Let’s discuss where schools typically choose to spend budgeted website funds. There are basically three choices when it comes to the school funds spent on their websites.
- Pay staff to develop and manage a free or open-source CMS platform.
- Use a pre-developed platform (CMS platform) that is already created to serve the school’s specific needs and pay staff to manage it.
- Pay someone with expertise in the field to develop and manage the school website.
You might, at first glance, assume that choice #1 is the more affordable, and the costs go up from there. In reality, you might be surprised to learn that is often NOT the case. But, to get the facts, let’s look at it as a business owner would. The business owner would weigh all the costs, those he or she tracks and that have a line item in the budget, as well as the costs buried under those categories of “other duties as assigned,” as in staff costs.
Let’s be honest. If you hire IT staff to take care of your technology needs (which are myriad) and then you assign them to learn and manage tasks that are communication-related, you are unlikely to create efficiencies or productivity. If you require teachers or principals or secretaries to learn software, maintain website accessibility compliance, and implement good communication practices, all of which are outside the skills and training for which you hired them, you might find some deficiencies. However, there is a cost involved. Every hour your staff spends on website management is a cost (tracked or not).
As the saying goes, “there is no free lunch.” If you want them to do the job right, it is going to take time and training, which means a cost is involved. If that is where you want them to focus their time, then that is awesome. Just provide them with the training and tools they need to do the job well. If you expect them to do the job because “well, someone has to do it,” then don’t expect much, and don’t complain when your website fails to accomplish your goals.
Option #1 and #2: Content managed system (CMS) websites
Whether you use an open source or vendor-provided CMS platform, the process is the same. The costs are also equivalent, in spite of the fact that open-source software doesn’t require a licensing fee. The open-source software requires a level of expertise not needed for a vendor-provided CMS. The staff costs can quickly outweigh the costs of using a vendor platform. You may not be aware of it simply because you aren’t tracking it. It is buried in staff salaries and not a line item that stands out.
As a typical example from my own life, my assistant superintendent husband’s previous school district assigned a willing staff member to manage their website. They happened to be using a vendor-provided CMS, so it didn’t require server management, security updates, and coding knowledge. The idea was that this staff member would spend a few hours a day doing website updates. This included adding content to just the district-level website (other staff members managed each school website). Over time, as the requirements of website management became more complex, this person was spending 60% of his time updating the website. When you factor in an experienced staff member’s salary, that meant the district was actually paying around $40K a year, plus the cost of the CMS platform, for just their district-level website management. If you factor in the time and training required of each person at the school levels also assigned these tasks, you can see that website management costs far more than a line item on the school’s budget.
It’s those hidden costs that need to be acknowledged and addressed. They are real and they are necessary, but do they need to be so expensive? And, are you getting the quality that you deserve for the money spent? Are you really getting what your school needs?
Option #3: Professional website management
This is most typically the option used by very large school districts, large corporations, and those who can afford and need a dedicated communications team. In order to do an effective website management job, this effort needs to coordinate and support the goals for marketing, communications, public relations, customer service (customer retention), and customer recruitment (sales). They simply hire professionals trained in public relations and communications, and this team manages the school websites as part of their overall strategy. And the website is usually the hub of these communications strategies. The staff they hire are trained in all of these fields, can advise the school administrators, help with media relations and crisis management, and are key players in marketing your school. These folks know their stuff and deserve a seat at the decision-making table. Listen to them!
But, what about the vast majority of schools that are not large enough to warrant this type of investment (even if they would definitely benefit from it)? They simply can’t afford that. What options do they have?
Professional school webmasters
Yep, there is such an option. Bear with me a bit longer as I explain how it works when a school wants its website to be more than just a place to hold required notices and a school calendar.
- We design a website to fit your needs and budget. The cost can be as low as $1200 and includes all the graphics, copywriting, layout, and strategy that is required to deliver a turn-key, mobile-friendly school website. Our website development prices are similar to most CMS platforms, but theirs won’t include the consultation, copywriting, and sometimes not even the layout for your new site. Check out our video describing our development process.
- In about six weeks, we take the website live and move you to the website management phase. We encourage our schools to provide access to anyone who would be a good resource for providing information, news, stories, or updates on what is happening at their school. They have access to our easy-to-use customer service portal where they send us any information they’d like us to add to the websites. They don’t need to have any training since we do the actual work of updating the sites. This means they don’t need to learn about website accessibility or best placement of content for readability or usability. We even review their requests for typos or grammar issues before placement.
- The typical cost for this service is $149 per month (per site). We do your updates quickly and accurately (24 hours for sure, but usually the same day). We handle urgent requests even sooner. The staff doing your updates are all trained in website best practices, website accessibility compliance, and quality control, and they will even make suggestions about how to incorporate public relations, improve communications, and better utilize your website.
As you can imagine, it would be very difficult to pay your staff members such a small amount and expect this level of training and expertise. This price also includes top-tier hosting and security for your websites. (Learn more about selecting school website hosting services.)
Where does your money really go?
If this sounds too good to be true, let me explain how we can do all of it for competitive prices with other providers who only offer CMS software.
First of all, when you hire a CMS vendor, the initial cost primarily goes to paying a sales commission. The development costs, if using a typical template system, are relatively small, but to get the word out about their company, they hire sales folks who get paid a commission. So, the actual development costs, unless you are paying for a fully custom website, are actually quite minimal since it doesn’t include the costly services of copywriting or consulting.
At School Webmasters, we don’t have a sales team. It is just Jim, one of the owners (and the founder’s son). So instead, what are typically revenues going to sales staff, our revenues go directly to the staff who do the work for you. Who are those people? Well, again, we’re quite unique. Our staff of around 58 people are nearly all women who have left their careers to raise their children. They are copywriters, UI designers, graphic designers, coders, public relations professionals, project managers, teachers, proofreaders, and others who are working from home offices all around the United States. Their goals include continuing their professions (or in some cases, establishing a career) under their own terms so they can balance family and work. We allow that flexibility, and our business model sustains it quite well. They are simply amazing, which you’ll see as soon as you work with School Webmasters.
Over time, schools needed more help with public relations and social media to make their websites more effective. So, we also offer services similar to those provided by a communications team. Even when you can’t begin to afford a full-time communications professional, we’ve got you covered. You can have a part-time communications coordinator, which we will hire, train, and manage from within your community for around $16K a year. You can have fully-managed social media support as well. Basically, we’re an affordable, professional communications resource for schools that value the power of effective school communications and website management.
Whatever you decide to do, whether to stay with the process you have or make a change, set some goals for your school website. Use it as the communication powerhouse it is meant to be by keeping it current, informative, interesting, and accessible. And then do the math and figure out what you are really paying for your website management process, including your staff costs in time and training. Knowing the facts will help you make the best decision about managing your school website.
Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.