You can download it for free, so WordPress sites should be really cheap, right? It should just take a couple of hours to build a website!

Sounds familiar? I’ve been on the opposite site of this argument so many times I decided to explain the proper process of building a website and costs related.

Note: want to know some numbers quickly? Check our infographic: WordPress pricing debunked.

What a process should NOT look like

It’s worth mentioning that even the low-end freelancers advertise the following approach just to make a quick buck from the client, and there are several reasons for that:

  • they lack experience in business in general
  • they lack experience in marketing
  • they are running towards the bottom (price-wise), because that’s the only way they can be competitive and get work

Whatever the reason this is hurting our industry - badly!.

So, before I explain what the proper approach should be, let’s look at the wrong (and unfortunately the more common) one:

  1. Without having any material for the website (copy and artwork), the client is advised (or decides) to search for a theme on ThemeForest or one of the countless theme providers online -because they are cheap, mostly around $50 or so.
  2. The client Googles for a free hosting. Because why pay for something you can most likely get for free? Sometimes they fail, so they opt for the cheapest hosting they can find.
  3. They (or their consultant, because the term freelancer is so 2000) install WordPress, then they set up the theme, and then struggle for weeks to come up with enough copy to fill out all those placeholders.
  4. After some time, they accept the fact their website will never look as good as the theme demo, because they don’t have that much to say.
  5. Eventually, because they don’t take care of their website, they get hacked by some script kiddie which puts them into panic mode, asking on Facebook groups what to do. Because their site needs to be up even if there’s no visitors.

The order is not necessarily correct and maybe not all points apply to every scenario, but I’ve personally seen all of them, numerous times.

Yes, the final price in this case may be quite low (let’s say ~$500 if you insist on a number), maybe a day’s worth of work for one person. But that time is wasted even if (or because) the site owner decides to save money and do it on their own.

It’s just like doing the electrical wiring in your house - no sane person would do that (unless that’s what you specialise in), but on the internet, the damage after screw ups is not that big or apparent - but it can seriously hurt your business nonetheless!

On theme providers

Before we move onto what I think should be the right process of developing a site, let’s spend a minute discussing theme providers, or more importantly, their pricing.

Codeable customers are often surprised when modification of their theme costs $1000 and more, because their perception of cost is skewed by the amount they paid for the theme, usually less than $100. So how can modification be 10-times the price?

I know a lot of theme providers (some of which are also Codeable partners) and I’ve asked a few how much a professional theme development costs. You’ll be surprised: I’ve gotten amounts as high as $50.000. Yes, Fifty grand.

What most clients fail to realize is that selling themes cheaply is theme authors’ business model. For them to be profitable, they need to sell at least 500 copies of our imaginary, $100 theme. And let me assure you - that is not easy. In fact, as more theme providers are appearing, it’s becoming increasingly hard for them to compete. Which is why some try to stay competitive by including tons of functionality in their themes, only to result in ridiculously slow WordPress. But that’s a topic for another article.

The bottom line: You’re paying $100 for a theme because you implicitly agreed your website doesn’t need to look unique. And there’s nothing wrong with it, just as long as you’re aware of this fact.

Same goes for plugins, many clients look for free alternatives instead of paying for a premium plugin license. There may not be any difference until they encounter issues, be it a bug or a missing functionality. Then they realize that nobody wants to look at their issue or that they have to pay much more for it than the premium license would cost them. That’s because when you buy the license, you essentially buy priority line in their support department. Look at it like insurance; You pay for it, hoping you’ll never need it, but when you do, it’s a life-saver.

The correct process

Before starting with any kind of development, you need to plan your website by doing research on the following topics:

  • What its purpose/goal will be; The most important factor of every website is called a conversion - the moment that your visitor is converted to a paying customer (by buying an item from you), newsletter subscriber, social media follower.
  • Who the target audience is; The most common mistake is when site owners think that everyone is their target audience, which is rarely the case - if you plan an e-commerce store for women’s dresses, then the tone of your website doesn’t need to appeal to men, unless it’s them you plan on buying most of the time.
  • Who the most typical customer is (also called a Persona); This helps the copywriter write text as if it is directly speaking to the most typical customer, which will be — among all visitors — most susceptible to persuasion. And you need to persuade them to buy. Preferably in the first couple of seconds.

All these points are very important since they set the foundation of all your website related activities. And there’s nothing technical about them, it doesn’t even involve WordPress for that matter. Do your homework - plan properly.

Codeable team discussion
One of our planning/brainstorming sessions.

Layout and wireframes

Once you have all this written down, it’s time to plan the layout of each page on your website. This is a process, also known as wireframing. Its purpose is to brainstorm about which element should be on a particular page, what the purpose of that element is and how high (or low) it needs to appear on that page.

A rule of thumb is that every element should convey one of the 6 principles of persuasion (explained in the video below). Yes, you want need to persuade your visitors to convert. They don’t have much time, so better make every element count!

Once you see this video, you’ll immediately know why most websites (yes, even ours) have elements like call to action, features & benefits, testimonials, reputable company logos,…

You do not need any kind of fancy software for this part (although I recommend Sketch if you insist), a piece of paper or a whiteboard will do just fine, which is why you shouldn’t obsess over details at this point - done is always better than perfect!

Compelling copy

With all your elements defined, you should now focus on the most important part of your website - the copy. While the design is important in boosting credibility, this tweet pretty much sums it up:

I recommend hiring a copywriter, but many site owners decide to do it on their own, which is fine, as long as copy is written prior to having a design.

In order to write compelling copy, you need to do a bit of research first:

  • What tone the company uses; Is it strict and corporate, casual or funny? (be wary, if you want to be funny, not everyone will get it!)
  • How does the company talk to the clients on social media, if at all?
  • What terms are often used - both by the company and the customers?
  • What kind of questions do visitors have and how is customer support answering back?

This should give you a clear picture of how the company speaks with its customers and you should use it to build your word bank: A list of most commonly used keywords and phrases that should be used throughout your copy in order to get consistent message and tone across.

Note: When writing website copy with the help of a word bank, it’s easy to reuse the same phrases over and over again, and it’ll look unprofessional. It’s okay not to put everything or if you have to, use different phrases, even if they don’t match 100%. It’ll look much more natural, which is what we’re after, visitors usually recognize and hate copy that is too much sales-oriented.

Design and theme development

When you have your wireframes and copy prepared, design process (or purchasing a theme) becomes much easier, because the designer only needs to think about the look and feel, and not about organization and structure. There are designers out there that can do both, but creative people tend to be more dominated by right side of their brain, which depends more on visual references than logic.

If you’ve done any site development in your career, then you know the process at this point starts to include all elements from above, which means the design can’t be done on it’s own - usually compromises have to be made; Sometimes a block of text doesn’t fit a container, the order of the elements doesn’t feel right, images don’t properly (or effectively) convey the message, etc.

This is the time when everything needs to come together which is why it’s important that everyone involved is collaborating to get the most optimal result.

It can also be done if you’re on your own, just make sure to think about each element critically and test/validate your assumptions with your potential customers, either by discussing the site before it’s published or A/B testing once it is.

In case you’re buying a pre-made theme, make sure not to be tempted to use all the elements it comes with just because they look nice (sliders, for example - they are useless). When it comes to websites, it’s easier to add stuff, but it’s much harder to remove it. Less is more.

Once the design is (mostly) done, it’s time to develop the theme — unless you bought one, but even those usually require some level of modification. Depending on the complexity of the design and the requirements associated (such as responsiveness, which should be included by default in 2015!) this can take weeks or even months and it’s a process that’s never 100% done - web is a rapidly evolving technology, and your site should follow suit - lest being obsolete rather fast.

Once live, your website also requires maintenance, because of:

  • security: because being hacked will hurt your business.
  • seo: search engines will penalize you for having outdated and stale content (see our starter guide on WordPress SEO).
  • competition: it never sleeps, nor should you.
  • trends: humans are visual beings, always on the look for the shiny new thing.

Costs breakdown

In order to get a clear picture of cost, related to building a WordPress site, I’m going to lay out approximate numbers we spent building this website. It’s by all means a simple website — it has:

As you see, nothing out of the ordinary, roughly 10 distinct page designs.

Because we followed the above process, the costs associated with each step are the following (rounding numbers and assuming an hourly rate for each involved person is $60/hr:

  • Planning stage took 4 people (designer, copywriter, UX designer and me as a project manager) about 1 week full time: $9.600
  • Copywriting took our copywriter roughly 2 weeks full time: $4.800.
  • Design also took roughly 2 weeks: $4.800.
  • Development of the theme (my responsibility) took me 3 weeks: $7.200.

This amounts to $26.400. If we decided to buy a theme, rather than developing our own, the site would still cost $14.400, assuming the bought theme wouldn’t need any modifications whatsoever.

WordPress is free, but WordPress sites are not as cheap as you think. Not if you want results. Click To Tweet

Usually, when I explain these numbers, people ask me why on earth then use WordPress if they’re not saving that much, and the explanation is pretty simple: You’re saving hundreds of thousands of dollars because you don’t need to develop a custom content management system. This is where your savings are.

Of course, even $14.000 is quite steep for someone just getting started with an online business, which is why it’s completely possible to cut a few corners and follow each of the steps above on your own - the end result probably won’t be as effective, but done is better than perfect. And that’s why we all love WordPress: because it allows us to get things done.

Here's a handy guide to costs related to e-commerce websites.