In the past 18 months, hundreds of thousands of corporate managerss there are new opportunities in a fast-changing market. across all industries and areas of commerce decided they wanted a site on the internet. Unfortunately, none of them had the faintest idea how to build one. And so came thousands of new companies and reseller offshoots, all claiming to provide specialised Web design services.
Now, however, users realise they don't need so-called experts to build their Website. Even people with fairly basic IT literacy levels are capable of building sites themselves. James Wickes, MD of Ideal Hardware, says: 'Forty per cent of our employees are capable of building a Website. It's nothing specialised any more.'
Keith Hodgson, director of SX Consultancy, which has a Web design arm called Creative Overload, adds: 'My kids can design Web pages. There is software available aimed at eight-year-old kids.'
The highest profile casualty of the changing state of the Website design business was Webmedia Group, which announced in January that it was going to cut back on its Website production activities and focus on digital marketing. Chairman Steve Bowbrick explains that the Website production market has changed totally. He sees Websites being designed either by big systems integrators or in-house programmers as part of an overall system, or by small Web design boutiques with low overheads. 'The future for companies like ours lies in consultancy rather than production,' he comments.
Hodgson points out that there is more to designing a Website than putting a few pages up, and that's where the consultancy comes in. 'The danger is that users design their own Web pages but they turn out to be commercially ineffective and users become disillusioned. It is important that we get the message across that if Web design is going to deliver real business advantage it requires more than a basic technical knowledge of HTML or a grasp of off-the-shelf Web design software.'
Nick Spooner, MD at Entranet, a company which provides Websites with strong commercial emphasis, says: 'What HTML and Web page creation packages don't do, and where the opportunities for consultancy lie, is making sure a Website is commercially effective. That's where the intellectual investment will be.'
The latest trend in Web page design software is style sheets and templates, and they are likely to take away even the basic drafting of pages which some consultancies still charge for. Wickes says: 'There is a company in the US called NetPropulsion which charges a basic $500 for building a site within 24 hours.'
Mike Smith of British Telecom says BT is launching a range of services which include Easystart templates for #524 or Customstart for #1,424.
The latter offers up to 10 pages and 30 graphics.
Smith agrees that there has been an element of abuse by companies providing Web page design services. 'They have been guilty of hyping it up as a black art, but now the market is wiser. Those cowboy companies are going to have to get serious or get out of the market.'
Alastair Laidlaw, marketing manager at Ideal Hardware, believes that Web page consultancy has only limited long-term potential as a value-added sector. He says: 'Any sensible business which sets up a Website needs to bring page maintenance in-house as quickly as possible. There is room for consultancies which help with the first steps of creating a site, but there is not much future for long-term consultancy or outsourced Website management.'
Sandy Castle, European marketing manager at SoftQuad, says that Web page design is part of marketing and should be accorded the same importance as any other part of the marketing mix. 'Just as we get poorly designed junk mail, which goes straight in the bin, there are sites out there which are awful and don't encourage visitors to do business.'
Castle says anyone keen to stay in the Web design business needs to continually make sure their customers are happy. 'Potential customers know that when they choose a Web design company they should take a look at the company's existing sites. What are they going to think if they look at a few sites and see boring pages or sites which all look alike? Anyone who is serious about providing Web design consultancy needs to demonstrate an acute combination of marketing, design, commerce and technical acumen.'
Hodgson continues: 'The Web design business is very competitive, but unfortunately it is getting itself a bad name. There are many stories of customers being massively overcharged for shoddy work.'
SX Consultancy conducted a survey and found that 60 of the 100 companies interviewed had been overcharged, or had not been consulted during the design process, or were fobbed off by the third parties who actually did the work. 'This is a shocking slight on our industry and casts a shadow over the reputable players in the field,' says Hodgson. 'Startup vultures who prey on unsuspecting businesses and rip them off should be hunted down and booted out.'
Andrew Smith, business group director of Brodeur APlus, a communications consultancy, says: 'It's probably a little extreme to say that customers are being fleeced, but it is true that the combination of Web design companies selling inappropriate systems and customers without clear commercial objectives is leading to widespread disappointment.'
Smith is concerned that when building a site, many businesses don't even realise that they should be making a long-term commitment to updating and supporting it. 'Unlike print, which people realise goes out of date, Web pages are expected to be spot on and perpetually up to the minute.
This doesn't happen spontaneously and needs creative, commercially aware minds,' he says.
Spooner says: 'Website consultancy is a far more complex service than basic page design. And there is going to be an increasing demand for providers who can do it properly.'
He disagrees with Laidlaw, claiming there will be a market for consultancy services taking responsibility for Website maintenance in the same way that companies use an agency for marketing or PR. 'These are things which can be done in-house but, even though they are crucial to the success of the business, there is no reason why a good outside specialist agency can't be just as good or better.'
Resellers and Vars can develop their Website consultancy services, Spooner says, but ramping up to provide a credible service is a big leap from just providing page design services.
'A good consultancy will do research into what sort of sites a company's competitors are running and run a business planning exercise to see what sort of site a company's clients would find most useful. We can manage the legal side of a site and also streamline and integrate a site into a company's back office system. That means a customer can order from a site and the order will automatically be processed by the existing back office system, for example. Then we help with the content, making sure it achieves its marketing and commercial objectives, and finally we can execute and maintain a site,' explains Spooner.
Spooner agrees that there is a huge amount of disenchantment with the Web as a commercial platform, mostly, he says, because so many businesses have used cowboy Web builders to set up their sites. 'Things are really coming home to roost now,' he says. 'The problem is that those who set up the original bad sites for lots of money have long gone.
'If people see that a Website is a business imperative which can open up trade opportunities, they will invest in it properly.
'Then they will get a site which attracts customers and encourages them to visit again and to order. But if they design a site themselves, or get a cowboy to design a page or two, it is hardly surprising if the result is boring and unproductive,' he adds.
Spooner says Web design companies that take the business seriously must not allow either the graphic designers or the technical anoraks to take over.
'A Web page is all about demand creation. A consultancy must make sure the client sees a surge in demand for their products or services. Otherwise, the Website is not being effective,' he says.
'A good Website will provide dynamic response to people who visit it.
It will profile the customers according to certain responses they make, and match the content to their profile.'
Few companies have realised that it is not enough to be able to offer a www address and invite customers to visit it for information. A Web design consultancy which is going to survive must be able to develop sites which first attract the customers, then get to know them and last, keep them.
Anna Pedroza, external liaison executive at Wired Sussex, believes the key to successful Web page provision is going to be flexibility. 'With the market changing so fast and customers realising they need a better, more interactive and easier to use site, Website providers and consultants have to be one step ahead all the time.'
Laidlaw agrees: 'Even though I believe companies should manage their own Websites, there is some fancy software coming down and resellers are best placed to train people to implement and use it.'
Among the tools at designers' disposal he cites video streaming software, flash technology and 'a whole new world of Java applets which can be embedded into Websites'.
Peter Beech, principal at Webmedia Group, adds: 'Consultancies will have to provide high-level expertise about overall digital marketing strategies.
This is the service we will be looking to grow in future.'
It's not about simple site and page design, he says, it's about interacting with customers in a friendly way, getting as much information as possible on the customers and then using that in a way which improves profits.
Smith adds: 'At the end of last year, the average cost of building a Website was #49,000, while now it can be negligible. There are no margins there anymore.
But Website maintenance and services which use Website data for marketing purposes will dwarf the initial investment, and that is where resellers and Vars need to position themselves.
'Like Webmedia, other Website providers are realising that the bubble has burst and they have to move on. They have to provide real value by tying a solution to clearly defined business objectives, and making sure there are tangible commercial results.
'If they do that, Website consultancy can be a profitable niche.'
STEPS TO A SUCCESSFUL WEBSITE
SX Consultancy has produced a 10-point checklist which everyone should put to a potential Website designer or consultancy. The company also urges resellers that want to provide Web design services to meet these criteria:
Produce all design and consultancy work in-house. Those who bring in third parties are introducing costs and added potential for difficulties.
Have reference sites.
Provide some free consultation.
Research the customer's business and understand their real needs and challenges.
Have one project manager allocated to each customer.
Provide regular demographic reports.
Offer long-term maintenance support, but do not lock customers in so that they have to take it.
Provide a password to the Web construction site to see the site as it develops, and make suggestions or changes as it evolves.
Provide a menu of skills and services ranging from basic page design to complex interactive and animated implementations, and long-term ongoing updating.
Avoid techno-babble; speak basic business language, with a marketing and commercial bias.
British Telecom 0171 492 3913
Brodeur APlus 01753 790700
Entranet 01491 878787
Ideal Hardware 0181 286 5000
SoftQuad 0181 387 4110
SX Consultancy 01322 407070
Webmedia Group 0171 317 1301
Wired Sussex 01273 666834.
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