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How To Write A Website RFP


Your organization's website should be viewed as an important part of your sales team. It never sleeps, it is available 24/7/365, and it contains a wealth of information that can help prospects become customers.

With this in mind, it's a good idea to make sure your website stay up to date and serves as a marketing hub for your company.

Many organizations redesign their websites on a regular basis because they know that keeping up with design trends is important, their marketing needs have changed, or they have updated goals.

So what do most companies do when planning a website redesign? They put together an RFP, of course! Writing a website RFP can be time-consuming so we have some advice on how to put a great website RFP together.


In our almost two decades of experience creating corporate websites, our advice for putting together a good RFP is this...


Seriously. Don't. Now, before you get all up in arms and tell me how amazing your website RFP is and how detailed and thorough it is, hear me out.

When it comes to marketing services like a website solution, RFPs encourage unnecessary games between parties. It also leads to sub-par outcomes and poor processes. While it can sometimes lead to a positive outcome, it is not the most ideal path to a website solution. Here's why.

The RFP process assumes you have all the answers

Think about the last time you went to the doctor. Did you make a list of doctors and call them all asking for a proposal? Did you explain that you wanted your appendix out, a hip replacement, and a one-year supply of Lipitor without even giving them a chance to examine you?

Or did you choose a doctor that you liked based on getting to know him/her, and then go in for a diagnosis?

A website RFP is the marketing equivalent of self-diagnosing and then writing your own prescription (click to tweet). While you might be right about some things (of course everyone wants a website that is "easy to navigate"), there are other things that can only be determined through a process and expert analysis.

Why do you want a customer portal? What are the pros and cons? What are your buyer personas? What keywords are you targeting so that we can guide the content for SEO? What business goals led to the decision to request a media room? What does your sales process look like and what are 2-3 ways we can create a workflow to support it?

When most people set out to write website RFPs, they start out way too tactical. They start thinking about site maps, features, and widgets. What we help them think about instead are the strategic elements of their business. Once we determine what the problems are we're trying to solve, the tactics become clear. Strategy before tactics leads to better outcomes and a happier bottom line.

The RFP process ensures that one or both parties will lose

In my conversation with Tiffany Sauder from Element Three on "How Much Does a Website Cost" we go into detail about this. An RFP can never be as detailed as it needs to be to cover all the possible scenarios and requirements of a website. This means that bidding agencies have one of two options.

One: they can make up a number and then add 20% to it to cover all the stuff they don't know about. This inflates the price and assures that you are over-paying for the project. Two: they can bid low to try to get the business which means that if they win, they won't make any money on it and will end up cutting corners and producing a less than desirable end results.

Either way, someone loses. The agency loses because they underbid and now get surprised by all sorts of requirements that get uncovered during the project or the company loses because they overpay and probably don't really solve all the right problems anyway because they self-diagnosed.

The RFP process encourages everyone to play unnecessary games

The RFP process is designed to prematurely ask for a price. Chances are, you already have a budget (or at least a range) in mind when you think about this project. However, by not sharing it you are asking bidding agencies to shoot in the dark and make up a number that they think you will accept.

This means that sales people have to do this dance of trying to predict what issues will come up during the project and set a price based on these unknowns. Then they have to hope that you've been totally upfront about what your needs really are.

Then, you get to try to keep from revealing information because you want to see "what they will come up with" and the whole thing is just exhausting.

The RFP process mixes the wrong contexts

Think about the context you are in when choosing a partner agency to work with. You're not in a strategic planning context. You are in a very analytical context and not focused on the nitty-gritty work of planning out your website. You've hastily put together an RFP that loosely outlines some basic stuff you see on other websites and you're just looking for a price so you can pick the lowest one (or at least one of the lowest ones).

Then, once the decision is made everyone relaxes and the real requirements come out which leads to surprises and speed bumps because the project was not properly planned.

The RFP process hides stakeholders

RFPs tend to be written by well-meaning and smart people who happen to notbe the final stakeholders and decision makers. It's a fairly common practice for the CEO or VP of marketing to delegate the RFP process to an assistant or another team member who doesn't actually have true decision-making authority. This adds a layer of complexity to the process which can slow everything down and lead to sub-par results.

We've seen this situation over and over. The assistant is in charge of managing the RFP process and acts as a shield between the bidding agencies and the stakeholders. This introduces a game of "telephone" which means that they requirements that were initially discussed do not always match up to what the stakeholders really need.


Aside from all this, RFPs just take lots of time to put together and then reviewing a bunch of proposals takes even more time. Who wants to deal with all that? So what's the alternative?

Here is my suggested process for choosing an agency to work with:

1. Research agency websites. I'm amazed at how many organizations I talk to that are looking for an agency but they haven't even looked at agency websites. You're looking for a new website, so make sure you research the work of potential agencies. You can search, ask around, or put calls out on social media for recommendations. Make a list of the ones you like.

Remember: really inspect their work. This will help you narrow down your list very quickly. If an agency can't display examples of high-quality work online, scratch them off your list.

2. Call or email the ones you like. From your list of agencies with impressive websites, contact them and ask to set up a phone call. This will let you ask some basic questions to see if there is a good fit. Ask questions about who else they've worked with, problems they've solved, and check to see if there are any issues with some of the big-picture business goals you have (keep these strategic - not tactical). Don't get hung up on stuff like what CMS they use or technology-specific stuff. It doesn't matter at this point. Shorten your list with these calls.

This part is really important: tell them your desired budget. Don't play games. Just be honest. You'll be amazed at how much smoother the process is when you're transparent. Even if you don't really have a budget pinned down, at least give them a huge range so you have some point of reference.

3. Invite the short list to do a presentation for you or just have an informational conversation. This helps you get to know them better from both a cultural standpoint and a skill set level. You want to make sure you can work well with this team and also that they "get" business enough to be able to clearly articulate what they can do for you.

Ask questions. Have a dialog. Be transparent about your needs. Again, keep it strategic. Also, make sure all the stakeholders are present. It doesn't need to be super-formal and in fact it shouldn't be.

4. Choose an agency and pay for planning. At this point you should be able to make a decision. If you don't think you have enough information you're just kidding yourself. You already know who you want to go with so make the decision. At this point, you should do a small project with them that involves planning.

At SpinWeb, we call this the Blueprint. Other agencies may call it something else (like "discovery" or "analysis") but the point of it is to correctly plan out the project. It might include business goal setting, site maps, wire frames, keyword research, personas, social media analysis, or other components that support business goals.

There will be a fee for this phase and it's well worth it. Pay the fee. It's work that needs to be done anyway and it's better to break it out into its own project than to pretend that it can all be done correctly during the sales process. It's similar to building a new house or an office building. You need the planning work done first before you start digging holes and putting up walls. This is why you pay the architect to draw up the (ahem) blueprint.

By hiring the agency for planning, you are ensuring that everyone is in the right mindset for the project and you are also easing into the relationship. If something isn't working out, you haven't invested a huge amount into it too early which gives you some flexibility.

Another great effect of paying for planning is that everyone gets on the same page about final budget. Rather than making up numbers and playing games (which is what happens during an RFP) both parties collaborate on the budget. The client is able to give some ranges and potential budget points and the agency can come up with scenarios that fit those desired ranges.

It's very common for us to see features that the client just "had to have" become unimportant once we go through a Blueprint process because we were able to work together to create alternative scenarios that ended up saving money. That doesn't happen in an RFP process!

So next time you are getting ready to choose an agency to redesign your website, resist the urge to do an RFP. Save yourself the time and effort and take a more collaborative approach. I promise you will enjoy it more, you'll make a better decision about who you work with, and you'll get a better website that meets your needs and supports your business goals.

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