Digital Marketing & Brand Development Agency  |  Charlotte, NC

The Loaded Question: Can You Give Me a Ballpark Cost?


The Loaded Question: Can You Give Me a Ballpark Cost?

Megan McHugh By: Megan McHugh


minute read time

While we understand cost is often the ultimate driver behind approving a project, asking us to ballpark a cost on the fly is dangerous for us and for you. 


Pricing a project as a fixed-price initiative is challenging. It requires assumptions, in-depth questioning, technical understanding and historical project data to determine the appropriate number of hours it will take to bring a client’s vision or request to life. 


Because everything we do is custom, from a design and development perspective, our pricing isn’t often palatable for every potential client. We have had to get comfortable being ok with that. We don’t like to lose projects and we hope to be able to provide value to all interested clients but sometimes it’s just not the right fit. 


For eCommerce projects, we’ve created an initial questionnaire to set a baseline understanding of the types of things we may need to consider when pricing these complex projects. Our direction will differ dramatically if we are building a site to sell products versus a service or membership subscription. 


If there is a membership, here is a sample of things we might ask: will there be membership tiers; does a membership renew monthly, weekly, yearly; does a user need to be able to cancel their membership at their will; does the site need to issue a refund for canceled memberships? These are just a few of the variables we consider.


If you have products, the questions can go even deeper: how many SKUs do you plan on launching with; will products be categorized, and have you determined the hierarchy for categorizing those products? What about shipping? Have you selected a shipping provider? Do you have the exact dimensions of your products in order to calculate shipping? Will there be any API integrations? Are you using an inventory management platform? As you can see, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fully understanding the scope of a project, let alone being able to price it. 


We have integrated with a number of APIs that can assist in achieving specific functionality. Sometimes our clients have specific tools or APIs in mind that they’d like to use. In other cases, we are researching on behalf of our clients which can be time consuming and hard to price.


We like to dig in and understand the goals of the end user in order to provide our clients the best recommendation for their needs and budget. If it’s a functional spec that has certain requirements, it can often take time to research available tools and review API documentation to determine if it’s the right fit. 


And if you’re thinking that these types of things can be figured out along the way, you might as well double your marketing budget. If we don’t plan ahead and really organize the flow, pages, API integrations, forms, and user paths and there’s a significant change down the road that could have been accounted for with a little more planning, it can often be extremely costly to undo code and rewrite it to work for said change.

“That being said, because our approach is customized, we aren’t limited by changes to a project’s scope or functionality. ”

We chose to approach projects this way so that we can continually evolve and enhance the functionality included in our projects. Plus, we don’t like having to tell clients “No.”


We will often say “we can do anything you’re looking for.” But this statement is then followed by "with the right amount of time and budget.” However, clients are more understanding of a cost associated with this type of change request as opposed to surprise costs along the way because, similar to our initial scoping process, we will work to price out and provide all associated details of site updates or modifications that have been requested. 


The part that can put everyone in a sticky situation is when we’ve passed along a ballpark price (which now we fundamentally will not do - so please don’t ask) - and this price (especially if it’s a range) has been passed along to a decision maker. You can bet 9 times out of 10, the lower range of our estimate was passed along and it’s the number EVERYONE has in their heads. When we come back with a final price weeks later after extensive research and effort and it’s significantly higher now that the scope is more understood, it leaves a very bad taste in everyone’s mouth and can often table the project. It also leaves our main contact from the client side, who is passing along the details of conversations with us to others within his or her organization, positioned unfavorably. 


Other things we need to know before we can price a project is: who will be writing content for the site and do you have a library of photography that is updated and can be utilized? Are you happy with your logo and branded materials, or were you envisioning a rebrand (or even a “revamp”) alongside the website project? If not, we can provide pricing for those services, but this is often an unknown when we are asked for that ballpark number. 


This is one agency’s perspective, but we know that all companies like ours struggle with this question. We’ve accepted the mission to begin shifting the mindset, with hopes that we can establish a firmer understanding of how difficult this question can be to answer. Though it is equally frustrating when a contractor or mechanic informs you that they’ve “run into a snag” and the budget will be impacted, it is far more accepted and expected in those industries as compared to ours. It is time that way of thinking begins to change.


A question similar in vein but equally as loaded: how long will this take? 


Maybe now you’ll understand when we respond with this remark: “we don’t even have all the details yet - couldn’t tell ya!"

About Atypic

Atypic is a digital marketing and brand development agency located in Charlotte, NC. For 12+ years Atypic has built a reputation for combining creativity, technology & analytical expertise to connect brands with people.

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