How not to commission a website


Recently, I met a barrister who was handling a case where a website project had gone badly wrong, losing significant sales for the customer who had commissioned it. After comparing war stories, we concluded that a lot more websites go awry than one might realise and that it might be worth sharing some of the horror stories to highlight potential pitfalls and help others to avoid them.

In a profession where only a minority of law firms have a dedicated or experienced marketing manager, the role of project managing the new website often falls to the marketing partner or practice manager. Having never had to commission a website before, they may not be entirely sure what work is involved, how to write an effective brief or how to compare proposals from web agencies, and so it is easy to see how problems might arise.

Given that a law firm website might account for as much as 50 per cent of new business enquiries these days – equivalent to having another office – it can play a critical role in a firm’s business growth.

Berners Marketing does not build websites, so this article is not a sales pitch. However, we do project manage the procurement process, the build, completion and launch phases, and we manage website content for many law firms. On this basis, we have been involved with a lot of law firm websites over the years and have seen several common mistakes and rescued more than a few websites from potential disaster.

Here then are some of the many misconceptions and mistakes to avoid in commissioning a website.

It’s just an online brochure

Nowadays a good website is the equivalent of a physical office. You may have heard the expression “clicks and mortar” in reference to the balance of business coming through online (clicks) and traditional office-based (mortar) activities. If you, or your web agency, approach the new website thinking that it is “just a brochure” then it is likely that this is all it will ever be. It will also be an unnecessarily expensive brochure. If you were building a new office you would plan it carefully, define your objectives in terms of accommodating business growth and would set expectations for your return on investment. A new website should be planned in the same way.

We did not draw up a brief

Without a clear brief to work to, it is difficult for a web agency to provide an accurate plan and quotation. A failure to really think through what you need and to draw up a detailed specification may mean that your site does not meet your needs when it is launched. If the specification keeps evolving as you keep having ideas, then you might find costs running away from you. It is worth investing the time at the outset to review competitor websites and produce an inventory of the essential features, and any bells and whistles that you would like your website to have.

My nephew can do it

This may seem a good idea until your nephew needs to concentrate on his dissertation, gets a new love interest or decides to go on a gap year and your website project drops down his priority list.

A friend at the pub or gym can do it

Websites require a minimum of two skill sets: graphic design (ideas people who tend to be left brain dominant) to ensure that it looks good, and software coding (detail people who tend to be right brain dominant) to ensure that it works well. It is a rare thing to find one person who is really very good at both activities, which is why it is not uncommon to use separate suppliers for the design work and the coding.

The designer seems to be getting the coding done in India/Poland

This is a variation on the scenario above where a designer claims to be able to build the website, but outsources the coding work without your knowledge. There is nothing wrong with getting the coding done overseas if you have done your due diligence, but make sure you know who to call when the website is live and you have a problem that needs resolving quickly.

We did not check the terms and conditions

This is a true and rather salutary lesson for one firm who found themselves signed up to an uncapped commitment to pay an hourly rate in a contract that did not guarantee the delivery of a functioning website.

We did not think to take references

It is easy to send a link to a website and claim you have built it. One web agency made the mistake of sending me a link to a website where I happened to know the managing director who revealed that the agency in question had nothing to do with his website. Take references to check whether the agency has delivered to specification, deadline and budget, whether the client finds the content management system easy to use, and what the after-sales support is like.

We only looked at the initial costs

Comparing website pricing can be like comparing apples and pears. You need to make sure that you clearly understand the initial costs for design and build and then any ongoing costs for hosting and updates. Make sure you calculate the costs over at least three years. You may find that there is a much bigger difference than the headline figures indicate.

They said they could not give us a fixed price

This might reflect the lack of an adequate specification. You should be able to insist on a fixed price with clear approval and payment stages. If your web agency will not stick to a fixed price, then they must make clear under what circumstances the budget might be exceeded and the notification process.

We are locked in to a monthly fee

In the days before content management systems were commonplace, it was usually necessary to have an arrangement with the web agency to cover their time in adding regular updates to the website. This should not be necessary now. If an agency tries to sell you a “support package”, make sure you clarify what this incorporates and whether you really need it. A well-designed content management system should be easy to use and should allow you to make all the regular updates you need. If there are bugs in the coding, you should not have to pay for these to be fixed.

We cannot access our domain name

It seems to be quite common for law firms, particularly start-ups, to ask their web or marketing agency to “buy” their domain name for them. This is valuable intellectual property which should be brought into the firm’s control as soon as possible after registration. It is also a good idea to keep a central log of all your domain names and renewal dates.

The agency has lost interest

Hopefully, your website should last you several years, but from time to time support may be needed or you may wish to add new features to the website. Take care to check service levels for aftercare. One web agency had a ticketing system, where all work, however urgent, went to the back of a queue which was several days’ long!

Let’s just copy content from another law firm

I was under the impression that all solicitors will have studied intellectual property law at some point, but it is amazing how many times we have been sent content which turns out to be other firms’ copyright. We regularly use a plagiarism checker, and have had to deal with law firms which have copied articles and artwork. More recently, we came across a non-lawyer who had cloned the content of a whole website, but had stripped out the name of our client.

Photos on the internet are free, aren’t they?

Well some are, but most high quality images require payment in exchange for their usage or permission from the image rights owner. Take care as Google’s facility to search by image makes it much easier for rights owners to track down misuse.

An RSS feed is ideal for our content strategy

An RSS feed may seem like a cheap and easy way to fill space for content on your website, but unless you can personalise that content for your firm, your lawyers and your location then you are wasting your money. It will not help you impress Google, which is looking for high quality specific content.

Letting applicants upload their CVs seemed like a good idea

… until one uploaded a virus! Take care that your website does not allow just anyone to upload anything to it, as this provides opportunities for a virus, or worse, a hacker to access your website or even your server.

Sue Bramall is Managing Director of Berners Marketing, providing marketing and business development support exclusively to the legal profession.

Email Twitter @Berners4Law.

Cartoon © Clive Goddard / Berners Marketing.

One thought on “How not to commission a website”

  1. A good article and may I mention my recent blog called 30 Questions you should get (Good) answers to before you sign a web contract (we don’t do websites either).

    As regards feeds (we use javascripts, but the principle is the same), they actually have a much better effect and potential uses (content sharing) than implied above, but I agree they look better better when the content is personailised by the firm. They are search neutral.

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