How to Write a Great RFP For a New Website Design

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Writing a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a new website design and build is tough.

Most people do not spend all day dreaming about CMS technologies, feature lists, process methodologies and evaluation criteria. Everyone is busy and it is hard to find time to write an in-depth document about a complex subject that moves at a fast pace.

As the Director of Business Development for Elevated Third, I spend at least some part of every day reviewing RFPs or working to prepare a response to one. I have seen everything from two paragraph documents that include little to no information, to 50-page booklets that are full of hard to decipher language. After years of going through this process, I sat down with a few members of the Elevated Third team to talk about what our ideal RFP would look like.  After several meetings with people from all areas of expertise, including account management, design, digital strategy and drupal development, we decided to document our thoughts to share with anyone out there who might be interested in finding out what makes a good RFP in the eyes of a digital agency like Elevated Third. Below is a list of the main criteria we determined are the core of what would make up a successful RFP document. 

Explain the “Why”

In order to help the teams that receive your RFP understand the purpose of your project, it is extremely important to provide a frame of reference. The best way to accomplish this is to start off your document by explaining the “why” of your project. If you jump right into feature lists or creative direction, you are missing out on a critical opportunity to give background so respondents can better comprehend your situation. Take a few sentences (or paragraphs) to describe how you got to this point and why you are looking to redesign and rebuild your website. The more someone understands about where you currently are, the more likely they are to provide a relevant response. A simple overview or background section can go a long way in helping teams connect the dots between your requirements and understanding why they are included in your RFP process.

The more someone understands about where you currently are, the more likely they are to provide a relevant response.

Provide Context

We often receive RFPs that are a simple list of basic information like features, key dates and evaluation criteria. In those situations it is extremely difficult to write a meaningful response that we feel confident submitting. There is so little detail about the organization, what the project represents to the company and how the final product will be evaluated that we are forced to make a ton of assumptions that may, or may not, be accurate... 

Some information that always helps to provide a targeted, meaningful and detailed RFP is listed below:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is your vision for the website?
  • How will you define success once the site is launched?
  • What are your goals?
  • Do you have specific data about how the site is currently performing?
  • Which stakeholders will be involved in managing the project?
  • What represents a conversion?

Provide targeted, meaningful details in your RFP such as your vision, and how you will define success after launch

The best proposal responses that I have seen are those that break away from just providing a pricing table and actually go into detail about a specific approach based on what was learned through reading the RFP. Rather than throwing together a pricing table that is a wild guess, it is better for both parties if respondents can describe how they would approach the project based on specific information that was provided in the RFP.

Be Upfront

Timelines, budgets and desired functionality are the components of a project that will craft your relationship with your selected partner. If you are not upfront about your expectations for each of those items, you are not providing the information that is necessary for respondents to deliver a thorough and accurate response. In the world of web development there are an endless number of variables that can influence how a team approaches a website, and we often receive RFPs that contain an incredibly vague line items.

For the sake of this argument, let’s say someone wants an interactive map on their website. As an agency, we have built half a dozen different types of interactive maps over the past two years, each with incredibly different designs, data and levels of interaction. If a potential partner simply puts “interactive map” in their RFP, a respondent has no idea where to begin estimating that or what to include in their response. They could build a thousand different versions of an interactive map, but if we know the project budget, how long we have to build the site and what specific functionality (what type of data will be displayed, how will users interact with the map, how much data is tied into the backend, etc) we have a much better idea of where to begin.

An example of a map we built for Global Logistics Properties.Above is an example of an interactive map we built for Global Logistics Properties. For a budget of $10,000, the map illustrates GLP's footprint across the country and it fully editable on the back end. GLP’s detailed RFP allowed us to form a proper estimate and timeline, and deliver a map that met their needs.

Collaboration and communication are key to the success of your new website, and this all begins in the RFP process. By hiding information or withholding critical components of your project, you are not setting yourself up for success.

Be Realistic

At the end of the day, you are asking partners to describe their approach to a project that they do not know a great deal about. You can’t think of this as a final document, or even one that captures everything that they may want to tell you about their process or approach. Reviewing a document and having a few conversations will never replace a discovery process, things are going to deviate, adjust, disappear and be added once the project gets off the ground, so be prepared for that. You have to put trust in your partner and give them the freedom to learn and craft a plan as they learn about your company and needs. Allow the team you select to do a real deep dive with members of your organization and give them the ability to pivot as priorities and needs are communicated. Nobody is going to provide perfect RFP or a flawless response, so make sure you are realistic about that fact.

You have to trust in your partner and give them the freedom to learn and craft a plan as they learn about your company and needs.

Asking a partner to commit to a final scope of work right away, or sign a document saying that their initial estimate is the final budget, will not start things off on the right foot. It is the responsibility of whoever you select to communicate those changes and have a conversation with you about why something may be different that what was called out in the RFP, and that is why it is so important to select a partner you can trust and who has strong communication skills. Budgets are very real and you should never give a company a blank slate, but there has to be an understanding that how the budget gets applied will change as the project develops. You are selecting a team who is going to work to communicate adjustments and help your company make the best decisions about what to get for your budget.

Use the RFP as a Starting Point

If you are simply looking to read through the responses that you receive and make a decision, you are not giving yourself the best chance for success. No potential partner can simply read a document and understand all the complexities of the problems that you are trying to solve for your business.  

An RFP should not be looked at as a final document and neither should a response. Take an opportunity to talk or meet with teams to explore their response in more detail. In addition to finding out more, clarifying information and reviewing responses, this is a chance to make sure your teams feel like a good fit. There is something that can’t be captured in sending emails back and forth. If you are selecting a digital team to work with for the next several months on a project that is critical to your company, you want to make sure your personalities mesh and that your teams can work effectively together. Cultural fit is a very real thing and even the most qualified team may not be the right fit for your organization if your approach to doing business is in conflict.

I hope that this information has been helpful in understanding how to write an RFP that will allow respondents to provide better proposals. If you have additional questions or want to talk further about this subject please feel free to contact me: hliss@elevatedthird.com 303-389-5647.