Total Cost of Building A Website: Looking Beyond the Price Tag

12 July, 2017

Tallying Cost

Reframing how we understand total cost can lead to a better website and ultimately, a more successful implementation of an agency’s mission.

My last article on this subject focused generally on website cost and technology, but from conversations with colleagues and clients, it’s become clear that there’s a need to shift the thinking around the total cost of technology. This article is the first of four where I’ll discuss which specific drivers impact cost.  In future articles, I will provide framework, tools, and processes to accompany this expanded view.

Total Cost: An Overview

We need to alter the way we think about the total cost of technology and what drives it. As I said at my 17NTC session on the same subject, the total cost of technology is comprised of financial, time & human capital, opportunity, and brand impact.  Let’s pick this statement apart and examine these aspects of total cost.


Money and budgets are what people generally refer to when they think  about the cost of technology. What are my capital expenditures here? What up front (financial) costs do I need to take on to get my project done, or to support initiatives? What will it cost to host and maintain my website?

Time and Human Capital

It’s not enough to think exclusively about a flat project expenditure. Instead, how many people (and for how long) does it take to get something done? How hard are the tasks? What’s the impact on the schedule? Do we have the right people to do this? What are we paying them? What work is being diverted or ignored by involving our staff in this project? Do we need outside help? Is the technology we’re using the right technology to support or hinder our people?


It’s important to keep in mind opportunity cost when planning the execution of your website. Is it worth expending the time and resources to develop a new website? What will we be giving up in order to do this? Will the outcome be worth the reallocation of assets, resources, and results? Content is a great example. Often times flashy website features, while exciting and enticing, don’t outweigh the cost of construction. (For a comprehensive explanation, check out this article by one of our web developers!)

Brand Impact

Successful execution vs. poor execution, both technically and organizationally, can impact your brand and its goals. It can make a difference whether or not people trust or mistrust your brand. Additionally, this has cost implications not only financially, but also in your ability to accomplish your mission effectively.

Drivers to Total Cost

Broadening the way you think about the total cost of technology, along with understanding what drives cost, will help you to better plan and advocate for your needs in order to accomplish your goals.

Open Source vs. Paid

While open source software is free, you can opt to pay for software services in the form of managed services, subscriptions, support and training. That being said, commercial products don’t always equate to higher quality or usability. As your needs evolve, you need to make sure the tech you choose evolves with you.

Think about what kind of development will be needed for an open source vs. a commercial proprietary platform. Proprietary systems require specialized skills and development costs can be higher because of this. What about customizations to a platform to ensure it meets your functional goals? Are they easily accomplished or will they become an entity requiring hacking around limitations? (Generally, hacks are not sustainable over time and cost more in the long run.)

Even when choosing open source over something commercial, there may be a difference in development costs based on the system. For example, Drupal development tends to be higher cost (in time & money) than WordPress because of the nature of its underlying CMS architecture. But don’t let that discourage you from choosing Drupal if it’s the right fit for your organization’s goals, especially if you have complex enterprise integrations or functional needs.

Lastly, while not an immediate cost, what if in the future you need to migrate infrastructure from one commercial platform to another or to an open source platform? Getting your data out of a proprietary system and migrated might not be an easy lift or even possible.

And if you feel overwhelmed reading this and you have no idea how to choose a platform, rest assured—we’ll discuss how to get answers and make decisions  in series 2-4!


Integrations can be one of the most significant drivers of cost. What systems does your website need to integrate with?

Externally, not all systems’ interfaces (APIs) are created equally. This rings particularly true with CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems. Zoho integration is not the same as Salesforce. They require different levels of effort to ensure they play nice with your website. Leaving your website and clicking out to an external CRM (a ‘Click Here to Donate’ button that brings you to an entirely new website) is “cheaper” from a budget, time, and effort perspective, but is it what you want experientially for your users? Are you choosing the right CRM for your organization’s needs? Is it overkill operationally? Financially?

Internally, you can think of integrations as the relationship between content within your website. How are you relating internal content and how do you surface those relationships? Is your site search simple or complex? Are related items to a piece of content manually curated, dynamically surfaced, or both? The lift in implementing these relationships and features can drive cost, especially if you choose a CMS that isn’t specifically friendly to complex relationships.


Timing can be a big driver to cost. Website launches that are tied to event-driven initiatives are a good example. Website redesigns demand significant attention from internal staff, do you have the organizational capacity and schedule availability to meet the event deadline? If you’re not planning with enough lead time, costs can and often escalate: late nights, premium costs for rush development from agencies etc. What happens if you miss the deadline? What does that cost you?


Hosting a website might be obvious (it has to live somewhere!), but you need to understand the impact to cost. How “managed” is the hosting—are updates to servers handled by the hosting company or are you on the hook to do them? If you’re using internal IT, what kind of timing and costs are associated?

You also need to think about the costs outside the web server. What about network management, i.e database servers, backups, and maintenance? Are you using a Content Delivery Network, and if so, what are the bandwidth costs? Similarly, what about your website availability and failover needs? If you’re asking for high uptime, availability, and full disaster recovery capabilities, be prepared for the price tag to go up.


It’s not often thought of or budgeted for when planning your website, but there are operational costs once it’s up and running. Content needs to be produced and managed. Have you planned for that? What resources and what amount of time is going to be needed? Is it easy to manage your content or is the back-end of your website causing additional overhead and stress for staff?

The website also needs to be maintained from a technical perspective. Who’s going to do that? And what about the administrative overhead in coordinating your website operations?

Going Forward

There’s a lot to think about once you’ve expanded your view on the total cost of technology and what drives it. Thinking about total cost in this manner might give you a headache initially, but it will also give you a clearer sense of what you’re realistically getting into, where your gaps in knowledge around costs are, and help you be better prepared to advocate for more budget, time, and resources to accomplish your organization’s mission.

In part 2/4 of this series, I will build upon this thinking, providing a framework and tools for evaluating and estimating total cost, as well as a practical process for implementation.

A version of this article originally on Constructive Thinking.