How to Put Together an Effective Request for Proposal (RFP)

After two decades in the web development industry, I’ve seen every manner of RFP slide into my inbox or across my desk — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Short for “request for proposal,” an RFP is a document sent out by an organization or company that solicits proposals from vendors to address a need (such as web development or digital marketing services, as in Southern Web’s case). Drafting an effective RFP can be a serious challenge for businesses of all sizes. If you’re in search of a web design agency and are planning to send out an RFP, I’d like to share a few tips for putting one together that will actually result in quality proposals.

However, before I jump in, I’d like to preface my advice by saying that I strongly recommend against the RFP route. Why? There are several reasons why an RFP does a poor job of soliciting web development proposals:

RFPs stifle creativity.

Setting strict parameters for how your site should be built might seem like a good way to set expectations, but it puts the agency you choose in a tiny box with little wiggle room. The truth is, you may not know what you need or why you need it. The entire advantage of hiring a digital agency is to have them assess your unique needs and make expert recommendations informed by the latest industry standards. Working under the constraints of a strict RFP is not exactly enticing, which brings us to another reason why you should avoid them:

Reputable agencies often ignore RFPs.

The best agencies aren’t going to be hurting for work, so they may only respond to RFPs on a very selective basis. Why? Because sometimes RFPs come off as a thinly veiled bid check. It’s easy to spot a bid check disguised as an RFP. Typically, the guidelines are so ridiculously specific and prescriptive that it’s clear that the RFP process is simply a hollow formality and the client already has a preferred vendor waiting in the wings who can meet all these guidelines. Needless to say, this is a turnoff for many agencies — they know that writing up a proposal for you is a waste of time. That’s why it’s important to ease up on the overly specific guidelines if you truly desire high-quality proposals.

Of course, sometimes an RFP may be unavoidable — in some business settings, the RFP process may be a compulsory company policy for working with outside vendors. If you absolutely must put together an RFP for a web project, here are a few important points to keep in mind:

1. Leave room for creative consultation.

You can (and should!) have certain requirements for your projects, but as we mentioned earlier, there is a danger in being too prescriptive. If you put together an RFP that calls for highly specific requirements, you may lock yourself out of creative solutions that a top-notch agency would otherwise recommend. Instead of getting too specific with your RFP, share your overarching goals and broad must-haves.

2. Don’t treat your RFP like a job listing.

The agency you choose is not your employee. They are your business partner. You’re not assigning work to them in a top-down fashion — you’re collaborating with them to solve a problem or create an important company asset.

3. RFPs are not one-size-fits-all.

If you’ve never put together an RFP, you may be tempted to do some Googling to figure out exactly what should be included in one. However, be wary of copying and pasting entire template RFPs you find on the internet as they may not suit your needs. Your RFP should reflect the reality of your organization or company. That means a multinational corporation is going to have a very different RFP than one required for a small business or non-profit.

4. An RFP shouldn’t be an open casting call.

Casting a wide net might seem like a good idea, but that’s not how you get quality proposals. Instead of sending out your RFP to anyone and everyone, be thoughtful about choosing RFP recipients. Do your research to make sure the agencies you’re reaching out to actually specialize in the kind of work you need.

“But if I avoid RFPs, what’s the best way to solicit a web development proposal?”

If you’re looking for the best agency to meet your needs and budget, it’s best to do some preliminary research on agencies, reach out to the ones with portfolios you like, and start building relationships from there.

At Southern Web, we specialize in creating professional websites that help our clients achieve their digital goals. No need to draw up an RFP — simply start a conversation with us today!