How to Write a Great Website RFP

With a little guidance, you'll be writing them like a pro

If you're in the services or consulting business, you know all about RFPs: Requests for Proposal are how many professional agencies win new work. NMC receives a lot of them from organizations around the world wanting either to upgrade their existing web presence or start from scratch with a new one. Some of them are clear, detailed, and provide the right kind of information to help us quickly write a great proposal. Others, not so much! Keeping up with web technologies that change daily is a full-time job, which is probably they're looking for an outside expert in the first place. Writing them can be daunting since you probably don't spend all day making websites and apps but with the right guidance, you can draw up one that's useful and concise. 

An RFP is the face of your company to potential collaborators so it’s important to compose them well. Good ones lead to good proposals, good proposals lead to better working relationships, which leads to better better projects and outcomes. So what should you include if you want to write a good one? What details do vendors need to know about your project to bid accurately? What questions should you be asking them to assess their fitness and capability? There's no need to become an expert in web design to write an RFP if it can establish clear goals, provide the right details, and solicit useful information from vendors.

The Elements of RFP Style

Sending out an RFP is a pretty standard operating procedure: potential clients determine a rough scope of the job to be done, assess the timeline and budget available, then reach out to vendors asking them to propose a solution (and themselves) as the best fit. They’re usually followed by a question-and-answer period and the more useful details you can include up front, the less back and forth there'll be with the vendors later.

To help you write yours, we compiled a handy list of key points. The steps below are straightforward and should be enjoyable to think through; after all, the end product is that you get to describe all the ways someone can help make your life easier with an awesome website. Plus, making cool new things in general is really fun! We want you to select a great vendor and have a terrific experience building a website even if that vendor isn’t us. 

(Of course, not every one of these items in this list needs to presented in this order, or grouped together this way, or at all. It does represent the most important things vendors care about and we grouped them together in the way that makes the most sense to us. If you want to keep it simple, you can just use each of the headings below as a different section in your document. Or just download our example web design RFP template, also available as iWork Pages.)

Outline

  1. Brief Project Overview
  2. Your Organization’s Background
  3. Project Goals & Target Audience
  4. Sitemap
  5. Scope of Work & Deliverables
  6. Timeline
  7. Technical Requirements
  8. Principal Point of Contact
  9. Budget
  10. Ongoing Support / Retainer
  11. Web Hosting
  12. Analytics Software
  13. Examples
  14. Criteria for Selection
  15. Format & Proposal Timeline

1. Brief Project Overview

Introduce your organization and the purpose of the RFP. State not only what you want the service provider to do but also why: what is the central “pain point” your organization has? If it’s a website redesign, what about the current one isn’t working for your purposes? This is high level, so be brief. The details will come below and a birds-eye view is fine.

Why It’s Important: Rather than describing a solution, try articulating the problem as best you can. There may be all kinds of solutions available that will meet your needs better than what you have in mind and web professionals can suggest solutions you may not have thought of yet. By focusing more on the job to be done, it encourages the responder to think outside the box.

2. Your Organization’s Background

Describe your organization, what it does, and what you do. There’s a good chance we’ve never heard of you and may not be able to figure that out by visiting your existing web site (which may be why you need a new website). Additionally, tell us a little about your values. What makes you unique? Why does what you do matter?

Why It's Important: By describing your values, you’re more likely to find an organization that’s a good value fit both for your goals and processes. Firms may have a specialty in a certain area of web design (e.g, lead generation, B2B, etc.), and by knowing if you fit into one of their niches, they can make better recommendations.

For example, one of our specialties is non-profit web site design. If we know up front you're a non-profit, we can make specific recommendations from our team members that have a lot of experience and familiarity with how non-profits succeed on the web. However, if you're looking for a B2B website, we'd make very different recommendations, since they not only cater do different audiences but often involve different technologies.

3. Project Goals & Target Audience

Explain what you plan to accomplish or what outcome you have in mind. What are the three most important things that, if done well, will make the redesign a success in your eyes? Do you know of any quantitative metrics that will help, such as increased sales or more newsletter subscribers or better-qualified leads? Think in terms of what you want visitors to the site to do, not just what you want them to see.

Whom do you plan to serve with the website? Which constituencies most rely on a successful website, in order of importance? Sometimes, the audience you’re intending to reach or serve with the website is not the same as your wider market. For example, a non-profit site might need mainly to demonstrate its programs’ efficacy to donors and supporters, while not necessarily serve its beneficiaries. A B2B website also wants to demonstrate its efficacy, usually via client stories and case studies. But is also mostly interested in converting new, qualified leads through sending email or picking up the phone to call with questions.

Why It’s Important: It goes without saying, but the more clearly you articulate what you want out of the process, the more likely you are to get it. Knowing both the concrete goals and specific site visitors whose needs you’re trying to meet makes the development team’s job that much easier. It also means when facing a decision point, you’ll be guided more by objective outcomes than personal preference.

4. Sitemap

One of the main reasons people reach out to NMC for a redesign, beyond a dated visual aesthetic, is that the content is poorly organized or hard to find. As much as the visual design impacts visitors' perception of your company is the information design, which in turn reflects how well you've thought through your major site sections and navigation schema. If you already have a good idea how you'd like to reorganize it, include that here. (If not, that's OK too! Expect it to be one of the first things you'll do during the discovery phase with your vendor.)

The sitemap will help you determine which new content you need to write and what from the existing site will be migrated. Much of it may be outdated or irrelevant, so new copy will need to be written (especially if you're introducing a new product, service, or initiative). What does make it over to the new site will have to be imported into the content management system; be sure to let the vendor know whether that's something your team plans to do or whether you expect the vendor to handle it. Giving the vendor an idea of what content is moving helps them understand the size and scope of the site.

Why It's Important: Next to the Technical Requirements (below), many web vendors use a sitemap to identify the different kinds of content that the site needs to publish — such as blogs, articles, news, photo galleries, case studies, etc. — to determine how many distinct templates or views must be uniquely designed. Many kinds of content will use the same but additional design time is needed for each custom layout.

5. Scope of Work & Deliverables

Here’s where you want to provide more detail about the project. To the extent you can, describe all the services you know that you’ll be hiring a web team for. For example, with a web redesign project, you might be paying for:

  • Project management
  • Content strategy
  • Copywriting
  • Illustration
  • Information design
  • Visual design
  • Search engine optimization
  • Front-end coding (HTML/CSS, animations)
  • Back-end coding (CMS, 3rd party APIs, custom software/features)
  • Custom software or app development
  • Mobile device optimization
  • Testing & quality assurance
  • Paid search placement/advertising
  • Software training

For a task like Information Design, maybe the deliverables are a sitemap and wireframes. For Visual Design, it might be source files in Photoshop or Sketch format. Something like Project Management doesn’t really have a deliverable but it’s a non-trivial part of the process and doing it well is a valuable part of successful projects. Aim to be explicit about what's important to be delivered but it’s OK if you don’t know exactly what’s involved.

Why It’s Important: Some creative firms look at a task, estimate the typical time to completion, and arrive at a cost by multiplying by an hourly rate. Your vendor is trying its hardest to scope out the work and knowing what the team is in for means you get a more accurate estimate.

6. Timeline

You may not know how long something will take to do, but you do have a timeline you have to accomplish it within. Is there some hard deadline you need to hit, such as the launch of a new product or ad campaign? Maybe you have a big trade show coming up and need the site live by then? Be sure to mention any firm dates beyond the vendor selection process.

Be advised: web sites vary widely in their time to completion. Even very simple sites can take as much as 4 weeks; it can take time to assimilate your organization’s goals, values, and unique market proposition. In other cases for complex sites or web applications, 9-12 months is not unusual. Be up front about your timeline, and your vendors will be honest about its likelihood.

Why It's Important: So the vendor knows whether or not it's possible to finish the project on time!

7. Technical Requirements

This is a pretty broad subject but your goal here is to describe what limitations or requirements you know in advance. A website is, at its core, a technical software product, so these are the details that may most materially impact the schedule and deliverables. Some examples of technical requirements include:

  • E-commerce: Do you expect to sell products or charge credit cards? A non-profit may only want to accept simple (or recurring) donations but retail merchants require shopping carts, user accounts, inventory control, and shipping calculators. You’ll definitely need to encrypt the transmission via SSL, which incurs an additional annual fee, though depending on the solution, this may be included.
  • Content Management Software: Do you require something specific, such as Drupal or Wordpress? Are you open to alternatives you may not be familiar with? (There are literally thousands of off-the-shelf CMS software options.) The vendor may also have developed an in-house solution that will meet your needs well. Large projects can require writing custom ones for you company.
  • Back-end Programming Language: For custom web software development, is your system compatible only with a specific language, such as PHP, or Ruby, or Python? Do you have an existing infrastructure that the vendor needs to be fluent in?
  • Legacy Browser Support: How many visitors are still on old browsers, such as Internet Explorer 8 (released March 2009)? Do they need to be supported? To make a website perform or display in a legacy browser almost always requires additional development time.
  • Web Integrations: Does your organization depend on 3rd party services for things like email newsletters, marketing automation, CRM / contact management, inventory control, intranet, accounting / Quickbooks, or inventory management? If so, be sure to include the ones for which synching / integration with the website is essential and describe how you expect it to work. For example, when someone subscribes to a newsletter, the contact should be added automatically to Highrise or Salesforce. If someone purchases a product and opts in, she should be added to our Mailchimp database, etc. Sometimes this functionality will be included out of the box and sometimes the vendor will have to write something custom.
  • User Accounts: Do you require membership management on your site? This would be for allowing people to access special or hidden content on your site, perhaps after submitting an email address or paying to view a whitepaper. A simpler example would be password-protected pages that anyone can see with the same password and does not require a logged in account.
  • Accessibility: Do you require the website to be accessible to blind or limited-vision users? For websites whose audience skews older, larger default text and click areas will inform the design. Government & public sites often require Section 508 compliance.
  • Mobile Responsive Design: Do you require a separate mobile-optimized version of the website? Most smartphones have no trouble displaying the full site and that’s enough for many users. But a layout optimized for small screens and tablets can make a big difference in the delight and satisfaction of site visitors.

Why It’s Important: The technical requirements section may be one of the longest sections of your RFP, depending on the complexity, because there are tons of variables to work out that will impact the scope. The more details you can provide up front, the better the estimate. Some web shops specialize only in certain technologies (like Wordpress or Rails), while others don’t work with them at all. You want to let vendors self-select for overall fitness and there’s no need to solicit a vendor that doesn’t have experience in technologies you require.

8. Principal Point of Contact

Usually, most writers of the RFP are the ones who will lead the project. If not, or if there are other team members involved, specify who they are. Have you or they worked on a similar web project before? Also, do you have final authority for making decisions or is there a committee that the designs will be presented to?

Why It’s Important: The clearer you can set expectations from the outset, the better. Unless you work in Marketing or Communications, you might only be able to devote a few hours a week and that helps the services team know much to rely on your direct engagement, which can affect the timeline. Finally, if we come up with a solution together but need to present to superiors for buy-in, it helps to know that, too.

9. Budget: Assets (“Parts”) & Service (“Labor”)

Yes, you really need to include your budget, even if it’s your best guess. If you need to specify a range (“We’d like to spend $x,000 but are willing to go to $y,000 for the right proposal”), that’s fine too. Websites are like cars: you can get good ones anywhere from $5,000 to $500,000. There is no price point for which you cannot find a tinkering undergraduate freelancer to put something together for you. Meanwhile, professional agencies will do professional work and the proposal will let you know the difference.

If you want to buy a car, telling me your budget means letting you know what I can provide at that price: a Hyundai, a Toyota, a BMW or a Bentley. All great cars, all with different value propositions. In the case where a budget truly isn't known, at least let your vendor know what "level" you want by pointing out other sites online that you admire or want to emulate or you think would suit your needs. You’re a professional company seeking a professional service. It’s OK to talk about money.

Finally, if you have a separate budget for assets like photographs, illustrations, software licenses, services, etc., be sure to include it. These don’t often end up being a substantial part of the overall cost but they can eat into the final calculation. To extend the car metaphor, a mechanic has to buy the new part before installing it, which is separate from the cost to perform the service.

Why It’s Important: You don’t want to waste your time (or the vendor’s) preparing a proposal that’s way out of your range. By stating explicitly what you want to pay, you permit the vendors to compete with each other for what they will offer you at the same price. Moreover, many agencies will work within the budget you prescribe to address the most important items of the scope first. Meaning that vendors can help you identify the top priorities so that you can exclude or move non-essential elements to a later phase or scope. For example, for an initial redesign password-protection of pages is a typical request, but if it's not crucial to the project, we can forgo it in favor of other tasks that are crucial with the result that you still get a high-quality product at the same price point.

10. Ongoing Support / Retainer

When the web project is done and launched, what then? It’s pretty typical to engage the vendor in an ongoing retainer agreement for support, training, ongoing development, or all 3. Realistically, the launch of a website is only the beginning of a process: beyond fixing bugs or adding features moving forward, you must also consider how will you'll drive traffic to the new site. Websites are ongoing efforts that adapt to new technologies and use cases — or, in the best case scenario, must be scaled to accommodate huge amounts of traffic! If the post-launch marketing and advertising piece is important to your project, look for full-service web firms that will not only design and build the site but also work with you on maximizing its value afterwards.

Why It’s Important: Great web partners are like other professional service providers: your family doctor, or accountant, or plumber succeeds on long-term relationships. Seek the web firms with multi-year client partnerships.

11. Analytics

How do you plan to track inbound visitors and the success of your content? You’ll want to ask the vendor how best to manage and track these data after (or indeed, before) the project has launched. Google Analytics is a popular choice because it's free and works well but there are other many options that offer additional functionality, such as Crazy Egg, which generates heat maps to help increase conversions. For an additional monthly fee, some vendors like Chartbeat will offer to interpret the analytics and prepare a report on how the site is performing with suggestions for improvements.

Why It's Important: Great websites are lengthy, involved processes. You don't want to spend time and money only to launch it and leave it; many of your initial assumptions can change and it's best to think of a website as a dynamic publication rather than a static brochure. Analytics will inform your hunches with real data.

12. Web Hosting

Do you have a web host in mind already? If not, ask for options. The vendor will have clear preferences at various price points. For example, with our WordPress projects, we use and recommend WP Engine, which is tuned specifically for WordPress performance. Who handles site backups? Is there an automated process for the files and the database? Is this included, or an extra fee? Be sure to ask the vendor about its caching or content delivery networks (CDN) strategy.

Why It’s Important: Different hosts offer different technical abilities, security, speed, and reliability. Letting a vendor use its preferred provider means letting them use one for which its very familiar, which means fewer hiccups down the road.

13. Example Sites

This one's easy: which websites do you like or admire, and why? It can be the overall experience or specific, discrete elements like a single contact form or image. Include examples of "best of breed" websites within your industry so the vendor can get a feel for the market leaders. Excellent example sites from other, unrelated industries are useful too.

Why It's Important: A website is worth a thousand words. It can be difficult to explain your vision so providing concrete examples of websites whose user experience you'd like to emulate will communicate a lot of value to the vendor and help clarify what we're all in for.

14. Criteria for Selection

You’re going to get a lot of different proposals back and each company will have different strengths, reputations, and capabilities. Some will compete on low cost; others on best quality; still others on more features. Figure out what you want in a vendor: cheapest option? Fastest delivery? Highest quality? Is a distributed team OK, or do you need every member to be local to your headquarters? Are sub-contractors OK or only full-time in-house staff? You’re balancing the expertise of the team with the limitations of your budget but in the end, you want the best work (and partner) that you can afford. No doubt several of these are typically important, so weight them according to what matters most to you.

Remember, the goal of the proposal you receive back is to evaluate the quality of vendor fitness for your project. Some questions you might ask the proposer to include in the reply:

  • Examples of similarly-complex projects (to assess technical capability)
  • Client references and whether email or phone is better (to assess credibility)
  • Project timeline with major tasks and milestones (to assess process)
  • Project budget by line item (to assess process)
  • Plan for mobile / responsive design (to assess familiarity with current trends)

Why It’s Important: You’ll encourage the company to focus the proposal on its qualities that matter most to you, which means not wasting time on the things it does well that you don’t care about. A vendor might be an expert in some service or possess some charateristic that’s important to your project’s success and fail to mention it, thinking it’s not worth it.

15. Format & Proposal Timeline

Does the proposal need to be submitted in a particular format, such as MS Word or PDF? Do you require signed & notarized hard copies? Does it need to be single-spaced with no staples (we've actually seen this a few times, believe it or not)? Is it OK for the vendor to use freelancers or sub-contractors or does every member of the team need to be full-time? What's the timeline for submitting the proposals? Typically, there's a deadline for receipt, for selecting semi-finalists, for scheduling interviews and for final selection. Do the semi-final interviews need to be in-person or is remote OK? This is all standard fare but it can be easy to overlook.

Finally, how much detailed information do you require about the vendor? If you need granular details, such as the names, titles, and bios of the vendor's team working on it, be sure to ask. For large teams, who will be available to work on the project may change depending on the vendor's production schedule.

Why It's Important: Most RFPs are pretty standard fare and are similar from project to project and the tips above reflect all those. But if there's specific, unusual, or detailed information you need from the vendor, you can include it in a separate paragraph so you only get back qualified proposals.

Great RFPs are Easy (When You Know What to Include)

These are the essential elements to include. It may seem like a lot but there's a really good chance you've already answered most of these questions in conversations with colleagues and your task in selecting a good vendor is just to get them down on paper. Obviously this list isn't all-inclusive and there may be other elements to include but if NMC were to receive a request for proposal that included each of these bits, we’d be overjoyed at the thoroughness! It signals to us that you’re taking the project seriously, that you’re investing time to understand what success means to you, and to identify what you’re really looking for. It says to us, “Hey, we’d be a great partner to work with!” If your vendors are excited about the work, it’ll likewise lead to better outcomes.

Again, the better the RFP is, the better the proposal your vendors can send in response. Now, you're ready to get started! Feel free to use the example web design RFP template we prepared based on this post. Maybe you already have an RFP? We happen to know an experience web vendor we'd be happy to recommend, so send it our way! Either way, best of luck with your project.

Comments

Cathy Mayhue's avatar
Cathy Mayhue
This is a typical RFP structure, makes life of website developers like us very easy. A good RFP makes it very easy to gauge the cost and effort estimation as scope of work becomes crystal clear and we are on the same page with our clients. I have worked with clients before, who gave a single line brief about the project or even worse just a verbal description and I have suffered majorly as there were lots of conflicts at the end because of the differences in the client's expectations and the delivered product. Now I never apply with out a detailed RFP in my email box.
Nathan's avatar
Nathan NMC team member
A great, detailed RFP makes all the difference, Cathy! If you get any leads from folks who don't have one -- and aren't sure where to start -- be sure to send them here ;)
Andrew Newey's avatar
Andrew Newey
Thanks Nathan. A good overview of the RFP template and information to consider when going to market. Thanks.
The next step of logistics when distributing an RFP is a bit vague to me. I cannot see any good free RFP directories, so assume that if not paying to go to market most people manually reach out to potential vendors. This is what we seem to do at my business and I will continue to do. But if anybody has any ideas, communication templates, etc... to simplify this process, that would be extremely valuable.
Philip Tommy's avatar
Philip Tommy
A very useful information for people who are working in the web development field. Being in to web development this is certainly a new information for me.Thanks a lot for sharing this.Good Work.
Rick Dunne's avatar
Rick Dunne
hmmmm I agree, as a former freelancer sending a good proposal after a handshake agreement was always paramount as to whether or not a deal went through or not.

On that note, with that experience, I've been recently designing proposals templates with a strong focus on branding and using web technologies to get deals done for the better.

Here's a free product one that can be applied to any digital product you're producing, and I would love to get some feedback from you awesome fellows if you like it or not

https://qwilr.com/templates/product-proposal-template/
Don Cameron's avatar
Don Cameron
Sooooo is there a government form for an RFP? How do I obtain the form? To what address do I send it?
Andrew's avatar
Andrew
Great article!

Can you write a post about "How to promote your RFP to the right candidates" ? or post any advice on this?

That to me is the hardest part - making sure that agencies/studios see your RFP.

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