear why you’re taking on this project, you certainly are not going to be able to adequately convey your vision to a design team. If you don’t? No one will be happy in the end. You think you need a new website? Ask yourself and your internal team why. “Because this one stinks” is insufficient data. Why does it stink? “It takes too many steps for someone to place an order.” “It’s terrible on mobile.” “It makes us look old-school – our digital image doesn’t match our edgy physical image.” “Our competition is doing 25% more eCommerce business than we are.” “It’s just not who we are anymore.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
  2. DO THEY CONDUCT RESEARCH? Your prospective design firm should insist on interviewing current customers, partners, employees, and target customers/clients. They need to understand your culture from the good, the bad, and the ugly. Digesting how others perceive what you do well and what you do poorly is key to a successful project. If your prospective agency isn’t asking for clarity and doing a deep-dive in discovery, you’ve picked the wrong pony.
  3. ENSURE IT’S RESPONSIVE. Without going totally geeky on you, put simply:: responsive web design means your website will be experienced and look great on all three of the major digital platforms: desktop, tablet, smartphone. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Industry data shows smartphone access of the Internet is skyrocketing [add charts here]. Google announced that they’re now penalizing websites that are not ‘mobile friendly’ in search rankings (see #8 below). Friends don’t let friends build non-responsive websites.
  4. ESTABLISH A SUSTAINING BUDGET. You’ll need to write compelling content via blog posts and/or new product descriptions. You’ll want your social channels pointing to your flossy new site. You’ll want to keep it fresh with new photos and new hire bios. You’ll need to have your provider update to the latest platform, plug-in, and widget versions, as well as periodically back-up your site.
  5. ASSESS YOUR IN-HOUSE TALENT. Do you have internal personnel who can adequately address the needs of your on-going web support? If not, will you hire someone, or does the digital agency your considering offer such services?
  6. DO YOU LIKE THESE PEOPLE? Developing a new website or app takes time and substantial communication. And more than likely, you will have some form of relationship with your digital design agency after the product launches. Do you like the people presenting the proposal? Do you trust them? If you’ve got that crummy feeling inside as you walk or login to another meeting with them, think twice before hiring them. This can be fun, you know.
  7. PICK AN INTERNAL POINT PERSON. Make someone responsible for this project. If you’re the owner/founder or president/CEO, you’re probably going to get distracted. Select a highly organized person whom you trust, and let them run with it. Make sure they’re giving you regular updates, and make sure that you give them your undistracted attention. The reason a project misses deadlines is usually due to A) The client taking too long to review work-in-progress (WIP); B) The client not spending enough time in their own discovery stage to clearly define goals and requirements, resulting in a circuitous path to the finish line; C) The true decision-maker is only partially engaged, and when it comes down to final revisions, decides he/she wants fundamental changes.
  8. INSIST ON ANALYTICS BEING INSTALLED AND TRANSFERRED TO YOU. You know the old adage, “If you’re not measuring, you’re just practicing.” None of us have time or money to waste. For perhaps the first time in history, your marketing dollars can be accurately measured against performance.  You need to know what’s working and what isn’t. Google Analytics is free, and will go a long way to help you understand where your web traffic is coming from and which of your pages are performing and which aren’t. Make sure your developer has included analytics in the proposal, as well as submitting your new website to the top search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo). The agency should set-up a Google webmaster account for you and hand over the keys to someone in your organization. Alternatively, you could hire them to provide you with monthly reports.
  9. INQUIRE AND LEARN ABOUT SEO. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. SEO stands for search engine optimization. When you type in a search phrase on your computer or mobile device, the search engine (e.g. Google) looks at what you’ve typed, and using a highly sophisticated set of algorithms, serves you the websites links it believes best fits your search criteria. You want your new website optimized for SEO so that people find you when they type in phrases that match the products or services that your company provides. If your prospective digital design agency doesn’t address this topic with you, it’s a signal that they do not have your best interests in mind.
  10. ASK FOR A TEST PLAN. Your digital design agency should be making faux purchases through your eCommerce, complete with credit cards. They need to test the new site’s functionality on desktops, tablets, smartphones, browsers (e.g. Chrome, Firefox, Explorer, Safari) and operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, etc.).  What are your expectations for how many versions back they’ll test for?
  11. CHECK REFERENCES. Okay – I had to add just one more. After all, you are hiring people. Call a couple of their recent clients and see what the agency was like to work with. I asked the CEO of a billion dollar company recently how he liked working with a particular high-flying ad agency. On a scale of 1 to 10 he gave the creative product a 9. He gave his personal contact a 2. Was months of consternation worth it? We all have our own thresholds.  What are yours?

CONCLUSION. Jumping in bed with a digital design agency takes some reflection. Be armed with knowledge going into the relationship, and clarify roles – you’ll have a much more successful marriage as a result.

How about you – had any good or bad experiences lately?  Which of our Top 10 is the most important to you?

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