The Three Tiers of Website: DIY, Template, & Custom

When you’re planning for a new website, figuring out your budget is one of the first steps you need to take. So how much should you expect to spend on a website? Well, there really is no right or wrong answer (other than the typical “you get what you pay for” line). It comes down to how simple or complex your needs are — whether you need a bespoke design or a premade theme, how much content you expect to have, how much traffic you need to accommodate, what features you need to include, and so on. Luckily, there is a website solution out there regardless of your business size or budget, and your choices usually boil down to three distinct tiers:

  • The do-it-yourself website
  • The template website
  • The custom website

In this post, we’ll walk through the pros and cons of each tier.

Tier One: The Do-It-Yourself Website

If you’ve excluded your own time as a variable, the least expensive tier is the do-it-yourself (DIY) site. Providers such as Squarespace, Wix, GoDaddy’s GoCentral, Shopify, and WordPress.com offer online services where you can quickly choose your own prefabricated template using their proprietary solutions. They can cost as low as six dollars and as high as five hundred dollars a year. While the DIY route is an inexpensive way to launch a website, there are some drawbacks to consider:

Software as a Service

All the providers in the DIY tier offer their solutions as a Software as a Service (SaaS). Essentially, your website belongs to another entity — it’s a leased asset. This also means you can’t transfer the site files to another provider should you choose to leave, and if you select another SaaS provider, you’ll need to redesign your site from the ground up using their software.

Limited options

Another drawback of the SaaS option is the lack of flexibility. Each provider will offer a preselected set of semi-customizable templates or themes from which to choose. Inevitably, there will be limitations within each template’s framework, and you’ll need to concede to those limitations if you want to use the template.

Tier Two: The Template Website

For a level up from the DIY site, you have the option to buy a predesigned, canned template to build your website. You can get these from one of the theme websites like Template Monster, ThemeForest, Array Themes, or CSS Igniter, and you can either have someone set it up for you or set it up yourself. There are editable areas within these templates, but the templates themselves retain their structure. You’ll generally be able to change a few things as far as color or content, but by and large, the original theme will remain.

With this option, you might consider hiring a freelancer or digital agency to install the theme and the content management system. In all likelihood, the theme will require a fair amount of customization to reflect your branding, goals, and needs. While the installation of the theme may be inexpensive, the cost to customize it to suit your needs may range anywhere from $100 to $5,000, depending on the amount of customization you require. The good news is that once you’ve purchased the template, you can host it wherever you like, and you can retain ownership over the site if you change digital agencies.

Tier Three: The Custom Website

The third tier is to hire a freelancer or digital agency to design and build your site from the ground up. In this scenario, you express your wishes for your site, and the freelancer or agency provides design concepts, branding, marketing, and so on. The only real limitation is your budget, because you’re hiring a creative shop to customize the entire site to the needs of your business. The cost for this tier typically starts at about $5,000 and goes into millions of dollars, depending on how extensive your needs are.

A Hybrid Approach

If you want to use a template to build your site, but you lack the time or skills to customize it, some digital agencies (not all) are willing to set up your site using a template you have purchased. The overall cost should be considerably less than a full custom project. If a fully customized Tier Three site isn’t in your price range right now, this hybrid approach might be a viable alternative for you.

So, which tier is right for you?

There really is no right or wrong answer to this question. Rather, there are trade-offs associated with each tier. If you’re going to go with Tier One or Tier Two, for example, you can’t expect your site to be especially unique, because those templates are resold over and over again. You won’t be able to accomplish a one-of-a-kind look because the framework is available to anyone who wants to buy it. So if uniqueness is a high priority, you’ll need to find the budget to hire a digital agency.

On the other hand, if a quick release is your highest priority, you need to understand that Tier Three is probably not an option for you. If, for example, you have a time frame of a month or less — for example, you’re pressed to get a blog or website up in time for your upcoming appearance on TV — most agencies won’t be able to do custom development work that quickly. You’ll likely have to use one of the DIY platforms or a template, at least for the short term.

What is your website worth to you?

In evaluating all three tiers, you’ll obviously want to ask yourself what a website is worth to you and your business. And if you’re leaning toward the Tier Three option, this question is especially important.

Why? Well, humans have a tendency to put a perceived value on the things we want or need, regardless of the actual cost. For example, some people are willing to pay $300,000 for a car; others will pay $30,000; and still others feel that $3,000 is too much to spend. There’s obviously a huge difference between a $3,000 car and one that costs ten times that much, but the truth is, you can buy a car at any of these price points, and any number in between. It all depends on how much the car is worth to you, what you can afford to pay, and what you’re willing to pay.

The same holds true with a website. You can build a website for cheap, or you can build one that costs you many thousands of dollars. Either way, you’ll have a website. The important questions are how much website do you need, how much can you afford, and how much are you willing to spend? I urge you to spend some time figuring out your own perceived value for a website, and building a budget based on that value before you step into the process of choosing an agency.

Need more guidance for selecting a digital agency? Here are 10 questions to ask when choosing a digital agency.



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