Gone are the days of set-it-and-forget-it web design. Of course, there will always be the consumers who simply want to get online, buy the item they need, and then move on. But in an increasingly competitive marketplace, you’ll have to win the rest of them by differentiating yourself from competing ecommerce businesses.
Consumers expect more from their website experiences, especially when it comes to online retail.
In order to differentiate, brands are paying more attention to their ecommerce stores’ customer experience and their website development, offering tailored and personalized buyer journeys.
One way to create a more powerful customer experience is to focus on building community online. Here are some examples:
Reviews: A survey of 1,000 U.S. customers found that better reviews are the #1 factor driving people to choose a higher priced option.
Customer groups and personalization: More tailored experiences resonate with consumers and help encourage conversion. 90% of marketers report a measurable improvement from personalization efforts.
Regularly updated, fresh content: If you want shoppers to return again and again, give them something to look forward to with fresh, relevant, value-add content.
To be as flexible as possible, brands often outsource their ecommerce web development to third parties — either ecommerce development agencies, freelancers, or a combination of the two.
How do you find the right partner to provide development services for your online business? With so many choices out there, you’ll have to cut through the noise to find the right person (or team) for your specific use case.
Let’s dive into the ecommerce development agency landscape to discover the differences between agencies and freelancers, make sense of project management and budget, and ultimately walk away with a few guidelines on how to choose what’s right for you.
A professional ecommerce website development agency can help make sure your online website is meeting all the needs of your shoppers. The best ecommerce development services will help you tap into market trends, leverage advanced technologies, and infuse creativity into your process.
Here are some of the specific services that development agencies typically provide:
Back-end web development.
Front-end web design.
Mobile app design.
Custom software development.
Outsourcing a portion of your business operations to a third party ecommerce development service is often a nerve-wracking experience. Whether you’re the decision maker or you’re part of a team trying to get buy-in for a development agency, consider these benefits as part of the journey.
“The benefits of using an agency are like the benefits of hiring an accounting firm to do your accounting, or a legal team to address legal concerns. It’s what we do, all day, every day.” — Ted Stedstrom, VP Client Engagement at Kensium.
When you hire an agency recommended by your ecommerce solution, you know that the developers on that team know the platform like the back of their hand. That means you’ll save time by not having to train an in-house developer on an unfamiliar platform.
“Agencies know the platform intimately. Tapping this knowledge, instead of tasking an in-house employee to learn a new platform, accelerates time to launch for new stores and helps keep existing stores running smoothly.” — Andrew Riggins, Owner, oBundle
“An agency that is dedicated to an ecommerce platform,” said Riggins, “will provide a super user experience and, thus, drive higher engagement and sales.”
Hiring an agency with vertical-specific or business model-specific knowledge is a good way to stay on top of rules, regulations, and best practices.
“Hiring an agency brings more than just skill sets. A good agency has people organized to function as a high-performing team,” said Nigel Poole, CEO of Matter Design & Digital.
“Team members working in a collaborative environment, under experienced leadership and with shared purpose, will produce the best ideas and outcomes.”
“It is possible to produce this in-house, but without the advantage of exposure to multiple client projects, it’s hard to achieve the same depth of expertise.” — Nigel Poole, CEO, Matter Design & Digital.
A hybrid between in-house and agency is also popular. At the least, having a contact at your organization to project manage an ecommerce development team is important. If you have the headcount and budget, you should ideally have both in-house developers (who can fix the smaller bugs as they arise), and larger agency teams that work on bigger-picture projects.
“Using a development agency gives you access to a much broader skill set. You’re as “smart” as the whole team, not just at the hands of a single developer’s experience,” said Becky Parisotto, Director of Business Development at Acro Media.
“I like the idea of working with an agency to get you the best product and outcome possible, and then training an in-house dev to keep it running post-launch if needed.” — Becky Parisotto, Director of Business Development, Acro Media
The cost of in-house developers is often higher than hiring an agency — but that agency can potentially provide so much more.
“[Having an entire team] helps move projects along efficiently and with a diverse skill set/team approach beyond a single person’s knowledge/ability. Think about all the roles on a project, like Project Manager, Art Director, Systems Architect, Developer, etc. It is impossible for a single person to be great at each role.” — Keith Karlick, Principal at Mercutio.
Plus, the freed-up budget from your web development costs lets you take that money and apply it to anything else you may need.
“This allows you to redirect cash into other areas while trusting an agency whose sole purpose is to produce good work for you,” said Eric Yonge, CEO of EYStudios.
When you hire an ecommerce development agency, you’re hiring a team with years of experience doing exactly what you’re about to do. This is an opportunity to hear all the things they’ve learned about other businesses they’ve worked with.
They’ve paved the way and made all of the mistakes (and successes) in advance — so you don’t have to.
“Imagine the institutional knowledge we have when there is “muscle memory” of previous projects, when we understand why things were done a certain way, and when there is 15-20 years of continuity and innovation. That is almost impossible to find in-house.” — Sarah Toth, VP Marketing, Guidance
“Some of our employees have been with Guidance for over 20 years, which has some profound implications for many of our clients.” — Sarah Toth, VP Marketing, Guidance
Freelance developers may also be an option for your project. Let’s look at what the pros and cons are for using a freelancer instead of an agency.
There are a few potential advantages of working with a freelancer:
Cost: One freelancer’s time is typically going to cost less than the expense you’ll incur working with an agency team. But even if the rate is lower, make sure you consider everything you’ll get, as well as what you won’t.
Communication: Working with just one person can be an advantage if you want to stay in close alignment with the project, whereas agencies may have several people working on different pieces of your site.
But there are also some potential downsides to choosing a freelancer over an agency:
Skillset: If a freelancer isn’t familiar with your ecommerce platform, that’s a big disadvantage, and could lead to your web project taking more time.
Experience: Depending on your freelancer’s background, you may be missing out on years of experience in the ecommerce industry at-large.
Accountability: Since freelancers only work for themselves, if you’re dissatisfied with the product, you have much less recourse than if you’d worked with an agency.
There are plenty of sites on the internet that can connect you to a wealth of freelance developers. Here are some of the top choices.
Upwork is a full-service freelancing platform for freelancers working in everything from writing and editing to software or web design development to UX and so much more.
Freelancer can connect you with people who have a wide variety of technical skills, and some marketing and copywriting as well.
Guru has over 500,000 freelancers on its platform that specialize in programming and development, plus more across a number of other functional areas.
Toptal claims to have the top 3% of freelancers and focuses on designers, developers, product and project managers, and finance.
If you decide to hire one of the many talented ecommerce development companies out there, chances are you’ll find more than an outsourced team: you’ll find a partner.
Here’s how to evaluate your options to find the right ecommerce development agency for your needs.
There’s a developer out there that can work within your budget; you’ll just have to find the right one — and remember, you (typically) get what you pay for.
When you’re having conversations with potential developers, it helps to go in with a budget in mind. Don’t forget to think about the total cost of ownership, including any post-production costs like maintenance or upgrades.
If in-person meetings are important to you, consider hiring someone local or someone from an easy-to-access city who can fly in and out for meetings. If you’re more focused on a skillset or specific niches, you may need to broaden your search.
Looking at agencies’ previous work is one of the best ways to get a sense for what they can really do. But don’t just look at the final result — ask questions, and look at the case studies, if they have some. You want to not just see the product, but also the results it got for the business.
Ask an agency about their current clients. How long have they been on retainer? If they seem to only stick with a client for several projects instead of long-haul, something may be amiss.
On the other side of the coin, ask them how long their team has been around. If they rotate through employees quickly, they may have a problem with culture, and those issues may also extend to their client relationships.
If a development agency isn’t familiar with the platform you want to build on, you may want to steer clear unless you have a very specific reason why they’re who you want to pick.
“There are many agencies that have worked on lots of platforms, but an agency that specializes in a certain platform will have more extensive experience and understand all of the ins and outs of that platform.” — Jeff Dyksen, CEO, Diztinct
In addition to asking for past work to evaluate, you’ll want to get a still-deeper sense of previous clients’ satisfaction. Look for reviews of their work, and ask for references. If you can talk to their previous clients about how the agency performed and what they brought to the table, this will give you incredible insight into how the agency works and if they’ll be right for you.
Here are the questions you need to ask agencies to streamline the information-gathering process.
Make sure you know what ecommerce solutions the developers have worked with. Some developers work across all the major ecommerce platforms; others specialize in specific platforms. You’ll also want to ask about size and scope of projects, so you can be sure they can handle a project your size.
Some agencies specialize in certain areas and are less well versed in others. Find out what the agencies in question are known for. This kind of information may come out of your conversations with references/past clients. Make sure that they’re not weaker in the areas you need most.
“When you are looking to hire a development agency, you should consider your desired outcome and the capabilities of the firm in question,” said Jeremy Gryder, CEO of Cart Consultant.
“If you need a great design but also need to integrate with an antiquated ERP, you will likely be disappointed by a small boutique firm that primarily does design.” — Jeremy Gryder, CEO, Cart Consultant
Gryder continued, “Ask them questions that relate to their capacity, relative experience, and the capability of their team. The responses you receive should be in-depth and directly relate to your needs.”
Ask them how long projects like yours typically take, and when there will be check-ins with you to iterate if needed. Make sure they can get to your project in a timely fashion and that they have a team the right size to address it in a reasonable amount of time.
Many ecommerce developers get certified on one or several of the major ecommerce platforms. If you already selected the one you want, make sure you find one that knows your platform. There are also other credentials that can help back up the developer’s legitimacy, so consider which of those may be valuable for your needs.
The agency will likely have questions about your vision and what ideas you have. If they have too few questions, that could indicate they have ideas of their own — and they might not intersect with yours. Ask at what milestones you would be receiving an opportunity to provide feedback.
You need to find an agency or freelance developer who can work with the platform you already have. Or, if you’re looking to replatform, you need a person or team who can steer you in the right direction for your business.
Whoever you choose as a partner, you want them to be able to bring the vision for your website design to life. As you start to scale, you’ll want them to complement you and your team by bringing new, achievable ideas in line with your strategy.
Speaking of scaling — as your business grows, you’ll need continued expertise to ensure your website can keep up with the traffic and is being optimized for performance.
“Investing in a development agency to build and maintain your ecommerce site,” said Diztinct CEO Jeff Dyksen, “is not a one-time transaction, but an on-going relationship.”
Choose an agency that can learn your business inside and out. That long-term relationship can really pay off for your business.
An agency can only help you based on the information they have at their disposal. Holding anything back may lead to you both being disappointed — your business needs might not be fully met, and your agency will feel as though they haven’t delivered the best product for you.
“It’s helpful to assess the requirements of your project before you begin your search,” said Jared Frank, co-owner of Mojo Active. “Consider what services you will need before, during and after the migration or build.”
The best thing you can do is to be very, very clear about what you need, from design elements to functionality (most important!) to content and user experience.
Launching a great ecommerce site takes time, and it can be a challenge to go it alone. If you’re looking for a freelance developer or an agency to help get you on track, we’ve given you some ways to determine whether to choose a freelancer or an agency, and then the right one for you.
Agencies have so much experience — this means that you can get a better finished product, often from a team of people who know the ecommerce industry much better than a typical freelance developer.
This strategic partnership will be vital to your business moving forward. You want to make sure you have a team you can trust and count on to be there when you need them.
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For a list of all official BigCommerce partners, check out our BigCommerce list of partner agencies who can help.
Victoria is a content marketing writer, researcher, and content project manager at BigCommerce. Specializing in writing and web content strategy, she previously spent eight years in public relations and marketing for Tier I research universities. She holds a B.A. in English Writing and Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University and a Master of Liberal Arts from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.