Written by Beth Downey

There’s a constant when it comes to website design and development: Whether you’re working with a solopreneur who manages her own website or a larger business with a marketing team, clients want their websites to have a custom look that’s tailored to their brand. No matter the size of the business, the clients I deal with often possess a great depth of knowledge about the web. Occasionally there are those who know enough to be dangerous, but don’t always understand the scope of what they’re asking for when it comes to how websites are constructed.

I’ve had a couple of exchanges with some marketing folks recently and want to address one request in particular:

“We want custom solutions.”

An example I’ll use here is a chat function within a website. Say you’re planning to buy a car. You start by searching for car dealerships in your area. From the search, you navigate to a local car dealership’s website. Often, when you click on a car, a chat box will pop up asking if they can assist you with any questions. Recently, a marketing manager inquired about this type of functionality for a web project. I responded that WordPress has several plugin solutions for that type of request. The response was, “Oh, no. We want custom.”

Allow me to pull back the curtain

There is no “custom.” Well, there is, but hiring a web developer to build something from the ground up would be both prohibitively expensive and totally unnecessary.

I’ll return to my “a website is like a car” analogy I used at a former job. The way most people distinguish one car from another is by the exterior look. Red or blue, convertible or hard top, coupe or hatchback. But imagine you really want to stand out from the crowd. You’d like your car to be “custom.” Maybe you add a special paint job – a black base with orange and red flames says to the world “My car is smokin’!” Or you’re a celebrity who wants privacy, so you get the windows tinted. Those are customizations, but it’s still the same car. There’s no need to tinker with the engine, fuel injectors or whatever else makes a car run to get a flashy, one-of-a-kind vehicle.

Websites operate in a similar fashion.

When someone tells me “we want a custom solution,” what they really mean, even if they don’t know it, is that they want the customer-facing side to be branded accordingly. In almost every case there is no need to design a from-scratch custom solution because a solution already exists at an affordable price. Let’s return to the car dealership’s chat window. If you were to build that from the ground up, it would cost thousands of dollars in development hours. To make a profit on that, the agency will have to charge the client another thousand (or more) to it to justify paying a developer to create it. And there are only so many clients with that sort of budget for a website build. The cost effective solution is to use an existing piece of code – a plugin in most cases – and reskin it to integrate with the existing branding. With this approach, you or your company gain a customized solution without bespoke code fees.

Long story short, the wheel has already been invented.

Hundreds of thousands (if not more) development hours have been spent building the tools that fit most website needs. And these tools exist as open source so that anyone can use them. It’s up to you (and your marketing team) to work smarter, not harder.

Photo credit: Queensland State Archives