HOPE FOR THE BEST, PREPARE FOR THE WORST
No matter how much you like a digital marketing agency right now, in business, it's always wise to prepare for the inevitability of change. As your business grows, it's hard to say what your future marketing needs will be, and there's always a possibility that you may want or need to move on.
While working with clients who are in the middle of this struggle, it's become clear to us that many small businesses don't realize the potential pitfalls of a future website transition when they make an initial commitment to a marketing agency. We believe much of this comes down to the fact that they simply aren't asking the right questions when they interview agencies. So, here are five simple questions designed to give you a clear understanding of what your rights will be when working with a web designer or digital marketing agency.
1. WILL I HAVE CONTROL AND OWNERSHIP OF MY DIGITAL ASSETS?
Many factors come into play when selecting a digital marketing agency, but one factor that we find is often overlooked by businesses is the establishment of control and ownership of digital assets. From issues with proprietary software to limitations on access, pulling your website from one agency's server and taking it somewhere else is not always a straightforward process that you would think it should be.
So, if you don't yet have a website, or if you're shopping web developers, now is the time to ask the key questions about what will happen in the future, should you go somewhere else.
Ask them: Do you use any proprietary software that I'll lose access to if I end my relationship with you? You don't want to be forced to start from scratch with your website just because you've hired a new marketing agency, especially if you're a small business on a very tight budget.
If I decide to switch companies, what is the process? A good agency will have a simple answer for this question.
Do you have any special stipulations in you contract about who owns the content that you create? Make sure that your business will own the work that you're paying for in the end.
2. WHAT KIND OF ACCESS DO I HAVE AND WHAT IS RESTRICTED?
When you're interviewing digital marketing and web design agencies ask them how flexible they are about web hosting and your level of control and access. Push for as much access as you can, and if they resist allowing you into your website back end, we would consider this a red flag.
Ask them: Will I have full access to the website as an admin, and will I be able to do work on the website myself if I choose to? Often this comes down to little things - you spot a typo on a page and you can't reach anyone, or you want to make an adjustment to your listed business hours for the holidays. You should be able to access your website for any purposes that you may need it for. Beyond this, you should be able to access all of the back end of your website for backup or transfer.
If you're interested in staying in control, avoid agencies that have special login portals for their clients, proprietary software, or their own web hosting unless they offer full access to everything, including backup downloads. These are often offered as a selling point - "One simplified place for everything!" But in our experience these simplified portals can be quite restrictive in the true access that they offer.
3. CAN I MANAGE MY OWN WEB HOSTING, DOMAIN, AND OTHER PAID SERVICES?
While it sounds easiest to let an agency handle everything from domain registration to web hosting, this can put you in a bind down the road. While we do suggest consulting with your agency about your options, in the end, everything should be in your name and not the agency's. From widgets to software licenses, any recurring costs that are in an agency's name instead of your own need to be transferred if you ever leave the agency. You don't want to be stuck trying to switch billing or prove that you own your domain, or anything else, after years of using it in your marketing.
Talk to agencies you interview about how they handle this issue, and make sure that they're willing to put as much as possible into your name.
4. CAN I CHOOSE A WEBSITE PLATFORM THAT CAN BE EASILY MIGRATED AND IS NOT UNIQUE TO THE AGENCY?
Often, small businesses must rely on inexpensive, template-driven web platforms like Wordpress or Shopify, as they usually can't afford to hire a web developer create a full website from scratch. If this is the case with your business, discuss your options with your marketing agency, and push for the use of a common platform that will not be difficult for another agency to take over management of if the need arises. If you do plan to have someone build your website, clarify with them who will own the code, and make sure you understand how to download, edit, and backup your website.
Ask them: What website platform do you use?
Hosted Web Platforms are common in eCommerce as well as simple websites and offer inexpensive and easy web development solutions that are hosted on their own servers. Some examples of these include Shopify, Squarespace, and BigCommerce. Small businesses love these options as they can quickly get a fully functional website without a big cost. These platforms also offer an easy to manipulate user interface, meaning anyone with a little bit of tech savvy can do things themselves. However, if you reach a point where you'd like to host your own website, you'll need to start from scratch with your web development.
If your Digital Marketing Agency is working with you on one of these platforms, it's easy to request that you're set up as the owner, making any kind of transition a snap. As the website owner, you control who has admin access and what actions they're allowed to take on your website. If you fire your marketing agency, you simply rescind their administrative access and you're good to go.
Another common option for small businesses is to use an open source platform such as WordPress, Drupal, or Magento. These base platforms are offered for free, with business owners paying only for hosting services, templates, and added functionality. As such, marketing agencies often offer one or more of these platforms as the basis of their web design offerings. If your agency is working within one of these platforms, make sure that you'll have full administrative access and that you'll be able to download your entire website at any time if you need to. We suggest you also maintain control of your web hosting and domain name, as well as any paid add-ons.
If you are asking for a website built from the ground up, talk to the agency about who will own the code that they create... and make sure it's you!
5. LASTLY (AND MOST IMPORTANTLY) ARE THERE ANY CONTRACTUAL STIPULATIONS ABOUT OWNERSHIP OF CONTENT?
Although in general legal terms you should own anything that you paid your marketing agency to create for you, a close look at any contract you sign will assure that there are no special terms of ownership snuck in there. Some agencies will maintain ownership over certain types of assets such as illustrations, and you should be aware of that. It's also wise to understand what will happen to the content in the case of a dispute or nonpayment, in which case the agency may have legal grounds to claim ownership to some of your stuff. Before signing anything, confirm with the agency that you're working with that everything from your website to your social media accounts to adwords sets that are created on your behalf will belong to you, regardless of your future relationship with them.
Next up - How to change marketing agencies without losing all your stuff.
In the comments: Have you dealt with issues with transitioning websites in the past? Let us know how it turned out!