The Cost of Customized Collections Websites

How much does a museum website cost? This is an important question because most museums have to fit this cost into their annual operating budgets, thus they may need to plan and prepare for this expense years in advance of its development. But in those early planning stages, when specific requirements for such a project are necessarily vague, the target budget is often just a number settled on by the museum’s leadership team and approved by the board of directors.

This month’s newsletter delves into some of the important details that contribute to the costs of a museum website. The specific focus will be on how customizations, necessary to collections-based websites, drive up the costs for museum sites. Inadequate planning for projects like these can lead to a compromised final product that the museum will have to live with for many years, until the project cycle is repeated.

The Wide Range of Web Design Budgets

Across the spectrum of website design and development options, budget ranges are all over the map. In fact, the costs for website design and development are as broad as the costs of buying a car. You could get a used car, directly from an owner, and only spend a few thousand dollars. You could buy that same used make and model from a dealership and easily pay twice as much. A new car from a dealership might be closer to $25,000. Or a nice car with all the options could push you up into the $40,000 range. And, then a high-end Audi or Mercedes could easily cost you six figures.

Like a car purchase, you can find website options in all those ranges. You can get a basic website, from a freelancer using an off-the-shelf theme for just a few thousand dollars (just don’t expect the seller to be around to maintain it for you later). Or you can buy a similar site from a small design firm for $10,000-$20,000 with the benefit of knowing you have a longer term resource to help maintain the site. More customized sites that are professionally designed and maintained will put you in the “nice new car” range. And if you need an advanced site, one that integrates with other systems and functions as the hub of a multifaceted online presence, you’ll soon approach the Audi and Mercedes class. The analogy does break down there, because buying an Audi is a strictly luxury choice—but many museums and collections-based websites need customizations and features, not out of luxury, but from necessity.

An Explanation and Justification for Serious Investment

When prospective museum clients contact us, or send us their RFP, one of the preliminary issues I need to access is the fit between the museum’s budget and our costs. In my early days, as a young business owner, I was always uneasy talking too soon about money with potential new clients. But after a couple decades in this business, I’ve learned that early and frank discussions about money are one of the most helpful ways to honestly assess fit, and also build trust—on both sides.

Trust is the essential basis for successful partnerships and projects. And fears can make establishing trust difficult. When it comes to the process of agreeing to shell out significant amounts of money to a company you may only be just beginning to get to know, the fears are obvious and real. Will this company charge too much? Will they move the goal posts after starting the project and demand more money? Will they deliver on time? And the design firm has fears too. Will the fee cover our costs? Will the client pay in a timely manner? Will they change the parameters after we’ve established the budget?

As with most trust issues, in business and in life, better communication and setting proper expectations is the best path toward mutually beneficial, predictable, and effective relationships.

Unfortunately, initial new business conversations rarely go over an hour. And so it’s difficult in that short amount of time to get a handle on the specifics of the project, and also explain the details that go into the process and the budget. In some cases, institutional requirements don’t allow any direct conversations other than formal questions written in response to the RFP.

And so, in order to flesh out all that goes into a web design and development budget—and taking some trust-building initiative by putting our cards on the table—this month’s newsletter will describe and explain some of the major factors that go into a museum website’s costs.

The Design Firm Business Model

Before we get to a deeper explanation of project costs, it would be helpful to understand a creative firm’s overall business model.

Creative professional services firms have three basic revenue models: hourly (time and materials), project or fee-based, or value pricing. Hourly is the most straight-forward and firms that use the Agile development methodology usually have to go with a time and materials approach. But this open-ended model puts all the risk on the museum’s side of the engagement. And projects can quickly bloat into unexpected and unaffordable territory.

The value pricing model is the gold standard, and if Cuberis specialized in an industry other than the nonprofit world of museums, we would love to take this approach. It’s built around the basic laws of supply and demand. The more demand you have for your services, the more you charge. Price is not based on project specifications, but rather on what the market will bear. While this offers significant profit opportunities for the firm, it limits them to working with only the largest and wealthiest clients who can essentially out-bid each other for the opportunity to work with the desired firm.

But since Cuberis works with nonprofit museums with limited resources, we’ve chosen to follow a project model (with an hourly model for follow-on work and maintenance). While our project fees are in the higher ranges due to the kinds of sites museums need, our costs are still based on time data from past projects and a realistic assessment of what it will take to complete each new project.

To boil this down for Cuberis and our museum projects, we aren’t freelancers and we don’t build theme-driven sites, so we are regularly in the $40,000-$50,000 range for baseline projects. But museum projects that require a higher level of customization and integration can often hit the $60,000 to $120,000 range. That’s still a pretty broad range, and so I’ll drill down into some of the details in order to help explain the factors that go into museum website projects.

Where Does all the Time Go?

On a superficial comparison of websites, some based on pre-designed templates and built with standard out-of-the-box CMS features, and others that are fully customized, it can sometimes be hard to tell why there would be such a vast difference in project costs. But when you dig deeper, and notice some important functions, or look under the hoods of these two kinds of sites, there are significant differences in capabilities and thus also in costs.

Cuberis does custom design work, we don’t modify themes. This has obvious value, and obvious costs. There are some professionally designed themes out there that are quite good. And so, based on appearance only, there might be little apparent difference between an $89 pre-built theme and $15,000 of custom design time. But when a pre-built theme won’t do, then custom design is going to add significant cost to any project.

What you can’t see on the surface is what really pushes budgets into the higher end. I’ll limit our exploration to just three behind-the-scenes aspects of customized sites that require significant design and development time: custom fields, custom functions, and integrations.

Custom Fields. If you’ve ever logged into the backend of a CMS to create or edit content, you would recognize the most basic content creation mechanizm—the WYSIWYG content editor. These editors can be pretty sophisticated, and depending on your level of skill and ability to enter code view and tweak some basic markup, it can be used to build out very complex pages. But more often than not, the basic WYSIWYG editor can be frustrating to use, creates *ahem* less than elegant pages, and contributes to inconsistent styling.

The answer to the limited WYSIWYGinterface is to replace it with discrete content-specific fields whose display is controlled through custom-coded templates. For example, you could build out an artwork page with a basic WYSIWYG editor, dropping in an artwork image, listing the artist, medium, date, provenance, description, etc. Or you could have an artwork content type, with individual fields for each of those elements, and then display that artwork with consistently coded styles. Not only does this provide clean and consistent formatting with controlled and polished design (with no need for clients to markup code), what’s more it allows you to display the same work of art in many places, and in different contexts, without rebuilding or copying and pasting all the WYSIWYG formatting onto multiple pages. With individual fields, you can also create faceted search options allowing visitors to find artworks by their media, subject matter, style, or artist based on the custom fields built into each content type.

The need for custom fields for museum websites is obvious, and thus a museum is going to need to budget for the extra time it takes for a User Experience (UX) designer to breakdown artwork, artist, program, exhibition and other discrete kinds of content into specific sets of fields. And then, of course, web developers will need to create and wire up all those fields and style them according to a graphic designer’s mockups. And each part of this process involves discussions and review between the museum and the design firm.

That is a lot of back and forth and a lot of work doing custom specifications. One way that some firms try to minimize this effort by using “the kitchen sink approach.” They just give clients lots of custom fields, or tools to add their own custom fields. This puts the onus of implementation on the client, and complicates the backend interfaces. The final product, while theoretically more flexible, ends up being much harder to use. The kitchen sink approach to customization seems like you get more—more options, more flexibility, more tools—but really you end up with more headaches trying to decipher how all the tools work.

Cuberis spends time specifying each content type, figuring out how to boil down your needs to just those elements that will give you sufficient flexibility with maximum simplicity and ease of use. Striking that balance is actually quite tricky—it’s part of the expertise we bring to the table. But it always takes time to implement.

Custom Functions. In addition to custom fields, because museum websites contain complex collections, they also need custom functionality. For example, there are many interrelated aspects between museum content types. Each type needs to be broken down into their essential elements, but then also related to other kinds of content. Artists need to be related to their artworks. Events are related to programs. Blog posts can be connected to long form stories. All these cross-related aspects need to be defined, and then programmatically wired up. Additionally, UX and graphic designers will need design interfaces for how these relationships will be expressed and displayed on screen.

Other custom functionality might include the advanced display of artworks and artifacts using deep pan and zoom tools like OpenSeadragon, advanced events and calendar displays, and occasionally ecommerce.

Integrations. Last, but certainly not least, museum websites almost always involve integrations. Calendars sometimes need to be integrated with other events, ticketing, donation, and registration systems such as Blackbaud’s Altru, Doubleknot, Tessitura or Veevart. Collection Management Systems and/or DAMS are an essential museum website integration. Allowing visitors to search the collections, and accessing and relating collection items throughout the site is a foundational capability that allows museums to expand the reach and impact of these collections. This is one area of museum web development that almost always pushes budgets up toward the six-figure range, and sometimes over.

These three aspects, common to all collections-based websites, make museum web projects more expensive than simple theme-based sites, and even basic custom sites.

Additional Costs and Long Term Maintenance

Cuberis projects usually also include a $10,000 pre-project, on-site, content strategy consultation. Since projects focus so intensely on content types, content functions, and content integrations, it only makes sense to start a project with a careful analysis of the actual content itself. A content strategy helps to align the goals of all museum departments, identifies available resources, trains a team to cultivate sustainable habits, and establishes an actionable content development plan. It is such an important prerequisite to successful projects that we offer our content strategy as a detached service from our overall projects (our detached Content Strategy fee is $20,000, $10,000 of which can be applied to a future project). While this adds a bit of cost to a website budget, it’s probably the most important part of the project, ensuring that the rest of the work is on target.

Not only do museum websites require much more customization than typical websites, each custom element also adds to the long term costs of maintenance. For this reason, Cuberis focuses on customizations of a limited number of well-established existing tools. We customize existing plugins rather than building unique tools. This provides all needed functionality while minimizing the high cost of developing and maintaining unique code.

Getting Past the Superficial

While a superficial comparison of websites may conceal the big differences between theme-driven, basic CMS websites and customized, integrated collections-based websites, the real differences are quite extreme. And building these kinds of complex, interconnected, integrated sites does require sizable budgets. If you’re a regular reader our Museum Digital Insights, you know that one of our strategies is to begin to see the website as a contributor to museum revenue and not just a cost center. But getting to a place where those strategies can be implemented is the first step.

So we’ve pulled away the curtains, revealing all that goes into the development of a museum website from our side of these projects. Maybe it’s time to talk about what your institution needs to advance their mission, and expand the reach and impact of your museum’s collections, programs, and resources. We’d love to talk to you!

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