Please introduce your company and what you do there.
FINE is a brand agency for the digital age. We plan, create, and evolve the core brand expressions that define and differentiate companies today. I’ve spent more than 10 years working in various capacities at FINE as a Digital Strategist, Director of Operations, and Digital Producer. For our clients, I play a role in understanding their business opportunities and challenges and translate them into a digital system, often with both marketing and operational aspects. We support a mix of clients—some who end up with platform-based digital solutions, and a great majority where custom or semi-custom solutions are the most responsible choice.
What should people consider when choosing a platform?
Make a platform selection a deliberate choice. There are situations when a chosen platform absolutely makes the most sense. But there are also times where a platform is identified because it’s popular or familiar, or for obscure business and procurement reasons that aren’t related to solving the core business challenge at hand.
While monthly hard costs of some platforms might seem low, the true opportunity cost of an uninformed selection is high. It takes considerable investment to analyze, learn, customize, configure, design, troubleshoot, and, ultimately, set up the business processes to seamlessly function around a system. You do not want to go 50%, or even 100%, of the way down that path only to later learn it does not solve for a critical business requirement.
Technology should be in service to the people who use it — customers and the internal team responsible for reaching customers. So even though the decisions involve technology, it shouldn’t be a decision based on technology in a vacuum. My recommendation would be to always start with your must-have features, core brand differentiating requirements, and operational needs and use that to qualify the right system. Then consider how your edge cases work within the proposed system. If the system in question is central to the brand, do not settle until all of the must-haves are solved. Pick the platform because it solves for your now and short-term future; don’t get distracted by quantities of features that seem cool, but will probably never get used.
When a client comes to you for one of these projects, what is the biggest challenge they’re looking to address, or the biggest goal they have, in creating this new site?
Put simply, they want to “look the part.” They want to look and feel world-class in whatever industry or segment they occupy. The majority of the clients we work with have a lot to gain by investing in highly designed and curated experiences. They are often looking to invest in a digital foundation that can clarify their brand to relevant audiences, support the various marketing initiatives for years to come, and not burden a lean marketing team with excessive website management. They want their technology choice to be a means, not an end.
There is some give and take in this. Sometimes people are interested in what’s possible with technology, both in functionality and in form. So we play a big role in trying to guide clients to what’s important to their brand in this regard, with no particular agenda for pushing them toward buying into unnecessary bells and whistles.
Who is the ideal client for each platform?
For WordPress: the ideal client is one where complex blogging functionality is the primary requirement. It’s a great system if you have a few authors, need post management, SEO tools, multi-media integrations, commenting, etc. When it comes to more generalized web content, it can be a bit of a mismatch, either because of how cluttered and complex the interface is, or by how much customization it can take to try and set up content in a way that is more object-oriented in nature. A factor that a lot of people overlook is it can give a CMS author too much control over the site. It seems counterintuitive, but when you have a lot of users touching a system, allowing too much latitude can result in strategic and visual erosion of the brand online. It’s for this very reason that we often see a need for extensive “cleanup,” or even for a redesign years sooner than required if the system was more focused, making it a much costlier platform than it seems.
For Commerce Platforms: these are ideal for brands who need an online commerce presence, but it’s not necessarily a differentiating or core part of the business. For instance, a few years back, we worked with Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley to create a Shopify-powered store to sell branded apparel, craft food products, gift cards, and more. It was a great solution to evolve their online commerce presence for a relatively small investment. A platform is great when it’s inline with the core features a brand needs and has a relatively low cost of ownership related to the value provided. Where it gets less appropriate is when a commerce engine is at the center of booking reservations, filling shopping carts with customized orders, or where there are a lot of integrations and custom experiences as part of the purchase path.
Why do you prefer using Shopify over BigCommerce or Magento?
Shopify is the more used of those platforms in the U.S. for a lot of reasons. It’s more stable and has a great support and pricing model. It also beats the others with the volume of apps, themes, and integrations available. For a fairly typical e-commerce shop, it’s a great way to go.
Is there any type of client or company that you wouldn't recommend Shopify or WordPress to?
I shy away from WordPress for brands that are not planning to use it as a communication / blog-like content engine. For content management alone, there are many (arguably much better) focused platforms to manage a website and its content. The state of the web is moving toward creating custom combinations of niche-focused digital tools that integrate, rather than selecting one big multi-tool that can do everything, but may not do any single part particularly well.
For cloud-based commerce platforms like Shopify/ Big Cartel / BigCommerce: These systems are often not a match for enterprise-level work —brands that have a business model outside the traditional features (think club/monthly subscription programs) — or when the transaction costs/max revenue concerns do not match the business model of the brand. At a certain threshold, custom commerce applications are required to avoid these systems’ transaction fees.
Is there any specific feature or aspect of these platforms you think is really impressive?
WordPress: The well-supported plug-in network is a great way for brands to test and try new functionality with lower entry costs.
Shopify: Shopify offers a nice balance of simple setup with heavily customizable areas. With the know-how, you can customize the environment quite heavily. That type of flexibility is rare in competing commerce platform services.
Can you think of any drawbacks, or anything that can be improved or added, to make any of these tools better?
In general, I believe in focused tools. That means really tailoring them to your needs and not getting distracted by extra bells and whistles. Where these tools fail is when a marketer is choosing whether to build a website on Shopify, Wordpress, Drupal, Squarespace, an open source CMS like our own Fae, or go entirely custom. These options are apples and oranges, but are not marketed as such. Many platforms suffer from trying to accomplish every digital requirement for anyone in a marketing position, and ultimately, not doing any of them well.
Have you used any of their support teams, or online resources and communities, to get feedback or help on development?
Yes, definitely. A paid platform today must have a heavily maintained and supported resource center, and a good service model for marketers, technologists, or developers to provide access to staff for troubleshooting or recommending workarounds to non-traditional requests.
One of the most interesting things about open source options in lieu of paid platforms is that even though there’s usually not real-time customer support, solutions to development problems are essentially “crowdsourced” by a community of developers who share and collaborate. You’re not subject to product development cycles; there’s constant innovation and collaboration.
Is there anything else you wish clients knew before into this project?
Sometimes people are looking at these platforms as a short-term expense — people are trying to hit annual goals, or be ready for arbitrary events. FINE looks at a website as a significant brand asset; with a client like Kimpton, for instance, we know that done right, a website can not only drive incremental revenue, but it can be a focal point that drives the equity in a company. So when we can look longer-term, say, 3–5 years — which is a long time in technology — and find a foundation that will ideally support them for that full 5 years or even longer, it’s the best of both worlds. It’s about understanding the direction a brand is going for the longer-term, so we can help connect them to the right foundation on which to build. Often, clients come to us with a WordPress environment that has atrophied pretty substantially over time, and they have been creating fairly disposable websites every 2 years. In some ways, this process can actually help roadmap where your business is headed over a longer time period.
So, we think longer-term. What’s the company’s data model? What are the core business functions? Then, how can the platform wrap around that and support it, instead of the marketing team being in the position where they need to replace their digital environment every 2–3 years? We think less about what this year’s budget has for digital, but more in what is needed across 5 years for digital, and getting a system in place that provides value over that 5 years. It’s an important factor when comparing competing scopes of work that might be at very different price points. Which vendor is the most affordable choice over the lifespan of the work? It’s probably not the one with the lowest price tag.
What are the things people should think about when they’re first building a website in terms of cost, from design and development to maintenance and security?
I think the first one is to understand whether the system you’re putting together is long-term or short-term. It’s similar to the way you hire people to build homes. If you’re looking for something that’s going to be a long-term digital asset, you need to choose the right partners and invest in the right places to have something that’ll stand the test of time. If you’re truly just doing a cosmetic house-flip, it’s important to find the right provider. Sometimes you need a handyman, and sometimes you need a general contractor.
What should people be aware of in terms of website security?
A brand/company shares in the security responsibility of the technology. A highly secure system is useless if access credentials are being emailed to outside vendors, and users are not actively managed and shut off. Because a CMS is accessible at a URL, you want to have a really good lock on your users, accounts, and security requirements for the complexity of passwords.
Also with systems like WordPress, when members of your team might be installing plugins, consider your criteria and workflow for how you research and consider which to install. A bad plugin can cause significant damage to a site and brand.
Can you go further into online marketing and these tools?
It’s important to put these decisions into some sort of strategic context. A lot of times with clients, we start with looking at a customer journey or sales cycle and where a website and its related online marketing components fit into that. A good example is marketing automation. We see those tools very often selected in a vacuum that tends to look at maximum touchpoints rather than carefully selected interactions. So the fact that a platform integrates with a chosen tool is great, except that you may be simply facilitating even more functionality you don’t need, while ignoring the core things that win customers.
Within that customer experience, we’re usually most focused on the differentiating element of a brand. A lot of brands can put together a combination of tools to get themselves in the right places. They can have a site that has all the functionality needed connecting to the CMS that powers it, but it can be nearly identical to everyone else. However, having a truly ownable look and feel that can be seamlessly translated to those environments is more difficult. When you can achieve that, you’re more recognizable and are truly differentiating yourself from the industry. We focus on how each of those touch points can be highly curated and strategic, as opposed to simply functioning.
Do you have any advice or best practices for SEO?
Never make a decision that will have a negative impact on your users or your brand in the name of SEO.
Is there any aspect of building, designing, or marketing a website that I haven’t touched on, or anything you’d like to add?
Hire a trusted partner to work with you to create the digital destination you need and best understand both the cost of ownership as well as the power of having the right system in place. At all times, use a strong, shared understanding of your own company, brand, and customers as the compass to navigate the seas of technology.