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Too Good to be True: The Hidden Costs of ‘Free’ Websites

So often it’s the little ones that get you. Little expenses can chip away your profits. A few dollars here, a little inefficiency there, and what should have been a profitable year is just another frustrating trip around the sun, no further forward than the one before. We’ve all been there. We’ve all had years like that.

It’s no wonder, then, that in an industry fighting for every scrap of profitability, some florists are choosing to abandon traditional website options in favour of services that offer a minimal financial commitment. Back in December of 2015, Mark Anderson published a well-written piece on the FloristWare blog outlining the tangible financial foolishness of having a “free” website – one that collects a significant percentage of each order as a commission – in lieu of a traditional monthly or annual fee. My concern, described below, lies with the more intangible costs.

The Cost of Branding

A great website takes some time to develop and refine. There’s no way around it. Just like a personalized design from a skilled florist takes more investment than a mass-produced bouquet sold by a grocer, a website built for your brand requires some investment of resources. With a commission-based website, the economics just don’t work for the website company unless they can deploy each new site at a minimal investment. This leads to cheap, templated, easily reproducible websites that do nothing to convey the character and story of your brand.

If you were to hide the logo on your site would it be indistinguishable from your competitors? How many tens, or hundreds, or thousands of sites look just like yours? If your website is not more distinct than the average McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, you are failing to build your brand and losing out on future revenue.

The Cost of Autonomy

Can you imagine running a flower shop with your ability to merchandise and arrange your retail space and window display severely limited? Maybe you had fixed furniture and pillars and could never change the wall colours. How long would you tolerate that kind of restriction in your business? Mass-replicated template sites have – by necessity – minimal flexibility as far as content, layout, and product presentation. We are in an era where a florist can expect their web traffic to be 10 to 100 times greater than their in-store foot traffic, so creating a great impression is critical.

Some platforms take the autonomy concern even further by mandating what you can charge for delivery. Whether it’s forcing you to provide free delivery (at a real cost upwards of $10 per order) or preventing you from offering delivery service upgrades, a website provider that dictates how you run other parts of your business is directly costing you money.

The Cost of Missed Opportunity

Missing out on potential revenue and new business growth is probably the hardest loss to measure— and the sneakiest threat to your bottom line. A “free” (aka commission-based, standardized) website may significantly limit your ability to add pages and content to promote new business channels. Whether you want to offer flower design classes, expand your offerings with gift or food items, or just show off examples of your latest wedding work, you need the ability and flexibility to add pages and manage content layout. Poor wedding pages are just as costly as not having a wedding page at all.

The Cost of Missed Opportunity

When you factor in the commissions (on sales from new and existing customers), the unpredictability of cost (who doesn’t love a giant website bill in January?), the harm to your brand, the limits on your choices, and the inability to pursue new revenue channels, it becomes clear that a free website is a frighteningly costly endeavour. In many cases, the orders from your site will actually be less profitable than incoming orders from a wire service.

Still the temptation exists to be lured into the false security of a commission system. As business owners, we are naturally risk-averse as we are afraid to commit to spending a fixed amount. After all, commission agreements allow us to match expenses with our cash flow, right? But we also need to consider our businesses from a macro point of view, looking at yearly costs. When you look at the big picture, it’s quickly clear just how much that free website is costing you.

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theRKF
Publisher at Canadian Florist
Ryan Freeman is the Publisher of Canadian Florist, 5th generation florist, and President of Strider Online Marketing. He has been engaged in web design and online marketing since 1994.
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