How Should You Source Your Upcoming Web Site Enhancement?

Custom developed, or pre-existing software solutions?For almost everyone, the demands being placed on your web site to reduce costs and generate more revenue compound each year.  For many of you, that means adding some major functionality to your site.  That could be adding an online store to take orders, adding the ability for your customers to view statements online instead of mailing them to them, creating a system to allow subcontractors to login and record their time, implementing a Content Management System, etc.

In nearly all of these projects, one of the first decisions to be made is whether to utilize existing software designed to solve your problem, or to hire a developer to custom-build your solution for you.  A custom-built solution should get you exactly what you need, but it might be more expensive (but not necessarily—see below).  Off-the-shelf solutions might be inexpensive (and with Open License solutions for just about every need, often free) and probably include a wide range of functionality.  However, they will be harder to learn to use, can include a lot of overhead, and can be expensive to implement correctly.

There are certainly pros and cons to both routes, and what’s best probably depends on several things about your organization’s situation.  Let’s examine a few different factors.

I always like to start with an easy one.  But is this?  On the surface, it would seem like pre-packaged software will be much cheaper than hiring someone to custom build something.  Especially when many of those pre-packaged systems are free under Open Source License.  However, unless you have an IT team sitting around idle, you’re going to have to pay someone to take that shopping cart system and develop a skin or theme to match the site you are adding it to.  Somebody is going to have to load all of the product data for it into its specific format and tie attributes to each one.  You might even have to edit all of your photos to conform to preset photo specifications.

If you are a large organization with its own IT team to handle such projects, it will likely be much less expensive to implement a pre-existing solution.  But if you don’t have at least a full-time salaried webmaster on staff, at Web Site Optimizers we have found that it is typically just as expensive to take an Open Source solution and make it do exactly what the customer wants, as it is to build them exactly what they want from scratch.

Fit With Your Needs
With this solution you’re looking for, you’re trying to solve a specific problems.  But you have a range of marketing objectives, and your solution should align as closely as possible to all of them.  If you are simply trying to reduce costs by getting more customers to sign up for online statement viewing, how well will your solution contribute to other components of your Marketing Plan?  Will it allow custom messages to customers as they are viewing?  Will it provide all of the metrics you want?  Will it allow them to easily cross over and conduct more business with you electronically?  Questions such as these are factors on which you must evaluate pre-existing solutions, but can be written directly into the requirements for a custom system.

Range of Functionality vs. Ease of Use
Most off-the-shelf systems certainly have a wide range of functions.  They have to, because to appeal to a large audience, they must try to meet a lot of different needs.  However, with more capabilities comes the requirement for more knowledge on how to use them.  That generally translates to being a more difficult to use system.  Open Source CMS systems such as Joomla and Drupal have a fabulous range of things they can do for you.  However, even after a couple days of training and documentation on their desks, many site owners still find them intimidating, and often use only a small percentage of the components they’d like to use.  Many feel like they’ve purchased a combination car-plane-boat-train (with the accompanying cockpit to handle all those functions) when all they are really trying to do is drive around town.

If your new project is large and wide-ranging, such as a new CMS tool for a site with hundreds of pages, many of which change often, then a pre-existing solution will probably work out better for you.  Or again, if you have a dedicated full-time webmaster or web team, then a pre-existing solution will also probably be a good choice for you.  But if your need is specific (even if your web site is quite large), a solution that is custom developed to meet exactly that need will be the most powerful for you.

Customization & Enhancements
No matter how well you plan your new project, no matter how much attention you pay to details and future needs, there will come a time (soon) when you want to enhance the system or at least do something “out of the box” that seems rather small to you.  It could be to offer a very unique promotion such as “buy one red shirt and one white shirt and get a blue pair of pants for half price.”  Or maybe it is to pass data back and forth with your inventory system.  Or perhaps it is to automatically send a Tweet each time you add something to your What’s New page.  How well will your solution be prepared to handle changes like this?  For that matter, how much flexibility do you have as to how a product page or how an article page looks?

For a custom-built solution, you of course have full control over how a page looks, because it will be designed around your requirements.  And if you want to change that at a later date, or want to add an enhancement like the examples above, the incremental cost should be inexpensive if you’re still dealing with the development firm you hired to build the solution in the first place.  With pre-existing software, you may or may not have the ability to perform the enhancements you want, but if so, most of the time it won’t be handled in quite the same way you’re hoping for.  More likely, you’ll have to go to the maker of the product and ask for an enhancement (which will be expensive), or if you’re dealing with Open Source solutions, you’ll have to look for a plug-in.

Plug-ins can add to the technical complexity of your system exponentially, and you have to trust that you picked a good one.  Again, the key here is specificity.  The more specific a plug-in is to your exact need, and the more specific the parent system is to your exact needs, the better.  If you’re starting a site and thinking of using WordPress to create and manage it, don’t hope to later turn it into an online store with a plug-in.

The support options are very different for the two different methods.  With a custom-built solution, your support should be pretty good as you’ll have direct access to the builders themselves.  With a pre-existing commercial system, support might be outsourced to a call-center, or you’ll have to rely on other users.  For Open Source solutions, your support options will be to hire an expert in that piece of software, or rely on online user groups.

Creating a new application for your site is a daunting challenge.  Be sure to evaluate your situation to determine if an off-the-shelf solution will meet your needs best.  Often, it is better and less expensive to hire a reputable developer to build you just what you need.

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