A few weeks ago I was sent an RFP (Request for Proposal) for a potentially exciting project with a client I would love to work with again. As a smaller organization with no dedicated web team, they do what they can with very limited resources. I know what that’s like: hey, I used to work in the arts.
So this company – let’s call them A – had managed to save their pennies, get some external support and decided to invest that money in a brand new online presence. They wanted everything: new aesthetic design, content strategy overhaul, a mobile version of their website, a mobile application (or two), social media strategy, a complete re-thinking of their user experience … This was potentially a very big project, an exciting project that could make a huge impact on their business for years to come.
Yes, there’s a ‘but’ coming up.
Like so many RFPs I see, this one was a mess. There were more questions than there were answers, a defined scope was non-existent and it was evident that A had no idea what it wanted out of its web project. If you don’t know what you want, how do you expect a consultant to give it to you?
We didn’t end up submitting a proposal for this because even after asking questions, the whole thing was just too mucky but it did get me thinking about my time in small organizations and how clueless I was about what questions I needed to answer in my RFP in order to get the best results out of my project. This is not about making it easier for consultants and agencies to compete for work, it’s about giving us the kind of information (and making us answer the kind of questions) that will ensure you get the best result from your project.
Understand the Scope of Your Project
If you are utterly stumped by this question, you should seriously consider taking a little pile of that money you’ve saved up and hire someone to help you find the answer. If you want to work out the answers yourself, a good place to start is with the visionary documents that govern what you do, like your marketing strategy and your business strategy. Why are you building a new website? Why now? What are the top three things you expect this new website will do to help you meet your organizational goals? How do your goals interface with how you think people will want to use your site?
But the answers to those questions still don’t define scope. Now you need to look at your top three (or five but, seriously, no more than five) list and decide on the features you want to build in that will help you achieve those goals. Make a list of features that you think you want and then interrogate every single one of them asking yourself: does having a blog (video section, podcast, social media presence, forum, etc.) address at least a core goal? If not, get rid of it. Do the same thing for content. Make a list of all the pages you think you need on your website – the top navigational items – and then interrogate each one. If you can’t come up with a strategic reason for having something then you probably don’t need it.
Get realistic about what you can maintain. Are you prepared to commit to an editorial calendar of blog posts, video updates, Tweets and Facebook status updates? Are you willing to make a regular commitment to review pages of static content (like About and Product pages) and update them with new information? If not, you’ve got some culling to do.
At the end of this process you will hopefully have a rough sketch of your vision for the new website. Include this information in your RFP. I think that some people imagine that by putting lots of detail into an RFP they are doing the work of the contractor-to-be, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Knowing exactly what you want frees up the contractor to focus on content strategy, design and user experience rather than spending their time guessing what your priorities are.
Bonus tip: make sure you ask prospects to provide you with a break down of their costs in their response to your request. $10,000 for project management? What is that? What do you get for that? Ask for lots of detail so you aren’t surprised to find that your money isn’t taking you quite as far as you expected it to.
Finally, ask how the agency deals with scope creep. This is what we call it when a project takes longer than initially anticipated or quoted for because during the messy creative bit the requirements have changed and new challenges and opportunities have been identified. Scope creep happens a lot. Make sure you have installed mechanisms so you know about added costs before they happen. This will protect you from receiving a large surprise bill at the end of your project.
Identify Complexities Upfront
Are you an art museum with a permanent collection? Is displaying that collection an integral part of your website strategy? If so, how do you imagine that will work? Is the collection digitized already? Does it already exist online? Will your new website need to ‘speak’ to your collections database? Is this all part of the scope of your new website?
Do you run a boutique and have a plan to increase your sales by opening an online store component? How will this work? How will the online store interface with whatever database you currently use to track stock?
Your business is special and your web project will likely include at least one factor that will require deeper thought about technology, design, user interaction and integration. Know what these peculiarities are and list them in your RFP so that contractors can account for them in their quote. It is better for you to know costs up front than to find out that a core part of your website functionality hasn’t been factored into the budget for the project.
Are You Looking for Generalists or Specialists?
What kind of consultant or agency makes the most sense for your project? There are pros and cons to both approaches:
Boutique Agencies (Specialists):
- Tend to be smaller shops, which might mean you will have more visibility and more attention than you might have where you are one of dozens of clients
- Should be absolutely tops at what they do
- Prices may be slightly lower than you’ll find in large agencies usually because you’re not covering a big overhead
- May take up more of your time – from a project management perspective it is often easier to deal with one contractor than many different ones
- Are often composed of one or two superstars – if something happens and the relationship goes off course or something happens to the lead, it can stall your project
Large Agencies (Generalists):
- Have everyone working as part of the same team, which can result in a more coordinated approach – this can save you time and result in less headaches
- May take a more multidisciplinary approach to your project – the user experience person and the designer are working side by side as opposed to in different offices across town
- Often have a lot of padded pricing as you are paying the salary for everyone from the company’s receptionist to account managers
- Have a lot of people working on your project so you don’t have to worry so much about: what if my designer gets hit by a car?
- Are big and unless you are one of their larger clients, you may fall low on their ladder of priorities
What kind of relationship are you after? Is time or money more important to you? Once you’ve answered these questions, let people know the direction you’re leaning in the RFP. Being up front will result in more applications from the kind of contractors you want to work with and less wading through proposals you’re probably not interested in.
Define Your Users
Unless you are Walmart, leaving your user analysis at “We have something for everyone” is probably a bad idea. Who is your end user? What do they come to your site looking for? How are you going to give it to them?
A website can be a beautiful thing, a shining beacon for your brand, and though that might be enough to generate some temporary buzz, how much do your users care about such things? How does a flash animation convince me to buy your service? If I am looking for information on your permanent collection but your search feature is completely useless, how will that impact my opinion of your institution? It probably won’t encourage me to become a member or a donor.
Figure out who your primary users are and what they need. Make that information a central component of your RFP. Go so far as to ask contractors to tell you how their work will be informed by your user demographic. Immediately discount anyone who can’t answer that question for you in a meaningful way.
It’s (Usually) Never Too Late to Say Goodbye
Most agencies and consultants that I’ve worked with are great. They are passionate people who care about doing good work. There are exceptions to this in the form of people who will do almost anything to get the work only to find that they can’t actually do it within the timeline or budget or that they just don’t plain have the skills to move it forward. These people have responded to your RFP under false pretenses and believe that after you’ve gone through all the trouble of hiring them that you’re likely to stick with them even if things go badly. I hope you’ll prove them wrong.
Ask lots of questions, don’t be afraid to tell your contractor that you expect them to speak to you using terminology that you can understand, make sure you set lots of checks and balances in place throughout every stage of your project and be cautious about signing a contract that doesn’t allow you to terminate the relationship if it isn’t working. Never pay everything up front: always in installments and always connected to deliverables. When we take on work we are generally paid 1/3 up front, 1/3 mid way through (again, attached to the completion of specific tasks) and 1/3 at the end of the project. Different consultants have different payment formulas but whatever it is, make sure it gives you a reasonable way out if the relationship falls apart, especially if you are dealing with someone you’ve never worked with before.
There are plenty of templates and resources online to help you construct your RFP. Hopefully these tips will assist you with the thinking that has to happen to ensure you get the kind of responses that will enable you to hire someone truly wonderful to take on your web project.
Image Credit: Maze by Phil the Cow