Skip to main content

Writing an effective request for proposal (RFP) is essential for attracting a digital agency that will help you build your best website yet. 

Maybe you’ve begun to write your RFP, and you are wondering if it is going in the right direction, or maybe you have yet to start writing. Either way, you inevitably have a lot of questions and have been googling quite a bit.

You are probably asking yourself, How specific should my request be? How many people should I send it to? And for that matter, who should I send it to?

Take a deep breath and try to stop the stream of questions zipping through your head. Check out our Checklist for Writing a Request for Proposal (RFP) to Attract Top Agencies.

Once you have a draft going, take another look at these “do’s and don’ts” to make sure you are on the right track.


Don’t: Invite more than four to five firms to answer your RFP.

Comparing proposals to one another is quite challenging and requires a lot of re-reading plus note-taking to assess what you have.  Inviting a large number of firms to respond may seem to increase the odds of receiving a clear standout proposal, but inviting more firms ultimately reduces the amount of time you can spend with each response.  

Also, you may be unintentionally discouraging the best vendors from responding or taking the time to tailor their response, as they may feel the number of agencies competing undervalues their work and they are just one of the herd. 


Do: Research vendors upfront and invite a select group to respond

Researching who you’d like to invite to the process is every bit as important as writing a great RFP.  In doing so, you will reduce the effort required downstream, increase the odds of receiving quality responses and minimize the chance of any proposal being an outlier for cost or timeline.

Fortunately, there are many ways to go about building an initial list of potential applicants.  One of the best ways to start by asking for recommendations from organizations and people you respect.  Personal connections reign supreme here, although we’ve seen success from folks posting a more general solicitation for suggestions to their LinkedIn network.  

Other possible approaches might include:

  • Perusing lists of awards and reviewing the associated firms.  There are many organizations these days that accept nominations by category, award the best submissions, and provide the details on-line.
  • Keep track of websites you like and reach out to the marketing department of each to inquire as to who built the site in question.
  • Review the last few editions of your local technology periodical, keeping an eye out for who is mentioned


Don’t: Merely go through the motions to fulfill organizational requirements

Often one or more of the firms invited to respond already have a pre-existing relationship with the client team. The RFP process could be simply full-filling organizational requirements to do a new search when there is a clear front-runner from the very beginning.  Ideally, in this instance, it would be possible to convince the powers that be to forego the process, but in many cases, such pushback might not be well received.


Do: Maximize the value you’re getting from the process

We’re not suggesting you either need to dismiss the existing relationship. Rather, we’re proposing you invite firms to answer the RFP that have a legitimate chance at winning, even if to do so they have to unseat an established vendor.  Either way, you’re increasing the value of the work to be done, whether a new player surprises you, or the old one is challenged to step up their game and not rest on their laurels.


Don’t: Insist that the RFP response follow a very specific proposal layout and format

It may seem you’re making it easier to compare apples to apples, when in fact, what you’re doing is reducing the amount of creativity, which results in proposals looking more similar.  If you give vendors too much detail as far as the type of response you want, you’ll be reducing or even eliminating the amount of contextual information that can be gathered from the reply. This would be akin to telling candidates in a job interview how you want their answers phrased and what specifics you are looking for in their answers.  All candidates would look the same!


Do: Request a guide to map RFP requirements to key sections in the response

You want proposals to stand out from one another, which will give you a lot of cues as to writing style and personality, organizational ability, prioritization.  To get there, allow firms to create proposals in their layout and format. They can even organize the content the way they wish, as long as they provide a guide mapping RFP requirements to section and page number in their document.  This will make it easier for you to find critical information and compare details across all proposals you receive.


Don’t: Treat your RFP process as if it were a strict, rigid search being conducted in a federal court of appeals

You are hiring people and not comparing commodity products (e.g. cars) with fixed lists of features. Conducting a people search requires a more flexible approach. Also, keep in mind the search is a two-way street, in that firms are evaluating you and your team just as much as you are evaluating them.  

While there are firms that solely chase dollars, the ones you want to work with are more selective about who they work with and what types of projects they take on. The reason is these firms take great pride in successful projects and know that it takes two parties working well in tandem to reach a successful outcome.


Do: Use the RFP process as a framework to use in making the decision

Let the personality of you, your team or your organization, shine through in the RFP and in your approach to interacting with the firms that respond. The key is providing as much contextual information as you can in the RFP, while also being open in sharing any details requested by vendors.  You will end up with a better, more customized response in almost every case.


Don’t: Expect every question or requirement in the RFP will be answered to the extent you anticipated or in the way expected

Not all requested details will apply to all firms responding despite best intentions and it’s impossible to anticipate up-front what will fall in this category.  For example, we’ve received questions about our board of directors and what their qualifications are - whereas we don’t have one, as we’re not a public firm and are also not a private firm that relies on significant outside investment.

Often RFPs are built on templates either containing details only relevant to prior projects or containing artifacts of requirements that speak to outdated technologies or industry processes. Needless to say, a lot has changed in the past few years both in the world of web development and probably within your organization and its marketing strategy.  Some firms will merely skip requirements that meet this classification, whereas others may provide somewhat odd answers in an attempt to comply!


Do: Focus on the sum of the parts and allow time for direct follow-up to clarify areas of question

Keep in mind the firms you are inviting to respond have in-depth expertise and up to date experience around the topic at hand.  For example, you may be asking for details on an approach that was essential just 3-4 years ago but which is now irrelevant.

Follow up with vendors on those areas where there is confusion.  Sometimes it’s a matter of having misunderstood the need or question, whereas other times questions can’t be answered without an in-depth conversation.


Don’t: require or expect in-depth recommendations in your proposal

Often we’re asked to submit our graphic design vision for a new website without even having met the folks on the review committee or traveled to their office.  Doing this successfully is a real shot in the dark! For example, no one wants their doctor to issue a premature recommendation for treatment or surgery, before as the patient you’ve explained what ails you.  In a similar fashion, asking for early recommendations to needs expressed in your RFP will result in suggestions with a low probability of hitting the mark.

Expecting specific recommendations for the problem at hand is an approach likely to leave you disappointed.  Even if the recommendations happen to seem correct, it is important to remember they are based on preliminary information.  


Do: Focus on the approach being pitched as opposed to looking for specific recommendations that win the day.

You want to hire a firm that is capable of diving deep into problems, capturing all the details available, and pulling together the best solution to fit the need.  Focus on the approach being sold and use all the information made available to you to decide if you can trust the firm to accomplish this once the project starts.   

For more information about RFP best practices, download our RFP Checklist here.