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Thread: What is the state of web design biz going forward?

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    Web Consultant Array Harold Mansfield's Avatar
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    Default What is the state of web design biz going forward?

    Hate to be so serious, but with so many web designers on the forum I wanted to hear some other perspectives.

    I've been contemplating this for well over 2 years now. If you've followed any other threads that I've commented on, I frequently tell people that getting into business doing JUST web design is a losing battle these days.

    With so many DIY options now, the average boot strapping small business who once saw hiring a web designer as a necessity now seem to be perfectly happy throwing up a Wix, Go Daddy Site Builder, or Squarespace site and never looking back till years later if/when their endeavor takes off and they need something a little more custom.

    I personally think this is backwards thinking, especially if your entire business is web based, however, I can't deny that some of the DIY solutions are good enough for many people who just want a presence up and don't expect much from it ( even though everyone has delusions that their website will be insanely popular for some reason).

    I kind of saw this coming a few years back when Squarespace started, and then Intuit, Web.com, Wix, and Go Daddy started getting into the game offering introductory offers that were insanely cheap. They aren't selling awesome websites, they're selling "good enough" and it's eaten into a market that we used to control alone. I knew then that not enough people understood anything more than putting some pictures and words together, and that these services would kill us with the average user who knows nothing...which is most of them.

    I also knew that trying to educate the average person was a losing battle. They don't care. If it looks pretty and is online they consider that a major accomplishment because they didn't understand how to do even that before. When you try and explain simple marketing, all most hear is "blah, blah, blah...blah-blah, blah, blah". I get it. It's boring. You have to WANT to know it or care.

    Over the past 2 years I've pivoted to offering more marketing type services and repairs, which are now 90% of my business (thank God for crap hosting and bad webmasters). But how much longer will that last? I've done well specializing in WordPress since so many people use it, and are loyal to it, but even that's getting a little weaker now that WordPress is almost bug free.

    Most of my work today are hack repairs/recovery, updates, redesigns, and customization. If you had told me 5 years ago that I'd be cleaning up and recovering hacked websites I would have NEVER believed it. I was in no way interested in doing that at the time.

    I do still get the older business who now wants something more custom and robust, but I rarely get the small business, new website start up anymore. 7 years ago THAT was 90% of my business.

    The amount of people that now call me who are doing it themselves and just want a few hours technical support has grown. It used to be non existent, now it's most of my design related calls. And of course there's always going to be the "Just take care of it and send an invoice" customer. My favorite .

    The big gold rush of getting sites online is over.
    The big push to mobile ready is kind of over.
    The big SEO rush is kind of over since Google has matured, and that is combined with small businesses are seemingly less and less interested in doing more than the basics.
    More people are interested in doing well on Social Media than they are in the SERP's.

    The amount of small business owners who care about design is shrinking. Mainly since most figure they've "done it once" and either got burned, didn't realize things would change so fast, or since it wasn't wildly successful that it's not worth it anymore. That good enough is good enough. Consequently the amount of crap DIY or old websites is growing, and it doesn't seem to be as urgent as it used to be for many people.

    So what's the answer for a small web design firm? Even if you pivot to a more advanced market, with more complicated, higher dollar sites, I gotta say things are a lot less maintenance than they used to be, and larger firms that need continuing support are hiring in house with all of the old freelance web designers now looking for jobs.

    That's not to say the business is dead. There's always going to be a need, it's just smaller now, cheaper now, and more people than ever in the market.

    How does a small design or support shop compete with a corporate call center who pays people $12 to answer phones and fix basic issues? Or overseas freelancers that have now gotten the hang of this market and work for cheap? The answer? You can't.

    Keeping loyal long term customers is more important than ever, but you also have to offer them more. Be their go to person for everything web and marketing. I see it as the only way.

    I've also started learning new skills so that I can develop my own products. Just seems like the natural progression.

    So what do you guys think? If you've been in this for a few years, you had to have noticed the change in the market.
    Where do you think it will go? Do you have plans to evolve, change, or get out completely?
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    Mini Jordan Belfort Array Owen's Avatar
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    As you stated, you're right. Solely going into web design is a miss. ESPECIALLY if you only do front end. However, if you learn how to use MySQL and PHP, that opens the door. If you can create a fancy word for what you're doing, especially if you manage websites, that will help you too. Create a term like "Digital asset management".

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    Quote Originally Posted by Owen View Post
    "Digital asset management".
    Dibs.

    Sounds like industry growing pains. The big players figured out where good money was being made, came out with the "good 'nough" package (which as you pointed out satisfies the majority of the market), they took away market share from the independents who previously dominated, and threw their name brand in the mix.

    As I see it, and remember that I'm not a web guy (though I have thought about it), the only way to compete will be to become a full service online company. From design to maintenance to marketing to online strategies you will need to be able to do it all.
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    The biggest problem I always saw with web design is this: you're not mission critical. You can protest that you're important and can make or break a site, but that's only if you're comparing good design to a site designed with FrontPage. If you compare good design to a typical $50 template, you're just nibbling around the edges.

    So how do you justify making the big bucks doing web design? I just don't see it. I also don't see it with Wordpress or Drupal. If you go with Magento or one of the bigger e-commerce platforms (NOT a recommendation, just an example), you can make the case that you're doing something the customer will value, since the platform will run the customer's growing business. If you expand your business so that you're providing full service marketing and communications, that's an option as well, because now you're taking over the function of driving customers to the business, so that will seem important to your client.

    If you want to be valued, do something of value. What businesses value is improvements to their top or bottom lines. That means more happy customers or fewer expenses. If your customers don't see that you're meaningfully affecting the finances of their companies, then you're not going to keep their business for long.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Freelancier View Post
    The biggest problem I always saw with web design is this: you're not mission critical. You can protest that you're important and can make or break a site, but that's only if you're comparing good design to a site designed with FrontPage. If you compare good design to a typical $50 template, you're just nibbling around the edges.

    So how do you justify making the big bucks doing web design? I just don't see it. I also don't see it with Wordpress or Drupal. If you go with Magento or one of the bigger e-commerce platforms (NOT a recommendation, just an example), you can make the case that you're doing something the customer will value, since the platform will run the customer's growing business. If you expand your business so that you're providing full service marketing and communications, that's an option as well, because now you're taking over the function of driving customers to the business, so that will seem important to your client.

    If you want to be valued, do something of value. What businesses value is improvements to their top or bottom lines. That means more happy customers or fewer expenses. If your customers don't see that you're meaningfully affecting the finances of their companies, then you're not going to keep their business for long.
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    We bought our first one mid-2012 and the second one in Jan 2014, so... wasn't us.
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    Web Consultant Array Harold Mansfield's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Freelancier View Post
    The biggest problem I always saw with web design is this: you're not mission critical. You can protest that you're important and can make or break a site, but that's only if you're comparing good design to a site designed with FrontPage. If you compare good design to a typical $50 template, you're just nibbling around the edges.
    Web Design isn't just about pictures and colors. It's part of your overall marketing. A good website designer will get to know your company and it's message and convey that effortlessly to your target market. Making it look easy is hard work. Problem is, most small business owners have no message and no knowledge of sales. It's just put it up and let's see if it floats. So then you have to teach them basic marketing just to get to the point of actually knowing what to say and how to say it on the website.

    I learned a long time ago to stop wasting time trying to teach people marketing so that I can sell them a website, and to focus on people who are looking for what I have to offer.

    My grandfather couldn't tell 2 pairs of jeans apart. You could put a pair of Levis and a pair of Girbaud's in front of him, and to him they were the exact same thing. Maybe he did see the difference in the design, fit, stitching, color and so on. But he refused to admit it. Refused to admit that there was anything different about them, and thought that everyone should also think of them as the exact same and be happy with either, regardless of what they actually wanted, and that they should be the same price. No difference. Jeans.

    It wasn't important to him, so he decided that it shouldn't be important to anyone else.

    Some people are just like that. Those people are not marketers and should not be in charge of messaging or selling anything to anyone. Ever.

    Quote Originally Posted by Freelancier View Post
    So how do you justify making the big bucks doing web design? I just don't see it. I also don't see it with Wordpress or Drupal. If you go with Magento or one of the bigger e-commerce platforms (NOT a recommendation, just an example), you can make the case that you're doing something the customer will value, since the platform will run the customer's growing business. If you expand your business so that you're providing full service marketing and communications, that's an option as well, because now you're taking over the function of driving customers to the business, so that will seem important to your client.
    I agree. Unfortunately the market for those services is not your average small business and that's why service providers leave the market. Yes, they do need more services. They do need marketing and sales help. But trying to bring them back down to Earth now that Go Daddy and Web.com have spent the last 3+ years telling them that it's easy and only costs $19 a mo. ( after a $1 start up fee), is a losing battle.

    Quote Originally Posted by Freelancier View Post
    If you want to be valued, do something of value. What businesses value is improvements to their top or bottom lines. That means more happy customers or fewer expenses. If your customers don't see that you're meaningfully affecting the finances of their companies, then you're not going to keep their business for long.
    Of course, that's true of every company or service. Totally agree.
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    Problem is, most small business owners have no message and no knowledge of sales.
    I'd also include a boatload of web designers that I've come across... they have no idea how to engage a client on improving their marketing, no real understanding of messaging. They're convinced! that the customer needs a web site, but have absolutely no idea what the customer should say on that web site, which means they're essentially making themselves worthless to the customer.

    As you say: a good web site is not about pictures and color. Unfortunately, the average web designer loves their pictures and color and struggles with conveying a client's message. It's easy to put together a site or a template, but when you're left with nothing to replace "lorem ipsum", the designer has screwed the customer.

    (yeah, a bit of a "hot button" topic for me)
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    Web Consultant Array Harold Mansfield's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Freelancier View Post
    I'd also include a boatload of web designers that I've come across... they have no idea how to engage a client on improving their marketing, no real understanding of messaging. They're convinced! that the customer needs a web site, but have absolutely no idea what the customer should say on that web site, which means they're essentially making themselves worthless to the customer.

    As you say: a good web site is not about pictures and color. Unfortunately, the average web designer loves their pictures and color and struggles with conveying a client's message. It's easy to put together a site or a template, but when you're left with nothing to replace "lorem ipsum", the designer has screwed the customer.

    (yeah, a bit of a "hot button" topic for me)
    I totally agree with you. And yes there are a lot of perpetrators in the business. I liken it to when everyone quit their jobs to become a day trader because that was the hot new, make easy money trend.

    And yep a lot of people just build something pretty. They treat the design as if it's outside of the message and not the message itself. Totally true.

    I didn't get it at first, and when I started not many other people did either. The web was still reasonably new and people were still just getting on it. So pretty, flashy, and colors were the standard. Just having a website was considered cutting edge. And it wasn't that long ago kids .

    But once the thrill passed, and the dot com bubble burst, people started realizing that this is still marketing, things changed. I was lucky enough to be in it as it was changing and basically learned because I was in the room all of the time sucking up information from every magazine, blog, and podcast I could get my hands on. I stopped listening to designers and started listening to marketers.

    Now I can't even look at the menu at a fast food joint without picking out all of the ways they screwed it up, could make it simpler, feature specials much better, and make it easier to order thereby getting people through the line faster, cutting down frustration (and employees spending time answering questions that should be CLEAR on the menu), and increasing sales. I could tell the menu sign was made by a graphic artist who wasn't consulted or read in about process, sales, or marketing at all. Just make something pretty and bright. And they did.

    But since that company will also spend $500 million on TV and media ads this year, they can over come that with sheer numbers of people to their 1700 locations.

    A lot of small business owners see that and think that they can replicate it without any of the resources to back it up. If a Mom and Pop made the same mistakes on their drive through menu, it would hurt the bottom line. And they'd never understand why because they were emulating "the big boys" who (in their minds) are doing the same thing.

    Now try and build a website for those people that's going to actually work. You can't. All you can do is put together what they tell you they want because they don't want to hear that their messaging and customer service is flawed because they didn't call you and aren't paying you to hear any of that.

    And that's the catch 22.

    When you hire any kind of marketer, whether it be SEO, web design, copywriting and so on. If that marketer is not allowed to touch anything, change anything, or effect the messaging in any way, you're wasting your time and money and should just use a site builder.
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    My answer to the question of the subject line is that I stopped taking on new clients in 2015 and I've pretty much closed my design business in 2016. In the summer of 2014 I wrote a post about how I saw the market for freelance designers shrinking and then I started 2015 with a longer series about the topic. In part it's because of sites like Square Space and Wix and whatever others are out there, but it's not only that.

    I've seen since the beginning of my business that small business owners don't really value design. Most people think design means making something pretty. That can be one aspect of design, but it's hardly the only part. The most important part of any website is the content. That's why people visit a site. The content could be articles. It could be products for sale. It could be video or audio or whatever. Design helps insure people find the content they're looking for and enjoy the experience. It's about making websites usable. It's about designing and developing them in a way that helps search engines index the site's pages and understand the content so those pages can be ranked.

    I don't think most small business owners really get that. I think too many assume that everything other than the "pretty" part just happen and so they see little value in design work.

    Quote Originally Posted by Freelancier
    So how do you justify making the big bucks doing web design?
    I'm not sure what you consider big bucks. Is a few hundred bug bucks? A few thousand? I can only tell you that what clients were willing to pay was far less than I needed to make a living. I wasn't charging people tens of thousands of dollars to design and develop a site. Probably a few thousand for a brand new site and usually a few hundred for changes and fixes. Those prices were based on my costs, which were mainly my time and effort both in the work and in all the hours I put in to learn how to do the work. My clients felt like they could email or call whenever they wanted, ask me questions, and expect I would then spend my time offering advice, all for free.

    Over the last few years I notice several clients leaving me, hiring what I assume were cheaper designers/developers and then contacting me to fix the problems their new hire created. It certainly wan't everyone, but it was more than one person.

    I've noticed since early on that most clients were only interested in the price. I'd have people email me telling me that they didn't need the site to look good so it shouldn't cost much or my favorite that work would be easy so it shouldn't cost much. My reply to the latter was always if it's so easy they should do the work themselves.

    My business was a small business so I get the prices are important and that even if you wanted to spend more, sometimes you can't. However, as a business owner I realized I couldn't make a living offering my services at the prices my clients wanted to pay.

    I think the future is going to see the disappearance of most freelance designer/developers. I think small and micro business will for for options like Squarespace to start and as they grow they'll realize they need more than the DIY companies offer. At that point they'll have more money and look beyond freelancers to agencies. I think larger companies will bring design in house. I think people like myself and Harold will get squeezed out. We'll either need to join up with others to build a larger company or learn how to maintain the DIY sites.

    Neither is anything I want to do so I've left the industry to pursue other things. As it happens I was enjoying writing articles for my site more than I enjoyed client work and after writing a couple of books, I've decided my future is as an independent publisher. I enjoy it more. I realized more people had been asking me to write for them than getting in touch to have me work on their sites.I also think web design is becoming more of a developer thing than a design thing and my enjoyment comes more from the design side.
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