Non-Profit Website Design & Hosting – on the cheap?

shutterstock_56454184_resultA member asks…

I work for a non-profit religious institution and we have a quandary. I have two questions for you: 1) we use SundayStreams on our site but really like the way StreamSpot displays for their clients – at almost double the cost. Should we switch? and 2) What advice can you give me for our website design and hosting services? We are looking to keep our costs as low as possible.

Pulling a little more information on your situation, let’s cover both that and generic advice for all non-profit organizations and small businesses who need a good web presence but want to keep their costs down:

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Quick answer: stick with SundayStreams and pay your website designer the one-time fee to switch you from using your current, complicated video player setup to using Sunday Stream’s simple GoPlayer (see a demo here) – included in your account and which will give you:

  1. The ability to configure for yourselves any downline changes in the look and feel of the player and playlist windows (that’s a menu-driven customization on the SundayStream Control Panel), and
  2. A simple ‘iframe’ batch of code you place on your website wherever you want the video and/or playlists to show. No complicated coding or configuring using jQuery or other programming tools.

The GoPlayer can be easily configured to give a similar look and functionality you saw on other websites who use the StreamSpot player. Your website design firm chose instead to use the vastly more complicated, 3rd party setup that SundayStreams offers as an optionFlowPlayer. This had the effect of tying you to your web design firm for life – guaranteeing them a revenue stream. I find this website design business tactic a bit distasteful, but in their defense, they were probably doing this based on what you told them you wanted. Which leads to…

Please give serious consideration to making prudent choices for website design services and website hosting services. In general, stay far away from an all-in-one provider – you’ll end up paying a lot more over time than you will with a separate design contract and a website hosting contract. Both of these are now commodities:

  1. wordpressWebsite designs like yours (using the popular WordPress engine) can be implemented for anywhere from $500 to over $10,000 – the actual cost varies entirely on what you tell the design firm to build, aka your needs versus desires (read our premium content below for more details)
  2. Webhosting services should not cost more than $10/month for a site like yours, and nearly all non-profits should be able to find reasonable service for that or less. Web hosting companies come and go, and their service reliability and customer service levels vary drastically. We currently recommend Bluehost.com, Dreamhost.com and FatCow.com. You don’t need expensive web hosting because your bandwidth-intensive content (video) is actually served by your streaming provider.

shutterstock_16816225_resultWebsite Design and hosting choices: Please couch your website design requirements in terms that fit your non-profit profile. This means asking for off-the-shelf website engines (like WordPress), and customizations such as themes and plug-ins that give you the functionality you need without requiring extensive coding skills. The up-front cost of website design is about the same, but your website can be changed later on just by using the menu-driven customizations of the themes and plug-ins – not by tweaking arcane code. Or by adding in another plug-in which you can do yourself. This means your own staff can handle anything short of a major website redesign – instead of having to go to the website design firm for anything other than a simple content update. Good website design firms will either find or already know the best of these add-ons to extend the functionality of your website and meet your needs without the downline expense trail. As your in-house staff becomes comfortable with editing the website and tweaking the various add-ons, they will learn enough to keep your site fresh for many years.

Read on for much more detail about the pros and cons of video streaming, website design and website hosting choices. And feel free to leave a comment or question with your specific situation – I’ll either reply back in the comments or start a new Practical Help article to address your needs.

So a little background. First, there are a couple of popular ways to play streaming video on a website:

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Simple: A vendor-hosted player like SundayStream’s GoPlayer or StreamSpot’s iframe player is much simpler for your webmaster, easy to implement on any website page. Since the player’s complicated coding is actually on SundayStream or StreamSpot, you are limited to whatever customizations are offered by your vendor.

  • But those customizations can be done without requiring a lot of expertise – they are much simpler and generally require no coding skills. Menu-driven types of choices (like the WordPress control panel) mean you can’t configure it any way you like, but there are plenty of options to fit your needs.
  • This method also includes simple video playback services like Vimeo and Youtube as well as streaming video service providers. Streaming video providers can provide both, while playback services are generally limited to serving up pre-recorded (not live) videos. And it’s perfectly ok to use a streaming provider for your live services and a free YouTube account for your video archives.

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More complicated: An self-hosted player (like FlowPlayer and other jQuery or java/javascript-based players/playlists/carousels/sliders) which gives you virtually unlimited options for customization.

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  • These require a lot of programming knowledge both to implement and to make any adjustments later on.
  • Since they’re not fully integrated with your content provider (SundayStreams, etc.), you have more work to do to keep everthing working together.

The more complicated approach is easy for website design firms to push. First off, the person who’s hiring them generally has limited knowledge of all the design choices, and needs guidance. It’s very easy for that person to blur the line between what basic functionality is really needed, and what nice-to-have features are desired. The design firm can easily steer you toward options that end up requiring them to service your website far off into the future – more money for them, and they can defend their practice as simply complying with the client’s stated needs. I find this a sneaky way for design firms to build revenue streams, but necessary (for them!) in light of the commodity nature of website design these days.

This same methodology applies to the entire website design process. Savvy clients look at both the up-front cost of creating a website, and the cost over time for design choices made to meet their functionality requirements.

  • It’s been said that ‘all websites are constantly under construction’ so we rarely see an under construction icon anymore. You can pretty much bet on your website needing to be updated regularly. So the more complicated customization your site has, the more work must be done to update the website.
  • smallbizpagelayoutMany WordPress sites are configured to easily make radical changes in the design – without a single line of code being used. WordPress webmasters simply choose and install menu-driven themes and plug-ins to get the look and functionality they want.

mailchimpforwpmenuSo if you want, say the ability to do email newsletters and a signup function on the website, this can be implemented with simple plugins, or complicated coding. Non-profits should stick to the former. My universal 80% rule applies here:

You can get  80% of what you need with 20% of the resource requirement. To get the remaining 20% of what you ‘need’, you’d need 80% more resources. So it’s almost always prudent to limit your needs to that first 80% and save a ton of money.

Before you engage a website design company, you need to think about what you actually need, and what would be nice to have. Anyone who’s trying to limit their expenses (heck, that’s just about anyone) should think hard about this, and try to separate those.

shutterstock_162738977_resultAnd be sure that when you do engage a website design company that you be up-front with them – specify that you want to keep your dependence on them limited to the initial design, and that they need to build the website so that you can manage it yourself. That means you need to be able to make changes (anything short of a full website redesign) without needing coding skills. WordPress and its thousands of themes and plug-ins lends itself well to this design plan – that’s why it’s so popular. Avoid surprises!

wpmenusystemSo your choice of a menu system (to navigate around the website) should be driven by the menu system in WordPress. If you want something fancier or more complicated, think twice. It’s much better to re-organize and simplify your content before you create a menu system. Fancy hover or pop-up menus that give sub-categories are built right into WordPress and don’t require anything special, so just stick with those (or organize your content so you don’t need a lot of sub-categories). Also remember my 2-click rule – your visitor should never have to click more than twice to get to anyplace on your website, and a single click is even better.

Other functionality like video streaming/playing, live calendars, email newsletters/signups, and other standard fare for non-profit organizations can also be easily implemented. Again, stick to plug-ins that extend your WordPress website functionality, and choose only the best and well-supported plug-ins. For high-bandwidth content delivery, use a source other than your website…

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So SundayStreams or their ilk for live video streaming, Youtube for pre-recorded video playback, and Amazon Web Services and others for large documents or live applications can help keep your ongoing costs manageable. And look particularly for anything that has an up-front cost versus a monthly cost – you may spend more now, but will almost always spend less in the long run.

If your needs require a monthly service (like SundayStreams or AWS), look for options that charge you the least over time. This is usually pay-as-you-go or on-demand charging instead of a flat-fee, but some vendors will have tiered services. In the latter case, choose the tier that meets your minimum needs right now – you can always bump it up in the future if your needs increase.

shutterstock_103743914_resultAnd be sure to take the needs of your intended audience into account. We as a society are swiftly moving away from larger-screened computers and into the mobile world, with tablets and smartphones being the screen-size of choice for an increasing majority of people visiting your website. So choose a theme that’s responsive to these different screen sizes – adjusts to show reasonably well on even the smallest smartphone screen.

Lastly, being on a tight budget doesn’t mean you have to settle for a poor website design or limited functionality. There are so many choices out there both free and low-cost, that you can build an awesome looking website that fully meets the needs of your non-profit or small business and keep your long-term costs low. Stick to WordPress, themes and plug-ins that are elegantly crafted to let you manage your own website and you’ll limit your reliance on a website design firm for just those few and far-between major website redesign projects. And don’t be afraid to purchase a premium theme or plug-in, those are just one-time costs and a drop in the bucket compared to the expense of a highly customized and coded website that requires a lot of expertise to tweak, maintain and refresh.


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