(This blog has been updated since its original publish date in January 2017.)
In any number of the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with schools over the years about a website redesign, I’m always curious at what point the “bottom line” question will come up.
Some are toward the end, in earnest: “Could you give us a ballpark?”
Some start with a line in the sand: “I just want you to know that if this is over twenty grand it’s not happening. Just telling you that.” Okay!
Some are contrite: “We know this isn’t free, but maybe you can give me an idea of the
And some — perhaps the rare ones — are open-ended: “we’re going to do what it takes to get this right, so let’s just get to a number where we’re not cutting corners.” Naturally, we love those!
Price is not meant to be a secret. It’s not a chemical formula we have patented, locked in the basement. But it’s also not the easiest question to answer.
It’s one where I tend to start with this: “If you’re going to make a decision solely on price about your most important marketing and communications tool, Finalsite is probably not a fit.”
This often follows statements I hear that are equally provocative: “I hear Finalsite is the most expensive out there,” or “You guys cost too much,” or “Why can’t you lower your prices?”
So in this blog, to the question, “How much does a website cost?”, I’m not really going to give you a clean answer, but instead encourage you to consider this project as an investment in which you are looking for a return, and the value you get is directly correlated to what you put in - primarily, money and time.
Return on Investment (ROI)
What does that mean: “return”? Here are a few answers: More and better inquiries and applicants. Fewer complaints from parents who are confused and in the dark. More families who made the right choice and stay with you. More engaged alumni. Likewise, is there a dollar value we could place for each additional inquiry year over year? Each enrolled student in the district? On more satisfied parents? Or even an additional donation to the booster or annual fund? We could actually help you figure that out, and maybe that’s a good topic for another blog.
In short, a good school website, especially when coupled with good internet marketing strategies, easily pays for itself. Even that slim swathe of schools who are fully enrolled with a wait list a mile long never rest on their laurels. Many schools will consider the website budget a function of tuition (e.g. an investment in their online presence will improve yield or bring in more students) or district allocation for each student, too.
I’m sure I’m not alone by being annoyed with the predictable answer of “it depends” to the “how much” question that I might ask a vendor or sales person when shopping or bidding something out. Yet, I find myself saying exactly that to prospective Finaliste clients, and when I share my stock follow-up answer to that question, “Somewhere between free and $150,000”, I get a nice nod at the free and scoff at the 150, and then a “so, what’s it going to be for us?”
So how can we get closer to a number than the infuriating, “it depends”? At Finalsite, in the case of $0, the design fee is likely built into the subscription fees. And in the case of $150,000 the scope is likely a best-in-class creative service, with significant up-front strategic consulting, a lot of additional design and deployment hours, and which might include athletics and giving microsites, etc. Not that helpful?
Here are a few ways we can narrow that number down:
1. Theme vs. Custom
Knowing many schools are working within a limited budget, a pre-designed theme removes the creative discovery process and so are quicker to deploy, more affordable and do not involve design time.
A custom design is a ground-up design process with a “higher touch” experience to help guide you and your team; it typically includes surveys, discovery meetings and strategic consulting.
Admittedly this is a strange criteria to include in this list, but worth noting. Here’s why. If you’ve got a superintendent or a head of school who says something like “We’re the best in our area. So I want the website to be the best” or even just “I want this website to win an award” then: great! Once you manage their expectation that of course there are no guarantees for “winning”, you should prepare them to expect a healthy budget to really go above and beyond, not only with the homepage, but within the site.
3. Design “Bells and Whistles”
Sometimes a little cool goes a long way. The “wow” factor — the bell here and the whistle there — may come in the form of animation, user-driven docks and slideshows, fades, parallax scrolling, and the like. All of this is fun to implement but still can take time and adds to the cost. If done correctly, it sets the site apart, gives the experience that added edge, and boosts user engagement.
4. The Digital Campus
The global pandemic forced schools to re-imagine how they communicate and share their story online, and we expect this shift to be permanent in both mindset and application. Framing out what “Digital Campus” means to your school may impact your budget in terms of level of sophistication, especially if you think you might want to apply some unique design and creative effort to your information hub and other components that make it up.
5. Interior design
Most designs will (or should!) be implemented with some kind of style guide so that the entire website inherits the same colors, margin spacing, fonts, etc. for various content and layout elements, so that when you can easily develop new pages that look professional but also are suited to the content. However, oftentimes specific pages that are particularly important, like the tuition page or the divisional pages, require extra creative attention outside of your wheelhouse.
6. Landing pages
It’s not uncommon to have specific pages designed to be the destination link for a Google ad or an email campaign. These pages need to accomplish a lot in terms of design, content and messaging, and so often require additional creative work or development.
7. Strategic Consulting
If you’re only wearing one hat, and that’s the website, congratulations! But for most clients, the website is just one slice of the job, and keeping on top of the latest marketing and web trends and best practices isn’t always top of the list. In that sense, it’s often helpful to have professionals guide both the process up front and even post-launch to ensure you’re staying on track and aligning your work to your school or district priorities. Strategic consulting may include guidance, a helping hand, or direct management of search engine marketing, digital advertising, and social media.
8. Additional Help
Finally, launching a new site can often mean slogging through a lot of material, gathering and posting a lot of new content and images, and just iterating through pages. Many clients turn to Finalsite’s Virtual Webmaster for this kind of roll-up-your-sleeves team to support the process and get the job done.
Every project has some combination of the above, and it’s useful to come prepared with preliminary thoughts on these areas to help nail down a budget and scope that fits your vision.
Using Freelance Designers and Small Design Agencies
Hiring a freelance designer or small creative shop to design your school's website can range from a couple thousand dollars, to $50,000 or more for a one-time design. While freelance designs may seem like a good way to save money, most freelance designers may be superb at creating a splashy homepage, but start to run thin when it comes to user experience, site architecture and interior treatments that require a specialized knowledge and awareness of schools and districts.
Creating mobile-ready designs isn’t necessarily within their purview either, and developing a full set of guidelines to handle all of the permutations that can come out of unique layout and design elements is often overlooked. Go in with eyes wide open on these issues and ask the right questions. Be aware that freelance design may appear like a good deal but typically isn't the most affordable option for schools, and because the design is handled separately from the CMS, lack of coordination can create a number of unexpected issues when updating your website.
More than a “Website”: Software Influences Cost, Too
In some respects, the design budget is the easy part — maybe not easy to swallow, but easy enough to digest. There are numerous ways to go about it, and lots of factors that can help you constrain or expand your scope.
Beyond the scope of the website, the Content Management System (CMS) and related software packages will also play a role in the recurring cost of hosting and managing your website. Like website design, there are numerous considerations for your software package that will influence the price you pay for your annual subscription. Among them:
- Content Management System: The software you’ll use to build and manage your website should come with options for creating different layouts, adding content, and common elements like news and calendars.
- Email Marketing: Do you have a solution for sending out compelling emails to your families? An integrated system will allow you to manage your lists and create content that you can then reuse for emails, a huge time saver.
- Mobile App: While your website will be responsive, many schools and districts are providing an app for their constituents as another channel to get out their message.
- Live Streaming: Particularly during, and after, the pandemic, the expectation that games will be live streamed is growing, and having a solution that is tied into the website (as opposed to a separate website) is a nice option.
- Integration: Nowadays it’s common that your website “talk” to your student information system, enrollment and/or fundraising database.
There are certainly other areas that we could add to the list, but those are the core components of a website solution that you’d likely want to have up and running.
Costs associated with running and maintaining a secure website are more nuanced, and likely require collaboration with your IT department to consider systems already in place, including your current content management system (CMS) and other web-based services, which are likely numerous. Let's take a look at your options.
- The team building it: Is it an in-house side project, or are you hiring professionals?
- The process behind it: Is there a proven, strategic deployment process powering the process?
- Functionality and integrations: How does the CMS you've chosen integrate with the software and other web systems you already have in place?
Now, let's take the time to answer this question a little more thoroughly.
The Cost of Building the Website Yourself
DIY websites are great...if you have a full-time website designer and developer who signs a life-long contract at the school and will never, ever leave. Right? So, while developing a website in-house, or through an open source solution like Wordpress in terms of annual fees, might seem like the most affordable option, it also runs the most risks:
While sites like Wordpress are secure, all those add-ons and plug-ins you want to use for your website may not be, so proceed with caution. (More on open source security in this blog.)
Because hosting a website in-house requires quite a bit of technical and coding knowledge, schools run the risk of not always having someone with the right skill set to constantly update the website, particularly when there’s a full version upgrade that needs to occur.
Open source solutions need to be created from the ground up, and permissions and access are going to be very open-ended. It might be trickier than first assumed to provide, say, one person the authority to manage just a few pages on the website. Sometimes this often leaves schools with an all-or-nothing approach to website management — meaning only one person has access, creating a backlog, or everyone has access, creating a site map nightmare. What’s more, it’s not uncommon for that Wordpress website to multiply and become nearly impossible to manage. We had one client trying to manage over 20 separate wordpress sites!
Remember, websites like Wordpress are blogs first, websites second — so their functionality isn't pre-built for the intricacies of a school website, often making your job more difficult than it needs to be.
All of that being said, building the website yourself can cost as little as a few hundred dollars a year. Yet, the cost of hiring a professional to manage and update the website on a regular basis can range from $45,000-$75,000 per year, or more in some cases, depending on experience.
The Cost of Hiring a School Website Company
Ah yes — of course. You knew the blog was going to head here, right? We're a school website company ourselves, so … naturally I'm going to tell you this is the best option. But hear me out!
Finalsite has been around for over 20 years, and we've heard hundreds of stories from school professionals around the world who have had good and bad experiences elsewhere. We've had clients leave us for Wordpress and Drupal, then then come back. We've seen new website providers pop up for a few years, and disappear just as quickly. This market is not easy, but being the most well established provider out there, we’re committed, and we’re here to stay.
So needless to say, we feel compelled to advise you on the option that without fail works best for schools, and also why companies like Finalsite exist in the first place.
Finalsite Senior Front End Developer Tom Schisler and Client Success Manager Sergio Villareal share a moment of fun with one of their clients at FinalsiteU in 2016.
Hiring a company to handle the design, coding, CMS, and hosting is the best, most coordinated and simplest option, but often it can appear to be the most expensive. However, most school web design companies, like Finalsite, have scaled design and software packages to make beautiful, responsive web design and simple website management available to almost any budget.
What sets a school website company like Finalsite apart from open source and freelance options is the amount of experience and strategy that goes into not only building — but maintaining – a powerful website and communications solution that is proven to improve public relations and increase website traffic, inquiries, enrollment and retention.
This process and strategy includes project management, browser and device Q&A, proficiency in accessibility, commitment to security, escalation options for troubleshooting and support, CMS functionality that is specific to schools, and the opportunity to work with a new team that knows schools best.
In short, it’s a lot to get right and want a partner for the life of your website — which is, well, that's priceless.
What to look for in a School Website Company
There are multiple attributes to take into consideration when choosing the school web design company that will work best with your school.
The Quality of Design
Since your website is the number one most important marketing and communications tool you have and has the most impact on a family’s first impression, it is important to get the design right. A vendor who knows how to build mobile-ready designs that are optimized for all devices is important, but if you're looking for something more, ensure you select a vendor who has design accolades and experience to handle your hefty project. And while we know it’s not all about winning…we’re proud of the fact that we’ve won over 120 design awards in dozens of competitions for our work on behalf of our schools.
The Deployment Process
If there’s one kind of project that can veer off the rails quickly, it’s a website project. With so many moving parts, different stakeholders, and a huge range of experience and ideas about web design, launching a new website on time is as much an art as it is science. A big differentiator among companies that may not be readily apparent is the website deployment process. It is important to find a company that has a strategic and proven-effective process — especially if you're a small team. A structured and organized deployment process will ensure your website launches on time. Naturally, most every company will say they have this down, so talk to other schools who have used them and find out for yourself.
Easy-to-use Content Management System (CMS)
While some companies boast beautiful designs, the CMS that powers them are often clunky and difficult, or — possibly worse — they are easy to use but don’t do that much. A good CMS will give you a lot of flexibility to build great pages and make changes while also not requiring a lot of coding and technical expertise. So, be sure to ask for a live demo of how a CMS works before making a commitment, then talk to a few schools who have been using it for a few years to confirm. It’s always nice to understand the product roadmap, too, so you know what’s ahead.
Most generic or open source CMS platforms (like Wix, Drupal or Wordpress) may have integration options, but not necessarily with school-specific systems, particularly with K-12. So, when selecting a school website provider, be sure to select a provider that "plays nice" with the applications, software, and data you're already using — whether it via a complete data integration or single sign-on.
Hosting, Training and Support
One of the major benefits of hiring a web design company is to have a partner, which is very important for all the “behind the scenes” support and help that you may not need today but could need tomorrow, and to keep things humming so you don’t have to worry. When selecting your provider, be sure to ask questions about availability of training and support, both in terms of getting the site launched and, most importantly, afterwards. Finally, when selecting your vendor, ensure they have reputable and secure hosting technology -- the latest news around ransomware and DDOS attacks are very real, and Finalsite invests constantly in staying ahead of the rapidly evolving landscape.
History and innovation
While emerging school website design companies and education-focused agencies may often offer a competitive price, be sure to dig deep into the tools, the infrastructure and expertise that you need, especially during emergencies, or when you’re looking to connect with other schools who have “been there, done that”, as well as recruiting editors who are already familiar with the same CMS. Selecting a company with deep roots in the industry helps immensely in tangible and intangible ways.
So, how much should a website cost? If you’re still here, it means maybe...hopefully... you understand why “it depends” can be an acceptable answer. With considerations ranging from design scope to software integrations, the answer isn’t straightforward – and it shouldn’t be. After all, there’s only one school like yours — and a custom approach to your project will lead to a custom price.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angelo graduated valedictorian from St. Paul's School in Baltimore, MD and from Princeton University. Despite getting his degree in creative writing and English Literature, it generally takes some doing to keep him from programming and breaking websites. Just after graduating, he started Silverpoint, and grew it to over 300 schools worldwide before merging with Finalsite in 2013.