For a website you need four main things:
- the content for your site – images, text, etc
- hosting: a place (on a server) to keep it where it can be kept safe
- web address: the url starting with www. that is the place where people can find your site when they browse the internet
- a way of editing your site – also known as a content management system
You will need to provide most of the content yourself, but you can buy other things separately or as a bundle.
First we’ll look at one-stop services that supply hosting, domain name and content management system as one.
The main companies offering bundled options are:
All of them have improved their service over the last five to ten years and are easier to use.
All offer the chance to buy hosting, domain name and content management system from them direct. You can also transfer in / connect a domain name you’ve bought elsewhere.
Free v. paid bundled options
Some (Wix and Weebly and WordPress.com) have free tiers. These typically require you to allow a banner advert for their services and sometimes also allow them to place adverts on your site which they then collect the revenue from. They may also require you to have their brand name in your url – eg yoursitename.wordpress.com in order to have a free site. You can also buy an unbranded domain name through them.
With each of them you have a set of design/layout options you can choose from and the option to buy further services (functionality for your site, premium level support, etc) through them.
What do you get?
- limited layout options
- some branding from the provider
- limited features such as shop, statistics, email newsletter facility, being able to accept/manage your own adverts, and other functionality
- possibility that if you start getting enough traffic to make it worth their while they’ll place adverts on your site (you have no control over what adverts) and collect the revenue from the adverts if someone clicks on them
- lack of control over hosting
- possible difficulties removing your content from that service and moving it to another system
Having pointed out the drawbacks it’s only fair to say that they can be an excellent way to start. A voluntary group with no paid employees – a small community group for example – may find them the perfect choice.
They can also be a great way to play around and learn about site editing and the web in general. They may form a sensible start for an organisation that is tentatively finding its feet.
Examples of free sites
Cambridge German Saturday School
Cambridge German Saturday School uses Wix. The free/low cost tier requires them to have a banner along the top of each page but the site still works and provides good value to the group and is easy to manage.
What do you get for paid tiers?
This varies across the various platforms but typically you get:
- advanced features (taking payments, advanced site analytics, marketing tools, and similar)
- more layout and customisation options
- less (or none) of their branding on your site
- some offer additional/related features and products such as logo design or image libraries
Of all the bundled options Squarespace has the reputation for being pretty ‘classy’ in terms of design/layout options. Squarespaces has no free option – check out their fees.
WordPress.com has a lot of flexibility at the higher tiers. It has the ability to be very classy but you need to understand how to choose your theme/layout for this. It is an excellent choice for a small organisation and offers the chance to add on multiple features in a flexible way.
Examples of paid-tier sites
Author site with Squarespace
Stav Poleg, internationally published poet, has a Squarespace site – it’s a clean minimalist design and she finds it practical and simple to use. It gives stats on users and the customer support is good.
Author site with WordPress.com
Christopher J T Lewis has an author site on WordPress.com using a paid tier to give flexibility and additional functionality as well as – most importantly – premium support. This means that the site costs are easy for him to predict. You can read more about this project or visit the site itself.
Who should use these bundled packages?
I would say the free tier options, and the ‘lower tier’ options of bundled services such as Wix, Weebly, Squarespace and WordPress.com, are ideal for:
- organisations that are starting out and don’t have much experience/funding at this time
- organisations that have no / little IT expertise internally and benefit from the online forums / support chat that the paid tiers will usually include
- organisations that expect to hand over updating of the site to various volunteers and need to know that there are online guides / forums / customer care people to support them
- small organisations that expect their site to change little over the medium term (5 years or so)
- organisations that can reliably predict how their site will change over the medium term. They may be sure that one of the paid tiers with their chosen bundled package will suffice even in a few years’ time and so it may still be the right thing for them. They could plan to start with a free option for two years and then buy into a higher tier for extra functionality when they need it.
Planning for change and upgrades
If you’re an organisation that is going to grow or become more serious it is wise to consider in detail a 5 year plan for your web presence. This will help you decide if you will need to expand or change your website within that period of time. Beyond that period of time you may well need to update your site anyway, simply due to changes in technology that mean a site will need a refresh at least by then.
Other things to consider
If you’re a small informal and local walking group that never plans to grow much, and simply uses social media or a small website to provide a contact point for people to find out when the next community walk takes place a free site is likely to be sufficient.
If you are a community group planning to start a local festival and need to impress sponsors or show that you have formal committee and are ‘established’ enough to attract funds I’d suggest that in the coming years you may want to advance to a paid website scheme.
Another consideration is that it looks cheap and amateurish to have a free site – if this will put off your stakeholders then avoid it.
Which are the best platforms for organisations that expect growth / change?
For organisations that expect considerable growth and change in the coming years a longer term plan is essential. Your organisation may intend to develop in the future but have several ideas to try out. How might this affect your site planning? Here is an example.
You currently run a variety of training courses that take place locally in meeting rooms which people can book online and pay for online via eventbrite.com. In future you want to expand your market by offering online courses. As well as taking simple payments you may need to consider:
- a members’ / student area on your site
- taking subscriptions instead of one-off payments
- offering video/audio tutorials
- offering forums for students to talk to each other and trainers
- online materials
When choosing a bundled package you would need to check the higher tiers of service and find out if and how this is possible – even if you don’t intend to be offering online courses until two years from now. You could then buy a simpler package for a couple of years, knowing you can safely upgrade when the time comes. It is in fact likely that you would need something more bespoke in this case, like a WordPress.org site.
Small performing arts organisation
You are a small arts organisation that has got by with a simple site designed by one of your members some years ago. It’s getting tired and you need to give it a bit of a refresh.
You also have some exciting changes coming up. You have:
- applied for funding to tour extensively
- developed some new contacts that might get you exciting contracts (for performing or training, you’re not sure)
- taken on your first paid staff member and hope this will bring big changes.
As well as a site that is more professional looking, you are looking for some key things:
- unique branding and ‘look’
- flexibility – you really don’t know which of these opportunities will work out and you need to be ready for anything
- your needs are about both style and functionality and you need to stand out and ‘punch above your weight’
You’re an organisation that is right at the threshold of the top tier of ‘bundled packages’ and a unique site developed specially for you. If you can afford it you should go for a bespoke site – and return to the developer later for ‘add ons’ as you see how your organisation is developing.
If you’re not able to afford a bespoke site I’d strongly recommend the top tier of WordPress.com or a WordPress.org site which can be cheaper than a fully bespoke site and a great building block for growth.
WordPress.com has at least one major advantage
If you are expecting your website to change quite a bit and believe your organisation will need to develop new features / functionality within the medium term then you have a choice. You’ll either scale up from a bundled service to a WordPress.org (not .com) site, or to develop a far more bespoke site requiring input from experienced developers.
WordPress.com is quite similar to WordPress.org. It’s a great way to learn many of the content management skills you’ll need as an organisation, to prepare you to use WordPress.org at a later stage. So, if you are expecting to grow and change significantly in coming years (but aren’t sure if you’ll be able to afford a fully bespoke site and ongoing support) go for the top tier of WordPress.com or a WordPress.org site.
WordPress.com or WordPress.org?
Having two similar packages with confusingly similar names is baffling… You can read for ages (on the WordPress.com site, or on wpbeginner.com – and plenty of other places besides) about the differences between the two systems.
Open Source Software
Like WordPress.com, WordPress.org is a content management system – but it is ONLY a content management system. It doesn’t offer hosting or other services. It helps you to edit content and layout on your site. Instead it is owned by a trust / foundation and it is managed and developed by a huge network of volunteers worldwide. They believe in open source software – keeping the internet in the hands of ‘the little people’ instead of big companies. Often their aims and values chime with those of charities and NGOs. For that reason alone it can be a good choice.
WordPress.org is the name for the big bundle of code that is called a content management system and which lets you log in, add and edit content etc. It can be downloaded from the website WordPress.org onto your computer and then uploaded to a server / hosting company where you have bought space to store your site. However, many hosting companies upload and install it automatically for you so the experience is much smoother than it sounds. Look for hosting companies that offer ‘one click install’ or ‘quick install’ of WordPress.org
Jargon buster: WordPress.org is often called the ‘self-hosted’ WordPress. This can be confusing as few people host the site on their own computer. In reality most people rent space on a server owned by a hosting company. It is still called ‘self-hosted’ in this case as it’s not WordPress.org itself that is providing you with the hosting. The key thing is that WordPress.org itself can’t pull the plug on your self-hosted site – in the way WordPress.com could. Only the server company can do that. You completely own and control your content.
The key points to remember are that WordPress.ORG is not bundled with hosting and domain name. It is:
- open source and developed by a huge community of volunteer developers and others worldwide
- very flexible – developers can get right down into the code, change it, add bits, do something bespoke for you. They can design you a special theme to give you a unique layout/look. They can develop software to add very specific functionality to your site
- it comes on it’s own – you have to sort out the domain name and hosting separately
Because WordPress powers 30% of websites worldwide there is a thriving industry around it, even though the product itself is free.
Getting hosting and registering a domain name
You will find many reputable hosting companies who will help you install WordPress on their server and connect it with a domain name. Often you can register your domain name with them or transfer it to them so ‘everything is in one place’. Check out Siteground.co.uk*, 34SP.com and bluehost.com amongst others.
Themes and layout / look in WordPress.org
WordPress.org itself comes with a few standard free themes (generally these are high quality). There are many excellent free themes out there as well – and WordPress.org has many you can access directly from the ‘back end’ of your site once you’re logged in to edit it.
You can buy further themes which do what you want them to do – have a sidebar, have a nice layout option for an online shop, an art portfolio or similar. There are thousands out there.
If your organisation needs a unique theme then you can have one designed to perfectly fit your exact requirements. This could be something like a particular brand colour you need to use.
NB WordPress.COM now also allows themes from WordPress.ORG to be bought and added to your site if you subscribe to their top-level tiers – more information here.
The editing experience with WordPress.COM and WordPress.ORG
Setting up and editing the content on a WordPress.com site will give you many of the day-to-day skills you need to manage the content on a WordPress.org site. Adding a page or blog post is the same, many of the features that you can customise are similar. When you are logged in as a site editor or administrator you’ll find the two look and feel and behave in a similar way. So, a site run on WordPress.com can be excellent preparation for running a WordPress.org site.
Not all of the bundled options will give you email addresses that relate to your domain name – so you may find yourself paying extra or stuck with a general (eg yahoo or gmail etc) email address. This can be an important issue for branding.
By having an email address that relates your domain name you look more organised and established than if you are using a generic email account. It’s worth thinking about this issue carefully and choosing a package or system that offers you what you need.
Again, it’s important to think and plan ahead for how your organisation may change. Don’t lock yourself into a system that won’t allow you to develop as you hope to.
For organisations needing something quick and cheap
If you never expect to grow much beyond an informal group then choose a free version. Put up with the banner adverts on the home page and a slightly reduced service. If you need a bit more support pay for a low cost package to access faster support if you can.
These packages are free but if you need help from a website designer to set this up budget around £40 per hour for tuition and set up assistance. How much you need depends on your skill levels and the site you require.
For something a bit smarter on a budget
If you expect to grow or you want something a bit smarter to send out the ‘right message’ to stakeholders then a bundled package from any of the providers is okay – with WordPress.com and SquareSpace offering advantages. The key is to get rid of their branding and adverts so you look more classy!
WordPress.com offers a very flexible set of options at the higher tier of subscriptions. It’s also the ideal option for a growing organisation. Content can be easily transferred from a WordPress.com to a WordPress.org site in the future if you upgrade.
Squarespace has a reputation for style in design, and a simple set up to get a site live. Check you like their designs before signing up, though. You can transfer your content out: it may not be quite so easy to transfer it in to another editing system.
You should be able to get something reasonable for well under £500 per year in subscription fees. This would probably include functionality like online payments, email newsletter integration, social media integration.
For help setting this up budget around £40 per hour. If you need support you should expect to need at least 15 hours of experienced tuition. You may also need written tuition notes to refer to in the future. This is in addition to the annual subscription fee.
For organisations with plans to grow, a need to look unique or a need for independence
For growing and changing organisations WordPress.com is ideal for the stage where you’re dipping your toe in to test the water. After that only WordPress.org or a fully bespoke option is likely to suit you.
You may want to jump straight to WordPress.org
Maybe you know your organisation will grow, you have a budge and want to get started on something permanent. In my view you should choose WordPress.org from the start. You will be:
- learning a very transferable skill for the future
- saving yourself hassle having to move content from another system
- using a system that is inherently flexible so it can be changed by a developer in the future
- there are many developers and designers working on WordPress.org sites so finding people to assist should be reasonably easy
A WordPress.org site is harder to to give a clear price for. Your web designer may include hosting and management fees for ensuring your site remains secure from hackers and other attacks.
Setting up a simple site using WordPress.org could cost between £900 and £2000 depending on features and requirements. In addition there would be ongoing costs for hosting and potentially support.
Setting up a more bespoke site using WordPress.org would require more input from a designer and developer. You should expect to pay upwards of £3000 even for a relatively simple site.
Check out my post full of useful links for planning which includes book recommendations, useful websites and more.
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