hands holding out a document, inside an office setting

How to write an effective RFP for your website

October 30, 2018| by Dan Moriarty

I’ve been involved in the designing and building of dozens of websites since 1998. That’s over 20 years of sitemaps, wireframes, page mockups, database queries, content management systems, and browser testing. And while so many things have changed over the years, most website projects still begin the same way– with a request for proposal (RFP).

A potential client releases their RFP, and agencies like Electric Citizen spend hours going over page after page of documentation, asking client questions, doing research, and writing lengthy proposals in response. While there have some very well-reasoned articles written about getting us away from this RFP-cycle, it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

And that’s not the point of this article anyway. As someone who’s responded to countless RFPs over the years, I have some insight as to what makes a “good” RFP. I’ve seen some well-written documents that make the process more effective. And I’ve seen some cut-and-paste monstrosities that make even the mightiest soul cringe in fear.

That said, I’ve never had to write an RFP. But what I can do, as a veteran participant of RFPs, is share some suggestions that may help your organization write a better, more effective RFP for your next web design and development project. A well-written RFP leads to many advantageous outcomes, such as:

  1. Higher quality responders. The best agencies are busy and don’t want to waste time on confusing documentation or guessing at requirements.
  2. Better communication between all parties
  3. More accurate, effective proposals
  4. A clearer understanding and roadmap
  5. Fewer surprises and misunderstandings
  6. Happier business relationships

Doesn’t that sound better? Let’s get to the tips.

Share Your Budget
hands of person at work with paperwork and calculator spread out before them

I understand the reluctance to share exact budget numbers with potential agencies. Information is power. If you want the best price for your project, let those applying quote a price and you can choose the best one.

If you say $50,000, then you’ll get proposals that “magically” total up to $50k. Or it may be as simple as not having any idea what your website redesign should cost.

But a website redesign isn’t like shopping for a couch. Think of it like advertising your business. You could buy an ad in the neighborhood newspaper for a few bucks per week, and you’re completing the task. But you won’t expect the same outcome as you would spending money with a full service ad agency.

Coming into a project with a stated budget brings several advantages.

  1. It lets firms know whether they are a good fit for the project. Good firms have a sense of what their minimum budget is for a project, and it varies. For some firms, $20k is perfect. For others, they are structured and staffed for much larger budgets and would not be a good fit.
  2. Agencies can define solutions to projects in many different ways. Knowing a budget lets them start crafting how they’d approach your project. Do we do user testing, for example, or should we take a lean approach to project discovery. Should we use an existing 3rd party tool that does 80% of what you need, or build a more expensive custom tool that does 100%.
  3. Being upfront with budget gets everyone started with a level of transparency and trust. It lets agencies know you are serious and that you are confident we can have a successful and honest discussion about money, and not start from a place of secrecy or mistrust.
Select a Realistic Timeline
hands of person at work with a computer tablet displaying a gantt chart timeline

How long should a website redesign take? The answer will alway vary from project to project, depending on content, technical complexity, and many other factors.

But plan on at least several months, if not longer. Ideally you work with your design agency to define the timeline AFTER you start the project.

Asking an agency to define a project timeline before any discovery work has taken place is just a shot in the dark. They don’t know all the requirements, what solutions they will pursue, when the project will actually start, and what other projects they may have in the meantime.

If you have a reason for a particular deadline, such as an upcoming tradeshow or a seasonal period when your team has more time for the project, that’s a very valid reason to set a specific deadline or timeframe. But in those cases, start your RFP process well ahead of time, to account for potential delays in the acquisition process or other complexities currently unknown.

A comfortably paced timeline will greatly help the success of your project.

Clearly list your goals and deliverables
hands of person at work with a laptop open and a paper notepad, taking notes with a pen

What do you need? What do you want to see accomplished? What kind of outcomes are you wanting?

It is important to list your deliverables, in a short and easy-to-understand list. Use bullet points or numbers to list them on in the RFP. Cleary label this section and keep it separate from any proposal-specific requirements (e.g. “Here’s how you need to organize your document”).

This section is the main basis for all vendors questions and conversations. They want to know (a) can we meet these requirements (b) can we deliver what they are asking for, and of course (c) can it be done within the stated budget and timeline.

As you are writing the goals, also consider if this something that a website vendor can achieve, or if this responsibility is more with your own team. Increasing your presence in the community, for example, may not be a goal your new website alone can achieve. It doesn’t hurt to share all of your hopes.

A good vendor may have solutions to support these outcomes. Just be aware of what’s a definitive deliverable, and what’s more aspirational, so when the project is complete, you aren’t disappointed.

Consider your MVP

Every RFP should define the minimum viable product (MVP), meaning the list of absolute, must-have features for your website design. The MVP states what is nonnegotiable to the success of the project, and by its very nature needs to be short and concise.

Knowing your top, critical priorities helps define how your vendors understand your needs and structure a proposal around what’s most important. It may be that everything you’re asking for is possible under one project budget and timeline. But sometimes certain requests need to be cut or postponed to a future phase.

Still have a long list of requests? You certainly could include that in your RFP. Making everything a must-have, however, and a web design agency may think you have unrealistic demands and consider you a potentially a difficult client.

Detail 3rd party integrations
two web developers talking while one is coding via a monitor and keyboard

More and more, websites are about programs and platforms talking to one another and exchanging data back and forth. List out any and all technical requirements, and consider the level of integration required.

Simply adding a link to a 3rd-party site, or embedding an iFrame of content from another site isn’t data integration. For most vendors, that is easy to do. The challenge comes with API-integrations, importing and exporting data.

It is also important to understand that with so many 3rd-party services available, it is impossible for developers to have experience and understanding of all of them. Typically the client doesn’t understand the requirements either. The best an agency can do is demonstrate examples of previous data integrations, and estimate the time required for yours.

Some flexibility is required, as the task may be easier or harder than assumed, and additional research is needed (which you can’t expect the vendor to do for free). Hopefully you’ve structured your timeline and budget to account for some unknowns!

It is ultimately an exercise in mutual trust and respect

Don’t assume responsibilities

Who is doing the content migration? Who is writing copy? Are you planning to rewrite content for the new site? What happens when the project is done? How are you supporting the site? Is the work guaranteed?

While you want to keep your focus on the MVP and key project goals, don’t forget to ask (and answer) some critical questions around responsibilities. From a vendor’s standpoint, if they aren’t specifically agreeing to do something in the proposal, it is negotiable.

You don’t want to get carried away detailing every little onerous requirement. After all, it is ultimately an exercise in mutual trust and respect. But any details with the potential to significantly impact the project budget and timeline need to be covered early in the process.

Define platform requirements. Stay open minded.

If you have your mind set on WordPress, or a requirement that the site work with a Windows server, that’s fine. Just be clear about any technical requirements that can’t be changed. This will help match your project to the right agency, with the skills and background you require.

If you do have flexibility, however, this can open your project up to a wider range of possibilities. Being open to a wider range of options allows agencies focus on the bigger picture outcomes of your project, and less about fitting every solution to a preset framework. Let them put their expertise and experience to work in finding the best solution to your needs.

Some firms will specialize in one particular CMS while others are “CMS-agnostic.” I don’t think one approach is necessarily better than the other. Your only question is, can their preferred methodology and process give you the results you want, in a way that is affordable and sustainable. If the answer is yes, than the “how” becomes less important.

Let people email their proposals
hands of person at work, placing a CD in a laptop tray for reading

Asking for 5 or more printouts isn’t super friendly. Asking for a digital copy on a CD-ROM? Why on earth? I don’t even have a CD drive in our office and haven’t for years. Yes, flash drives might work, but putting a 500k proposal on a 5 GB flash drive doesn’t seem very cost effective.

This is just one example of where sometimes an RFP may have requirements that I assume have been passed on from years of previously written RFPs, and without consideration as to their usefulness to the way things are today.

You may have a legitimate reason to ask for printouts, or that the responders only sign their name in black ink (never blue!). But if you don’t, please don’t include such requirements. It’s just one more barrier between you and your potential partner.

Consider a paid discovery

A good web design firm is made up veterans and experts in their fields. They’ve done this a lot more than you, and that’s why you’re hiring them. So before you ask an agency to estimate budgets, timelines and solutions to a project based solely on your own research and assumptions, hire them to do discovery process.

There are so many unknowns, and it’s difficult to cover all of them in an RFP process. Starting with a paid discovery lets your new partner do a careful diagnosis of your project and in a way that minimizes exposure between parties. Before you commit to spending six-figures with a firm you’ve never met, consider a much smaller, discrete discovery project.

They may agree with your initial assessment of what needs to be done. But more likely they will uncover things you haven’t considered, and suggest solutions that you didn’t think of before.

Coming out of a paid discovery, you should have a clearly defined (and documented) set of requirements, a clearer sense of the required budget and timeline, and a plan going into design and development.

You will have built up trust with an agency and can take the next step forward. Or you may have learned you would prefer to work with someone else. At least you aren’t obligated to continue working with this particular agency, and haven’t invested too much time and budget so far.

Final Word

Your primary focus should always be on finding the right fit between your organization and an outside agency. The RFP process should introduce you to a firm, and give you a sense of who they are, what they’ve done and if they can meet your project requirements.  

Once you have the proposals in hand, choose your partner and get this started! Keep in mind, agencies are doing their best to anticipate your needs based on a limited amount of information available at the onset. Stay flexible and expect some unpredictable moments. Focus on your MVP and key deliverables.

Remember, it is ultimately an exercise in mutual trust and respect. Hopefully you find a partner that you can work with for years to come.

photo of Dan Moriarty wearing a dark blue dress shirt

About the Author:

Dan has been serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul area as a UX designer, developer and online strategist since 2000. More about Dan »