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In this post, we’re going to explore how monthly retainer agreements work for web designers, the benefits, the challenges, as well as tips for helping you sell them to your clients.

There are so many great things about being self-employed. But something I hear often is how much time designers end up spending on administrative tasks. If only they didn’t need to look for more gigs, interview with prospects, and onboard new clients, they’d have more time to design websites and make money.

Unless you plan on finding yourself a full-time job, though, this is just one of those things you have to do when working for yourself. Or is it?

Retainer services enable designers to turn one-off website projects into long-term recurring revenue. It also helps designers cut down on a lot of that time that would otherwise be spent on client acquisition. 

Here’s what’s coming up:

What Is a Monthly Retainer?

A retainer is a monthly contract between a web designer and a client. The client pays a fixed fee in advance to retain the web designer for a specific set of services or number of hours of work. 

What Can Designers Include in a Monthly Retainer Agreement?

Monthly retainer packages typically include a set of services that the web designer will complete each month. 

While website maintenance might seem like the most logical way to package up retainer services, there are other tasks you can perform. It all depends on your clients’ unique needs and what they’ll find most valuable to invest in on a monthly basis.

Website Maintenance

Website maintenance is critical when you build WordPress websites. Monthly maintenance packages may include tasks like:

  • WordPress updates
  • Theme and plugin updates
  • Backups and recovery
  • Security monitoring
  • Speed testing
  • Analytics tracking

NewWorks Design, for instance, sells a website retainer plan that covers the basics while also offering a number of maintenance hours each month.

The landing page on the NewWorks Design website for the Website Retainer (Basic plan).The landing page on the NewWorks Design website for the Website Retainer (Basic plan).

One of the nice things about selling website maintenance is that it won’t require a huge time commitment. What’s more, some of this work can be automated (like updates and backups). 

There are also tools and services available that will help you simplify this work. 

ManageWP, for instance, provides you with a single dashboard to manage basic maintenance tasks for all your WordPress websites. If you prefer, you can outsource WordPress maintenance to a company like WP Buffs and then pocket the markup. 

Advanced Website Support

Another option is to offer more advanced website maintenance, optimization, and support. So in addition to maintaining the software and general integrity of your client’s website, you’ll do ongoing work to get them better results. 

These retainer services might include tasks like:

  • Web hosting management
  • Content updates
  • Bug fixes
  • Graphic design for social media or the blog
  • Newsletter development
  • Performance optimizations
  • Custom plugin development
  • Priority support

WPServices, for instance, allows clients to choose how many hours of custom WordPress support and optimization they want each month.

The landing page on the WPServices website for the WordPress retainer servicesThe landing page on the WPServices website for the WordPress retainer servicesThe landing page on the WPServices website for the WordPress retainer services

You can also bundle custom website design and development services into these types of packages. Continual refining of the website will allow you to charge much more to clients who want to optimize the user experience and maximize sales.

Specialty Services

Another way to make money from retainers is to sell specialty services that enhance their website. For instance:

  • A/B testing
  • Conversion rate optimization
  • SEO and PPC services
  • Content writing and strategy
  • Digital marketing campaigns
  • Graphic design
  • Website audits, consulting, and strategy

This kind of work will require a greater investment of your time, but it’ll also allow you to charge significantly more. Rather than perform maintenance which keeps a website running, you’ll actively be increasing the quality and outcomes of the site. 

Hello Ginger, for instance, sells three different graphic design retainers for clients who need marketing materials created on a regular basis.

The landing page on the Hello Ginger website for three graphic design retainer packages: Basic, Deluxe, and PremiumThe landing page on the Hello Ginger website for three graphic design retainer packages: Basic, Deluxe, and PremiumThe landing page on the Hello Ginger website for three graphic design retainer packages: Basic, Deluxe, and Premium

Big Hit Creative is an agency that sells monthly retainer services for small business marketing. 

The landing page on the Big Hit Creative Group website for their small business marketing retainers. There are four packages: Growth Starter, Growth Plus, Growth Professional, and Growth EnterpriseThe landing page on the Big Hit Creative Group website for their small business marketing retainers. There are four packages: Growth Starter, Growth Plus, Growth Professional, and Growth EnterpriseThe landing page on the Big Hit Creative Group website for their small business marketing retainers. There are four packages: Growth Starter, Growth Plus, Growth Professional, and Growth Enterprise

And Transistor Digital Marketing is one that sells SEO retainer packages. 

The landing page on the Transistor Digital website for SEO retainer services. There are three packages for Basic SEP, Boost SEO, and SEO SupportThe landing page on the Transistor Digital website for SEO retainer services. There are three packages for Basic SEP, Boost SEO, and SEO SupportThe landing page on the Transistor Digital website for SEO retainer services. There are three packages for Basic SEP, Boost SEO, and SEO Support

Agencies aren’t the only ones who can sell these higher-ticket retainer services. Self-employed freelancers and smaller teams can, too.

However, be careful about overcommitting since these types of services take a lot of time and expertise to maintain. If you’re still working on various one-off design jobs each month, retainer work could end up cutting into your availability.

How Much to Charge for Retainer Services

The simplest way to decide your retainer rates is to see what others are charging. For instance, if you look at other website maintenance retainers, the lowest tier is usually somewhere around $50 to $100. The most expensive is around $200 to $300. 

Ultimately, though, what you charge should be in line with the value you’re delivering. So if all you’re doing is managing software updates and backups for 15 minutes a month, it wouldn’t be fair to charge $100 for the work. On the other hand, if you’re doing something like continuous SEO improvements, you could realistically charge thousands a month.

I’d also suggest that, before you figure out pricing, you figure out what would be most valuable to your niche clients. While every website needs maintenance, enterprise clients might look at that type of retainer as insufficient, for instance.

Once you’ve decided what types of retainers to sell, create three or four packages. Different packages/pricing tiers allow you to cater to various client types. They also give clients the ability to scale services up and down as opposed to just canceling when they no longer suit their needs. 

API Studios, for example, has Small, Medium, and Growing website maintenance retainer packages.

The landing page on the API Studios website advertises Small, Medium, and Growing website maintenance retainer packagesThe landing page on the API Studios website advertises Small, Medium, and Growing website maintenance retainer packagesThe landing page on the API Studios website advertises Small, Medium, and Growing website maintenance retainer packages

If you’re struggling to put a price on your services, you could always create discounted hour bundles. That’s what Evolve Creative does. 

The landing page on the Evolve Creative website advertises two retainer packages based on the number of retained hoursThe landing page on the Evolve Creative website advertises two retainer packages based on the number of retained hoursThe landing page on the Evolve Creative website advertises two retainer packages based on the number of retained hours

Clients choose if they want the Lite Retainer for 20 hours of work or the Pro Retainer for up to 40 hours. The monthly fee is calculated by discounting what the total cost of those hours would normally be.

How to Pitch Retainer Agreements

As you can see from the examples above, there are web designers and agencies that advertise retainer services on their websites. 

But how likely is it that they’re able to sell to people who have never worked with them before? In my experience, it’s not common. You’d need impeccable online reviews, testimonials, and case studies demonstrating how well those retainer services work.

That said, it’s still a good idea to have a landing page for your retainer packages so that prospective clients are aware of what you offer. For starters, it’ll set you apart from designers that only sell one-time web design services. 

two people in agreementtwo people in agreementtwo people in agreement

It’ll also make it easier to discuss retainer work during the client onboarding process. While clients might not want to buy a retainer at that stage, you’ll have planted the seeds. You can then remind them during offboarding how important it is to keep their website updated, to publish new content, optimize for search, and so on.

The key to selling retainer agreements is this: To make it part of relevant conversations with your client. Whenever they talk about how important their site is to their business or they ask about how many sales or leads they’ll get, that’s the perfect time to address the need for ongoing maintenance.

The Pros and Cons of Retainer Work

Monthly retainer agreements might seem like the perfect way to bring recurring revenue into your web design business. Before you set things up and pitch retainers to your clients, consider the following:

Pros:

  • It’s a good way to stabilize income and not have to worry as much about feast-or-famine periods.
  • It will allow you to diversify your services so you can offer more value to clients.
  • You can spend less time on client acquisition since you’ll have a steady roster of clients to manage.
  • You’ll be able to develop better relationships over time, which can make clients easier to work with.
  • Deliver better results to clients as you oversee their websites (and/or related services) and they’ll be more likely to spend more money and send referrals your way.
  • Predictable recurring revenue can help you establish a healthy work-life balance.

Cons: 

  • Some clients might equate a retainer with you being “on call” and, as a result, overstep their boundaries.
  • Clients that don’t use their retained services might expect you to roll them over, creating extra work in the coming month.
  • Monthly retainers aren’t a guarantee of revenue so you need to work hard to maintain the contracts and client relationships.
  • Retainer tasks are often repetitive and boring, so you might find the work unfulfilling and challenging to complete.

Why a Contract Is Essential When Selling Retainer Services

There are some challenges when managing retainer services. But a lot of them can be addressed by having an iron-clad retainer contract. The contract should clearly explain the following:

  • Client-contractor relationship
  • Length of contract
  • Tasks included
  • Maximum number of hours you’ll work (when relevant)
  • Number of revision requests allowed
  • Cost of services
  • Fee for services outside the scope
  • Payment due date
  • What happens if payment isn’t received
  • What happens if client doesn’t use retained services (i.e. lose it or roll over)
  • Cancellation process
  • How many days’ notice needed for cancellation
  • Client’s point of contact

You should also include the relevant sections from your normal web design contract as well. 

The retainer contract will allow you to set clear expectations for clients while also giving you formal terms to refer to if they try to push the limits of the agreement. 

Conclusion

Retainer services are a great way for self-employed designers to create more income security. At the same time, you’ll be able to offer more value for clients over the long term and help them reap more benefits from their initial website investment. 

Whether you’re looking for a way to supplement your web design earnings or to pivot towards a recurring revenue-based business, monthly retainer agreements are a good place to start.

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