The future of web publishing and its impact on the web agency as we know it


Today web publishing is easy. You can create a great looking blog or site with a few simple clicks. It wasn’t always so. Two decades ago when I got into web design, the options were few which paved the way for the web agency. But the web agency isn’t thriving like it used to. Here’s my take on what’s happening.
​As some of you may know I co-founded a web agency about a decade ago. We specialized in Drupal. A highly flexible and modular content management system (CMS) that turned into our Swiss army knife for solving our customers’ problems and addressing their needs on the web. Back in those days there weren’t so many different systems to choose from.
Web publishing technologies as of early 2000's.
Web publishing technologies as of early 2000's.
Going back even further, many companies were well-served back then by a simple “brochure” site featuring their logo, some relevant photos and contact details. These could be dabbled together in Microsoft Frontpage or Macromedia Dreamweaver. Many freelancers made a living from keeping company websites up to date using the aforementioned tools and FTP. Software like Macromedia Contribute made it possible to reuse page elements across pages and offer customers editorial control.

​In the early 2000’s, hosting companies started offering customers to run script applications, not just host static HTML files, on their hosting accounts. The most popular scripting language was (and still is) PHP. Bulletin board systems such as phpBB became highly popular. Content management had an upswing and phpNuke and all its descendants broke ground. It didn’t take long for CMS’es to mature and Mambo, now known as Joomla, TYPO3 and Drupal gained success. These tools offered a form of editorial control that most site owners hadn’t had access to up to now. The open sources license meant that anyone could download and install them on the nearest shared host. Blog tools like Wordpress also started gaining traction as blogging became more and more important as a marketing tool.

The new wave of PHP based CMS’es meant that a lot of static sites could now got regular updates by people not skilled in HTML and CSS. It opened up markets for modules, customizations and themes (“skins”) and I believe a whole generation of freelancers took their early steps exploring the business opportunities afforded by open source software.

More and more people started shopping online and the e-merchants needed tools too. From having relied on expensive custom-built solutions they could now buy products off the shelf or choose open source alternatives.

All in all, our little agency was rather well positioned. We’d chosen a platform that had enormous flexibility and a strong community behind it. I still maintain that Drupal’s community is the best and beats Wordpress’s hands down. There’s no gray market of “sold” plugins and you know exactly what you get when you download an extension (module).

And Drupal had a lot going for it. It was extremely good value for money. We built community websites that were integrated with mainframe systems. As well as the simple brochure sites that had now become a requirement for businesses to find customers.

But as more and more people found their way online the number of websites and Internet users grew exponentially.
Websites and Internet users (source: Netcraft)
Websites and Internet users (source: Netcraft)
As a result, the tools got easier and easier to use. There were suddenly tools that even beginners could handle and which produced great looking results. Website building platforms like Wix, Squarespace and Weebly were viable alternatives to a static website or a simple CMS. You didn’t have to have a hosting company or keep a CMS up to date for fear of being hacked. It was painless.

Starting around 2011, the market for content management products had changed:
Web publishing technologies as of 2011.
Web publishing technologies as of 2011.
Brochure sites could now be built and deployed by ambitious business owners and marketers. These sites could even have basic community features, member login and e-commerce. But even with the threshold lowered, most businesses needed a consultant to set it up. But the role of the consultant was no longer to primarily provide technical expertise but to help them make their website effective in delivering on their business goals.

Over the coming years we saw competent hosted (SaaS) products appear filling the niches of blogging tools (inbound and content marketing), community and intranet software and e-commerce.

An economist would not be surprised. What we were seeing was, and still is, the commoditization of self-hosted software. The cloud combined with mass-market adoption has led to pre-packaging of solutions that before could only be purchased from a consultant or agency.

This commoditization and diversification are in many ways direct threats to the traditional agency business model of providing software integration and customization of content management systems.

But there’s a bright lining on the gray clouds that are starving the old business models of much needed light. While the lower end of the market is less profitable than before due to the economies of scale these hosted tools enable, the higher end becomes more and more valuable. These hosted “off the shelf” (OTS) platforms serve the needs of a majority of users but not those of all.
A normal distribution.
A normal distribution.
If we place common feature requirements on the X axis, we can make some assumptions. Provided there’s a normal distribution of the frequency of requirements, we can reason that even if +/- 2 standard deviations are covered by OTS services, there’s still a highly profitable 2.5% in the higher tier. This share of the market is likely even larger.

Right now only the dragons roam there. It’s a field where enterprises invest in solutions that offer extreme abilities to track, predict and optimize their sites. Personalization and marketing automation are the holy grail of this tier. Currently only a handful of products can be considered players in this field. Among open source, I’d say Drupal is the only competitor.

But even at stakes these high this tens of million size playground is seeing competitors. Ambitious SaaS services are popping up every day offering key functionality such as advanced plug-and-play personalization and customer experience management for a fraction of the price, built upon open source readily available platforms like Wordpress and Drupal.

What web agencies can do

So what can agencies do when customers prefer OTS services over custom-made websites and are combining several tools to get the features and insights they need and do things themselves instead of turning to an agency?

Focus on customer needs and goals

Every business deal is driven by needs and agencies need to look up from Emacs (a popular code editor) and start talking to their customers. Agencies have amassed considerable experience in what works and what doesn’t work online. As an agency customer, a company has access to that collective wisdom. It’s not something they can buy off the shelf in the form of software. But that knowledge doesn’t transfer itself. Agencies need to take a consultative, customer-focused approach to their work and see themselves partners with their customers. They need to buy in to the vision of their customers and stop selling software and rather provide the means to accomplish their customers’ goals.

Draw from their skills

But there’s more to websites than code. Even with these powerful OTS services at their hands, many companies need guidance. There’s still a need for usability experts and information architects. As anyone who has tried their hand at home renovation knows, tools the professional do not make.
Even the latest version of Microsoft Word doesn’t automagically make you a skilled graphic designer, as the photo proves.
Even the latest version of Microsoft Word doesn’t automagically make you a skilled graphic designer, as the photo proves.
That guidance is less about technical focus and more about focus on digital marketing and design. It’s about the ability to connect the various piece to create a cohesive and effective customer experience.

Decide where to go fishing

Agencies also need to specialize. If they wish to go fishing whales and flying with the dragons, they need to position themselves better towards the enterprise market. Open source software is incredibly flexible and powerful but software doesn’t solve any problems by itself. What it does is offering a degree of agility and and an ability to compete not afforded by closed licensed software. Agencies specializing in open source are in a unique position to provide a tailored offering for the higher tier customers who cannot buy OTS or require organizational and technical integration.

Build strong impact-oriented relationships

The agencies that weather this transition best will have understood the potential of their customer relationships. They will have developed these with a persistent focus on providing continuous customer value. If that sounds like management consultant nonsense, sign up for my the Leancept newsletter where I show you how. Or sign up to be considered for Zingsight’s beta release, a service we’re building that helps agencies better manage, develop and grow their clients and key accounts.

It’s all about enabling change

A combination of these strategies will serve many agencies well and help them transition from the role of engineers for hire to teams that accomplish change using digital channels.