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Net.working: Making sense of prices

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Our survey of Web site prices around the country struck a chord with readers last issue, and it's not surprising to see why. At this early stage in Web development, the absolute lack of any kind of standard pricing remains a crucial and irritating issue.

Yet NetMarketing's Web Price Index looks only at the disparity in prices charged by full-service Web developers and ad agencies. The situation is actually more confusing than that. As you can read in this month's cover story, there are additional very-low-budget providers in virtually every city that will easily undercut even the cheapest bids shown in our chart.

For marketers desperate to get a realistic fix on Web costs, this is an unpleasant state of affairs. Perhaps the boss has a cousin who can put up Web sites for $500; how are you going to convince the company to spend $50,000 instead? And even if you do have money to spend, how do you judge the best quality deal when bids for your site come in anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000?

The short answer is: You can't, at least not easily. At the higher end of the spectrum, the important factor in choosing a developer isn't the upfront cost so much as the overall comfort level, design sophistication and marketing savvy. In the end, corporate marketers have to remember that they have far more at risk than the developer: their brand.

Low-cost Web presence providers can't really handle the weight if you're serious about using the Web to grow your business, save yourself money, or add entire new markets. I was at a recent agency presentation where one of the speakers made a point worth repeating: If you want to gain substantial long-range benefits, your site must be two things: flexible and scalable.

WPPs, by their very nature, are neither. I've talked several times with Steve Crisp, and I will tell you that he's serious and sophisticated about what he's doing. But his business plan is based on volume and formulaic construction, and that is not the secret behind most brand successes.

Over the long haul, high-quality Web marketing will involve a mix of direct marketing, design, technology and advertising skills. These are all crafts that don't come cheap in the market.

Now, that said, let me also add that this doesn't mean bigger Web developers won't overload you with options you don't need, at prices you can't afford. Just because $600 won't buy enough doesn't mean you need to pay $600,000. It's a buyer's market out there: Use it.

David S. Klein is editor of the Ad Age Group. Send e-mail to dklein@crain.com

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