The hidden costs associated with traditional web development

The time and money spent to build and maintain your business’ website extends far beyond the price tag of the initial software and build.

By Vikas Bhagat, Director of Product Marketing at Webflow

For years, enterprise web development has required engineering teams to make regular, sometimes cumbersome software and maintenance updates. But from cloud-based software to no-code tools, how we build for the web has evolved over the last few decades — making websites much easier to manage and update at a fraction of the cost and labor. 

There are now several different approaches to building a web presence for mid-to-large sized businesses. Choosing a content management system (CMS) is the first step.

There are three main approaches an organization can take:

  • Customize a CMS: You choose a CMS and bring on front-end developers to customize your site.
  • From the ground up: You hire full-stack developers so you can start from scratch, building your own CMS.
  • No-code development: Non-technical teams can contribute to the site with some support from a developer if needed.

The CMS you select will heavily impact your workflow and influence the costs you’ll incur — both during the initial build and over the lifetime of managing your website. On top of that, there are more major costs traditionally associated with building an enterprise-grade website.

Tangible costs — like the price of your software or the cost of hiring an agency — are easier to quantify, but they can also hide in unexpected places.

Let’s break down tangible costs into two core categories: Set up costs and recurring costs.

Set up costs

Set up costs run the gamut depending on your organizational structure and available resources, and at minimum, typically includes the following:

  • Initial design and development labor to create designs, copy, photography, and illustrations — as well as general content for your new website
  • A site domain and the purchase of similar variations
  • A CMS to organize the data of your site
  • A bespoke tech stack with tools, plugins, and services to get the functionality you need –– from design to SEO –– to operate a modern enterprise site

Teams have the option of managing all of the associated responsibilities with these costs in-house. This requires relying on existing creative, engineering, and marketing team members for website development and management. Or, teams short on resources have the option to outsource these costs to freelancers or outside agencies. Whichever approach your business takes, these costs will become line items in your marketing budget. 

Recurring costs

It’s no secret that website development is not a one-and-done effort. Businesses will need to foot the bill of recurring costs, and once your site is live, teams can move onto the iterative phase, focusing time and energy on maintenance, optimizations, updates, and more. 

Let’s start with the basics: software and tech stack costs. It’s almost guaranteed that your platform of choice, plugins, and tech stack components will come with good ol’ monthly or annual fees. A typical enterprise website, stable CMS system, hosting stack, and a front-end engineer will run you anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000 a year –– and this cost compounds for high-traffic, content-heavy sites.

Then we have software version updates. Major updates, which typically introduce important security improvements and modernize their systems, are released every few years and can easily cost up to $60,000 for each version release and eat up hours of engineering time. For teams with complex websites and custom code, rebuilding it on the new software version may not be an option. Instead, you’ll have to undergo a slow, attention-demanding process of migrating specialty functions, user-generated content, and more. 

And we can’t forget about ongoing spend on site management. Depending on how developer-led your platform is, making changes to your site will run up a bill in labor and time. If you have an agency on retainer, the cost of small changes can quickly add up. An in-house team will make changes less expensive, but they’ll also likely need to turn to engineers for support, eating up their precious time.

And then there’s time

Your website is a living object, serving as a meeting point for you and your customers. Typically, several teams contribute to and develop the website as part of their day-to-day work, making time your biggest intangible line-item for site development and management. Not only does it demand the bandwidth of your employees, but it requires advanced planning, involves multiple stakeholders with potential third-party support, and puts your reputation on the line.

A few of the major areas your marketing team will spend its time on are:

  • Finding developer talent, which may require your marketing team to spend time vetting external agencies if you choose the third-party route — or vetting engineers if you manage the build in-house.
  • Executing the initial site build, whether with an agency or an internal team, who will need to work it into existing programming and development calendars.
  • Optimizing the user experience, which require site changes and updates in order to regularly respond to the needs of your users.

For companies who choose to launch and manage a web development project in-house and with traditional tools, there will be a slew of pre-launch and recurring responsibilities that will sit with developers and engineers: 

  • Site monitoring and maintenance, requiring regular developer attention for software that operates on a versioning and patch model.
  • Conducting site migrations, required for software version updates.
  • Troubleshooting issues and bugs anytime your tech stack breaks, to prevent or remedy outages that can result in lost business or customer trust.
  • Launch delays, aka bottlenecks, due to a limited number of people available to launch a final product (and can be true for teams working with external agencies, too).

Understanding the real, long-term costs to success is a crucial step any marketing team needs to take before embarking on ambitious projects. There’s so much to balance –– time, talent, budget, urgency, business needs –– and there’s even more at stake with a public-facing launch or site refresh.

At the end of the day, human energy and attention are limited, as are funding and hours available for any single project in a given week. The core decision at hand is how to effectively allocate those precious resources. If marketing teams have their hands tied by slow development timelines, your speed-to-market will suffer. If engineers are always busy keeping the site up, running, and updated, they won’t have time to focus on improvements or innovation.

No-code visual development enables teams without coding experience to make their own changes to your website as needed. When multiple teams — such as marketing and design — can contribute directly to your website, they can collaborate more effectively together, be more nimble in responding to customer news and allow for more experimentations and iterations. 

Plus, there’s priceless peace of mind knowing that a team can go off and build their parts of the website and not have to rely on a stretched-too-thin engineering team.

You could spend money on regular site updates — or you could use that budget on core product innovation and keep your web presence at the cutting edge. By choosing a no-code development platform that speeds up timelines and reduces labor costs, you’ll open up new opportunities for your business — ones that result in outcomes that are truly outstanding, unique, and will help differentiate your company and your brand in the eyes of your users.