Jeff and Jason argue — literally this time — on how firms should think about investing in the web. Custom vs “out-of-the-box.” Internal vs outsourced. The gloves are off.
Jason Mlicki: So Jeff, this podcast has two magic numbers. You want to know what they are? There’s two of them.
Jeff McKay: Yes, I’d like to know.
Jason Mlicki: One of them’s in the title. One of them’s in the title. The title of the episode is, “Do You Need a $100,000 website?” So magic number number one is $100,000, I guess. Magic number two is 50, and it’s 50 because this is our 50th episode.
Jeff McKay: Whoa. No kidding.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: Wow.
Jason Mlicki: I didn’t tell you before we started for fun, so.
Jeff McKay: Is that a silver anniversary? Or is that a gold anniversary?
Jason Mlicki: I think it is. Because you can send me a gold ring. Diamonds are good too for me. It’s totally fine.
Jeff McKay: Wow. 50 episodes.
Jason Mlicki: But the central question at hand today, and you’ve had this on our topic list since day one. So this topic has been fluttering for a year and 50 episodes waiting to be done. And I’ve refused to do it until right now. And you dragged me kicking and screaming into it is — Do you need a $100,000 website? So that’s the central question of the day for discussion. And I’ll start by saying that it’s the wrong question. I know you don’t want to start there, but I think it’s the wrong question.
Jeff McKay: Okay, so it’s the wrong question. Does that mean we’re not going to answer the question?
Jason Mlicki: I don’t know.
Jeff McKay: Or are you going to replace the question with the proper question?
Jason Mlicki: Classic politicians move, right? Just, you know, replaced it with the question that I would like to answer. Maybe yes, maybe no. Let’s see. I think in the end, as you said going in, we should try to get to when does it make sense to make that type of investment in the web or significantly more than that, by the way. And when does it not? But I’ll just start by saying I think it’s the wrong question, because it’s backwards and this comes back to the same discussion we had on the budgeting side of things. You know, when you walk into something like this and say, “How much does a website cost,” usually you’re starting with, “Well, here’s what I want the web to do. Here’s all the features I want it to have. Here’s what the user experience needs to be. Here’s the content it will have. Here’s the integrations that it will have. Here’s all the analytics we’d like to get from it.” So you’re layering on a whole set of features and then you’re asking, “Well, what is that going to cost?”
Which is entirely the backwards way of looking at it. The forwards way of looking at it would be to say, “Okay, well, how is the web going to help me grow my business? How is my current site blocking my success? How will a new site enable that success? How much do I want to grow my firm? Where do I want to grow it? And then, how does the web fit in?” So it’s sort of a collection of questions around what’s the business opportunity for me through my web platform? And then, that should define that level of investment that you’re willing to make in order to go get it, which ultimately drives the decisions you make about features and process and content and technology and everything else. So I’ll stop there. Just say there’s a wrong question and a right question.
Jeff McKay: I agree with you, you know, that title is provocative, but I think flipping it around the way you just did is the right way of looking at it. The reason it’s been on our list for so long, this is definitely my CMO mindset, not a consultant mindset, but my… And I guess a consultant mindset, I would say this to the clients as well, is the way you just described that I would love to decide to do these types of things. All right, let’s go out and get some proposals on that and see what comes back. It’s going to be a big number. Will it reach six figures?
Jason Mlicki: It’ll be a wide number as well. Keep going.
Jeff McKay: And a wide number. So for me, as a CMO, this question is about, as you said, priorities, but it’s also about opportunity costs. And if we spend limited resources, and what professional services firm marketing budget isn’t smaller than people think it should be?
Jason Mlicki: Accenture’s.
Jeff McKay: Should it be spent on a $100,000 website? And my contention is hardly ever should it. And like you said, it’s the wrong question and it’s old thinking and we need to talk about if you had $100,000, how would you spend it?
Jason Mlicki: Well, yeah. I think before we go there… I mean, I’ll have one last comment on this and I’ll just be honest. I mean, over the years getting RFPs or inquiries around websites, usually the things that are being asked are incredibly tactical feature set things, comments about how they want the site to work from a mobile functionality level, the specific integrations that they think that they require, which is fine. Maybe there’s been some heavy duty business thinking done prior to those decisions, but usually there hasn’t. And to your point, someone says, “We need this site to be mobile and we need to be mobile first.” That may be true. It may not be true. I mean, a lot of our clients, I used to look at the data set all the time. They’re still getting 80 percent of their traffic from desktop experiences, so does it really need to be mobile first?
Should we be designing mobile first? I don’t really know, but I just think sometimes we make inferences based on what we think we need without really stepping back and saying, “Well, how is this going to help us grow the business? In what way?” And the one thing I would say, and I wrote this a while ago and I still maintain it and I wrote this two or three years ago, is every single new client you get from today going forward will go through your website and I can virtually guarantee that. I don’t care how they got to the website, but at some point in that cycle of learning and vetting and discussion and hiring, they’re going to hit that web property. So to act like you don’t need to make investments there at all or think critically about what experience you want clients to have there based on how you see the site fitting into your broader business development and client acquisition cycle is foolish right now and the data will back that up.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. And we can put some links in the show notes to some of your thinking on that and where the website fits into the buyer’s journey and where in that buyer’s journey you probably need to be prioritizing your investments, and we’ve done some podcasts on that that I think are insightful, so we should put a link to that in the show notes.
Jason Mlicki: And I think on that front, there’s a couple of questions you want to be thinking about, which is on the one hand, do you see the website itself as a way to originate new clients? Because I would argue the vast majority of professional services firms, 50 to 70 percent of their site traffic is from search. So if you think that you can reach out into the marketplace through Google and bring clients to your door, and a lot of firms can and do and a lot of firms can’t and don’t, then that influences how you think about the web and the investment you need to make and what that investment looks like. Or if you look at it as, okay, we’re going to originate leads elsewhere, but we know that the web is going to be a part of that buying process and what someone interacts with when they get there is going to be different and critical, then your investment is going to look different, if that makes any sense.
Jeff McKay: Oh, absolutely. But I don’t think people necessarily think that way. You know they want a website that does everything, right? It’s brochure, it’s thought leadership disseminator, it’s a recruiting tool, values, distributor. There’s just so much going on on these websites. They lose focus and when there is not that clarity and you’re having somebody produce a site, I think that’s when things get out of control. I guess my perspective on this are, you know, what’s the opportunity cost? What are the trade offs that CMOs, and firms in general, have to make in terms of paying $100,000 for a fully customized website and, in my experience, in my experience as a CMO, I am not a fan of these high front-end customized websites for multiple reasons. One, they take forever and a day to develop. And then once they are developed, they’re simply not sustainable. They require either dependence on an agency for updates, which slows down sales and marketing. They’re so sophisticated in their design that modifying that erodes, you know, the look and feel fairly quickly or they’re so customized that they lack the proper structure or undergirding that makes them flexible in terms of an overall digital platform, particularly if you need to move quickly. And that’s why I say there’s so many opportunity costs associated with having somebody else build it from scoop to nuts.
Jason Mlicki: Well, I mean, sort of a different comment. I mean, when we were talking about opportunity costs, I thought you were kind of saying, should we put our money towards digital marketing activities or should we put them somewhere else? Now you’re talking about, should I be investing externally or internally? And I think that’s sort of a different thing. I would argue, and this will be kind of going sideways from your comments a little bit, but a website’s just a platform. I mean, we know from our research and our experience, it is the single most important marketing asset that a firm has, period, end of story, but it’s a platform. So regardless of how you get there, if you want to make small incremental investments and do this agilely and, I don’t know, more from some garbage website to some great website, which I don’t even know if that’s possible, or if you make a large onetime investment in a new platform on which to build and it takes you a while to do it, you’ve still just launched a platform.
It’s not going to radically change your reality. What’s going to radically change your reality is what you do with it, right? The example that comes to mind for me right now is Bain’s new site, which they launched about a year ago, and it is a monumental leap forward from where they were to where they are. They went from being a laggard in terms of the digital experience they were delivering around their thought leadership and their overall experience for new clients or prospective clients coming in the door to a leader, having a phenomenal experience doing innovative, creative new things that most firms, even McKinsey or Accenture aren’t doing. But that had to happen in a large scale, big, custom platform build just because what they were trying to do was a radical departure from where they’d been, and now it has opened up a whole bevy of ways for them to market differently, to market with more interactivity, to provide users with the ability to store content, remember content, come back, learn.
I mean, it’s incredible. You know, the progress they made on that, but they really couldn’t have done that in a small, incremental way. It’s just impossible. Now in terms of, you know, having dependence on an agency, you have dependence on someone. Either you have a dependence on your agency or you have a dependence on your internal resources. But no, a website’s not a static platform that just sits there that you’re never going to touch. And content management as a concept is fabulous. The ability to manage content without any developer or any designer at any point in time is great. But designers and developers exist to make things better, right? You know, so when McKinsey publishes a new article to the 5/50, I don’t think in the back of their mind they’re thinking, “Well, boy, it would be better if we didn’t have to, because we didn’t involve a designer in this at all.”
No. They’re going, “Well, how do we work with our designer to make this experience better?” I did a LinkedIn share this morning and I’m riffing a little bit. So in the last seven years, the Washington Post has gone from having four engineers on staff to having 300 engineers on staff, and in that land, an engineer is essentially a visual designer, an interactive expert, someone who’s creating a digital experience online. That’s a staggering number. But it’s a recognition that we can’t just launch an online version of our print publication and have some journalists sit there and, you know, ram headlines and copy into it, because we’re not getting anywhere. We have to have digitally native experiences and that requires some level of talent. So I guess I would argue that, you know, dependence on an agency, you need to be dependent on someone.
You need to be dependent on internal resources that are talented, that can take this platform and make it powerful or external or both, right? You’re going to need that if you want to be successful online because the bar has been raised to, you know, unbelievable levels of high quality content, exceptional experiences, great storytelling, great client case stories. I mean, all of those things are expectations now for prospective clients looking to do business with you. So I’ll stop there, because that was a lot in a very short amount of time. I’m sure there are a lot of things that you want to pick apart.
Jeff McKay: No. Do you need a ladder to get down off of that soapbox? You know what’s funny? This is what I love about talking to Jason, and I live for these moments to get him fired up, because normally he’s just so quiet and sedate, but when you poke the bear, he comes alive and I love that. I love that.
Jason Mlicki: Well, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. So we went way off on a tangent, but-
Jeff McKay: I don’t think so. I don’t think you went off on a tangent at all. You’re getting to the core of the issue, is this is a channel. It is a platform. It is a fulcrum. And firms need to decide how are they going to manage it? And this is my contention, and I would not pay a firm to build a website from scratch custom website. I would use that money, as you said, you’re going to have dependency somewhere or else. I would make that investment internally with my team and have those digital capabilities that can produce and maintain a site but also do the integration to the broader digital platform, and I would not bifurcate that role. I would integrate them and, in my experience, the way to integrate them is not on a custom site but to buy an out of the box site that is well supported, that has the basic bones and structure needed so that you don’t require the depth of technical developer competencies, but one that allows a layman to go quickly modify, adapt to changing market conditions, and to be completely independent completely.
I know there are things that role could not do, but for the most part, to be self sufficient in that front, because it’s more cost effective. It increases speed. It allows you to more quickly customize and meet the needs of not only clients, but also your practice leaders who are very demanding around these things as well, but most importantly, it allows you to better manage the whole buyer cycle and the conversions that need to take place along that buyer cycle. You just can’t outsource that capability in my mind.
Jason Mlicki: Well, once again, you know, you got it all wrong. The first thing I’ll just comment on quickly is this notion of a custom site versus an out of the box site. It’s kind of a dated way of looking at it in my mind, in the sense of I understand conceptually what you’re saying. I think, if I hear you, what you’re trying to say is don’t hire an agency to build some custom content management system or invest in some really, really expensive unique content platform like Adobe’s or Sitecore or something that’s very expensive to license and very, very complex. Use something that’s a little bit more pervasive like WordPress or something that is a little bit less of a niche, expensive product. That changes dramatically in firms of different sizes and different requirements. I mean, we have clients that have global footprints, right?
And they’ve got, you know, twelve language sites and, you know, we have to figure out how to, you know, not only manage the languages but then also manage the service offerings and the content from those locations, right? So you know, the services that are available in China are not the same ones that are available in Mexico, right? So you have to be able to reconcile all that. And so sometimes that’s hard to do with a base, you know, stripped down version of a CMS or something. But I would just argue in general and then I’ll move on that if you have a firm of even just a couple million dollars and even modest complexity, there’s no out of the box solution that exists for you. You might use a base platform like WordPress, but anything that you launched, if you, you know, if you were going to put some meaningful thought into it, it’s a custom solution, right?
Because you’re customizing it to the design experience you want, you’re customizing the client experience. You wonder if you’re telling your story in a custom fashion with content and video, right? So I mean, you know, the notion that there’s an out of the box solution I think is a very false one. Now the other comment I would have real quick is that, you know, you emphasize, you know, doing this internally, because you have the advantages of cost and speed. Well, agencies don’t exist to serve the purpose of cost and speed. That’s not why clients, firms, companies hire agencies at all. And that’s not how… I mean, any good agency owner will tell you that, you know, their ability to be inexpensive and fast is probably quite low. I mean, the central value proposition of the agency is creativity and innovation, right?
So you think about… You know, you look at McKinsey’s work on their rebrand and some of the things they’re doing digitally, there’s a host of external partners that they’ve used to help facilitate that stuff. Now a lot of that stuff becomes, you know, knowledge transfer internally to internal resources, but you’re going to have a mix of external and internal resources on this type of thing. And the other reality, I would say, is that you think about the Bain example I gave, they’re about to launch a whole new platform like that, chances are good, any internal resource you have, range or resource you would hire, just doesn’t have that much experience doing that, right? So, you know, we have site builds going at times with clients where they’re using internal resources and they have a very hard time working through that because they just don’t have enough experience doing it with regularity.
So I think going in alone on a platform build is kind of dangerous. Now my final thought, because we actually are running out of time, which is funny, because there’s been a very limited exchange of interaction on this. It’s been mostly us going back and forth. And I think you’ll agree with this, because I think you’re saying this is… I think that the notion of a $100,000 website is the wrong mindset anyway. Because this is the other thing I’ve seen through the years is someone will say to me, “We need to generate more leads from our web property. Hence, we’re going to do a redesign and we need all these features in the redesign.” The redesign’s not going to solve that problem. The redesign is a point in time in which you’re building the platform on which you’re going to do the activities in order to generate the leads you want, right?
So this notion of website as a product, website as an infrastructure build, is fundamentally flawed. I mean, you need to think about it as, well, we think we can grow our business by 20 percent using the web as a medium, and the investments we’re willing to make, you know, from year to year are X, 50,000, 100,000 dollars, whatever the number is. And you have to sustain the investment over the time, the same way you do in business development. You know, you don’t hire a BD lead, pay him a hundred grand and then starve him for five years and expect him to keep delivering business to your door. He doesn’t do it, right? The web functions the exact same, exact same thing. And that’s the mindset that most firms just don’t bring. You know, they think, well, I’ll make this one time investment, then I’ll ignore it for five years and it should do its job.
Well, it’s not going to work. Fails every time. So anyway, that’s kind of the core of your argument is that the mindset is wrong. That you need to think about this in a more kind of agile build on top of what you’ve learned. Iterate, innovate, get better as you go. And that’s the absolutely the right mindset to have and, to your point, you’re going to have to have some internal resources and capabilities to make that happen. But I would argue you’re also going to have to have external partners as well, because you’re never going to have all the capabilities you want in house. My two bits.
Jeff McKay: I agree with you, so think of it in terms of a digital platform. Companies like Bain, McKinsey, Accenture, Deloitte, global firms with tens of thousands of employees and billions of sales. $100,000 is probably maintenance on their websites. That is a different audience. WordPress.com for a solopreneur who’s just getting started, pop it up, let’s get running. That’s a different audience. There is a huge range in the distribution of that bell curve of middle market types of companies that may aspire to be Bain-like or McKinsey-like that are going to misallocate their dollars to a website and it’s not going to drive growth. That is the area that I’m speaking to in terms of, it may make sense for you to choose an off the shelf solution that has prebuilt modules for calls to actions and video inserts and that stuff that any lay person can just structure and get rocking and rolling much more quickly. The whole point of this is there’s a huge gray area in between and you have to think through what you’re trying to achieve and, I think more often than not, speed, costs, flexibility, manageability, and overall control of the digital experience, the managing the content, how you render that, you don’t need a custom site.
Jason Mlicki: Well, I think you’re still misunderstanding what the word custom actually means, but I will tell you that, you know, having an out of the box solution that enables you to easily publish video is no different than having a custom solution that enables you to easily publish video. Question isn’t the ability to publish a video. The question is, do you actually have the chops to produce a good video to put in the shell? That’s the more critical piece to all of this. The platform itself is not that critical. What is critical is what are you going to put into the shell? What are you going to put into the system? And that’s where firms struggle the most.
Jeff McKay: Which is my point, which is my point. The opportunity costs. Do you want to give that money to build the website to an agency or do you want to have much better in house capability to deliver thought leadership and the messages along the buyer’s channel? So you and I are agreeing. I think we’re just, as you normally do, you’re just talking right past me.
Jason Mlicki: Well, it’s because you don’t listen, so I have to correct you. We are officially out of time. We will have to agree to disagree on whether or not we’re agreeing. I think we kicked the tires on this hard. I don’t think we ever really actually got to answer the question, but maybe I’ll give my two cents on answering the question real quick, which is really just, again, the investment you make in your web platform and the things you do against the web, are a function of the business opportunity you see for that. So if you think you can go grow your business two to five million dollars or whatever online, then use that as the function of what you’re going to invest. I mean, it’s a pretty simple metric. That’s how I would answer the central question of the podcast. I’ll put it that way.
Jeff McKay: Hey, Jason.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: It was nice to see the fired-up Jason back.
Jason Mlicki: He’s always here. All right, bye.
Jeff McKay: All right, buddy.
Jason Mlicki: Talk to you next week.
Jeff McKay: See you.