How to run a web project remotely: Briefing and selecting an agency. Matthew Johnson - Head of Marketing by Matthew Johnson, Head of Marketing

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Your website is a key part of your marketing plan and one of your hardest salespeople. Now more than ever your website is crucial. So, if it is not up to scratch you need to do something about it. You may think that this is impossible during the current crisis, but we have run lots of projects for international clients who we have never met in person. With the right process, video conferencing and cloud tools, it is possible to run a web project entirely remotely. 

In the first part of this series, we’ll explore how to find, brief and select an agency, entirely remotely. 

Preparing a brief.

Before you start anything, you should prepare a written brief. This might sound obvious but many people contact us without a brief, or a least without a decent one. It’s worth taking the time to do this as it will make things easier for you later.

 How to write a brief is a separate post in itself, but here are some things I would encourage you to think about: 

  • What are your goals and targets? You have a marketing plan and your website is part of it. How many sales a month do you need? How many do you want to come from the website?
  • What are the current problems? Is it hard to use? Hard to update? both? Is it old? Is it ugly? Does it require lots of manual work? Is it lacking in tracking?
  • What about the content? Often overlooked. Do you know what needs to be kept and migrated, and what needs to be rewritten? 
  • What does success look like? Write some KPIs based on your goals and targets. These should be measurable, so numbers will help.
    For example, How many sales does your website generate? How much do you want this number to grow? How much organic traffic do you get? etc Are there other success criteria like ease of management, or reflecting new branding?

You can do all this from the comfort of your own home.

Finding the right agency.

My tip here would be to pick us. End of blog post. 

Ok, most people would prefer to find a few potential agencies and then carefully evaluate them (very sensible).

How do you find good web design agencies? 

There are hundreds of web designers. With so many web designers, how do you even begin to shortlist? Targeted googling can help, but if you’re fed up with Googling there are other things you can do

  • Look at the sites you like – if you come across a site that you like the look of, ask the owners who did it. Unless you are a direct competitor they probably won’t mind. Many agencies also put their names at the bottom of a website they’ve made.
  • Ask people – word of mouth is the best way to find a reliable agency. Put a call out on LinkedIn for recommendations (you’ll get bombarded by salespeople but ignore them).
  • Look at award sites – award-winning websites are usually good, so the companies behind their design are usually a safe bet. The thing to check is whether they have won an award in an area that is relevant to your success criteria.

How many web design agencies should you contact?

Some people invite hundreds of agencies to pitch and this creates a lot of work for everyone. While it might be tempting to take a shortcut and send the brief to everyone, consider that you’re going to have to read all the responses and many of them will be a waste of time (for both of you). Take a few minutes to evaluate each agency you come across and decide whether they meet the grade. 

We’d recommend sending briefs around five agencies, but certainly no more than ten. 

How do you evaluate them?

How do you narrow down to just five? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How long have they been running? –  you want people that have been running a while. Experience not only means they know how to do the job but also likely they aren’t going anywhere.
  • Have they done similar work?  Many people think you have to have worked in exactly the same sector. This is not true. There is a difference between B2B and B2C, and between an e-commerce focused site and one where the sales process is more complex. If they’ve worked in SASS, they can probably do professional services. Similarly, if they’ve done education, they can probably do public sector websites.
  • Are they specialists? – as a counter to the previous point, some agencies will focus only on specific sectors. If that is your sector, cool, if not then leave them out.
  • Do they know their stuff? – check out their blogs and social posts. Do they sound knowledgeable? Are you learning things from their content?
  • Are they in-house? Some agencies outsource their work to India and Eastern Europe. There is a distinction here between remote workers and outsourcing. While the quality of devs in those regions is generally high, the process of white labeling outsourcing companies generally gives a worse result. 

If you are really unsure, give them a call and try and sound them out. 

So far, you can do all this in your PJs if needed.

Evaluating proposals.

After you’ve sent the brief and waited for an appropriate amount of time (one to two weeks) you should have all the quotes/proposals from your chosen agencies. 

There is no standard format for these. Some will be a few pages and some will be much longer. If your brief is detailed enough all the proposals should have similar content. While we believe that proposals should be well designed and easy to read documents, you can’t judge them solely on the presentation. You need to assess what each is saying. Because each proposal will be different, you should create your own criteria to evaluate against. Here are some suggestions:

  • Understanding  – does it sound like they understand your situation and requirements? Do they understand it so well that they reference their previous work or examples from around the web? Have they distilled your brief down accurately? 
  • Solution – have they addressed your brief with solutions or have they given you a boilerplate response? Does what they say sound like it will solve your problem? Pick an agency that is actually trying to get a result for you and not just for them
  • Process – do they have a thorough process? How well do they explain it? Do they address common challenges like content generation, SEO and user research? Pick an agency that sounds like they follow the same process every time. 
  • Technical insight – is it all sales talk or do they get down into the geeky details?
  • Cost – it can be hard to compare two prices because the rates might be different but also what is being promised might be different. 
  • Beyond the brief – have they addressed the wider issues? An agency that shows an understanding of your business challenges is more likely to produce a solution that works than one that sticks rigidly to the brief.

Don’t just skip to the end and look at the bottom line, take time to read and understand each document so they can be compared properly. 

Evaluating with your team.

There are a couple of ways that you can get input from the working group. One is simply to circulate and then let everyone voice their opinions. This is the most slapdash way, but it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It depends on the size of your team and the size of the project. If there are only a couple of you this is probably fine. If there are more of you, it might be helpful to create a scoring matrix for assessing proposals. It can be hard to score people consistently. If you want to be objective about it you should use get several team members to score independently and then take an average of each score. 

  • Make sure everyone reads each proposal – if they don’t you could end up choosing the wrong agency and that could cost you
  • Get them to comment on things as they read – For this you’ll need the document to be on a collaborative platform like GSuite or Office 365
  • Hold a screen share –  go through each proposal and discuss people’s comments. 
  • Score – Get everyone to independently score each proposal based on the criteria you’ve set, then average the scores
  • Sense check – Check whether people agree with the results of the scoring; don’t blinding follow the scoring if it goes against your instincts. Unless it’s a public tender there is no need to be rigid

Once again, there is no need for any physical contact in this step. 

Presentations.

After you’ve read and evaluated the proposals you probably want to meet with each agency. A presentation is a common next step. We’d recommend distilling the five web design agencies down to three for this stage. Some are happy to meet with all ten agencies and do it all in a single day. This is not fair on your, your team or any of the agencies. Our first tip would be to say that if you are going to meet with more than three agencies then do it over several days.   

However, there is no need to physically meet. We have won many pitches with international clients where we didn’t physically present. It can successfully be done via screen share. In some ways, it can be better, since the presentations are right in front of everyone rather than on a TV screen or projector halfway down a massive boardroom. There are things that are less optimal, like the all-important chemistry. 

How long should agency presentation meetings be?

Having done millions of these, I’d say the optimum amount of time for these meetings is one hour. Some clients have given me fifteen minutes and some have given me three hours! Neither extreme is any good.  An hour is a sweet spot in terms of getting through the content and holding attention spans. If you want them to be less than an hour because you have a lot of agencies to get through, you’re doing something wrong. I’d suggest a split of 20 minutes for a presentation and 40 minutes for questions, however, the proposals were all detailed enough you might just want an entire Q&A session.

  • Prepare – I can always tell when a client has prepared and when they haven’t. Reread the proposal, collate the questions and think about what you want to get out of the session. If you want the agencies to present on a particular set of things, let them know ahead of time.
  • Keep video switched on and introduce everyone. – This is especially important on a video call
  • Include chemistry time – a web project could last several months and you’ll be working with the agency years, so include a period of the meeting for getting to know each other. Tell the agency about your business and ask questions about theirs.  
  • Use a script – don’t wing it, keep yourself on track with a script. 
  • Record the meeting – one advantage of a video call is that it can be recorded and rewatched or shared with people who couldn’t make it.
  • Take notes – even though you might have a recording, you should still take notes both for the Q&A section of the presentation and for points to discuss with your team.

Who should be in the presentation meeting?

Agencies will send business development people but you don’t want to only talk to salespeople, so make sure you ask for a director, project manager, CTO, head of development or similar. It is a good idea to get people that understand the tech and also the process, so you can grill them. As for your panel, it should be the same group of people who evaluated the brief and proposals.  

Evaluating the presentations

I suggest you use a similar scoring system to how you evaluated your proposals. A screen share with the team to compare notes and share thoughts first is probably a good idea. Make sure you record positive and negative feedback for the agencies as they will have spent a considerable amount of time and effort and will be keen to learn how they can improve. 

Next time: Running the web project remotely

I hope you’ve found this useful. In the next post, we’ll look at the things you need to do to kick off and run a web project from start to finish remotely.

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Matthew Johnson - Head of Marketing by Matthew Johnson, Head of Marketing
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