It’s a ‘chicken-and-the-egg’ kind of scenario. What should come first, your agency or your platform choice?
We spoke with MD Jonathan Healey, who provided words of wisdom on how organisations can go about selecting their agency and platform. Considering technology research, influencing factors and why you should look for an agency that challenges your assumptions, take a read to find out which should come first.
From your experience, do clients usually make a decision on the agency or the technology first?
It's a bit of a mixed bag and I wouldn't say that there's a trend to it. Sometimes we've got more clients who come to us having already selected the technology. Sometimes clients come to us without the technology in mind.
It also depends on what the client is trying to achieve and where they're at currently with their digital estate. It's not uncommon for a client to have an existing implementation on a platform we work with and they want to retain that. In this case, the technology decision has been made up front.
We're normally quite sensitive to a situation where there’s no room for manoeuvre on the platform choice. If we feel the platform choice is perhaps wrong or misguided, we will certainly challenge it.
For those that haven't made a specific platform choice yet, finding an agency who can support them must be quite overwhelming…
Selecting an agency can be an overwhelming decision. Trying to make a decision which you are potentially going to pin the future of your business on without knowing much about the landscape is a frightening decision to make.
There are agencies out there who will push their solution or focus on selling themselves rather than selling a solution that fits the business requirements. It's like the old saying, ‘when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’.
The other thing that's difficult is that sometimes we don't know what the business requirements are until we're properly engaged with each other and quite a long way down the road. If you're in that scenario, you need to be certain that if the agency you're speaking to is promoting a single solution, you're confident that the solution can cover a lot of possibilities.
This might be one of the reasons why selecting a DXP over a headless CMS is often a safe choice for clients. If you select a headless CMS, you know you've got a CMS that does certain things. But anything else you want to do with your digital estate, you're going to need to find another product. Whereas, with a DXP solution, like Umbraco, Kentico Experience or Drupal, it can most likely cope with what you throw at it.
It also comes down to whether the agency has solved similar problems to the ones that you think you're going to come up against within your organisation. Often clients will insist on sector expertise, which is sensible, but I would look broader than this. Even if they have that sector experience, they may not have solved the exact challenges that you have. Some of what makes an agency good is their ability to adapt to the scenario.
An agency generally goes down one of two routes, they either heavily specialise in a niche sector, or they're very good generalists. By and large, for most businesses, a good generalist agency will be able to cover off most of the requirements.
Are there any downsides to a business deciding exactly what technology they want before engaging with an agency?
It all comes down to what level of research they've done and what advice they're taking. I think when a potential client says to us, “We want to use this platform”, the very first question we ask is, “Why? What makes you think that that is the right solution for you?”.
Sometimes what we'll find is that a client is very well informed. Perhaps they've used the product before, they like it, and they know it can fit their scenario. I think that's a good case for a client putting forward a platform they want to use.
But sometimes what we've seen is that there's a consultant in the mix who is driving a particular technology agenda. At times, we've completely disagreed with the selection in those scenarios. This can be a big challenge if the client isn't open to a change of approach.
One of the things we notice with being more platform agnostic than some agencies, is that making a choice can be like buying a car. There's a certain amount of brand loyalty that can exists and people want to stick with what they know because they're comfortable with it. There's an existing relationship and it's convenient.
But what if that situation changes and a better solution could suit? Sometimes we see businesses who are ultra-loyal to a particular technology or platform when perhaps they shouldn't be. Have they questioned if it is genuinely the best thing for the business or are they just going with it because they don't know any different?
What would influence choosing the right provider of those technologies?
In terms of the actual management of text and images on a page, there really isn't a poor CMS on the market these days. If all you're ever going to need to do is manage text and images, pretty much any CMS will do. You're probably going to pick one that's really cheap or has no licence cost attached to it.
But once you start to go beyond these needs, that’s where interesting conversations start. For example, do you plan to transact on the site now or in the future? What type of transaction are we talking about? Are we talking physical products or are you selling more ephemeral things? Audience also comes into it - are you selling B2B, B2C or both? What's the purpose of your site? Is it purely informational? Is it a lead generation site? If it's a lead generation site, what volume of leads? Does it need to integrate with a CRM? What are your integration requirements? Does it need to pull product information from a third-party location?
And then there is your budget to consider. If you want a product that is going to be well supported, that has a very clear road map, and that has a large agency ecosystem, there is a cost associated. But are you wanting to spend £2,000 a year, £5,000 a year, £10,000 a year or £50,000 a year? All of those are possibilities with major credible vendors, dependent upon what you require, what level of support you need and what your business is trying to achieve.
What is your recommendation for businesses who haven’t made a decision on technology yet?
The best-case scenario is if the client is completely open to a recommendation and allows us to make that recommendation based on their very clear business objectives and requirements.
Businesses will often choose something because they've heard of it. The classic example of this is WordPress. Every marketer has heard of WordPress. If you want to throw up static content very quickly yourself, WordPress is almost certainly the way to go. But if a platform comes across the table that they haven't heard of, there is an immediate scepticism towards it.
It's well worth exploring what industry analysts are saying about it. Have a look at sites like G2, Gartner and Forrester to get a better understanding. Quite often there are really good platforms out there that people haven't necessarily heard of because they don't work in the industry like we do. Equally, just because you've heard of a platform doesn't necessarily mean it's the right option for you. It could just mean they've done a better job at promoting it.
For us, an ideal scenario is to be able to work alongside the client through a discovery phase - whether that’s purely to decide the CMS or a wider discovery phase to work out what the right approach is. We’ve recently done that with an organisation where we ran a series of workshops over three days to determine a CMS requirement and it actually became very clear very quickly what the right choice was. We were able to present back to them a very reasoned approach, giving them two alternatives that we knew could do the job, but then make a recommendation on one of those as the better option.
To be able to present a business with a list of pros and cons so that the client is going into it with eyes wide open is really important. During this process, we look at what are the business objectives for the next three to five years. Where is the business going? How is the business changing? We look at their current state of technologies, their future aspirations and how we can meet those future aspirations from a website point of view. Ultimately, how do we select a product that meets both the now and the future?
There are wider things to consider too like the culture within the organisation. For some organisations, they'll have a natural affinity to a more commercial product whereas others will have a natural affinity to an open-source product.
As you start to look at these requirements, the technology choice could change. We’ve had scenarios where we've been fairly certain about a particular technology choice and all the discovery phase has done is further validate it. But at least then we know - at least we're not going into it making assumptions.
This is one of the great risks of going with an agency that doesn't have a degree of flexibility in terms of platform. If the business needs change when you're halfway through your design process, what do you do when you’re now locked into a particular platform choice because that's all the agency offers?
You've mentioned consultants, internal stakeholders and agencies, who else influences technology decisions?
Sometimes we find internal IT teams are stakeholders in that decision too. By and large, we would very much welcome the engagement of internal teams as what can affect technology choice is the systems that are already in place.
For example, if there are existing integrations into a CRM, that can sometimes lead a conversation down a certain path. Either to a perception - real or perceived - that a particular technology will work better with it because it has an existing integration. Speaking from experience, that's often a fallacy.
I would advise that just because a certain platform says that it has an integration with another product, it doesn't necessarily mean that it’s the better choice for a project. That's something for clients to be aware of and to look out for from vendors.
I’d say it’s also important to have some understanding of what the capabilities are within your own marketing team. There is a limitation of what a marketing team can do from a technical, time and knowledge perspective. All three of those things can potentially be overcome but they're overcome in very different ways.
Often, we come across scenarios where clients want to be able to do everything themselves, but it must be easy and not take any time – usually these things are conflicting. Some CMSs are easier to use than others in certain scenarios and what we tend to find is if you want huge power of flexibility, simplicity is removed from the equation. How much power do you want and how much simplicity do you want? It’s important to evaluate what your website priorities are.
It sounds like the best approach if you don't know what technology is to choose an agency first but look at the flexibility of the agency, their experience and find a partner you trust to take you through that discovery process…
Completely. Another factor to try and find out is if anything is incentivising the agency to recommend a particular technology. Understand if there are any kickbacks involved from the vendor or commission plans in place? Is there a partner status at stake?
Quite often customers ask questions along the lines of ‘does it carry out a particular function?’ which is usually not the right question to ask because the answer is usually going to be ‘yes, we can make it do that’ almost regardless of what the function is.
Instead, questions for your agency should include ‘what technologies do you work with?’ ‘Why do you work with them?’ ‘Why are you recommending that to us?’ ‘Why are you recommending that instead of this?’.
A positive thing to look for in an agency is one that's asking questions and challenging your assumptions. If you're simply looking for a supplier, which many businesses are, then that's absolutely fine. But NetConstruct is not the right agency. If you're looking for a partner who's going to engage with you and work collaboratively with you on something, we're the right choice.
No matter where you’re at in your web project, your platform and the agency you use are the top two factors for success. With over 20 years of experience specialising in the creation of web solutions, we take a consultative approach to helping our clients understand which platform is the best for them.
If you’d like to find out more about our approach or speak with one of our experts about the route that could be best for you, don’t hesitate to get in touch.