Apples to Apples: How to Write an RFP for Website Design & Development

Posted: June 26, 2013

I read a lot of RFPs. Some are good; some are bad; some are ugly.

Assuming your goal (as an RFP writer) is to invite thoughtful, complete responses from vendors that appropriately address your needs, there are a few things you should know.

Disclaimer #1: The following tips are based on my own personal experience reviewing, evaluating and responding to literally hundreds of RFPs from institutions across the country. I hope this article helps RFP writers as well as my fellow consultants and vendors who respond to them (so that we’re all speaking the same language).

Disclaimer #2: In order for this article to make sense, the reader must understand that when a vendor scopes a project, we start by making a number of  “assumptions.” An assumption is an elemental understanding of what we’re going to do for the client. Some are very obvious. For example, we always assume that the client will provide a dedicated project lead (so we know all communications will flow through a single person). But some assumptions are more obscure. For example:

  • If the project includes focus groups with current students, we might assume the client will provide us a room on campus for which to conduct these interviews (so we won’t need to rent a hotel room or meeting facility).
  • If we’re migrating content from an existing database to a new CMS, we might assume the client will provide us with full FTP access to the existing web server (so that we don’t have to manually copy and paste from a live web page).

These may seem overly granular, but making accurate assumptions is critical to determining the total cost of a project. That said, here are 5 things you need to know when preparing your website design and development RFP:

1. Tell us your budget.

We know you don’t want to divulge this, but there’s a reason this is the very first question we ask when submitting formal Q&A. Despite what you may think, it’s not because we’re trying to gauge whether your project is worth our time – if you’ve made the effort to prepare the RFP and jumped through all the hurdles involved in doing that – it’s absolutely worth our time. The reason we ask the budget question is because we want to be on the same page with other proposers. An RFP is a formal request based on specific business requirements and purchasing criteria. If you don’t tell us the budget, we’re forced to make assumptions which may – or may not – be accurate. And you won’t be able to compare apples to apples.

2. It’s okay to tell us what you don’t know

Be specific in what you’re asking. Are you looking for a fully functioning live website? Or maybe you just want us to create the visual design and your internal team will implement the templates on your existing CMS. Or maybe you don’t know what you need and are looking for us to make recommendations. If It’s the latter, that’s okay! But if you’re looking for recommendations,  you need to have a good idea of how you’re going to evaluate the responses. Start with your goals. What are you trying to accomplish with the new website? How did this come about? Who’s driving this initiative and what’s wrong with the current site? Most importantly, be direct with us and tell us what you don’t know. If you don’t, we’ll make assumptions and again – no apples.

3. Consider your content needs

I’ve read a lot of website RFPs that fail to address one of the most important elements of a strong website: content. For the purpose of this article, “content” breaks into two categories:

Content Development
Most agencies (especially those who work in higher ed) have in-house content creators. If you want the vendor to create content – whether its copy, photography, videos, whatever – tell us exactly what you need us to do in some sort of measurable fashion. Since our communication is often limited by state purchasing regulations, it’s difficult for us to get a feel for what type of relationship you’re looking for. For example, do you want us to write all the content for your top-level pages? Or, do you want us to edit content that currently exists from an SEO perspective? If you’re not explicitly clear on your content development needs, we have to make assumptions in order to be fair in our response. If possible, figure out which pages you want us to write for and tell us. Or, give us a budget for content and we’ll make assumptions to meet it.

Content Migration
One of the “easiest” ways to keep costs down is by limiting the amount of content that needs to be migrated into the new website. When we’re scoping the project we’re going to look at your existing website content and make assumptions about how much we’ll need to migrate. But just because it’s on the current site doesn’t mean it will be on the new site. If your college has 20,000 pages of content (this is not unusual) we’re probably going to assume that a lot of that content is garbage (old sites, deceased faculty members, programs that no longer exist, etc.) and doesn’t need to be included in the new, cleaner, easier to navigate website. But the reality is, we don’t know what stays and what goes. As the subject matter expert, YOU are a much better judge of that number than we are. So tell us (as best you can) how many pages (or what sections of the website) you want the vendor to migrate into the new site. Alternatively, we have clients who handle content migration entirely by themselves which is also an option (your new CMS will make this easy). But unless you’re specific, we’re going to assume we need to include man-hours for content migration in the scope of work – which equates to a much higher dollar amount.

4. Milestones and deadlines

It’s good to have a goal for when you need the project to be complete. In fact, most agencies love this. It shows that you’re committed to project management and completing tasks on time. Since it’s our responsibility to manage the project, we need to know how flexible your timeline is. While we can certainly include a timeline in our RFP response, it’s important to remember that this WILL change once the project begins. For example, we don’t know when the Dean’s vacation is or how long it’s going to take your internal team to approve a design concept. Tell us about any key milestones and deadlines so we can create a timeline around those needs. Remember that any agency can promise to meet a deadline; what matters is whether they’ve got the project management chops to back up that promise. So be sure to evaluate responses on their account management and communication processes.

5. Follow up and give feedback

We don’t take it personally when we don’t win a project. We want you to choose the agency that’s the best fit for your needs. We hope it’s us – but if not, that’s okay. Higher ed is a close-knit community and (believe it or not) most of us who compete for your business are actually quite friendly with each other.

That said, this is still a business. We want to know what we could have done better. Where did we fall short? How can we improve our response? Was there anything we did wrong or could have improved? We don’t need a dissertation, but we would LOVE a brief – and honest – download. Keep notes during your evaluation and ask your purchasing person to share them with us at the end. We really appreciate that.

In Conclusion…

In conclusion, I could write a book on all the things I’ve learned about RFPs….but I won’t; nobody would read that!

It’s a ton of work to prepare an RFP. But If you consider these 5 tips — budget, goals, content, timeline and feedback — you’ll be in good shape. Vendors will appreciate the time you’ve put into your preparation and you’ll reap the reward of collecting a dozen (or so) well-crafted, thoughtful proposals. All of which are within your budget, accurately based on your business goals and able to get off the ground quickly and without hesitancy.

What do YOU think?
I’d love to hear feedback from the RFP writers themselves. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered when preparing an RFP? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below and let’s start a dialogue.