Refresh Or Rebuild? Website Strategies For Big Law
By Stephan Roussan
Every law firm wants a best-in-class website to support marketing, business development and recruiting efforts. But for the largest firms – with hundreds (if not thousands) of attorney bios, and tens of thousands of published pieces – rebuilding a website from scratch is a serious ordeal. High cost, long project timelines and competing marketing technology projects all contribute to a new reality: overhauling your firm’s website is a lot more complex today than it was the last time you took it on.
For a growing number of firms, a design refresh with modest functional upgrades over an existing core can be a smart and cost-effective way to improve your brand and catch up with evolving design trends and best practices. The right punch-list of targeted improvements can produce a big impact. But how does a firm decide whether to refresh or rebuild? A disciplined review of the questions and factors below will help your firm determine whether a refresh is a viable option.
A successful refresh improves your site in the short-term and extends the ROI from your previous engagement. An unsuccessful one has the exact opposite effect, draining budgets while failing to push back your website’s expiration date.
A well-planned and executed refresh will:
- Provide a truly updated look and feel in line with modern standards
- Be viewed as a significant improvement to both internal and external audiences
- Generate perceptible enthusiasm
- Address any usability deficiencies for mobile users and meet Google’s mobile-friendly requirements
- Satisfy visitor needs for the duration of the window the refreshed site is meant to serve
- Adhere to a strictly defined timeline and budget
- Keep your internal teams sufficiently free to focus on other initiatives
Time and money
The cost of a new, from-scratch BigLaw website starts around $300k at the (very) low end, with a high end now that regularly breaks seven figures. That's not counting the time a firm will spend participating in the project. The pace at which the web is changing is also accelerating, and there is no guarantee that your next website will last longer than the previous one.
The start-to-finish timeline for a full rebuild has ballooned around the volume of migrated data, microsites, blogs, audience portals, and complex integrations that are now the norm for large law firms. Add responsive design and device testing for all of these, and what might have taken 6-9 months the last time around can easily take 12-24 months today.
As a rule of thumb, a strong refresh effort should cost between one quarter and one half of what a rebuild would cost, and take approximately 5-7 months to design and implement. The improvements should be sufficient to secure a 2-year extension on the shelf-life of your existing site, at minimum. The impact and resource allocation for your internal team will be far less intense – and shorter in duration – in a refresh scenario.
If your firm’s site is already overdue for attention, and particularly if it is not mobile-friendly and being penalized in search rankings by Google, another year or two without addressing critical deficiencies may simply not be an option.
Is it Broken or Just Old?
We live in an era of disposable technology, where “old” and “broken” have come to mean the same thing. In considering a website refresh, one must suspend that viewpoint in order to ask the right questions: is the current site unreliable, slow, or error-prone in significant ways? Do you experience unacceptable levels of downtime? Do things regularly just not work despite repeated efforts to fix them? If the answer to these questions is “yes” and the performance and availability of your current website is problematic, then you’ve completed your evaluation. For a refresh to be successful, your underlying core website must be functional and reliable.
Security is also a critical consideration. If keeping your old site up means preserving an out-of-date and vulnerable hosting environment, don’t do it. Make sure all of the key components in the environment are still within serviceable life and that an up-to-date web application firewall is in place. If in doubt, arrange for penetration testing and review the findings (a good practice for old and new sites alike).
What are your current site’s largest deficiencies?
If your current site is old but otherwise working, and most gripes revolve around it being stale, dated, and not sufficiently responsive for mobile devices, a refresh may be in play. What else is on your wish list?
A significant portion of most rebuild projects revolves around the migration of the same content types, data relationships and governing business rules from an old site to a new one. So unless your firm is contemplating a paradigm shift in what it plans to publish on the website, a refresh is likely to satisfy your most pressing front-end goals.
How badly do you need a new CMS?
This is the million dollar question. Efficient and reliable real-time control of your website content is critical. If your team cannot presently publish what it needs to, when it needs to, then a new CMS (and hence, a rebuild) is in order. But if your team is getting by with the current CMS, chances are that it can continue doing so for a bit longer.
Decision makers should be very wary of claims from staff that “a new CMS will be more efficient and save us time.” Trimming the time it takes to post a press release from 6 minutes to 4 minutes will never approach the time and cost of staffing the rebuild project, data migration and validation responsibilities, and training on the new systems.
How disciplined are your stakeholders?
You can and should include functional improvements in a refresh initiative, provided that they remain modest and tightly defined in scope. Perhaps there's a new search tool you would like to incorporate. Or you would like to add a “type-ahead” predictive search feature, slicker navigation menus, social page sharing, a new analytics package, or better print-friendly outputs. These are achievable items that won't break the bank, and will add to the overall impact of your refresh. But will your stakeholders stick with the plan and resist the temptation to do too much?
It's important to take an honest assessment of how the refresh is likely to go within your firm. Scope creep is never welcome on any project, but if the time and cost of a refresh begins to swell towards something within striking distance of a rebuild, then the project is a failure.
How is your relationship with your current web vendor?
In the majority of cases, a refresh will be undertaken by your existing web vendor. Make sure that the relationship is on good terms, communication and responsiveness are strong, and that you are comfortable with the quality of service you are receiving. If you aren’t confident in the vendor’s ability to deliver the refresh according to plan, re-evaluate your position.
New or Updated? I can’t really tell…
The site should be sufficiently improved visually and functionally so as to be perceived as a new site, or largely so. To the layperson, a refresh and a rebuild should produce a similar reaction.
On Time, On Budget
The purpose of any refresh is to extend the shelf-life and overall ROI of the existing website. If the refresh takes too long or costs too much, the repercussions can be significant.
All site improvements should be carefully deliberated and the punch-list clearly-defined so as to be impervious to scope creep. All parties have an important responsibility here; the firm must disciplined and prompt in its requests and feedback, and the vendor must fully consider all aspects of these requests and communicate clearly about any component that could spiral.
Audiences that are underserved on the present site should be more heavily prioritized than those whose improvements will be marginal.
We’re refreshed! Now what?
A successful refresh will satisfy visitor needs for the duration of the window the refreshed site was meant to serve. Once you launch your refresh, set a date certain to reconvene and consider timing for your next overhaul. Start the process strategically to avoid outliving your refreshed website's shelf life – again!