How to Choose a Web Design Agency

That’s IT. You’ve had it with your current website. Everything about it is outdated and the CMS is a constant headache. Your business has big, ambitious goals — and you know that your current website isn’t going to help you meet them. You’re ready to bite the bullet and embark on the journey of a redesign.

Alas, you don’t have the in-house expertise or bandwidth to take on this project internally. But honestly, you wouldn’t want to do it in-house even if you could because you’re desperate for some outside perspective, for someone to take your vision and not only create it, but make it better than you imagined.

You know what that means:
it’s time to find a web design agency.

But where do you begin? Should you just leave it up to the Google powers-that-be and search for “website agencies near me”? Should you hire your cousin’s company because she wouldn’t stop talking about it at Thanksgiving? In any case, you definitely won’t be hiring that agency you worked with at your old job because that was a certifiable shitshow. ‍

In short, you want to find the best fit for your project, you have no idea which agency that might be, and you certainly don’t want to get fleeced in the process. Talk about a one-way ticket to chaos, right?‍

Well, friend, let us be your guide. In this article we’ll not only tell you how to get started (hint: Stop. Googling.), but also how to structure your search and ultimately choose a web design agency that’ll make quick work of exceeding your expectations.

Determine your website budget, goals, and requirements

Sorry to give you homework right off the bat. We know you’d rather be scrolling through pretty design portfolios, but believe us when we say that slacking on this step leads to a world of hurt, for both you and your agency. After all, if you don’t define what you want, you sure as hell aren’t gonna get it.‍

Before you reach out to any agencies, get together with your leadership team, plus any and all other relevant stakeholders. Together, make some key decisions, including:

  • Why do we need a new website? What’s wrong with the current one?
  • Why do we need to undertake this project now?
  • What are the business objectives of this redesign? Desired outcomes?
  • Is there a specific platform we must use? What are our other technical requirements?
  • In addition to the website, do we need other services as well, like a new logo or ongoing marketing services after launch?
  • What’s our budget? (Yes, you really do need to decide this now. Don’t be that client that sits on the discovery call going, “Well, we haven’t really thought about it.”)

Keep in mind that not all of the people on this committee need to be intimately involved in the search. Which is why it’s even more important to get their input now — so your tech guy doesn’t run in the day before launch with a surprise integration requirement.

Write up a short project brief — not an RFP

Hopefully you took good notes in that stakeholder meeting you just had. Because you need that information for this next step.

A lot of clients think the “right” way to go about choosing an agency is through an RFP (request for proposals) process. But in reality, RFPs have fallen out of favor in recent years due to their many shortcomings, which have been enumerated all over the internet, including in publications like Forbes and Inc. In fact, Paper Tiger and most other established, mid-sized agencies we know generally don’t reply to them at all.

We’ve found that a much better approach for both parties is a 2-3 page project brief that outlines all the stuff you defined in Step 1 above. This is a document that you can share with the agencies you decide to reach out to in order to start a substantive conversation. Then let the agencies do the work of putting together their proposals and/or pitches from scratch, in the way that they’ve found best addresses their clients’ needs, and keeps their own teams from heading into a tailspin.

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Start your search within your network

Once you have your brief written, it’s time to find agencies to share it with. Remember how we said Googling isn’t the answer? Feel free to try it, but we dare you to not feel overwhelmed. Especially now, when geographical location is no limitation, it’s hard to narrow down your search in meaningful ways.

That’s why we recommend starting with your network whenever possible. Ask your colleagues, peers, and others in your professional sphere if they have any recommendations of agencies they’ve had good experiences with in the past. That way, you’ll get a first-person take on what it was like to work with those agencies and whether they might be a good fit for your project.‍

Is your network coming up empty? Try a directory site like Clutch. Clutch is an online marketplace that features thousands of creative agencies and other B2B service partners (including Paper Tiger). It includes reviews and ratings from actual clients, and enables you to filter by specialty, budget, and more. In short, it’s much better than Google at helping you narrow your search to a more manageable number of options.

Be up-front about your budget

We’ve said before that you need to determine your budget ahead of time, but this bears repeating with some added nuance. It’s important to both know your budget and share your budget with the agencies you’re considering. So many clients keep this information close to the vest, but all this really does is waste time on both sides. Being up-front about your budget helps you weed out agencies that aren’t a good fit before you get into conversations you can’t afford.

Remember, in this search process, you should not be trying to find the cheapest option. Instead, when you know your budget, you can let the agencies tell you how they can use that budget the most efficiently and effectively to meet your goals. If your budget is too low, agencies will tell you. If it’s on the higher end, they’ll be able to do more for you. ‍

Another note about cost: watch out for the outliers. Once you talk with several agencies, you’ll start seeing some consistency in numbers and scope. But if an agency comes in way lower or higher than the others, that can be a red flag. Cheaper does not mean better, and overpricing can mean you’re in for a gouging. Pricing isn’t the only thing to base your decision on (as we’ll get to next) but staying somewhere near the middle of the pack usually means you're being fairly charged.

Look for connection and enthusiasm

This might sound surprisingly touchy-feely, but a good working relationship often comes down to whether the people like each other and are actually excited about doing the project.

This isn’t something you can learn from an agency’s website or proposal. (Which is one reason RFPs are less effective than actual conversations.) It’s something you feel in your gut and observe over time as the relationship unfolds through conversations and interactions.

Some things to look for during initial conversations:

  • Do you like the people you’re talking with? Are they friendly and respectful?
  • Can you get a sense of the agency’s culture and priorities? Do they match your own?
  • Do they communicate clearly and in a way that will jive with your team?
  • Are they enthusiastic about your project? Do they seem as motivated as you are to get this project going and do their best work?
  • Are they asking questions about your company, your goals, and learning as much as they can to determine if it’s a good fit? Or do you feel like you’re constantly being ‘sold’ to? ‍

All of these questions can give you hints as to what it might be like to actually work with the agency. ‍

BUT — and this is an important distinction — most of the time the people selling you the service (the sales or business development team) are not the same people you’ll actually be working with day-to-day on the project (the project managers, designers, developers, and writers). So if possible, see if you can meet those folks, too. Do you like them? Do they seem to get along with each other? What’s their communication style? This isn’t an absolute must-have, but if you’re trying to decide between a couple finalist agencies, this can help you make a decision.

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Don’t get hung up on ‘industry experience’

Here’s a question we get asked all the time: “Can you show us work you’ve done for other companies like ours?”

This is a fair question, and we get where it’s coming from. You probably think that if we haven’t worked for a bunch of clients in your vertical, we won’t understand your offering, your service, or your pain points, and you’re worried we can’t get you where you’re going. We won’t get the lingo, you’ll have to explain too much to us, and you’ll end up with a website that seems “off,” i.e. that doesn’t fit in with your competition.

Well, first of all, hello! Are you trying to fit in with your competition? You’re welcome to do that but that’s certainly not the best way to stand out to your customers.

In fact, some of the best work happens when a creative team is coming at something with fresh eyes. They’re not bringing assumptions from past projects; they’re bringing ideas that are actually new in your industry.

So by all means, ask to see past work. But instead of basing your search on whether the agency has worked with your competitors, look at their aesthetic, ask about their process, and see if you’re compatible in more important ways.

Narrow it down and make your choice

Ok, so you’ve got your list of agency options, either from referrals or a site like Clutch. You’ve shared your brief with a bunch of them and are having initial conversations. And you’re starting to notice some things — some conversations are electrifying, some seem to go nowhere, and a couple agencies have ghosted you completely. Great, see how your list is already getting shorter?‍

Our recommendation is to keep having conversations like this until you’ve narrowed your list down to two or three finalists. At that point, it’s fair to ask for a proposal or pitch, i.e. something that the agency will have to put a lot of thought, time, and effort into. Asking for these things from a dozen agencies earlier in the process would mean:

  • Each agency would give a less customized pitch because they wouldn’t know enough about your company’s goals and challenges yet;
  • The vetting process might be stalled because you’d spend months waiting for all of those agencies to spend the time to put together their proposals or pitches;
  • You’d have to spend many hours actually reading those proposals or sitting through those presentations — which can leave you even more confused than you were.

So take our advice and narrow it down first. Once you’ve received a couple pitches from your finalists, you’ll know who to hire.

Finally, trust your agency’s process

Phew! You did it! You found a great-fit agency that’s well on its way to fulfilling your wildest website dreams. Awesome! We’re excited for you.

But we also want to share one parting word of advice. You’ve done that hard work to get here; now it’s time to trust the process. If you’ve chosen well, then you’ve hired a team that really knows what they’re doing and how to get killer results for their clients. So get on board and enjoy the ride. Yes, it will require work on your part to provide the inputs and feedback necessary. But your agency has a proven process and track record and is going to put their best foot forward for you — enjoy that feeling.

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