Defining Digital Project Scope: What Do You Need?

By Deane Barker • Posted on September 13, 2016

Someone once told me that a good sales opener is: “What can I help you with?” Force the prospect to tell you what they need.

While pretty good advice, the problem when selling digital services is that a lot of people have only a vague idea of their problem. They have no idea what specific solution they’re looking for. Most people don’t even know the available options. And this is not meant to be condescending – as I’ll explain, this stuff can be complicated, and it’s our job to know the options, not theirs.

When someone gets in touch and says they need to “re-do their website,” the first task is to figure out exactly what they’re asking for. Only then can you build a scope around which set of skills you need to bring for the project.

Figuring this out can sometimes take a surprising amount of time, and it’s not unheard of to get pretty far down the road towards scoping a solution only to find out they really wanted something different. A digital presence is multi-faceted, and the basic idea of “we need to re-do our website” can be sliced-and-diced a couple of dozen different ways.

At its most basic level, a website is a three-legged stool. It provides value through a combination of:

Again, those are the absolute basics. Every single website – whether it’s aware of the distinctions or not – has some combination of content, design, and technology. (“But I don’t even have a CMS!,” you cry. That doesn’t matter – static HTML is still a technology.)

At a bit higher level, there are three other aspects which may or may not exist for your particular website:

When you contact a web development company to discuss a project, you’re invariably talking about one or more of the above aspects which combine in various ways to reveal the actual skill set and type of project you’re looking for.

The factors listed above manifest themselves in different skills which go by different names:

Your project might be any one or more of the above. In our 12 years, we’ve probably seen every possible combination. Some of our relationships are approaching 10 years, and it’s highly likely we’ve touched almost every one of the above disciplines for the same client, in some cases.

We see a lot of “full stack” project requests. When a client wants to pave their website and start over, that usually means these skills, in rough order:

  1. Content and digital strategy

  2. Information architecture

  3. User interaction

  4. Design refresh

  5. CMS implementation

  6. Content migration

  7. Managed hosting

The execution of these skills might not be project-based. In some cases, you have a long-running relationship with a firm, perhaps even on a retainer (monthly fee) basis, and the firm might do a little work involving a dozen different skills in the same month. Sometimes you buy a pool of hours and offload entire responsibilities to the firm. They exercise the skills they need to hit the goal or work targets you’ve dictated as part of the agreement.

Not all firms do all things. For example, at Blend, we don’t do marketing or social media strategy (those might be #8 and #9 on the above list). If you need a Google Adwords campaign, that’s not us – we have partners that do that, but it’s not something we do in-house.

There are other things that we might only do as a component of a larger project. Governance consulting, for instance, is often a part of a CMS implementation, but we don’t normally do standalone governance projects. We rarely do standalone CMS training projects (and even then only in the form of developer training and consulting), and we don’t do hosting, dev ops, or deployment planning on solutions we didn’t develop.

Some “digital agencies” will claim to do everything, at varying degrees of effectiveness. Some agencies are no-doubt large enough to have significant business units that do all of it at a very high level.

Firms that do everything will still likely have an emphasis. A lot of digital marketing firms will approach projects from that direction – they might do a smaller technical implementation, and concentrate on the monthly marketing activities. They might even outsource the build (to a firm like mine, oftentimes). Content and digital strategy firms will sometimes help you set the master course, then bring in subcontractors and manage them to deliver the final product.

In the end, firms will find ways to perform non-core skills in order to realize business from their core skills. Very rarely will a firm simply say, “We don’t do that.” That sentence usually ends with, “…but, we know someone who can” or “…here’s why we don’t think you need that.”

So, before you contact a digital firm, try asking yourself these questions:

The answers to those questions will get you considerably closer to defining the true scope of the project you’re looking for.

This is item #27 in a sequence of 353 items.

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