A team of web designers discuss wireframe designs by pinning them to the wall

When people call to ask us about a new website, one of the first things they want to know is: how much will it cost? That's not surprising, of course. People rarely set out to build a website (or anything else) without a budget to meet.

But at the start of the process that's also rarely the right question. A much better thing to ask is: how much should it cost?

Think about it like looking for a new office to rent. (Your website is your online real estate, after all.) Certainly budget is a big consideration when you’re searching for property, but cost is never the first thing you look at; if you run a business in London with 50 employees, a 200 square foot office in Aberdeen isn’t going to work for you no matter how nice it might look as a budget line. There’s no point starting with just a figure.

This sounds obvious, but it’s a point that often gets forgotten when people are considering a new website. Your budget needs to accommodate your requirements, not the other way around. And just as an estate agent or solicitor can advise you on a reasonable budget if you need a 5,000 square foot office in Soho, so too can a web development agency advise on a reasonable budget for an e-commerce site that works perfectly in both English and French.

There are companies out there, of course, who will tell you anyone can have the great website they want for a low monthly fee, but buyer beware: if a landlord promised you a Soho loft for 50% less than you’d seen anywhere else, you’d probably be skeptical. When it comes to your website, you should be that skeptical too! And when you start calling website agencies for quotes, that should also be when you start thinking about costs. If you’ve decided £30k is your ceiling, and ten different web agencies tell you that what you want will cost £40k, all you’ve done is budget yourself into a corner.

By the way, obviously we don’t live in a world where everyone has unlimited money to spend on everything, and sometimes you’ll have a maximum budget to spend on a website because that really is all the money you can spare. But if you’re in that position it’s still better to call us as early as you can in the process; “how much should it cost?” and “what can we get for this budget?” are really two sides of the same coin, and a reputable web agency will be able to tell you the most effective way to spend what you do have to improve your situation the most.

We can also help you identify the core features you need, and to prioritise the rest, so that you have a clear plan to get a better website now for your current budget, and reach your dream website over a period of months or years as more funding becomes available. Here's the office space analogy again: to get the Soho loft for a bargain now, you might have to put up with decor from the 70s; but you can plan on spending more budget in future years to renovate and update the furnishings.

The point is, there's rarely a straightforward answer to how much a website should cost. But if you’re considering paying for a new one, here are a few things to think about.

Not all sites are created equal

The first thing you need to establish clearly is what your website needs to do. If all you’re looking for is a page or two telling the world your phone number and email address, one of those DIY, low monthly fee services might be good enough for you. If your ambitions run beyond a very basic informational site, though, a cheap solution will quickly start to burst at the seams.

It's easy to see why if you look at the other end of the spectrum: Amazon. They sell so many different products and services, to so many different kinds of customers, that they obviously couldn't make do with a Shopify store. But there's a lot of middle ground between those two extremes; it's possible, and very often preferable, to have "a little bit" of custom development.

Do you want to showcase a portfolio of architectural visualisations? Sell tickets to a piece of experiential theatre? Explain your revolutionary new recycling service? Probably you could do all those things adequately with a simple template or a build-your-own-website service — but you could do it brilliantly with custom design and development.

So what you have to ask yourself is what the difference between "adequately" and "brilliantly" will mean to you. How much time and money would you save, for example, by administering your sales through a system built to the precise specifications of your business, instead of having to bend your workflow around an off-the-shelf system (or several)? How many more customers would buy your products if they didn't have to scroll through yet another generic template?

In short, if there’s something you regularly wish your website could do better, it probably can — with some custom development. And if you think that change will bring you significantly more business, isn’t it also worth investing a significant amount upfront to do it?

To thine own self be true

Admit it: if your steak-loving dad was turning seventy and you were picking a restaurant for his birthday dinner, which one of these would you choose? Be honest!

Screenshot from Club A Steakhouse showing a sumptuous interior restaurant scene ands understated graphic elements


Club A Steakhouse

Screenshot from George's Steak Pit showing a dated website layout. The main element is a large quote: Best Steaks in the South


George’s Steak Pit

If you picked the one with the fancy full-bleed image, you're probably in the majority—because most people, consciously or not, are snobs when it comes to this sort of thing. Duelling steakhouses might be a silly example, but academic research consistently shows that the nicer your website looks, the more likely people are to think you're a credible business.

Even as long ago as 2002, when the modern web was still in its infancy and many businesses didn't even have a website, researchers at Stanford surveyed 1,500 web users, across America and Europe, and found that professional website design had a significant positive effect on how people rated a business. That basic finding has also been replicated and expanded many, many times since. Some studies even suggest that these snap judgements about your business are made within the first 0.5 seconds of your first webpage loading.

Of course, these studies aren't perfect. For one thing, they're mostly based on surveying highly experienced web users, who are more likely to notice small design differences. (Your steak-loving 70-year-old dad might well have picked George's Steak Pit.) On the other hand, if you're going to the trouble of building a website, why would you want to alienate the people who use the web the most?

Especially if you're offering a product or service that's more likely to appeal to discerning customers, there's a clear benefit to spending more on design and development. Your 30% growth target might quickly become 130%, if the extra investment means you're connecting with more of the right people.

The eye of the beholder

The last thing you should bear in mind is that a website's cost isn't the same kind of business expense as a phone contract or office furniture or another ream of paper for the copier. To return to the example above, your website is your digital real estate, and just like bricks-and-mortar real estate its value can vary widely thanks to factors that are both totally beyond your control and totally irrational. An otherwise identical office might cost more in a different town, a different neighbourhood, or even a few streets over.

This can be a frustrating thing to accept when you're short on cash and can’t get a toehold in your dream location, but that doesn't make it any less true: sometimes, to get what you want, you have to spend more than you want. Arguably, even hugely successful companies like Apple are losing unnecessary money paying for premium real estate in Silicon Valley — or, for that matter, by paying for those sophisticated product launch websites, where new phones zoom and twirl and explode as you scroll down the page. But Apple reaps more intangible benefits from these things, and that's what makes them put up with the indignities of Silicon Valley property prices and cutting edge web development: cachet, for them, is the price of admission to the big tech elite, and as such it's just another cost of doing business.

All of which to say, how much you should spend on your website will often come down in part to those same intangibles. But like the Amazon example above, there's a lot of middle ground between Apple and the smallest local businesses. You may not need a Silicon Valley headquarters, but in a growing number of industries a website that's more thoughtful than just another template — a website that’s carefully planned and professionally executed — is becoming as much a price of admission as it is for Apple.

So the last but maybe most important thing you need to decide before you start asking for quotes is this: how much is a new website worth to you?

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