At Barn2 Media we design and develop WordPress websites for a wide range of clients. This ranges from individual bloggers to multinational organisations. All websites need some level of support and maintenance after the initial go-live.
The aim of ongoing support is obvious. It ensures all the websites we design are kept secure, up to date, properly maintained and running smoothly. However in the past, a lot of the people we have worked with have declined any ongoing support or maintenance for their website.
It's so disappointing for us to see a beautiful website that we have designed go downhill due to poor maintenance and neglect. It makes me wonder why someone would pay for a professional WordPress website and then throw away their investment by not maintaining it.
One of our biggest challenges as a WordPress web design agency has been to develop effective support services for all our clients. We've spent a long time analysing the way we offer support and maintenance to clients. We have also considered why not everyone is prepared to invest in maintaining their website. And most importantly, our role in this.
This is what we have learned.
Why WordPress maintenance is the hardest thing to get right
As Operations Director of a WordPress web design agency, I have come across pretty much every possible issue relating to WordPress web design. Since we started in 2009, we have developed robust processes for WordPress design and development. This includes how to build new websites, how to quote for new projects and what to include in our standard prices. It includes how to communicate with clients, what tasks need doing when a website goes live...... the list goes on. Most of our processes are very well established. Apart from the odd tweak, they don't tend to change much over time.
Ongoing services are an exception. Historically, a high proportion of clients have invested in the initial website development but declined ongoing support or maintenance. It's not that they're going elsewhere. They just don't see the value in these services.
Time and time again, I have seen a client pay £2,000+ for a shiny new WordPress website but refuse to pay £45 per month to maintain it maintained. They say they will maintain the website themselves. But when I log into the admin after a few months then I invariably see out of date information and a long list of uninstalled updates.
While our other processes are (mostly!) spot on, it has taken a long time to design support and maintenance services that clients see as worthwhile. So what's going on?
"If you can't see it, it doesn't exist"
I always remember one of our first projects as a WordPress web design agency. We were commissioned to develop a website with bespoke e-commerce system. We spent a couple of days building the front end of the website using a theme. Plus several months developing a powerful e-commerce system behind the scenes. When we presented the work to the client, they were delighted with the pretty website. They were thrilled with the homepage slideshow and thought it was amazing how the slides moved on their own! They had barely a word to say about the e-commerce functionality which represented 90% of the work.
Since then, I've seen the same thing time and time again. People tend to assign value to what they can see, and ignore anything more technical behind the scenes. This happens regardless of what is actually important to their website.
I know the above analogy isn't about support or maintenance. However it does help to explain people's attitude towards ongoing website maintenance. They will happily pay £2000+ for an eye-catching WordPress website that will act as a virtual storefront for their company and directly increase profits. There's a direct return on investment which helps to justify the cost.
In contrast, they may be reluctant to spend £45 per month on maintenance. After all, the website will look the same whether or not it's maintained. £45 per month isn't much, but does add up over time. It's hard to justify if you can't see a direct return on investment. ManageWP's article WordPress maintenance: Are you worth less than a cup of Starbucks coffee? beautifully illustrates this.
As a result, a lot of people see a website as a one-off cost. They don't want to accept that there may be ongoing costs. (Apart from unavoidable ones like web hosting).
Lack of education
Unless something is actually broken, a WordPress website will look the same from the front end whether it's on version 3.0.4 (yes, I do know of websites that are this out of date!), 4.3.1 or anything in between. This gives people an excuse to stick their head in the sand and refuse to pay for ongoing maintenance.
I think this is a dangerous attitude as just like cars, all websites need maintenance. There are several building blocks that make up a WordPress site. There's WordPress itself, there's the theme (which controls the design and layout). There are also plugins which add extra features such as e-commerce, membership, security enhancements and social media integration.
It's very important to update all of these components on a regular basis. As well as adding new features and bug fixes, updated versions often contain security enhancements and patches for known vulnerabilities. As WordPress is such a popular platform, it tends to receive more attention from hackers and therefore any small security holes can be quickly and easily exploited. The complexity of modern websites and the sheer number of plugins and themes available means that the updates process is not always straightforward. It's important to test the website thoroughly after each update to make sure no errors have been introduced.
Isn't it a web designer's job to educate their clients?
Unfortunately, in the past we have not been vigilant enough in helping all our clients understand the importance of keeping their website up to date. Most of our new clients have an ongoing website maintenance plan, but some of our longer standing clients manage their own updates and have let their site get out of date.
It's always a shame when a previous client contacts us to report that their website has been hacked. In 100% of the cases where this has happened, I have seen that the website is very out of date with many updates available that have not been installed. (To clarify - I have seen websites designed by other agencies that have been hacked for other reasons, for example an insecure hosting environment or not following security best practices such as not having an 'admin' user. However I have only ever seen a website designed and hosted by Barn2 Media get hacked after it has been allowed to get out of date.)
It can be very time consuming - therefore costly - to fix a hacked website. It's much more cost-effective to maintain a website on a regular basis, not to mention other benefits such as better experience for your users, newer features, bug fixes, improved load speeds and SEO (search engine optimisation) improvements.
All of this means that scrimping on maintenance is a false economy. By saving a small amount of money per month, you risk being hit with a much larger bill for fixing something when it breaks or - even worse - your website gets hacked and you look unprofessional to your customers and take a hit in the search engines.
WordPress is a CMS, I'll do it myself
WordPress has grown into the world's leading content management system because it makes it easy for clients to update their own websites. This has given a lot of people the impression that once a WordPress website goes live, they don't need any ongoing support from a WordPress web design agency.
The problem is that this attitude is inconsistent with the complexity of most modern WordPress websites. Yes, a WordPress website can be very simple and easy to update and maintain. But most websites are more complex than that and do need some professional input. This applies to the need for ongoing support time - which I have covered in a separate article Why all WordPress websites need support - as well as maintenance.
What sort of website can I update myself?
If your WordPress website has a few pages, some free plugins and a theme that can be updated from the WordPress admin then you can probably take care of your own updates. (Although in my experience, even people in this situation rarely bother and still let things get out of date...).
But your website may have more complex functionality that will need testing after each update. It might have a premium theme that can't be updated via the 'Updates' page. You might have a theme with bundled plugins such as Revolution Slider or Visual Composer which are tricky to update. Or there might be premium plugins that need renewing each year.
If this is you then your WordPress web design agency will probably need to do your updates and maintenance. You'll still be able to make content changes yourself using the WordPress CMS. But more work and technical know-how is needed to keep things running smoothly behind the scenes.
It's clear that regular maintenance is important for any website. But there are good reasons why this isn't immediately obvious to website owners. It's our responsibility as a WordPress web design agency to help our clients to understand the importance of regular maintenance.
How we're helping our clients to choose their support and maintenance
We have learned that planning the support and maintenance for a website is an integral part of web design. It's not an afterthought. We shouldn't design websites for people and then say "Oh, and do you need maintenance?" at the end of the process. Instead, the need for regular maintenance should be part of the overall discussion. The question is not "Do you need maintenance?" - it's "How will your website be kept up to date and maintained?"
With that in mind, we have developed a new online tool. It allows our clients to build their own personalised support plan. They can mix and match from any of the following services to choose the right level of support for their website:
- Web hosting and backups
- Software and security updates
- Ongoing support and development time
- Ongoing Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and social media marketing
The system helps us present regular maintenance as something that all clients need to make an active decision on. It supports our discussions about support and maintenance so they're no longer an afterthought. All the support options are in one place so that clients can think holistically about which ongoing services their website needs.
Should we host out of date websites?
One question that arises from all this is what happens if a client declines ongoing maintenance for their website. This can happen even after we have educated them about its importance.
If a client is arranging their own web hosting, there's nothing we can do if they don't look after the website properly. They have commissioned us for a one-off service which is now complete.
If we're hosting a website then we have the right to insist that it's maintained and kept up to date. This helps to keep everyone's websites more secure and ensures the integrity of our hosting platform, so it's fair enough.
In the future, we will only be willing to host websites that are properly maintained. It doesn't matter whether we provide the updates or whether the client arranges this themselves. The important thing is that the websites we design are maintained in a regular and responsible way.