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Self-Serve Website Builders (third-party platforms) vs. Custom Development

Website builders — the tools provided by Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, The Grid and more — produce baseline websites that look and feel like they were designed and coded by humans. They’re also software as a service, which is a different business model than traditional, custom-developed websites.

Self-serve website-builder platforms are quietly becoming very powerful. A lot of us write them off without much thought, but it’s time for agencies and custom development shops to pay attention. It won’t be hard to stay ahead of the builders… once we acknowledge they’re coming for us.

What Is A Self -Serve Website Builder?
A business can buy a website on Squarespace for $12 per month and be live the same day.
Squarespace is a website builder. It’s a subscription service where, without code, you can build and serve a website for your business. It offers only templated design, little or no help with copy, and nothing in the way of advanced user experience design.

Squarespace

The Current Website Market
Established best practices and improved browser technologies allow website builders to deliver a lot of value out of the box. Essentially, they cover all of the baseline requirements for a solid website — from SEO to responsive design to professional visual representation.

Most businesses today need more than a baseline website, but there are a lot that don’t. If website builders can automate coding and deliver the same value as custom websites, the market will notice. Why would a consumer pay more and wait longer to get the same value?

To be clear, I didn’t say the same product. I said the same value. Websites created with templates and builders aren’t going to win awards — but they can win business.

There Are Plenty of Reasons To Go With Custom Development
There are four main needs that advanced website-building tools can’t meet.
1. Trailblazing Experiences
Remember videos which integrated with Google Maps and zoomed in on your exact house as part of the video’s storyline? Squarespace can’t make that.

Or how about the early days of responsive design? Or how about responsive web design itself?

The builders couldn’t have invented responsive web design. Humans (well, a human) had to custom develop it first. The web was forged by pioneers who took the tools available to them and pushed the limits. Experimentation and the wow factor will be around forever.

2. Security
Security is hard at scale, and for governments and other super-sensitive organizations, being on a third-party platform and paying monthly is not secure enough.

Even in cases where custom development is potentially less secure than a platform, just the thought of putting security in the hands of a third-party is enough to deter some organizations.

3. Custom Integrations
Similar to security, some organizations require integrations and workflows that wouldn’t be available within website builders made for the masses.

Custom integrations are particularly important for legacy businesses and systems. If you’re using all the latest software as a service to run your business, then website builders are magic. If you’re the airline industry, they’re not even an option.

This one is getting tricky, because basic integrations are already part of the builders. If you use Google Analytics, MailChimp and Wistia, then you’re good with builders. If you have a custom Salesforce or NetSuite set up that needs to work with your website, you’ll definitely want to go custom.

This is a huge opportunity for custom web developers. As technology permeates every part of every business, there’s a real need for advanced integrations and workflows — the kind that website builders might never be able to touch.

4. Platforms
As “basic” web development moves towards commoditization, businesses will look to advanced web development to stand out. Creating platforms for businesses and/or their customers is another opportunity.

I’m using the term platform to include website builder platforms, content management systems, account and project management portals, and similar web-based products. They could be customer-facing or internal, but they all help people accomplish tasks.

Projects like these are as custom as one business to the next, so they seem safe against builders for the foreseeable future. However, I still recommend managing advanced web development projects more like the builders (i.e. more like SaaS) to stay competitive.Ultimately, I believe that most custom development shops will actually turn into website platform companies. It’s a logical evolution.

Development Isn’t Everything
Code is just one part of a website. Custom development typically comes with expertise in other areas, including business consulting. Website builders can help with things like the basic user experience, email automation and analytics reporting, but they still expect the business owners to do things themselves. They’re a tool, not a consultant.

This is a critical distinction, because even if website builders take a majority of custom development work off the table, businesses will still need visual and user experience designers. Then, if the templates get so good that designers aren’t needed, businesses will need copywriters. Et cetera. Ultimately, as more things are done automatically, businesses will look to specialized (read “custom”) execution to stand out.

It used to take expensive equipment, airtime deals and a large crew to get on TV. Now with a mobile phone and Internet access, anyone can broadcast to millions on YouTube. The broadcasting process was commoditized.

Now broadcasting itself no longer means much. It takes stage presence, great content, organized presentation and more to get attention amongst all the other broadcasters.
Website builders are the YouTube of our industry, but like YouTube, that doesn’t actually say much about their quality or effectiveness.

Stay Competitive
There’s a classic rule in service businesses: good, fast, cheap… choose two.
Advanced website builders are the exception. They build something good, slowly and expensively at first, but they license it to the world quickly and cheaply. The result is an advantage that’s hard to match with custom development.

For clients, getting something fast and cheap means they’ll let a little bit of good slide. Great is always better than good, but if great costs more and takes longer, good may be enough.

That’s why the builders are dangerous. They won’t make better websites than we do, but they only need to make websites that are good enough.

Pricing
It seems impossible to compete on price and offer the same features as the builders, because their business models are fundamentally different than agencies and custom development shops.
As long as consumers find value in their products, the website builders’ pricing model will remain very attractive. Over time, website buyers will learn to expect a better product for less money — custom or not.

Website builders offer more expensive monthly plans, one-time paid upgrades, and often a third-party marketplace for paid plugins.

The interesting thing about the monthly pricing model is that the buyer pays forever (as long as the website is up). Not to mention, all of the builders include hosting in their price.

Design
Website design has shifted in the last few years. There was once a focus on creativity and brand experience, but now there is a general emphasis on usability, familiarity and compatibility.

Design is amazingly important, and most businesses today realize this, but it’s not unique design that’s valued — it’s effective design. That small distinction could help reframe things for designers who might not see it from a purely business perspective.

No two agency-client design processes are that much alike, and results vary wildly from client to client. This is a sticky point for clients. The appeal of seeing a final design — knowing what they’re getting, knowing how much they’ll pay — is great, and it’s hard to compete with. The way that custom design wins is by focusing the process on education and expertise. The agency learns everything about the company, brand and mission, and they use their experience and expertise to present the one correct solution.

That alone would certainly make me rethink my ability to choose from 10 prebuilt templates.

Actionable Steps In Today’s Market
In the past, an eye-catching website was a way for businesses to get some attention or gain an advantage over their competitors, and websites were challenging to produce.
Today, however, a large percentage of websites use established layouts and patterns, and they’re easier to make.

Everyone needs a website, but it’s not really about the website. For businesses, it’s about their content, brand and offering. The vehicle to deliver those things evolves — whether it’s made in Flash, handcoded HTML, WordPress, Tumblr, Squarespace or something else entirely. Facebook business pages even fall into this category.

Content, brand and offering are what is important to promote. We can optimize content and streamline content creation. We can showcase brand values and increase sales through an excellent user experience.

Looking Forward
In a few years, the industry might look nothing like it does today. Those of us who pay attention will be just fine. In fact, those of us who pay attention have the opportunity to seriously improve our products, our businesses and our clients’ businesses.

It’s time to acknowledge the competition from website builders and to understand the things they’re doing right. We don’t have to use templates, charge pennies and answer clients at 3:00 am, but we do need to always provide more value than we cost and to put our clients’ needs before our own.

About the author

I’m Christie, the founder of Christie Lee and Associates. I’m a multi-disciplinary graphic designer, working with clients all around the world. Get in touch.

Graphic Designer

I’m Christie, the founder of Christie Lee and Associates. I’m a multi-disciplinary graphic designer, working with clients all around the world.

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