There aren’t many things that vary in price as much as a membership website, which can easily range from £0 to £100,000. This makes it very difficult for you to know how much to budget for your website and whether any particular website agency or provider is offering good value for money.
This post explores the two key components that affect the price you pay for a website: the technology you use and the amount of strategic input you need. We give you guidance on how much you should expect to pay for different website design products and services so that you can speak to website agencies with greater confidence.
Three types of website technology
The technology driving a website will have a significant impact on its cost to you, the amount of control you will have and the ability to expand its capabilities in the future. This section explores the three most popular types of website technology, ranging from cheaper to more expensive.
Option 1: Website building apps
An increasingly popular option, especially for smaller membership organisations, is a website building application, sometimes called a SaaS platform (which stands for Software as Service). The whole idea is that they look after all of the software installation, setup and maintenance for you. You get less flexibility but more stability and access to huge economies of scale. Many of the best membership software provides built in website-building tools that can make it easy to achieve common members' area functionality like directories and restricted content.
Cost of ownership over 4 years: £0 - £5,000
Option 2: Open-source distributions and themes
Open-source content management systems like Drupal and Wordpress and open-source databases like CiviCRM are all technically free (anyone can download the source code). A key strength of this option is the flexibility they offer for customisation making them suitable for a very wide range of purposes, This flexibility, however, means that they will always need to be specifically configured in order to create a membership website that is effective and easy to manage.
Open source systems are very flexible, which is great if you have the right support, but they are also complex which means there is a lot to think about, discuss, test and refine. Additionally, open source systems like this normally cost more to maintain because your implementation will probably be customised with its own peculiarities and ongoing security updates will not be installed automatically.
Open source distributions and themes minimise the setup costs of an open source content management system by pre-configuring countless variables to suit a particular use case or audience. This shares the cost of development among many customers whose needs are similar. This can also make them easier and cheaper to maintain and you may get functionality that you don't currently need that can be easily activated in the future.
Cost of ownership over 4 years: £3,000 - £12,000
Option 3: Open source customised
Historically this has been the most popular option for membership organisations, largely because of the lack of good options in the two categories above. With a customised open source system the organisation pays the full cost of the time taken by the developer to optimise the content management system for their needs.
The big advantage of this approach is that unusual requirements can be accommodated and the system can be built specifically around your needs. Of course, this comes at a cost both in terms of initial setup and then future development and maintenance. Every time you need a feature you will have to pay to have it developed.
As you’ll see from our cost range below the quality of what you get in this bracket is extremely variable. A large reputable agency may use this approach to build an amazing site that is well refined and tested. A small agency without a proven track record may be learning on the job and the resulting website may be very buggy and not stand the test of time. Ongoing maintenance costs become much harder to predict because even if the underlying system is well known you may find yourself tied to the agency who built the website because they are the only people who understand (and are willing to support) the idiosyncrasies they have added to the underlying open source platform.
If you want to hire an agency or freelancer you will need to create a brief. Learn how to write a good website design brief and download the free template.
Cost of ownership over 4 years: £10,000 - £50,000
You can think of websites like clothes: bespoke tailor-made stuff is great if you have lots of cash or if you really need it, but it’s always cheaper to get something off the shelf. And if you can try before you buy it hugely reduces the risk involved in the purchase.
The second key factor affecting cost is how much external strategic input you need. There will be various stages that require your input and are often best owned by you. But membership specific agencies will be able to offer lots of input even during these early stages.
There are lots of ways you can gain external input on your organisation's communication strategy. To make it easy to digest we’ve grouped the strategy options into three rough tiers going from cheapest to most expensive and then noted a few common ‘extras’ to bear in mind. If you want to help position your needs along the £0 to £100,000 spectrum then have a think about which tier matches your expectations and needs most closely.
Option 1: Self-service
Some membership organisations are blessed with super talented communicators who have done this all before or are quick to learn. Obviously employing these kinds of people is an investment in itself but once you have them it can really cut the costs of your website project to use their expertise to guide the project.
There are loads of free resources out there to help proactive marketers to build a great communication strategy and implement it across multiple channels. A great place to start is our post on creating an integrated communications strategy.
Option 2: Professional guidance
More commonly, membership organisations have some internal experience but are also daunted by the process of a website overhaul and are looking for confident, experienced external input to help minimise the myriad decisions and choices. What you need here is someone to walk you through a process step by step. You are probably happy to do much of the content strategy implementation yourself but you want access to deeper expertise to define the process, review your work and suggest improvements.
Cost: £1,000 to 5,000
Option 3: Complete outsourcing
Unusual though it is, membership organisations do sometimes find themselves in the position of being cash rich and time poor. In such circumstances, it can be really helpful to outsource the whole website re-build. This can quickly become expensive because the agency needs enough time to get a deep understanding of your organisation such that they can make decisions on your behalf and deliver a product that serves the required purpose.
So this tier includes time for an external consultant or agency to get to know your organisation, work with you to refine the overall communications strategy and then draft key messages, sitemap, user journeys, and top-level website content.
Cost: £5,000 to £20,000
There are a few other things to bear in mind that can have quite a big impact on your costs:
Brand identity development
It’s very common to need a brand refresh alongside a new website. Some agencies will happily take on both tasks together but you may prefer to separate them. For more on this, read our guide on How to prepare for a brand refresh.
Cost: £1,000 to £5,000
Search engine optimisation
The top-level principles should be covered in the strategy section above but detailed page by page optimisation is a different matter and needs a dedicated budget to do well. A lot of the work required will be relatively low skilled but it will need experienced oversight. For more info check out our in-depth guide on how to master SEO.
Cost: £1,000 to £5,000
Once the key messages and structure of your content are established, graphic design can help to illustrate your points and make your website more visually appealing. This needn’t necessarily be carried out by the same agency who have built your website.
Cost: £500 to £2,000
Great photography is one of the easiest ways to improve your website but it takes thought and investment. Read our post on How to commission a photographer for useful tips and guidance.
Cost: £500 to £2,000
Your website content will normally be your responsibility to write, add and manage. If you are moving from an existing website large chunks of content can often be migrated programmatically which will save you time. The more diverse and complex your content, the more costly it will be.
Cost: £500 to £3,000
It is sometimes possible to get a grant to cover website setup costs. These rarely cover ongoing costs so you still need to think through your choices carefully. Key things to consider include:
- Can we use the grant for any supplier or is it limited (there are pros and cons each way).
- What is the total cost of ownership for the life of the website, including maintenance and new features?
- Does the grant cover exactly the services we most need?
Check out our guide to grant funding for charities and nonprofits.
Conclusion - so what will it cost?
Hopefully, you can now see how the needs of a website can easily grow as you consider all the surrounding marketing and data management needs. It’s relatively easy to get a charity website cheaply if you have access to good internal expertise but if you don’t then costs can escalate.
Here are a few examples of how you can apply this article to arrive at a budget for your project.
Startup or small charity (less than £100k turnover)
This may be your first website and you just need a simple, professional looking web presence to present a trustworthy image, explain what you do and provide a way for people to get in touch.
|Setup (£)||Monthly (£)|
|Tech: Website building app||-||20|
|Extras: Brand ID development||1,000||-|
|Total cost of ownership (over 4 years)||1,960|
Medium sized established charity (around £4m turnover)
You already have a website but it is out of date, hard to manage and not mobile friendly. You need a complete revamp, a new design and a much better content structure with features such as events, resources, donations and various ways for people to get involved.
|Setup (£)||Monthly (£)|
|Tech: Open source distribution||4,000||100|
|Strategy: Professional guidance||2,000||-|
|Extras: Graphic design and content migration||2,000||-|
|Total cost of ownership (over 4 years)||12,800|
Large charity (greater than £20m turnover)
You have custom needs that cannot be met by any off-the-shelf products. Streamlining your administration and syncing data is crucial and you need to be able to call on your agency regularly to develop new functionality.
|Setup (£)||Monthly (£)|
|Tech: Open source customised||20,000||400|
|Strategy: Complete outsourcing||10,000||-|
|Extras: Graphic design, SEO, photography,
content migration and further development
|Total cost of ownership (over 4 years)||61,000|
Total cost of ownership
Of course, be careful not to fall into the trap of evaluating the setup cost only. As you can see from the tables above, it’s crucial that you also consider ongoing development costs, support, hosting, etc.
Of course, it depends on your own circumstances - some charities find it easy to get large one-off grants while some prefer to pay less setup but can afford larger ongoing costs. But often funders are open to flexibility as they also understand the ‘total cost of ownership’ concept and want you to run sustainably.
We recommend doing the sums for a three to four-year lifespan. And if you prefer to spread costs then ask the agency - they may well be willing to consider a deferred payment approach.
For more advice on choosing the right approach for your organisation get in touch with our friendly team of charity website experts.