Planning a Web Development Project? Your Guide to Realistic Timelines and Expectations

Sep 08 2022

Developing a new enterprise website is a complex and lengthy process. And if you want to launch your website on time and within budget, it's essential to understand all the variables that will impact your project’s ultimate success.

But if you've never been through an undertaking of this magnitude before, how can you be sure you're planning for every eventuality? How can you appropriately manage stakeholder expectations? And what does a realistic and achievable timeline really look like?

Website projects almost always take longer than you expect and require more resources than you realize. In fact, you’ll need to engage in careful planning long before you sign a contract with a vendor. 

You can’t know what you don't know, but we’ve been down this road many times before. To that end, here’s a look at approximately how long it will take to get your website from pre-planning all the way to the finish line. 

Pre-Contract Planning (3+ Months)

There’s a great deal of work that goes into preparing your organization for a new website. How long it ultimately takes will depend on the size of your team and the way you approach change management. 

To be as efficient as possible, approach the pre-contract phase as though it's a project in its own right. Set objectives, assign a lead or project manager, ensure everyone is clear on their roles and responsibilities, and track progress closely to stay on track.

Approach change management as its own project and stay on track.
Approach change management as its own project and stay on track.

Obtain Stakeholder Buy-In and Initial Budgetary Approvals

It’s common for an organization’s internal stakeholders to feel that a new website is unnecessary or too expensive. They might also balk at the time and energy the project will require or advocate for allocating resources elsewhere. 

A good way to reduce the amount of time you spend discussing objections is to ask stakeholders to focus on your organizational goals. Where are you headed, and how will your website support your long-term plans?

Together, explore questions such as:

  • What are our overarching business objectives? What are we trying to achieve? 
  • How well does our current website support our business goals? What would we like to do that we can’t do today?
  • Who is our target audience? What are their needs, and how well are we currently serving them?
  • How might a new website allow us to serve our audience better? 
  • What features and functionality are must-haves to make a website investment worthwhile? 

It’s wise to include decision-makers such as your CFO in these conversations. Collaboratively discussing factors like these is an essential first step in getting your key players on board and carving out the budget you’ll need to carry out your vision.

Conduct Initial CMS and Vendor Research

During the pre-planning phase, you’ll also need to research which solutions are best positioned to meet your organization’s needs. This research should help you develop your RFP and create the assessment criteria you use to choose the right vendor and CMS

This can be more complicated than it sounds. With so many options on the market, it can be difficult to craft an RFP that truly tells you what you need to know. That's why submitting simpler requests for information (RFIs) and conducting informational interviews with website development experts is a smart move. 

These interviews can help you learn about different vendors and CMS options, validate or disprove your assumptions, and learn what the market truly provides. Talking with experts will give you insights into the pros and cons of different approaches and help you gauge which one is the best fit for your needs. 

RFP Process and Vendor Selection (3-6 Months)

If your organization requires you to conduct an open RFP process, be advised that you may receive dozens of proposals. Reviewing and scoring these can be incredibly onerous. That’s especially true if you ask vendors to provide copious amounts of information without disclosing your budgetary limitations.

If prospective vendors think the sky’s the limit, you may end up with lengthy proposals that include many more features than you genuinely need. And if that happens, you may need to re-issue or revise your RFP to zero in on the information that’s most salient to your organization.

To avoid this, consider streamlining the RFP process by only inviting a handful of pre-selected vendors to submit proposals. Or, be very specific about the information you want to see and ask all vendors to stay within that framework. 

Regardless of which way you decide to proceed, you’ll need to:

  • Create objective criteria by which to assess and score each proposal 
  • Schedule time with your internal subject matter experts to review and evaluate submissions 
  • Narrow your options down and invite finalists in for presentations with your key stakeholders 
  • Be sure you have the budget to cover your must-have features 
  • Account for vacations and other out-of-office scenarios to avoid delays in bringing finalists in
  • Factor in time to make your final selection and get sign-offs from key decision makers (e.g. your CFO, the Board)
  • Ask your legal, compliance, and procurement teams to review contracts and enter into negotiations with the vendor you choose

This part of the process can easily eat up one to two quarters. But if you’re clear on what you’re looking for and confident in what it will take for a solution to meet your needs, you can shave weeks — even months — off of your timeline.

Being clear on what you’re looking for and what it will take for a solution to meet your needs, can shave down your timeline substantially.
Being clear on what you’re looking for and what it will take for a solution to meet your needs, can shave down your timeline substantially.

Project Kickoff Waiting Period (1-2 Months)

Good vendors are in demand, and most book their work in advance to avoid gaps in revenue. Demand is particularly high as a result of pandemic-induced inflation in the tech sector. Therefore, it’s essential to understand that you’ll need to wait approximately one to two months for a kickoff date.

However, even if your project won’t immediately begin in earnest, you can do important pre-work during this timeframe. 

 At a minimum, plan to:

  • Assess and strengthen your content governance habits
  • Conduct a thorough content audit to understand what you have now and what you will need on the new site
  • Pare down or eliminate any redundant or outdated content 
  • Identify any pages that are rarely visited and make a plan for keeping, consolidating, or deleting them
  • If you haven’t already, get Google Analytics 4 and tools like Hotjar heatmaps set up to establish a baseline for your website’s performance

Being proactive in these areas shortens your project timeline and ensures you aren’t paying a consultant to do work you can do yourself. 

Website Development Project Phase (6-12 Months)

Once your project kicks off, you can anticipate moving through three distinct phases. 

  • In the discovery phase, you’ll define your audience and consider how your website should function in order to reach your personas effectively
  • In the design phase, you’ll refine your goals into one key concept to build your design around and choose the visual elements that represent your brand
  • Then in the development phase, your vendor will put all the functionalities and capabilities in place that will bring your holistic vision to life 

The most important way you can influence the timeline in each phase is to ensure your key stakeholders provide prompt, useful feedback. But remember: It’s not necessary to have all your stakeholders review everything. Instead, think through who needs to be involved each step of the way and make it a priority to keep them apprised about — and solicit their feedback on —  the areas that matter to them. 

Be Realistic About Your Website Development Project’s Timeline

When preparing for a website development project, the most important thing you can do is expect the unexpected. Things won’t always go to plan, and tasks will always take longer than you’d like. If you inadvertently over-promise and under-deliver, it will reflect poorly on you and your department. 

To that end, carefully manage your stakeholders’ expectations (and your own) by being realistic about your timeline from the start. Then do all you can to influence your project’s timeline and reach the finish line as quickly and efficiently as possible.