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How to budget for a large website

What does it take to build a substantial, high-quality website? And how much will you need to spend? 

Adam Griffith

By Adam Griffith, 31 May 202210 minute read

One of the first conversations we have with clients at the outset of a new website project is around budget. Obviously there are a myriad of variables that feed into how much you need to invest in a website, starting with ‘What do you hope to achieve?’

If your answer is ‘a basic cookie-cutter site that provides the bare minimum in terms of functionality, scalability, security and customer-centricity’, then there are off-the-shelf products that will give you what you want for a fairly modest price tag. However, if you’re looking for a digital experience that genuinely answers your customers’ needs, and provides a solid and flexible foundation for years to come – in other words, if you view your website as a strategically valuable and long-lasting asset rather than a one-off project – you’re going to have to dig a little deeper (at least initially). 

The benefit of taking a longer-term view of your website is that you will end up with a platform that evolves with the needs of your organisation – one that continues to deliver a healthy return on investment into the future, avoiding the need for a complete rebuild every few years. Smaller amounts of money, spent consistently, can be a far more cost-effective way to ensure the longevity of your investment than intermittently funding large one-off rebuilds when your website becomes outdated and no longer fit for purpose – not to mention the potential brand damage that can result from a sub-standard customer experience. 

In order to determine your budget and maximise the value of your spend, it helps to know what’s involved in creating a robust, large-scale website. 

Laying the right foundations

Setting your website up for success starts with understanding of seven critical elements, or what we like to call ‘the Seven Pillars’:

  1. Strategy and vision – What is your organisation’s overall strategy?
  2. Customer centricity – What are the needs of your customers?
  3. Data – What data has been collected as evidence to drive change?
  4. Digital integration – Is your organisation executing a coherent set of tactics that respond to the multiple touchpoints from which a customer engages with you?
  5. Content – Is there a scalable process for content production and effective integration of content across the organisation?
  6. Resourcing – Are your organisation’s resources well aligned to deliver its strategy?
  7. Martech stack – Is your existing marketing technology stack adequately delivering on your organisation’s objectives? 

Trying to build a website without a thorough understanding of these elements is like trying to build a house without a plan. You might get away with it if it’s a mudbrick shack you’re after, but anything beyond that is likely to lead you into a world of pain – and cost you more later.

That’s why just about every website project we embark on at Luminary begins with a discovery engagement, or what we call the ‘Explore’ phase. The Explore phase is all about understanding the broader context for what we need to deliver. During this phase, we construct a clear picture of the organisation, its stakeholders, strategic objectives, success metrics, and current state, and create a roadmap for the future. 

This deep discovery process lays the foundations for the build, ensuring everyone is on the same page about what needs to be done, and that what gets set up in the initial build supports the future vision. 

There can be a temptation to bypass the discovery phase and go straight into implementation. This is often driven by budget constraints or pressure from stakeholders. However, insights gleaned from this phase fundamentally underpin the outcome. If there are holes in this part of the process, there’s every likelihood that aspects of the site will have to be rebuilt. An effective discovery process helps improve decision making and prioritise development tasks, reducing the risk of wasted development time by up to 50 percent. Discovery insights can also be useful for overall strategic planning across the organisation. 

Beyond the discovery phase

Once the discovery is complete, the project moves into the ‘Build’ phase. In its simplest form, this phase encompasses design, front- and back-end development, technical and on-site SEO, content delivery, tracking implementation/setting up your data analytics foundations, quality assurance testing and delivery. 

For an effective and impactful website, you will also need a well defined digital strategy, including content, SEO, data and analytics strategy. You’ll need UX design in the form of wireframes that will then be taken by the visual designers who will apply your brand and prepare the designs for development. These designs will then need to be translated to front end code and integrated with your chosen CMS or DXP. Any external integrations then need to be performed and your website infrastructure needs to be set up and configured for maximum security, performance and scalability. And of course, you then need to ensure your site is populated with readable, high-converting content that is in line with your content strategy. 

It is the full package of these services and outputs – and the many specialists required to deliver them – that goes towards creating a digital experience that is unique and sets your site apart from low-cost, templated or ‘out-of-the-box’ websites.

But the journey does not end there. Creating a quality website is not a ‘set and forget’ exercise. It needs to be maintained and nurtured to keep pace with consistently rising consumer expectations. Much like a new home build, you need to ensure that proper care is taken to maintain the value of your investment – in time, you may even decide to extend the site with new features and functionality. 

Ongoing maintenance includes things like bug fixing, hosting, security, upgrades and updates – basically ‘keeping the lights on’. In terms of growth, you may look to implement enhancements such as personalisation, A/B testing, conversion rate optimisation, comprehensive reporting dashboards or ongoing SEO. 

At Luminary, we call this process of maintenance and continuous improvement the ‘Grow’ phase. It requires some ongoing investment, but serves to extend the value of your original outlay and is a far more cost-effective strategy in the long-term than having to raze your website to the ground and start again every few years.

So how should I allocate my budget?

Once you have an idea of the complexity involved in creating a quality large-scale website, the need to allocate a decent budget becomes self-evident. Like anything, you get what you pay for. 

How much you are prepared to spend will obviously be constrained by how much you have to work with, but it’s also impacted by how much you value the result and what you are prepared to compromise on. With that in mind, the following is a rough guide to what you should expect to be spending (as at the time of writing, in 2022).

Explore – For the discovery phase of a large-scale engagement, you should expect to pay anywhere from $50K up to $300K+, depending on how much time is allocated to activities like workshops, stakeholder engagement, customer research, market research, technical analysis, platform audits, prototyping and testing, and so on. 

Build – The delivery phase can range from $250K to $1m+. This phase can have quite a significant range. This is because of the variation in the complexity of websites – from content-only digital experiences to those that incorporate multiple integrations, commerce transactions and interactive tools, which require a lot more custom design and development time. 

Grow – For continuous improvement, you can expect to outlay a minimum of $5-10K per month. However, if you want to have a dedicated cross-functional team to deliver a program of services to ensure continuous value is being added to your digital assets, you can expect to invest significantly more than that. As a rough ballpark, it is recommended that a continuous improvement investment should be around 15-25 percent of the total website investment, per annum.

From a timing perspective, you can expect the Explore phase to run anywhere from two to four months. The Build phase will typically run for four to nine months. And with a consistent approach to the Grow phase, you shouldn’t need to do a full rebuild. These numbers and timings should provide a good guide as to what you need to budget in this and subsequent financial years. 

Building a business case to invest in your website

A website budget should reflect the value of a website to your organisation. If your site is your main avenue to market, then you need to place a high value on it. To get buy-in for your website budget, you need to demonstrate that the site is a value-add, not a cost. Or, put another way, if your website is underperforming, it actually represents a cost to the organisation, measured in lost opportunities.

The initial investment

So how do you convince a C-suite who may not understand the full extent of the value of digital? 

Put the potential ROI in real terms – Flesh out numbers around conversions, traffic, engagement, micro-conversions (e.g. the number of contact form submissions and the percentage that result in sales, people using a store locator, or any other actions showing buyer intent). At Luminary, we develop a measurement strategy for clients who want to achieve this.

Relate it to existing investments – For example, if you have a shop or physical presence, draw parallels with what you have to pay to keep that going - wages, rent, electricity, cleaning, etc. We also help clients build business cases for this.

Understand your audience – if you’re trying to convince the CFO, use a spreadsheet and break down all the metrics. If you’re trying to convince the CMO, highlight customer experience, reach, impact, brand value. And for the CEO, talk about growth or strategy, tying the website’s value to your organisational objectives. Luminary has a scorecard that clients can use to facilitate these conversations.

Making the case for continuous investment 

If your website was a store, the business would continue to merchandise it, update it seasonally, and purchase new stock – so why should it be any different with a website?

A website that is maintained and continually improved over time, is an asset that appreciates in value. One that is neglected and allowed to become outdated and fall into disrepair, becomes a depreciating asset. The bottom line is that the small amount you spend continuously and incrementally ultimately saves you needing to outlay a large lump sum intermittently. It also ensures that your website remains optimised for peak productivity and allows you to stay at the forefront of industry trends and developments. 

In short, continuous improvement is the key to a high-performing website.

The wrap-up

Rather than a steep one-off outlay every few years, a website budget should be viewed as a moderate and continuous investment, an ongoing line item in an organisation’s annual expenditure. Too often when new clients come to us we see a team that is already battle-weary from a rollercoaster cycle of huge financial outlays for websites that quickly become dated and then get thrown out completely, only to start the cycle again. This causes a lot of fatigue and reluctance to start a website build with enthusiasm – it can be difficult to get stakeholders (whose voices need to be heard in the discovery process) involved.

Taking a more measured and long-term view of your digital investment will not only ensure that you have a platform that continues to serve your organisation’s needs, but you’ll also spare your team the fatigue and disenchantment that comes from repeatedly starting from scratch when it’s time for yet another major overhaul.

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