Six essential steps to hire a web agency

When you find the right web agency, a really stressful project becomes a joy. Hire the wrong designers and developers and it turns into a living nightmare.

I have worked in digital agencies and also hired them as a client. Here are the basic steps I believe you need to take to find your perfect match. It's worked for me, so it can work for you.

I'm currently interviewing charities and web agencies on how the process of selecting a new web partner can be improved. If you would like to add your thoughts into my research I'd love to talk to you. The results and tools created will be free for all to use.

step one

Your new website basic requirements

  • Before you start the process, it's critical you know what your organisation wants/expects from the new website. What are the digital objectives that will help you deliver your business plan or organisational vision?  What does success look like?
  • Create a group of key stakeholders within your organisation and talk to them about their expectations. Then keep talking to the group throughout the whole process. Internal communication is key for a successful web build.
  • It's also critical you know what your supporters, customers or fans want from your website. What are their goals and how are you going to help them?
  • What is a realistic budget for the build (inc. annual management fees after launch) and when do you need the website launched by? The reality is that the launch of your new website is just the start of your investment if you want it to flourish.
  • Think about whether you are hiring a web agency to just build a website or are you looking for a digital partner that can help you over the coming years as your needs grow? In your head you may just want the website delivered, but in the fast moving digital space, game changing innovations happen far too often, and you'll need a partner to help your team. 
  • Go into the process with an idea of what you want to achieve in the short-term and over the next three years. 

Step two
Web designer long-list creation

  • Create a long-list of agencies: local to you and further afield. Get ideas from websites like econsultancy, The Drum, .Net and elance. And speak to colleagues and peers about who they have used and would recommend.
  • Check the quality of agency websites and their portfolio, especially their most recent launches. Check mobile responsiveness and even make a test payment of some kind. Does it all work? From the websites you look at, ask yourself if you would be happy if you had paid for them. 

Step three
Find the perfect web partner

  • Once you have a list of around five, visit their offices and talk to the people you may be working with
  • Before arranging a visit, try to match your realistic budget with the right sized agency. Check if the agency is working for similar sized organisations to yours. If they are, there's a good chance it'll be in your budget range. Websites can start from £18k or cost well over £100k, so communicating openly about budgets is fair on everyone and doesn't waste time. 
  • Ask agencies to talk through their process and what budgets their clients normally have to spend
  • Ask to see a sample contract
  • You can pick up a lot from your office visit. You'll leave with a pretty good idea of whether you could work with the team. It also means you can see if the number of people they have matches up with claims on their website!

Step four
Website foundations

Most  agencies have a preferred CMS solution which they think is the best. The truth is, there are many great options out there. And for every positive you can normally come up with a negative. It's best to review the CMS against your individual requirements. For instance, you may want to integrate it with a particular CRM or payment gateway. Wordpress may have something off the shelf that will do that, but maybe Drupal doesn't. You need to consider all these things, as they add time and development costs.

  • What Content Management Systems (CMS) does the agency work with?
  • Open source or proprietary? 
  • Research CMS options on review sites like: and talk to others about what systems they use.
  • What integrations will need to connect with the CMS?
  • Research any security flaws with the system. Are there regular updates/patches provided?
  •  Get hands-on with the CMS and see if it’s simple to use.
  • Think of worse case scenarios. What happens if the agency goes out of business, or you want to move to a different digital partner? Can you take the website CMS with you? Or do you have to start from scratch?

Step five
web Development process

After your studio visit, email the agency with questions. Do they respond quickly and efficiently? If they can't respond or communicate well during the new biz process - what chance have you got during the build?

  • Where will the code be developed, in-house, by freelancers in the UK, or outside the UK?
  • What’s the development process?
  • How much time will you be given to upload content? You don't want to rush it. I've spent too many late nights and weekends doing that!
  • How will the CMS and the agency’s approach help with SEO?
  • What steps will be taken to maintain current Google rankings?
  •  Will the design be mobile responsive?
  • Will the design be based on pre-built templates?

Step six
Web design proposals

If you have a few front runners, ask the web company for a proposal. Give agencies over a week to respond, plus the heads up before you send it, so they can schedule the work. Proposals can take quite a few days to put together.

  • First create a prioritised selection criteria. What’s really important to your business? What do you need to see from a new digital partner? Start with the business plan and work backwards, looking at how digital can help you deliver it.
  • Speak to any current technical partners about potential problems with a  new web build and add concerns into the brief.
  • Write a brief and be clear on what questions you need answers to  – so you can compare agencies neutrally.
  • Include ballpark budget and exact deadlines in the brief.

Reviewing the proposal

  • Firstly, is it clear and concise. Or does it waffle on for 80+ pages?  The proposal should give you confidence in the agency's approach and that they can deliver on your brief. Proposals should be well thought through, concise, friendly, easy to understand, engaging and tackle ALL your questions.
  • Match it against your selection criteria
  • From the proposal, check ongoing annual costs, post launch. Don’t forget annual fees and licences for your CMS.
  • Is it clear when patches and security updates will happen? These are critical for sites like Wordpress and Drupal.
  • Will the agency warranty their code for 12 months?
  • Check sample/draft contracts to make sure you have ownership of designs and content and that there’s a simple process if you were to move to a different agency.
  • And finally, speak to references -  three, absolute minimum.

With all this information at your fingertips, you should have everything you need to make a selection. No decision like this is easy and expect compromises in some areas. If two agencies seem equal, you could use the score card system to separate them. Alternatively, go with your gut, or who served you the best biscuits/coffee when you visited.

Further reading:

You can read more blogs about digital planning and strategy

If you ever need help, advice or information HB Digital works with charities to create and deliver their digital vision. We're always happy to talk through any digital problems or challenges your charity is facing. Contact Richard Hudson at HB Digital