What to Consider When Choosing a Drupal Partner
With so many aspects of our lives now mirrored online, organizations naturally want to deliver exceptional digital experiences. Some entities have in-house resources that can produce those experiences; others don’t. Or, even if they have teams that can, those teams may be too busy with client work — a good problem to have.
Whatever the circumstances, if your organization is considering Drupal for such deliverables or has already said yes to the open source platform, an external partner can help you take advantage of its many powerful features. An external partner can, for example, assist with site builds or integrate your preferred marketing technology stack. Another option could be a digital agency or systems integrator for headless, multisite, or commerce experiences that typically require more complex solutions.
But how to vet a vendor? Many have charming reps but, once you look past their fun culture, might lack skilled developers who can deliver on your ambitious plans. Some have won multiple awards for their work but may have limits to the breadth of capabilities they can offer a client over the long term. There’s a real range, and ultimately, you have to decide who you want to collaborate with based on your business needs. With that in mind, we’ve prepared a list of considerations to keep in mind as you embark on this mission.
1. Experience and expertise
Every partner will claim experience and expertise, but do they have the right background? They may have built a kajillion websites, for example, but not in Drupal. Don’t let your project (and budget) be how they learn the platform.
Here are some questions to help you decide whether the vendor has the chops to deliver what you need:
- How many Drupal sites have they built, and how recently have they done so? There’s a big difference between Drupal 7 and Drupal 10, so get a feel for their portfolio.
- Can they provide case studies of client work that aligns with your needs? Maybe there are specific integrations critical to your project, or you’re looking to consolidate your web and application infrastructure. Ask how they’ve met requests similar to whatever yours may be.
- Can they point to clients in your industry? Some vendors work exclusively in one field; others roam. If they haven’t worked with clients in your sector and cost is an issue, would they offer a discounted rate? There’s benefit to them if they’re trying to diversify their portfolio.
- Do they typically work with small businesses, midsize companies, or enterprise clients? Drupal is a great platform for organizations of all sizes, but the concerns of each vary. If you expect to move from one category to another in the near term, what experience does your potential partner have in helping businesses scale?
- How knowledgeably can they speak to projects they didn’t work on? It may seem counterintuitive to ask about projects that aren’t part of a vendor’s portfolio, but if you’re particularly impressed by certain websites or digital experiences, you want to know if a potential partner has the expertise to analyze the solutions employed and the communication skills to discuss what may have been involved in producing that site or experience.
2. A skilled project team
It goes without saying that the team you work with will include developers, but do they have Drupal certification? This is particularly helpful if your project involves industry-leading Acquia products, but even if it doesn’t, ask how many Drupal modules or themes their developers have contributed to and maintained and if those developers will be on the project team. In fact, how many Drupal developers does their roster include? If it’s, say, two and one leaves, what kind of bind will that put you in?
Depending on your needs, you may also want a vendor who can offer support in other areas beyond development. User experience (UX), content architecture, content strategy, analytics — there are many areas you may not have the resources for in-house. For instance, you may be interested in a team that can deliver in certain time zones, or you may be looking for lower cost, offshore resources. Conversely, you may not need any of that; don’t let project costs balloon for services you don’t need.
As Carl Brown, Interactive Experience Director at Sitback, says, “Look for a team who focuses on what they do exceptionally well and understands what they don’t – a team who can prove their worth, who have raving fans with lived experience, and who make you feel at ease from the get-go.”
3. An understanding of project scope
Who’s on the project team reflects an understanding of project scope. How have the potential partners you’re considering shown that they understand your needs? The answers may be in their submissions to your request for proposal (RFP), but if you aren’t using a RFP process to evaluate partners, see if they’ll prepare a scope of work (SOW) for you. Putting the onus on them will illustrate how closely they understand your needs. Do you get the sense that they simply want to meet project requirements, or are they more imaginative and can perhaps articulate goals you didn’t realize were within your reach?
Put another way, can they anticipate needs you may not yet have identified? The more cynical among us may first read this as upselling, but it could also be a sign of investment in your success. After all, the best partners are equally invested in each other’s growth and development. “At the end of day, a strong partnership will always generate more value than the individual entities,” says Niel Mouton, Group Chief Growth Officer at Wunderman Thompson.
And, if a partner is really invested in your success, they’ll speak honestly about what may or may not be achievable within your project parameters. They could suggest workarounds and the advantages and shortcomings of those solutions — don’t forget to find out if they’ve implemented them before — but there may also be no good or easy way to deliver what you’re looking for. An honest conversation will help you assess a partner’s integrity, creativity, and trustworthiness.
4. Community involvement
As an open source platform, the Drupal community numbers in the thousands. Many vigilantly monitor its security and offer improvements that help it mature in new and exciting ways.
But this involvement isn’t a given for everyone who claims to champion the content management system. Some agencies and vendors invest more in the platform than others, and they regularly contribute fixes or modules that ensure its growth. Indeed, Drupal creator and Acquia co-founder Dries Buytaert often publishes an annual list of the individuals and organizations that have made meaningful contributions to Drupal.
Review the top contributors and see if the potential partners you’re vetting fall among the most recently listed. If their name is included, you’ll know they’re solid supporters of the open source platform and are likely to know the latest or upcoming developments for Drupal.
5. Project management and communication styles
Find a partner who communicates and manages projects in a style compatible with yours. Do you expect emails to be answered within a 24-hour time period? Is their tone over Slack brusque or warm and informative? Do they apply an Agile methodology to their work? Determine what matters to you and choose a partner who holds those same values or at least understand the trade-offs.
For instance, the partner may have whiz-bang developers on the project team but a terse or tardy communication style. Will you be OK with not hearing from them for a few days if it means deliverables that repeatedly wow the C-suite? What if deadlines are blown over and over again . . . but the end result is always an A+? Everyone wants agreeable partners and teammates who meet deadlines, but you also have to be honest about your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. If you have a mercurial leader who changes their mind on a dime and expects others to swivel just as quickly, is your potential partner game for such pivots? What if your work cultures clash — they observe strict work-life balance, yours has none? These differences can mean a lot when timelines are compressed, and stress levels are high.
An extraordinary portfolio, thoughtful and timely responses to your queries, a bang-up team — your gut tells you that this partner is the one for you.
But why gamble? Ask for references so you can confirm what your intuition is whispering. These references should be clients who they’ve worked with recently, who represent organizations similar in size to yours, and/or whose projects were similar in scope. For example, Acquia customers can check with their rep or partner team for a short list of references tailored to their needs.
And if there’s a particular project in the partner’s portfolio that catches your eye, ask if you can speak to a representative there. If not, what reason do they provide? You can learn a lot from their answer and, of course, what their clients say.
7. Support and maintenance
The level of support and maintenance you may require after the build will necessarily vary. Your in-house team may be able to take over once it’s done, they may need a set of extra helping hands, or you may have chosen a hosting provider who can handle support and maintenance apart from your Drupal partner.
It could also be that the build you chose is less self-service and requires regular involvement from your partner. That’s why it’s important to understand architectures like headless versus hybrid or no-code/low-code tools. Knowing what each entails may inform your expectations about support; for instance, if you choose a no- or low-code approach, then you may need less support. You’ll better grasp your team’s needs after all is said and done.
Lastly, this is an area where customizations and module selection make a difference. Does the partner (or you) push for more complex modules, or do they suggest more slender lines of code? While Drupal naturally lends itself to flexibility and customizations for almost any business challenge, it’s important to remember that more complexity can sometimes come with added cost or exposure to unnecessary risks. Bloated codebases create more surface area that might open you up to risk or create a greater burden when it comes to future upgrades and evolving tech.
Find your Drupal partner
The list of considerations above offer a solid roadmap for any meetings you have with potential Drupal partners, but you may not be sure where to find such a group. Don’t worry; we’ve got you. We have a long Rolodex of agencies that offer a range of services in numerous industries and for organizations of all sizes. Peruse our partner finder and get cracking on the digital experience of your dreams.