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Interview with Wholegrain Digital

June 24, 2015

by Amanda Baum

Head of Product at Clutch.co

Clutch spoke with Tom Greenwood, the managing director of Wholegrain Digital, as part of a series of interviews on the different options for building a website.

Learn more about Wholegrain Digital on their Clutch profile or at www.wholegraindigital.com.

Please begin by introducing your company and your role there.

I am the managing director of Wholegrain Digital, and it was founded by myself and my wife eight years ago in 2007. We are a specialist WordPress agency. We were the first agency in London to specialize exclusively in WordPress. My role is primarily managing the company, managing sales leads and, to some extent, project management. I do some of the more complex project management, but less and less of that these days.

Web Design and Development Options

What business objectives does the client needs to define before selecting how they should build a website?

The thing that we always tell clients to start with is to figure out why they want a website. It sounds like a very basic question, but it's surprising how rarely people have really thought through what value they're going to get out of it. The first point is really to define “what are they going to get out of this?” Do they want sales, do they want enquiries, or do they want social shares, newsletter signups? Do they want people to sign a petition? What is it that they're trying to get out of it, and how much is that really worth to them?

Then, once you've defined that, you can think about the best way to achieve those goals. What kind of functionality do you need? What types of people need to be using this site? Both in terms of your users but also your staff – what functionality do they need in the content management system? Once you have a clear picture of that, you can make a decision about what type of system you need. Also having a short-term and a long-term vision, so maybe you need something now, but it's just a petition site, and you just want people to sign one petition. But, is it just one petition, or do you want your staff to be able to create new petitions every week? You need to be thinking about short-term and long-term vision and how that fits in with your goals.

Once you've got that clear, you might decide, "Well, actually this is a one-off thing. We don't really need a content management system, and it can just be built to do exactly what we need, and it's never going to change, very simple." Or you might say, "Actually, we need our staff to be able to really take control of this thing and adapt it to their needs going forward." Then, you're going to need some sort of CMS to do that. Then, you can look at various CMS and say, "OK, does WordPress allow them to actually make those changes as they need, going forward? Or does a different CMS allow them to make these changes going forward?" It really starts from defining the goals and defining the uses. Then, you can map out the functionality around that and compare the various systems to see which one fits.

Is there anything that you would prefer a client brings to you before starting a project?

Following up from what I just said, it's really good if they actually know what they want, why they want this sort of site, what are they trying to achieve from it, and who's going to use it. If they've thought through functionality, that's always helpful, because the clearer you are about what you're trying to do, the easier it is to actually make a good decision about what route to go down in terms of a CMS.

What would be some of the reasons that WordPress would be a good choice for a client to have their website built on?

I think one of the big things for a lot of our clients is that it's open source, but it's also really popular. What that means is that they not only own the code, but there's a huge support community out there that they can get help from. It means that they are not locked in with any one developer. They know that when they need help, they'll be able to find help. They'll be able to shop around for that help.

That creates a really healthy relationship because so many clients come to us because they had a custom CMS or one that is not very widely used, and they got locked into the original agency or individual that built that for them. That relationship, for whatever reason, sometimes doesn't work out. Sometimes, they end up getting held almost hostage, or they get ripped off for maintenance because they can't shop around. Sometimes, that company just doesn't exist anymore. They don't know where to go to get help. Maybe that company can't do what they need to do long term, they don't have the skills to build some new functionality or something.

So, many clients are choosing WordPress because they know that they're going to own all of their code, and there's going to be a big community out there of people that can help them. If one person can't help them, they can find someone else who can help them. They have that confidence that there's going to be someone who can look after them. That creates a really healthy client-agency relationship because what it means is that as an agency or a freelancer who's selling WordPress to a client, you have to work hard to keep that client happy. The client knows that, “I'm only here because you do a good job and you make me happy. If you don't, I'm sure I can find somebody else who will make me happy”. So, that's really good. It's a kind of a win/win situation because you end up building really good relationships with your clients.

So, that's really at the core of why our clients use WordPress. The other things are more generic reasons why people use WordPress in the first place, which is that it's really flexible. You've got a huge range of plug-ins and themes that you can use, and you can easily build new functionality if it doesn't already exist. It's ease of use. I think there's two sides to ease of use. WordPress is pretty easy to use anyway, so it's got a really short learning curve in terms of training your staff how to use the CMS.

Also, now that it's so popular, pretty much anybody who's involved in digital stuff has used WordPress, so you almost don't need the staff training anymore. That's a really good sell for a lot of companies because they don't want to have to train all their staff in some new CMS and have them constantly asking questions, "How do we do this? How do we do that?" You just give them a new WordPress site and they're on their way.

Can you think of an example of a simple site that you have created versus a more custom website with highly complicated features that you've built?

A really simple site is alliance-businessgroup.com [Alliance Business Group]. It's just a plain brochure site. It does what it needs to do, it looks nice, and it tells you what the company does. It provides you with some service information, details of their team, career opportunities and some contact details. It is really just an online brochure and does what it needs to do well. In this case, it's a theme modification, which is one of the things about WordPress, that you can easily use existing themes. If a client needs something really fast, or if they need something cheap, or both, then sometimes you can reuse things. You don't have to reinvent the wheel every time. You can get something online really fast.

A really complex site that we've done was a global multisite network for Marks & Spencer. They've got franchises in around 50 different countries, and each of those franchises is basically an independent business in a different country. They need to make sure that they've got an online presence because, in the past, some of them had a website, some countries didn't have a website, and then there's no brand consistency between those websites, there's no control over what they publish online and what they don't publish online. The head office wanted to be able to make sure that all the countries that needed a website had a website, and make sure that they could control it. Give the individual countries just enough freedom that they felt like they had control over their own website but, ultimately, they still kind of held the reins.

In that instance WordPress multisite is brilliant because just out of the box you can give everybody their own subsite and give them control of that. What was really nice was we built a lot of custom functionality on top of that, so that the head office could basically feed content directly into individual countries – specific parts of their websites – so they could populate a new collection of women's fashion, or something. They could set the dates, pick when is this going to go live and what countries does it need to go live in? Then, they can push it through to those sites. The owners of those sites can be notified, "Hey, you've got this new content." It could be optional, or it could be stuff that they get to look at and choose, "Do we want to display this on our website in our country, or not?" Or, it could be stuff that's compulsory and you just force it through because everybody needs to be displaying this.

Have you found that there are limitations to using WordPress? Has there been a custom request that you've been asked to build, and you haven't been able to build that on WordPress?

One of the things about specializing in a specific system – in our case WordPress – is that you get to know it really well. We can make a judgment pretty quickly when a client comes to us, whether it's something that could or should be done in WordPress or not. There are a few cases where we generally don't use WordPress.

One of them is when you want to do something that's not really a CMS, you're kind of bending the definition of a CMS, and it's more of an app. Then, generally, we would say, "Don't go down the WordPress route." One of the cases is where you want the CMS, but you're really prescriptive about how you want that CMS to work. It might sound funny but, sometimes, you get clients that have defined exactly the way that they want the CMS to be laid out, and how they're going to be able to publish content, or what their exact workflow is. If you're going to use WordPress, you have to accept that it is the way it is. If you start to mess around with the fundamental nature of WordPress then it just doesn't make any sense. You might as well use something different or build exactly what you want.

Then, there's also cases like community sites. For simple communities, you can use BuddyPress. However, if people want to build something quite sophisticated as an online community, generally, we've found WordPress is probably not the best option. e-Commerce can be done really well these days with WooCommerce, but if you have a really big store, if that's your core business, and you've got thousands of products and tens of thousands or millions of customers, then you're probably at a stage where you're going to go with something that's more of a specialist e-commerce platform.

Costs of Building a Website

What are the key drivers of cost in building a website?

Since using a CMS is a templated system, the more unique page templates and page layouts that you're going to need is a big factor. If you have a website, and it's got three unique page templates, you've got to design them all, and you've got to build the page template. If you decide that you need 10 unique templates, that's going to be a lot more work. Sometimes, just getting the client to think about what exactly they need from their website, and trying to rationalize that and condense it into as few templates as possible, can really help get the cost down. Even just building some flexibility into those templates, so they don't all need to literally be unique. Maybe they're just variations on a theme.

Another factor is unusual functionality. The more standard, simple brochure website is going to be fairly cheap. But, the more unusual, and the more extra things that you start trying to add on to that, it's kind of exponential. If you want one unusual feature, it can be fine. But, once you start adding two, three, four, five, six, especially if those things need to inter relate with each other, then the complexity multiplies because everything has to coordinate. There's a kind of exponential scale of complexity in terms of extra functionality that the client requests. Also speed – if a client needs something really fast, it's going to end up costing more because you've got to put more resource on it and shift a lot more things around in the schedule.

How does your company typically go about pricing projects and charging clients?

In terms of pricing, for a lot of the standard stuff, we know from experience how much time it takes to do various things, to design and develop a template, add certain functionalities, besides the common things that people ask for. We've got a pretty good idea of how long those take, and we can just build up a quote from that fairly easily. When they ask for something that's quite unusual, and we don't have a track record for that, then it's a case of our developers looking through it and making the best estimate of how long it's going to take them. Most of what we do, I'd say probably 80 to 90 percent of what we do is fixed price, but it's based on an estimate of time.

Does your company require a minimum budget to take on a new client?

We don't have a strict minimum budget. In general, we don't do much below about £3,500 [approximately $5,600], but we're not really strict about it. We're quite flexible because it very much depends on whether we think it's profitable. A lot of really small stuff is just not profitable because of the inherent overhead of starting a new project and having that client discussion. Sometimes, someone comes to us, and they're doing something that we find really interesting, or they just seem like a really nice person that we want to work with, and they've got something simple, we think, "OK, we can make this profitable and we're going to enjoy working on it." Then, we don't really set a minimum.

For those smaller projects that you won't take on, would you recommend that they use one of the do-it-yourself website builders?

That really depends. We do sometimes tell people, if their budget is too small, and we feel that we couldn't work with them because we couldn't make it profitable, sometimes we do recommend that they go and use something like that. Especially if it's e-commerce, sometimes we recommend Shopify, but there are pros and cons. What we tend to find is that if you're a small business and you're just starting out, and you don't have really specific design and functionality in mind, you can be prepared to be a bit flexible about what you get, then those site builders can be really good because they're really cost effective. Some of them have beautiful design templates and you can get online fast. It's not like a custom website where you have to wait weeks for someone to design and build it. You could literally be online the same day.

So, for startups, they can be really good. What we tend to find is that people eventually outgrow them, because once their business becomes a bit more established, they've had that website for a long time, they start to realize, "Now, I actually understand my customers and how they're using my website. I know that I want to change my design in a particular way, or I want to add a new feature that Shopify or Wix doesn't offer." Because they're hosted, subscription-based systems, there are limits to how far you can really adapt them. What we tend to find is that people reach a point where they can't take it any further and they actually move across to a different solution such as WordPress.

Benefits of Hiring a Web Design Company

What are some of the benefits of hiring a Web design company?

What you're really getting when you hire a company is the experience of the fact that they're building websites day in and day out. They have experience from a whole range of different clients; of what works and what doesn't work, different ideas. They're keeping up to date with the industry, and what the competitors are doing, and what's best practice. They understand how users interact with websites. Their mindset is trained to be thinking from the point of a user and how they're going to travel through that website and reach your end goal. You're buying into that experience, for them to guide you in how you're going to get value out of your website to achieve your goals, whether that's sales, or enquiries, or petition sign-ups.

What are some of the benefits from a search engine optimization standpoint?

If you're using WordPress, and particularly if you have an experienced Web designer working with you, then you've got control on all of the elements of your SEO, which you don't have if you're using something like Wix. So, you can control your URL structure, you can control all your titles and descriptions, you can control all of your H1 headings, and so on. Everything that Google's going to be looking at, you have the potential to control that.

If you're working with an experienced Web developer, they'll know what all these technical things behind the scenes are, so they can make sure that you tick every box from Google's point of view. They'll also have an understanding of content and what Google is going to be looking for in the content to actually make your site seem relevant to humans and Google.

What unique value does Wholegrain Digital provide?

In terms of unique value, a lot of it is really down to our experience, and the fact that we were London's first specialist WordPress agency, which means we've got a huge amount of experience in WordPress, and we've worked with quite a variety of clients, including some really big names. We've got a really deep understanding of what WordPress can and can't do, and how to achieve different things with WordPress very efficiently. In terms of our design process, we're goal focused. We're not taking the approach of, "We're just building a website and we want to make it look pretty." We're always trying to focus on what you are trying to achieve, and how we're going to make sure that your customers find what they are looking for on your website, or your customers do what you want them to do on your website.

Could you talk a little about how you use EyeQuant?

EyeQuant is kind of a key element in terms of the design process. When someone comes to your website, you want them to go through a bit of a subconscious process. You want them to identify who you are very quickly, and you want them to know what it is that you do. If they're not familiar with you, if it's their first time to your website, what it is that you do? Once they know what you do, why should they care about that? What's special about you, compared to your competitors? A lot of people might stop at that point, and that's where the last hurdle is. Why are they here? You want them to do something.

So, you need that call to action, you need to make sure that they know what they need to do, rather than you just kind of assuming that they'll somehow find their way to the contact page, or that they'll find their way to an article that they're going to share on social media. So you have to be thinking about that process, of how they are going to get from landing on your website, either for the first time or on a repeat visit, to actually doing what you want them to do and thinking through that user journey.

EyeQuant allows us to analyze what people are going to see before we've actually built the website. Most tools that people use to analyze websites' effectiveness are things that you do on a live website, like Crazy Egg or Hotjar or SessionCam, which are great tools, but they're after the event. You have the website online, and you leave it online for a while. It's quite a slow process. You have to gather enough data to get meaningful information, by which time you've gone through the whole design process, you've built the whole website, and then you left it online for one or two months. A huge amount of time has passed and you've spent a huge amount of money before you know whether or not that's going to work.

Whereas what you do with EyeQuant, is when you do those initial design concepts, you can actually run them through the software, and it's going to analyze what a typical person is going to see, what is going to grab their attention in the first three seconds, or sort of a more general heat map of what's going to be grabbing people's attention. You can make sure that that main headline, that sales message, that call to action that you really want people to click on, or that phone number that you really want people to dial is going to grab their attention.

Then, we can iterate the design really quickly because it's a flat design and we haven't coded anything. We can run through lots of different variations, compare them and say, "OK, well which one is actually going to get people's attention on the right messages and the right call to action?" Only once we've really finalized that, then we can code it up, and you know that you're spending time and money coding something that has a really good chance of success. Then, after the event, you can still test the website with Crazy Egg or SessionCam. You're at least starting from the point of something that's been tested scientifically, rather than it being a very subjective judgment by us as a Web design agency and you as a client.

The problem is that as a Web designer even though we have tons of experience, we're also very close to what we do. We have our own biases of what we think is going to be a good design. The client, as much as they might know their customers really well, they're also too close to their own business, and they have their own biases. Sometimes, it's very difficult to actually judge, "OK, which design concept is really the one that's going to get them the results that they want?" Rather than just, "Which is the one that we all think looks nice?" EyeQuant helps make that process much more scientific and takes that subjectivity out of it.

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