What Non-Techie Marketers Need to Know About Development Agencies
As a fledgling content writer building a career in the Waterloo Region, I entered the workforce thinking that developers were the cream of the crop (and we all know some lovely programmers out there). But that initial lack of technical knowledge gave me the impression that they were all versed in the same kinds of projects.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I learned that developers have their own specialties, just like other professions out there. I also learned that companies’ expectations for developers can exceed a developer’s capacity and specialty, creating an uncomfortable friction.
Here’s what to watch out for as the non-techie marketer in the business relationship.
Developers Have Specializations, Too
One of my old bosses was a developer who graduated specializing in artificial intelligence. He was a veritable sponge of knowledge, and applied it all to the world of digital marketing. It was impressive.
I grew into digital marketing with his agency assuming that all programmers just knew everything about software development in all its forms.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
While working with an external development agency for a past client, I learned that they really, really don’t. The external developers in question built an entire agency on this trade, and they knew about two core things:
- website design
- website server management
But they didn’t know how to put that into broader context of a digital marketing funnel, so they didn’t implement anything beyond those two aspects.
When I showed them a site speed report from GTmetrix, they didn’t know what to do with it. In fact, they didn’t even fix the erratic server behaviour plaguing the website.
They just thought we wouldn’t notice.
Similarly, the client’s internal dev team hadn’t even implemented site speed best practices outlined by the Think With Google speed test, which is really just where every site should start.
The lesson? Don’t be afraid to speak up when you know something’s wrong. There’s a lot of room for non-developers to chime in here, even if they don’t have the same technical understanding as the developers at the table.
Not All Developers Know SEO Best Practices
Developers make websites, not marketing funnels.
They make websites look pretty and—hopefully—they stand on solid footing with proper server and database management, but they generally don’t bring visitors to your website and then move them along the Customer Journey.
A client website I worked on had serious structural issues. The title of every blog was just plain text instead of a Header 1. In fact, there were three H1 tags in the footer of the site template, and all of them were hidden in sub-menus. Mobile pages loaded at over 10 seconds for no apparent reason, too.
That agency went under, and I wasn’t surprised to hear it.
The client brought on another external development agency for an ongoing repair job. But this agency didn’t seem to know much about SEO best practices either, which came as a surprise to me for a company that made commercial websites for a living.
A big part of SEO is about improving a site’s raw performance, laying the foundation for higher conversion rates—and ultimately sales.
They made the site look functional, but totally missed the boat on crucial things like:
- Conducting a proper website audit
- Implementing AMP properly
- Improving site speed for regular mobile pages
The “repair” agency migrated the server over to their own reseller platform, but didn’t even realize what they were missing on the performance side when it came to SEO.
Those servers didn’t perform all that well, either, if I’m being frank. They worked about as well as my own hosting, which is less than $10 per month. They were charging $200.
And that extra $190 every month didn’t improve the site’s load speed.
The Sprint System Works
Developers use a project management framework called the sprint. That aforementioned old boss of mine imported it into his agency, so I’ve used it directly.
Leadership evaluates everything that needs to be done in the next two weeks, then commits to those changes. On every morning, the whole group does a daily “standup” in which everyone has a single meeting to end all other meetings for the day.
And that’s why it’s important that you don’t mess with it (within reason).
A lot of larger clients out there are used to making requests on short notice, but they don’t realize the toll it takes on the development team—and their own invoice, if the work is being done by an external agency. If you force a team to drop what they’re doing to make a change somewhere else, then you can expect every other project and deadline to become a train wreck.
You don’t want to make a train wreck out of your own account, for one. But even if you think you’re large enough to get away with it, that same agency will need to make it’s time and money back somehow. You can expect bloated bills and longer turnaround times in the future, if not outright radio silence from the team while it scrambles to address everything else it dropped for that so-called “hot fix.”
Start asking dev teams when they have time in their sprints instead of making them drop everything.
On the other hand, sometimes you really need to fight for your priorities to become the dev team’s priorities. I once worked with a dev agency commissioned to make site speed changes in early August. The work wasn’t done until the first week of October. Then it became clear that it hadn’t been done properly, so I asked them to fix it over 5 times throughout the following November.
The agency didn’t come back with anything until mid-December. That’s a six-month turnaround time on what should have taken a week or two, tops.
Since they’d been paid for the work (incomplete though it was, we later learned), the repair work took a backseat to their other client work, and they kept bumping it into their “next” sprint.
All agencies work under a lot of pressure and short deadlines for clients. If you don’t push for your work, then an agency feeling the squeeze could lead you on for weeks without addressing the fixes that really need to happen.
Service-level agreements (SLAs) can go a long way toward preventing that from happening.
Many Developers Frown on WordPress
“Friends don’t let friends use WordPress.”
A coworker once said this to me casually in conversation, even though the employer’s own website ran on the CMS. He proudly showed me a website he had hard-coded on his own, and hosted for a local organization that bucked the WordPress trend on his word.
Honestly, it looked like something out of 1998. It was ugly, counter-intuitive, filled with tiny text that you’d need a magnifying glass to read, and it looked like it was going to give you some kind of virus.
Roughly a year before that, an altogether different client I worked with declared that “WordPress is a blogging platform, not a business platform.” He hard-coded a commercial site for his employer, and it looked pretty good overall.
But it still took him a month to upload a single blog because everything had to be hard-coded manually. Imagine coding all of these individually into your site:
- CTA buttons
- Text blocks
- Event pages
- Opt-in forms
- Scroll-down anchor links
- Media uploads
You can guess how long that arrangement lasted.
Despite the obvious and crippling drawbacks of hardcoding everything, many developers share that same disdain for WordPress. It’s understandable to a point, as WordPress’ open source code and everything built upon it can come with a lot of bloatware and bad code that just drags on a site’s performance.
I get that.
I’ve spent weeks on end analyzing and solving performance issues related to things like:
- Site speed
- Custom font rendering
- Server communication speed
It’s about as fun as it sounds. Sometimes it feels like buying a laptop with all of the junk programs pre-installed, slowing down your computer out of the box.
Despite all that, WordPress is also the most popular content management system for websites across the globe by a wide, wide margin (about 27% of the web, actually). Just about every plugin in the world is made for it. It’s easy for developers to hate on WordPress, but you’ll have a hard time finding something more universally supported, scalable, or affordable.
And for that reason you shouldn’t let a developer talk you out of using WordPress. Get second and third opinions on related topics, such as:
- Will I need to pay the developer every time I want to make a moderate website change?
- How quickly can we add content to the site?
- Is the developer’s content management solution accessible to non-programmers?
- Does the developer hold all the keys in this arrangement, or can I walk away at any time?
WordPress might not be the most high-performance solution compared to a lean, custom-coded website. But that performance needs to be weighed against cost, time, scalability, and security. WordPress tips the scales in favour of more than the top percentiles of performance.
Site Speed Gets Forgotten… a Lot
We often become so enamored with what a site can do that we forget about what it should do—and I don’t need to tell you that your website should attract and funnel qualified traffic toward the eventual point of sale.
One client I worked with was unhappy with a WordPress setup that it received from a development agency. The client liked it a lot less when I told them that it took over 9 seconds to load on desktop and over 17 seconds to load on mobile.
This went unflagged for 8 months (or more) before I began working with the client. How many visitors do you think the client had lost in that time?
The agency didn’t even bother implementing AMP (accelerated mobile pages), which could be implemented with hardly more than the official plugin and some knowledge of installing a tracking pixel.
But things didn’t really improve once I started flagging these issues and isolating the causes through Google Analytics. They only worked on desktop, but never mobile, even as I sent them reports breaking down the issue by device from both Google Analytics and GTmetrix.
The dev agency even ignored the mobile speed issue after I pointed this out to them explicitly.
The lesson? Not every development agency has the chops to solve your specific problems, making it doubly important that you outline exactly what you want solved before hiring one, making it a part of your service-level agreement if you can. If not, then keep a backup agency in mind.
Every Agency Plays Games
Development agencies work under pressure and time constraints, just like every other agency out there—marketing, design, placement, you name it. They all use tactics from the same playbook when it comes to client management.
I’ve worked in and with more than a half-dozen marketing agencies that did the very same thing, and it reminded me that vendor management needs to remain front-and-center in your outsourced development work.
Watch out for these things:
- Excuses hidden in technical jargon. An agency founder once told me that our WordPress setup “didn’t use FTP [file transfer protocol] credentials” to update our plugins, even though every WordPress site uses them by default. They had worked them out of the equation to keep a tighter grip on it and tried to make the client sound incompetent for asking.
- Sweeping details under the rug. After showing one dev agency that a client’s site slowdowns correlated very closely to server-related fluctuations (of which they were a reseller), the founders just denied anything was wrong with the server and tried to throw more billable work at the client.
- Pushing deadlines to accommodate other clients. Start pushing for your own deliverables if it looks like it’ll be pushed from 2 sprints in a row. I covered this above, but it bears repeating.
- Accountability. At some point or another, all agencies think they can get away with ignoring a request or three if only one member of a client’s team knows about it. Most agencies have that one person who lives in the work but hates human contact, sort of like an email equivalent of Gollum. Don’t let them get away with ignoring you.
This doesn’t mean that development agencies are particularly devious or untrustworthy. It just means that hiring one calls for you and your team to anticipate a handful of quirks and speed bumps that you might not normally experience with internal teams or less technical agencies.
It’s all part and parcel of making your website produce revenue-generating traffic.
I hope that helps you navigate the world of website development agencies! Make SEO and your marketing funnels a part of website development at the outset of every project and you’ll be in good standing.
SEO and Content Marketing Consultant
Andrew is the digital marketing consultant at Webb Content and currently the in-house Search Engine Marketing Specialist at aha insurance. He's worked in a few different agencies full-time and with another seven or eight as a consultant.
He's usually writing new content, finding new ways to optimize his websites, and fixing bad digital marketing wherever he sees it.
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