Custom web design, web design templates, open source content management systems, software as a service…how do you choose?

One of the most confusing aspects for a new business building their first website is determining what level of customization is ideal. Prices vary wildly—from free to hundreds of dollars per month. Systems touted as “user-friendly” still have a steep learning curve if you’ve never done anything like it before. Deciding on the merits of various web hosting accounts can be baffling when you have no idea if you will ever need cron jobs or php.ini access or custom style sheets. Determining the value of extra perks such as $100 worth of free Google ads is difficult when you don’t have anything to advertise yet.

The first step in determining how to build your website is to determine your website goals. Whatever your goal—lead generation, ecommerce, fundraising—there are likely to be open source modules designed for your type of business, specialized services that can build websites precisely suited to your needs, and online marketing firms that can not only build your website but also provide strategy and support so that your website is constantly optimized to meet your business goals.

The second step is determining your budgets. And yes, I mean that to be plural. You need to determine not only your financial budget, but your budget in terms of the time you want to devote to your website. Many business owners are more than willing to have someone else design and build their website, but assume that they will be responsible for ongoing copy writing and other updates. What often happens is that the website is never updated, and becomes a public sign of neglect rather than the engine of business growth it is meant to be.

Many business owners never consider their budget past building the website, and figuring in the cost of web hosting and domain registration. But a Software as a Service (SaaS) system, although more expensive per month, may save you hours of headaches and enable you to build a more powerful website than you could do otherwise. Being found via search engines is also not a one time expense: you will want to monitor and tweak your search engine optimization on a regular basis. So you don’t want to only think about the cost of building the website, but the investment you will make in growing your website as a critical part of your marketing strategy.

It’s also important to remember that your website doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What is your social media strategy? Will you be incorporating email marketing? Will direct mail or other offline advertising be driving traffic to your website?

In the next few posts I will be looking more closely at the pros and cons of various web building strategies, including web design templates, open source content management systems, custom content management systems, Software as a Service, and custom web development.