Web Design/Student Interview for Project
Hello Mr. Somerfleck. I am a student working on my senior capstone project in digital advertising. In order to broaden my spectrum, I would like to ask you a few questions about your experience and on web design and content creation.
1. What education and experiences did you have that prepared you for a career in web design?
2. What is/are the biggest challenge(s) for web designers to overcome?
3. With more budgets going towards digital, there is a good deal of opportunity in the field. How tough is the competition compared to the opportunities.
4. What advice would you give to someone who is entering the web design field to get an advantage over the competition?
5. How can a web based business set itself apart from its competition online? (Dating sites, retailers, blogs, etc.)
6. What is the most important thing that you have learned working in web design?
Thank you for your time and your help.
Matthew, thanks for your questions.
Let's take them one by one:
1. When it comes to web design, internet marketing, SEO (search engine optimization), design, and marketing...you realize that it's quite a broad spectrum of information, professions, areas of expertise, and fields of knowledge that one has to be informed on in order to be able to be professional in any single one of those categories.
Just as a lawyer has to know about multiple types of categories of law, and a mechanic must be well informed on all different types and makes and models of engines in order to be fully proficient; in order to be a capable web developer and internet marketer with capability, you really have to be able to converse and hold your own on all of these topics (and some I didn't include for the sake of brevity).
So, my background was actually in Liberal Arts. I studied Shakespeare, iambic pentameter, copy writing, interned at magazines and newspapers, before graduating with a degree in English. I quickly realized after graduation that jobs paying livable wages in Journalism were very few and far between unless one had insider connections or had an MA (and even then, many employers found you to be "over qualified" and didn't want to pay the extra wages you'd understandably want). So, while working as a reporter, journalist, editor, copywriter, freelancing, I also started reading HTML and studying programming.
I started studying web design, programming, SEO, and internet marketing since (at least) 1998. By 2011 or so, I met a professional counselor at a networking group who had problems with her website (which I later came to learn were painfully common). She'd outsourced her website via a freelance site such as Odesk, or elance or Guru for a few hundred dollars, and couldn't use her site in any way. It had no SEO, wouldn't work on mobile cell phones, couldn't be changed, and the "developer" wouldn't return repeated phone calls or e-mails for help. This is the norm for small business owners. The lady in question asked me if I could help her. I decided I'd give it a shot...and eventually she became my first official client. Since that time, I have never met a client whose needs I could not fulfill. I've met plenty of clients who didn't understand the value of internet marketing or being found in Google search results, or who didn't value eCommerce; but never anyone whose goals I could not technically achieve. So when it comes to web design, internet marketing, SEO, and all that's related to it, I take a very holistic, approach and make it a point to legitimately help the business owner increase revenue, and expand as a result of what I do. Some can't conceive of how internet marketing could achieve this, and some can. The role of the professional web developer then also becomes that of educator and counselor - because we have to discover and gently reveal their pain (such as they need more customers or need to find ways to reduce overhead in order to generate more profit), and attempt to explain to them that we could help them overcome those issues if they value the solution and can let us help their businesses grow.
2. The biggest challenges for web developers to overcome? There are several: free website template generator services that promise small business owners (and what I call "wantrepreneurs") something for nothing: the promise of a free website. More small business owners than I expected fall for this ruse (it's very much akin to the old "shell game" or other types of gambling where people are promised certain pay offs they never actually get but the possibility is the thrill and what gets them involved). These are very popular, and usually leave people upset and angry and resentful in their wake. Most people who've gone with free template builder services I've met see all web developers as dishonest or unprofessional. It's the same with people who claim they can do work that they can't and must underdeliver.
Other challenges web developers face other than free template builder services and cheap under-priced overseas laborers willing to promise anything in order to get any work possible, are similar sites that offer a "how cheap can I get it" race to the bottom such as Fiverr and TenBux and so on. They offer "dollar store" quality to people uninformed and seeking bargains. Not a good combination.
Then you have massive agencies that practice the "quick flip" where they recycle one template, change a few colors, change a font, change out a few pictures, and then go on to the next client. I've met people who have paid $30,000 for a website that won't work on mobile devices, has broken unsafe eCommerce, that looks like a PowerPoint presentation, and has no SEO whatsoever. They knew later down the road that they'd been had, but were too angry to make the situation better and try again. Rather than look for cheap, as in the previous situation, they believe the "hard sell" that agencies practice as a norm and became another "quick flip" for the agency. Yet their website does nothing to help them get more business and never will.
Other local developers who present themselves as one-person agencies but actually want to learn from you anything possible, people who want free websites and would never pay even if they could, people who represent themselves as business owners and aren't, non-profits asking for pro bono websites but then demand more than is realistic, and on and on.
These are just some of the challenges you'll face as a web developer, and become adept at screening potential clients, creating a leads generation funnel, and integral to surviving.
3. There may seem to be more budgets going toward digital marketing, but it's actually not the case. Statistically the vast majority of small business owners do not have websites at all, and if they do have any online presence at all, it's underutilized or broken or has security issues. I can't tell you how many major university and college sites, local vendors, I've seen with security flaws and viruses. And if you present your findings to them, you must be prepared to accept that they may not care or believe you. But, it's untrue that most businesses are going to digital. Most are not, in fact. Most first time small business owners fail within their first 3-5 years, something close to 90 to 95 percent. Yet 80-90 percent of second time business owners succeed; and finally, most small business owners never try again after that first attempt.
So, if a web developer is to actually help small business owners, education and marketing becomes more important than technical capability because most small business owners don't understand internet marketing (there is so much that goes into it such as SEO, social media, content marketing, ground marketing, eCommerce) and do not use it at all or use it incorrectly if they use it at all. I recently had my car worked on and spoke with a manager there who admitted to me they were paying a free template generator service close to $500 per month for their company website. When I later looked at it at home, it had no SEO, no way to pay online or schedule appointments, no marketing, no content, and didn't work on cell phones; yet they loved it and were eager to pay $500 per month because the agency had convinced them that they were making revenue through the site that simply wasn't there. These situations are the norm and you have to successfully navigate them in order to generate business, but also screen out people pricing around for cheap deals, people who don't have businesses at all, or who misrepresent themselves.
Most business owners are not going toward digital, despite the obvious fact that they should, or aren't using it as they should to reap benefits.
4. I would tell you to study how to create beautiful, responsive sites using several different frameworks, then move on to app development, SEO, and then finally master marketing or partner with a saavy marketing expert. And have a back-up, as web design is more about business management, lead generation, and partnerships then it is actually doing web design itself. Most small business owners you meet you won't be able to help; so you must always be in touch with more potential leads or you will quickly give up.
5. A web-based business can set itself apart by offering clear quality, clear calls to action, clear copy, partnering with others, taking different marketing paths, offering services and products others cannot.
6. The most important thing I've learned in web design is to value my knowledge where others attempt to devalue it, go for free commodities that devalue them, charge what I'm worth and for the value I bring the client (if they let you help them) and their business. There's a reason why the expert on all the "self help" reality tv programs always insists on being one hundred percent in charge and it's so they can get work done quickly and efficiently. So another thing is to turn down clients when they send up red flags, and not second guess decisions, charge for the work you do and value you bring, and always be open to new ways to market.
Hope that helps.