Monkey Do

This is a black-and-white look at a situation in which there’s plenty of grey, but I think it’s clear there’s a price gap in web development services for small businesses.

For a long time, if you wanted a site for your business, you had no choice but to turn to a professional. A talented freelancer could set you up with a bespoke 3-page site, and you could probably get away with paying around $1000, which isn’t chump change, but it’s a reasonable amount of money for a business to invest in a valuable marketing tool.

The cost of being on the web has decreased dramatically over the past few years. The rising popularity of site-creation services such as Shopify, Virb, and Squarespace (not to mention Tumblr, Blogger, and Wordpress), means anyone can — for free or relatively cheap — create a web presence in minutes. Additionally, the prices of storage and servers and cloud services have dropped tremendously; a site that may have cost thousands of dollars a month to host in 2007 can find the same services for a fraction of the cost today.

At the same time, communicating on the web has never been easier, and the effectiveness has never been higher. Any local business can set up a Facebook page or open a Twitter account and start building quantifiable relationships with real customers. Promotions, customer support — any message a business wants to send can be delivered straight to customers, using the same channels that they’re already using to communicate with friends and family.

So the question is: where’s the value in a $1000 web site?

I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I have to pull out a classic b-school trope: ROI.

If the proposition of a small business’ web site is to simply be on the web, there are services that cost much less than $1000, and are cheaper over the long run, since bandwidth and hosting costs are typically built into the price.

If the purpose is to communicate via the web, existing platforms like Facebook and Twitter are likely where customers are already engaged, and why pay good money to (unsuccessfully, probably) reinvent the wheel?

(In any reputable magazine there’d be a sidebar here describing how these free services cost money in other ways, such as the man-hours required to make them successful, but I’m sure you’ve already figured that out.)

But if the purpose is to do business on the web, neither of these paths are sufficient.

The talented freelancer working for $1000 isn’t going have the time to fully analyze your business requirements, not to mention provide the tools to make that business happen. And unless your business is selling something simple, like t-shirts, the service-based solutions won’t be nearly flexible or customizable enough to allow you to provide your customers the tools they’ll need to really get engaged.

For example, a piano teacher will probably see more return on the time invested in relationships created and maintained on Facebook than they would by commissioning a $1000 3-page web site with a bio and contact info.

That 3-page web site is still worth having, but only at the much lower prices offered by a site-creation service.

On the flip side, the piano teacher could invest in a site that provides the tools that actually manage client relationships — new student sign up, scheduling, homework tracking, direct lesson sales, etc etc.

Anyone looking to take advantage of the web should be thinking bigger than the $1000 site. ROI ain’t just a river in Egypt.

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