How Much Should You Invest In a Website Maintenance Retainer?

By Pete Czech

How Much Should You Invest In a Website Maintenance Retainer?New Possibilities Group

Website maintenance is a pesky proposition for many companies, as well as for the agencies that serve them. The most popular unknown clients face concerning website maintenance is trying to gauge just how much help they will need on an ongoing basis. The fact is, like so many other things in this business, what you need depends on your situation and on a variety of factors. However, with that said, there are a few things that all websites need to be adequately maintained.

Why Website Maintenance?

I think I’ve written about a million posts on website maintenance so rather than detail why you need it here, I will just give you a quick overview in bullet point form:

•    You need to make sure your server software is up to date.
•    You need to ensure your core CMS platform is updated, along with any plugins, themes or other third-party software.
•    It’s essential to maintain the connectivity between your CMS and all plugins, and also all third-party integrations as well.
•    You should be continually improving your website’s functionality based on metrics and analysis.
•    When left to stagnate, software rots like a bad apple.

With that all said, how much help do you really need? To figure that out, I’ve made some estimates below based on standard tasks we see regularly. This should serve as a minimum baseline for the time you should have in a website maintenance retainer.

Required Maintenance

First, you have the maintenance that you have to conduct regularly. This is kind of like a non-discretionary spending requirement. Software that powers websites and applications have a couple of levels of complexity. As I’ve explained in this post previously, many layers exist to power even the most simple of informational websites. In particular, this graphic is helpful to understand how a website indeed operates:

As you can see, and read about in detail in this post, a site requires a server with network connectivity, an operating system, web server software, a database, scripting language and of course a content management system and actual delivery software to run correctly. Where does maintenance come in? Well, on the server level, each of these components needs to be updated regularly. This can mean a hundred software packages or more. In many cases, web hosts provide this management. However, those who utilize systems such as AWS or Rackspace dedicated instances are mostly on their own or must acquire the proper maintenance coverage.

Required maintenance doesn’t stop at the server, however. It then carries to the content management system or actual software that runs your website. Since the purpose of this post is to help you judge how much time is required for a maintenance retainer, I’m going to make an assumption in this case that you are using an open-source CMS such as WordPress or similar. In this case, your software is assembled as a core package, with a theme that was customized for your company, and is utilizing plugins – perhaps as many as 15 or 20.

This set up would require ongoing maintenance to manage the CMS and the interactivity between the components. This mostly would consist of the following tasks:

•    Monitoring for security updates to each of the components.
•    Set up and maintaining a development sandbox for running updates.
•    Managing the interconnectivity between components.
•    Creation of offsite backups and regular backup schedules.

I view the above as the absolute bare-minimum necessary components of keeping a website alive in a somewhat responsible manner. However, to be comprehensive, one should consider these steps as well:

•    Installation of 24/7/365 monitoring software.
•    Installation of security scanning software.
•    Some level of an escalation plan to respond to issues when found.
•    SEO monitoring.

These are steps which aren’t essential but, well, they should be. When in combination with all of the items mentioned above, provide for a thorough approach to ongoing maintenance tasks that merely need to be performed.

So, how much time does all of this take? While surely that will depend on your chosen team and their talents and capabilities, we usually estimate that a good maintenance plan should cover at least 8 hours per month. I find that this average is about right for performing the above tasks and giving a bit of time for response to any issues that may occur.

Continuous Improvement

If the first set of maintenance tasks are the required bare minimum tasks that will keep your website running, then the idea of continuous improvements should be considered as more than just maintenance, but also a strategic effort to further the marketing, sales, and operations of your business. Often, the idea of maintenance is a combination of these two tasks, which is somewhat unfair as one of them is required, and the other is a bit more optional. I believe it makes sense to split them in this manner because by doing so, we are adding urgency and importance to the maintenance tasks we detailed above and also giving dedicated focus to the idea that a website is never truly finished and can always be made better.

So what kind of tasks are covered by the idea of continuous improvements, and what kind of commitment should your company make to this effort? In short, the answer again is “it depends.” I believe, however, that for planning purposes, clients should prepare on two types of continuous improvements. First, those that are in response to business changes or requirements. This can be new initiatives, products or service offerings. Apparently, that is something that will require changes on an ongoing basis as those items come up. Secondly, the idea of optimization should be embraced regularly. By optimization, we mean the analysis of performance metrics and any necessary responses and changes made to improve them.

But how much time should you devote to each pursuit? Well, there are ways to arrive at that number. For business changes, new projects, and those things that pop up, the best way to predict is to look back and study your past time spent on those types of tasks. If you have historical figures of time spent, then you are probably just a simple planning session away from arriving at a number. Planning based on historical usage gives you a good sense of where you’ll be unless of course you plan to cut back on new initiatives or you can foresee even more work on the horizon.

I’d also throw one significant need that companies have into this section… Ongoing compliance regulations. This is a must-address issue. ADA compliance, in particular, is a serious concern, and it takes a continuing commitment to maintaining compliance. Same goes for HIPAA and PCI compliance, though, to a lesser extent. Make sure you budget for these items, and it's best to budget outside simple maintenance because much of the compliance requirements will occur on the development and design side, not just systems and software.

For changes based on optimization, it’s often better to simply budget time according to how much you wish to experiment. This may be best executed with a value conversation because optimizations are usually items that can pay for themselves when properly implemented. The calculation really comes down to research and development – how much do you want to focus on R&D regularly? R&D is just that – researching new ideas and solutions, and then implementing. With the understanding that R&D means risk, but possibly reward, how much are you willing to invest in these ongoing changes?

To give a sense of how one may calculate that, it is good to look at the most commonly executed tasks when it comes to ongoing improvements focused on site performance and marketing enhancements. Such tasks can include:

•    Creation of numerous graphical assets to aid in digital lead generation tactics.
•    Ongoing analytics analysis.
•    Ongoing content creation: emails, blogs, social media.
•    Ongoing paid advertising management.
•    Regular A/B testing: this means the creation of new page iterations with testing and result interpretation. Then rinse & repeat.
•    Adding new content pages or new site sections.
•    CRO: optimizing site design to better conversion rates.
•    SEO: There is just too much here to detail, but it takes an ongoing commitment.
•    Marketing Automation: Managing workflows or drip campaigns, user segmenting, funneling.
•    LEARNING: People often overlook how much time is spent merely learning new tricks, tactics, and tools. Agencies call this massively undervalued service “Knowledge transfer” – this is almost intangible, but it’s what you get working with full-time digital professionals.

This list is just a small sample… As you can tell, to be serious about digital marketing, it takes a real commitment.

How Much Time Do You Really Need?

We’ve come full circle back to the point of this post. What do you really need to budget for a website retainer? Well, again, it depends, but I figured I could give you some guidelines in terms of time. And since time is a flimsy metric, let’s assume this is the time of a professional, not an amateur! So, my guidelines for a minimum engagement for a company serious about maintaining, growing and improving their site:

Maintenance: As defined above, a MINIMUM of 5 hours of systems administration and development time per month, at an expert level. Also, budget for 24/7 monitoring, and some degree of emergency response. I’d also advocate that for security/infiltrations as well.

Continuous Improvement: Standard Tasks: This really depends on you and your company. I have clients who use 10 hours per month, I have others that use 100. I can’t say what’s right for you; however, I can say that if you are serious about ongoing changes to your website, you need to dedicate at least a day or two a month to it. So plan for at a minimum 8 or 16 hours of effort spread over a month.

Research & Development: This may or may not be essential for you. But, if you can point to a substantial revenue increase by amending your site and continually optimizing, then at least plan for a day of aggregate time throughout a month to analyze, implement and study again.

As you can tell, it’s easy to add up to 20-30 hours of monthly time spent. Multiply that by the cost of an agency or professional, and you can see that managing an online presence does turn into real dollars. The question you have to ask yourself is, what needs to be accomplished for the maintenance to not be an expense, but rather an investment with an actual return? That should be your focus as you plan for an ongoing initiative. Of course, you could get away with spending zero dollars on maintaining and improving your website. But you wouldn’t be a serious player in the digital space if you did – and your customers would know, too.

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