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Is Your Web Vendor Holding You Hostage?

The lessons of 2020 go deep and wide. All of us, in every sector, will be unpacking them for a good, long while. In the Digital Marketing world, we’ve witnessed, like never before, the vital importance of agility.

The lessons of 2020 go deep and wide. All of us, in every sector, will be unpacking them for a good, long while. In the Digital Marketing world, we’ve witnessed, like never before, the vital importance of agility. Organizations that were locked into relationships with website providers that were slow to respond, found themselves at a distinct disadvantage when faced with the need to pivot and power forward in new directions with a hefty dose of velocity. 

Just look back at the plans that you had in place in January for a stark reminder of how many assumptions can get upended when the unprecedented becomes precedented. 

Lesson learned: Giving up the freedom to manage or make new choices concerning website content, and relinquishing control of source code and creative files, can lead to unintended consequences. Pay close attention to how service agreements are worded and act on the kinds of red flags that can lock you into a sub-optimal situation. 

Hardly a week goes by that we are not approached with a request for a solution relative to an entangling website alliance. In fact, to one degree or another, I’d estimate 80 percent of the marketing directors with whom we’ve spoken lately, have found themselves in situations in which their website design or development company has taken a defensive posture to hold on to their business.

Five Key Factors at Play

1. Proprietary technology — Primarily Low-Cost CMS Options

When cost is the overriding factor in the choice of a CMS (Content Management System), value and success-fueled partnerships are often what gets sacrificed. Companies that find themselves on a proprietary platform that leverages software exclusive to the web provider, can find themselves in relationships that are difficult to break out of.

2.Contractual language stating that website designs, modifications or data are the property of the vendor and not the client.

We see this a lot among companies that have worked with overseas web vendors. International laws tend to be more in favor of vendors. We recently spoke with a marketing director from a company whose website was designed from a developer in The Netherlands, and they were surprised to discover, following the launch of their site, how constrained they were in making changes or modifying their site.

3. Requiring that hosting or ongoing service agreements be included with the redesign of a website.

We, of course, understand the sentiments of a web design company that’s interested in establishing long standing relationships with clients, but compelling such arrangements is just wrong. And the legal basis is dubious at best.

4. Not allowing access to servers, source code, or databases.

Website providers can present lots of good-sounding reasons why they can’t extend access to this information or that not sharing this information is standard business practice. For many clients, pushing back with a vendor who claims that this simply is the way it is, might not seem like the best way to launch a relationship. Bottom line though: it’s your website. It needs to work for you over the long haul, and you make the rules.

5.  Building a website using little-known software or languages, along with claims that alternative resources would be difficult.

Open source is an overarching trend for Content Management Systems — for good reason. Platforms such as WordPress are constantly being enhanced with modules, plug-ins that are openly shared and widely available. A website provider that tries to slip in or pass off obscure software as a special option has some explaining to do. Don’t hesitate to ask, “Why this, and why not that.”

Eight Questions to Avoid Pitfalls

  1. Do we own the code?
  2. Is the platform you are proposing a highly supported technology?
  3. Why are you recommending this platform instead of an open source option such as WordPress?
  4. Will you train our staff on how to add content and make changes?
  5. What are our options for hosting?
  6. Will the source code be stored in a source control management system and will we have access to it?
  7. Are there any concerns or obstacles about us utilizing internal or third-party resources to make updates after the website launches?
  8. Will you be providing data/code backups for us to store offline?

All of the above questions should be responded to with straightforward answers. Under no circumstances is “No,” or a defensive response that diminishes the concern underlying the question an acceptable answer. If legal counsel is sought to review the service agreement, set the context with this question: “Is there anything here that will potentially lock me into this relationship?”

Additional Red Flags

When reviewing the service agreement, be suspicious of any language concerning intellectual property. There is little reason why intellectual property should be incorporated into an agreement with a service provider, unless it is being added on top of a technology that they own and that you have already vetted.
If there is not language related to the transfer, upon request, of all assets and source files, including creative assets, be sure that it is incorporated into the agreement before signing.

Regaining Control

And if you, like so many of the companies with whom we’ve spoken recently, are currently in an entangling alliance with a website provider that you want to break free from all or part of, here’s how:

Get the source code and the latest database export.

This is a reasonable request, but it could possibly be met with some resistance. If your website provider also manages the hosting for your site, specify that you, or your IT department, are planning to set up a staging environment internally, or you would like to have a local backup on premise.

Ask whether a source control system, such as Git, is being utilized.

If so, request an account for you or for a consultant who will act on your behalf.
It’s relatively common to encounter a response such as: “We do not allow outside accounts for security purposes.” An effective response to this objection is an offer to set up your own system, migrate the code to it, and then give the website provider access to your system. 

If a source control system is not being used, question why not and what’s being done to prevent issues that might require rolling back code. Recommend that you would like them to start providing zip files of all the code on a regular basis so that there is a way for them to restore it if necessary. 

Keep in mind: this is your website that we are talking about. Pushback to reasonable requests and workarounds such as these is not acceptable.

Plan B: Bring in a Third Party

The world of web design, development, and hosting has its own language and a distinct set of complexities. For many business professionals, going toe to toe in a conversation with a resistant website provider who adeptly wields technicalities and distinctions, can be a frustrating match-up. If these kinds of conversations are out of your comfort zone, you’re in good company.

Stepping in as a third-party who speaks this language, is a service that Solid Digital often provides. We provide technical consulting and have successfully mediated the exchange of data/source code when necessary. Sometimes though, just suggesting such a mediation is enough to spark transparency and cooperation from a vendor — not unlike mentioning that a mechanic friend will be joining you at the repair shop to hear about needed auto repairs.

Get Real and Get it Right

Far too often, after the sale, providers who do not specialize in the service they offer step in. This can be the case when the management of a website or web property falls to a business unit that is outside of their primary offering — much like the way extended warranties are sold. In our experience, when this is the case, the effort becomes more focused on how to hold on to clients than how to best serve them.

At Solid Digital, we get it that in the current environment, your website is a critical defining factor of your business. This means that getting it right can’t be left to a provider for whom it’s a second or third priority. Looking to get better positioned to pivot as needed? We’re here to help.

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