Finding the right web development partner
I originally published this in the spring of 2015. Here, I've updated it for 2017. The most significant new consideration is website accessibility. This is quite new and most are not even aware that websites now must be "ADA Friendly" and conform to WCAG 2.0 guidelines to ensure people with disabilities (blind in particular) can navigate and consume your content.
Hope this helps.
- Dave Gibson
You've decided that its time for a new website, or more importantly, a new web development partner. Not a vendor. Not a provider. A partner - who will work with you for the long-term to provide an awesome website, responsive service, and appropriate proactive ideas that will ensure you continue to stay ahead of the curve.
Websites and the systems that integrate to provide all the functions needed to support marketing, sales, customer service, recruiting are complex. You're not a web developer after all, so how are you to know what you even need? How are you to evaluate proposals? What gotchas might lurk beneath?
I've read 1.3 gazillion RFPs over the past 20 years, so let me offer guidance to allow you to provide an RFP with the right information and questions to ensure you're able to then compare apples to apples.
Then, once you receive proposals from potential partners, how will you evaluate those to eventually select a new partner?
The following outlines common elements to RFPs and the features that many resort website share. I hope this will help you make find a partner who will serve your needs for years to come.
There is no rule book to writing an RFP. What's important though is that it include enough information about both your strategic and tactical goals, and desired features so that the proposals you receive are as close to apples to apples as possible.
The time to answer questions and evaluate candidates can be considerable, so be selective about who you issue RFPs to in the first place- 7 to 10 perhaps. Then be sure to make yourself available to take questions and encourage discussion. More may be revealed in discussion and the questions that candidates ask, than the answers in their proposals.
If new requirements surface in those discussions, be sure to distribute those to all candidates.
Not only do you need to tell your candidate about you, you'll want to learn about them.
You want to start out by providing a brief overview of the resort, its revenue/service segments, and your goals in order of priority for the new website.
Candidates should provide a background of their company.
- Years in business
- Relevant experience working with other resorts (given the unique needs and functions needed, this is more relevant)
- Resources (how deep is their team?)
- What team members will be involved in the project? Request bios.
- References (only contact references once you're narrowed candidates down to final 2/3)
Understanding the candidate's process is important. Ask that they outline each step.
Discovery & Research
- How thorough is the process to learn about you, your target audience, and your competition
- Do they use personas to understand target audiences? Some do, some don't and if price is a strong consideration, we often don't.
- When does this process begin?
- What tools are employed?
- How many comps initially? Ask for 2 or 3.
- How many rounds of revision? Typically 3 or 4.
- Ask that they show comps of each template for desktop, tablet, smartphone
- This is dependent upon who is providing it, or if they will "scrape" your current site.
- Ask that candidates outline their development and especially their testing process.
- Do they use "version control". This is a good indicator of best practices and enables roll-back.
- In terms of browser and device compatibility, websites have to work on an impossible number of different scenarios. You need to be realistic about this and understand that your site will not look and function exactly the same across all - especially as you consider older browser versions (Internet Explorer especially). What is realistic is to expect your website to look great and function across all "current" browsers/devices. Then, expect the content and primary functions to continue to "work", but perhaps expect that slick parallax effects and such won't work on older versions. The candidate should set expectations clearly.
- Be sure to establish a number of rounds for "beta" in which your team is able to test the site and fine-tune interactive elements.
- Describe the training process
- Is there documentation? Is it needed (often not).
Design matters more than ever today. Your target audience is visually sophisticated, and the attention to detail on your website will translate to the quality of the experience in the mind of the guest (whether consciously or not).
Not only is relevant portfolio/experience important, but you also want to know whether the candidate's designer(s) also know how to code. Today's responsive design and parallax interactions require a modern interactive designer who knows the code. No longer can "graphic designers" play on this field.
When reviewing portfolio, don't look for design that will work for your resort. Every resort is unique. Instead look for how well the design captures what is unique about each resort, and how effectively it communicates to their target guest. Also consider how well the candidate presents "conversion points" such as email capture, ticket purchase, reservations, etc. Good design must capture attention, provide simple logical navigation, and clear paths to conversion.
One should also listen for "mobile-first" and where mobile design fits into process and priorities. Additionally one should also listen for SEO in this process as well. SEO should be infused into every step of design and development.
A modern four season golf and ski resort website requires many unique features to deliver information and functions to enhance visitors' website experience and to get them to convert into guests. They following are key features to consider requesting.
Any CMS should enable the following administrative functions, and a nice-to-have feature is for the CMS itself to be mobile-friendly to enable editing using mobile devices.
Create and manage users and user groups with associated permissions
Create and edit public, private or hidden pages and section
Add, reorder, or retitle navigation
Drag and drop sort order
WYSIWYG editing tools with spellcheck
SEO controls to set filenames, page titles, meta descriptions and image alt tags
If you have separate sites for real estate, specific attractions you'll want a CMS with the ability to edit both sites without having to login/out to switch sites. In our system for example, you can also share content across each site - such as the about us page content.
As resorts try harder to welcome diverse markets, offering translations of either specific pages or an entire site provides clear signals to those people.
HERO PROMO WITH VIDEO OPTION
This is a new trend that I really like. For first time homepage visitors, provide a short (15-20 sec) Vine-style video of short 2/3 sec clips that show the range of the resort experience. Once done, it disappears to reveal either a static or rotating hero promo with strong imagery with associated headlines. Cookie visitors and control if and when that video shows again to repeat visitors. In our system, this integrates with your Youtube Video Gallery tool, such that you only need to select the video from the CMS gallery module to display on the homepage, for easy updating.
Seeing is believing, and potential guests will want to see as much of the resort to project their own experiences. Many galleries use thumbnails that load into lightboxes which require a lot of clicking. Our new gallery is modeled after Google's Image Search. See Crystal Springs' gallery. You'll want the ability to create stand-alone galleries on any standard page.
We love these and so do visitors. You can never beat the authenticity and currentness. You'll want the ability to create these on your own that either pull in either a specific #hashtag or an @account, with the ability to curate (especially with your audience). Here's a great example.
You don't want to host video on your web server. The norm is to leveraging either Youtube or Vimeo. As our system does, you'll want to be able to auto-pull playlists into your CMS for curated placement (to include homepage Hero Video). This allows you to upload videos to only one place (Youtube or Vimeo) and then distribute easily.
Fresh content provides great fodder for your website, newsletters and social media. Google loves it also. You just need the internal resources to feed it. You'll want to ask whether the candidate's solution is integrated into the CMS or a separate stand-alone solution such as WordPress. Either solution is fine, but if they propose WordPress, you'll need to also ask about maintenance of the software and plug-ins.
Your conditions page is likely one of, if not your most popular page on your site. The user experience needs to focus primarily on usability and be well organized to present a lot of data - with particular focus on mobile. Here is also an opportunity for additional administrative functions to reduce repetition and error. As our system does, you should as that this system serve as a single point of entry for your conditions data and then integrate with other systems to broadcast that information such as your interactive trail map, digital signage around the resort, and external aggregators such as TV/Radio stations and SnoCountry. This might take the form or RSS/XML/JSON/MtnXML feeds.
INTERACTIVE RESORT GUIDE/TRAIL MAP
Interactive maps that work across all devices provide an intuitive tool for guests to explore your resorts and to orient themselves to make the most of their stay. Flash or static maps are not mobile friendly and lack the interaction to reveal all that lies within. This feature should utilize HTML5 function and connect with your conditions reporting to reveal the status of every trail and lift. Further, offering embedded images and videos are a great way to promote points of interest within your resort.
A standard feature that every resort needs to promote events throughout the year.
LIVECHAT & DIGITAL CUSTOMER SERVICE
Demonstrating your commitment to customer service can be demonstrated using LiveChat. This is a very efficient tool for answering those last few questions, and for up/cross selling. Many people also prefer interacting this way versus calling. If you consider what time of day (night) potential guests have these last questions while booking a vacation, you should also consider extending hours that your customer service team provides this important service.
First assume that a new partner will not be able to use any existing code. They will need to start from scratch because they will likely use a different platform and you'll want the freshest and cleanest code possible anyhow.
This refers to the Framework/CMS used. Some use either an Open Source or Commercial CMS and other or their own Proprietary CMS. Regardless of which, you want to know that your partner is well versed using their preferred platform and has full capabilities to deliver custom functions and integrations.
I suggest not dictating which platform to use. Instead ask why they use the system they use, and what the licensing situation is. You don't want to be locked in with a partner if things go sour, so you should ask whether you'd be able to continue using the CMS/code if you needed to bring in another development partner.
At some point, ask for a demo of the CMS they propose, and have the person on your team who does the updating sit front and center during that.
Open Source and Commercial platforms are often more vulnerable and often rely too much on plugins to deliver functions. These often affect performance and restrict ease of customization. Ultimately you don't want to hear "I'm sorry we can't do that because the system won't let us."
A more purpose-built Proprietary platform has more risk of being dated, and may have more licensing restrictions. But if they themselves built it, they will know it very well and will be faster (cheaper). Just make sure you cover a scenario if you need to fire them and bring in another team to maintain the site.
If a candidate proposes building your site on WordPress, I would walk away.
Every modern ski resort website needs to talk to other systems. The candidate should be familiar with these systems (experience matters) but even if they're not, don't let that be a disqualifier. Most third party systems are designed to integrate (with exception to Siriusware/RTP unfortunately!!).
- Booking engines
- Ecommerce/Ticketing: Siriusware, RTP/Active, Inntopia, Liftopia
- Data/email collection: ConstantContact, MailChimp, Ryan Solutions, etc.
- Conditions distribution: I'll cover this more in the features section, but you want to be able to enter data once and have that data feed your conditions report, trail maps, digital signage, and SnoCountry, etc.
List out every 3rd party system to be integrated.
Experience working with specific 3rd parties or in general.
Each candidate will likely have its own dedicated server/cloud hosting solution with a reputable hosting/data center. Nobody hosts themselves. Of importance is the reputation of the data center, their Service Level Agreement with attention to uptime guarantees.
- Request their hosting plan's details and who they host with.
- What is their SLA?
- Do they have a catastrophe plan if a data center goes down?
- What is their backup process. How often and how long are backups held?
- Check reviews and comparisons between their provider and others
- Uptime is measured in "9"s over a year. 99.9 is 3 nines. 99.9 = 8.76 hours down and 99.99 is 53 minutes.
Speed & Mobile
The time it takes your pages to load is increasingly important. Google takes this into consideration (particularly for mobile search), and mobile users in particular have little patience and as mobile users are now surpassing desktop, that experience is paramount.
Now here's a common challenge. Resorts need to use a lot of large impactful photography. In your basic flavor of "responsive design", the same image is served to every device and then "scaled" to fit the device by the device's browser. So those same large files get served to everyone.
The modern solution to this is Server-Side Responsive (RESS) which increases speed by serving up the appropriate sized media (vs just scaling) for each screen size. More about Server Side Responsive Design. Additionally Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and other caching and compression methods can be used to speed up performance.
- Make RESS a requirement
- Ask what additional performance methods they use
- If they don't know what you're talking about, then scratch them off the list
- Do they take a "let's see" approach? That may be realistic beyond RESS. You can test in beta stage.
Web Accessibility: ADA & WCAG Conformity
In 2016, this suddenly became a very important requirement. Its a long story, so we've created a accessibility.works dedicated to the topic. In order to avoid expensive legal pains, you must be very careful to partner with a development team that is dedicated to following Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to meet the spirit of the American Disabilities Act.
Setting goals and measuring performance is essential. Hopefully you already have goals and ecommerce tracking setup to allow you to attribute dollars to sources and actions. When evaluating candidates, ask about the tools they use and listen for how they apply analytics to your information architecture and design processes.
Be clear who is responsible for what. Do you plan to carry over all existing content, or do you need editing (likely for SEO) or fresh copywriting? A common scenario is that existing content gets copied over, edit top-level pages for tone and SEO, and complete rewrite homepage content.
Your web marketing/development is more than a vendor. They should be considered a partner that works closely with your marketing team. As such, its important to express what level of responsiveness and service you expect. Resorts often need assistance during weekends and holidays for example, so ask for a Service Level Agreement.
Responsiveness of web providers is often a pain point for businesses. Our industry is chronically bad at this, and I often hear complaints about really slow service and poor response times.
Ask about what level of responsiveness you should expect. Some shops will offer a "service level agreement or statement", that outlines what tolerances for replying to requests and such.
Talking to the candidate's clients will reveal the truth.
A good partner should see themselves not only as designers and developers, but also as marketers. After all, that's the primary function of your website.
Search Engine Optimization
SEO should be infused into every step of the process. Keyword research and a strategy for implementation should be requested in the RFP, and candidates should outline their resources, experience, and approach.
If you require management of paid search, display, Facebook, and other channels for advertising, you'll want to have your candidate outline their capabilities even if these services extend into a separate agreement.
Request the services needed and break out what these costs will be for the project, and on an on-going basis.
Experience and evidence of ability to increase conversions and reducing cost per conversion.
First, if you don't have a budget, many of my fellow web developers will not take you seriously. Some that have one but don't share seem to think this will force candidates to provide the lowest possible cost - which will likely sacrifice features or process. However, if you provide a budget range, you will encourage candidates to include as much as they possibly can within the amount you have to spend.
Of course every candidate has a reputation. Sometimes earned. Sometimes not. There's a lot of gossip in this industry. Talk with people with direct experience- people with direct day-to-day contact with the candidate.
These are long term relationships that go on for many years. Its important that you feel comfortable and like the people you will be working with. Be sure to get beyond the candidate's sales person and talk with the owner plus your potential project manager. Do they tell you just what you want to hear, or what you should hear?
Final Thoughts on Evaluation
The proposals you receive should show thoughtful consideration of every question and provide a clear and thorough explanation of their solutions. To repeat myself, you should also consider the questions they ask, and those may be most revealing.
Ultimately, the team your choose to partner with needs to be more than skilled and experienced, they also need to be trustworthy and committed to your success. They should push you and offer new ideas proactively. They should deliver what they say, when they say. And they should just be good people to work with.