How to Write A Website Redesign RFP: Guide & Tips
Dave Gibson | Founder & President
The website serves many vital roles such as branding, pr, customer service, sales, and recruiting. For some, the business revolves entirely around the website. So when it comes time to redesign the website, it's essential to get it right. And as with any complex project, the better the planning, the better the results.
Planning for a new website can be exciting but easily overwhelming - especially for anyone who has not gone through the process. As an owner of a web development company for over 25 years, I’ve read hundreds of RFPs. Some good. Most suck. Too often they're written by unqualified people who lack the understanding of what they're even requesting. The tone is often a real turnoff as well. Now I don't mean to sound overly sensitive, but this is the beginning of a relationship between people. And I think its healthy to consider a tone that is closer to a dating profile than a legal statement. After all, you're trying to attract talented intelligent people. So write appropriately for your audience.
My goal however, is not to bitch and moan. My goal is to guide you through the core elements of a website RFP and help you avoid common mistakes. Ultimately I want you to end up with a website development company that will in the short-term build you a website that will rock, and in the long term serve you and your team as a trusted long-term partner for many years and iterations of your future website.
Taking my own advice, I am writing for a specific audience, which is a marketing professional with or without experience writing an RFP for a mid-sized corporate marketing website. While all the principles and suggestions also apply to an ecommerce website, the specifics for ecom are for another post.
How to write a good Website Redesign RFP.
A good RFP will establish clear goals, requirements, timeframe, and budget for the website. Not only will a well written RFP result in bids that will enable you to compare apples to apples, but it will attract higher quality bidders. And that’s a key point. While it may seem website designers are a dime a dozen, the truth is that Good Website Designers - the website designers who are creative, experienced, and have earned their scars - are in high demand and are discerning about which projects to pursue or not. So the RFP needs to sell the project, your team, and attract the type of partner that you’ll want to work with for years.
When you do start writing, consider the tone. It should reflect the style and personality of your team (vs corporate brand guide). Let it be less formal if not conversational. This is the beginning of a relationship that will last years. Think of this almost as you might when writing up a dating profile.
One sec. Before you even start this, make sure you’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. My point is that often the website becomes the target of blame for whatever business ailment is at hand. Or there is a leadership change. And a list of faults of the website is created to support the premise that “we need a new website”. Great, but should that mean also tossing your existing website development partner? Sometimes change is good - especially if the current relationship is unhealthy. But if there is a good relationship, avoid blaming your vendor partner for decisions that were likely collaborative or even owned by your own team, and keep them. No relationship is ever perfect, so only ditch your current partner as a last resort.
But of course, if they just suck, ditch 'em.
The goal of the RFP is to provide context to the brand and the project, clarify the scope of work requested, and to ask questions that will reveal whether or not the potential vendor will make for a solid long-term partner.
What should a website redesign RFP include?
Right up front with honesty and brevity, set the table.
- Business - What do you sell
- Audience - Who do you sell to
- Goals - What are your broader business goals and what role will the website play in reaching these goals.
- Current Website Critique - what are the likes and dislikes of the current website (own up to any issues that are your team’s).
- What do you think are the most important attributes of a potential partner?
Ask candidates to describe their team, their focus, and history. Why are they interested in this project, and how can they uniquely contribute to the project?
Website Development Experience
Ask for a few case studies of projects they enjoyed with links of course.
Website Design Process
A mature web design company will have a process. It's important to hear about their process to get a sense of their maturity and what to expect through the project.
Website Features & Functionality
This is the most important part and will influence cost the most. So first you’ll want to inventory your current site’s functional elements and understand how they work, or don’t work. Then add or subtract as needed to meet your current goals.
Pay particular attention to third party elements - widgets, modules, plugins developed by others. These may be dependent upon the platform/CMS you’re currently using, so if you plan to change platforms, you’ll need to know whether comparable plugins exist, or will need to specify these as part of your scope to be built. Or, if you’re staying on the platform, take this opportunity to scrutinize your plugins and see if there are better options.
Web Site Technology & Platform
This is very important. The first question should be whether you need to replatform or not. If you’re on Wordpress, if you remain then you can simply do a retheme or “reskin” of the existing install (cheapest option). If you feel you need to shift to Drupal for instance, you will need to rebuild from scratch.
If you’re to replatform there is an endless debate between Open Source vs Commercial vs Proprietary content management systems. This is an entire (long) blog post of it’s own, so I’ll boil this down to a few considerations:
- Security - Open source is the most vulnerable, and proprietary has the potential to be the most secure. “Potential” being the operative word because since it's not public, bad guys can’t study it for weaknesses, however if it’s not built well, it may have inherent vulnerabilities that may not even be known without the scrutiny of a community.
- Speed - Anything that’s built to be all things to all people, will have plenty of bloat.
- Transportability - Avoid vendor lock of a proprietary system so that you can shift to a new web team if needed.
- Customization - Customizing the core or plugins of Open Source or Commercial system will remove them from the update/upgrade path. You basically own it and will need to maintain it yourself if you do. Proprietary systems have no such restrictions.
- Page Layout Control - With Wordpress’s Gutenberg and 6.0 comes the ability to use blocks to provide amazing control of page layouts. Game changer.
- Cost - Open Source is only free in concept. Open Source systems tend to require more maintenance of updates and patches. Obviously Commercial systems have a cost, but instead of relying on open source plugins built by kids in the basement, you get plugins that are built by paid employees and then supported with technical support and warranties.
- Workforce / Popularity - The more ubiquitous the platform and the language used, the easier and less expensive work on them will be. You want to avoid an obscure CMS built on some exotic framework that you can’t find people to work on.
For the hosted solutions out there, such as WIX or SquareSpace, I’d only recommend using these for basic mom and pop sites that require little customization. In the ecommerce space however, Shopify is hosted, but you have full control over almost all of the front side experience. I love it.
Finally, unless you’re looking to avoid replatforming, rather than select a partner based on a preferred CMS platform, select the partner based on reputation, their work, and the personality fit of your two teams.
Website Compliance & Risk Management
This has really become a big deal in recent years. We specialize in this field and have a consulting group that specializes solely in digital accessibility, so I see this first hand every day. Website owners are aggressively being targeted for failing to be ADA or 508 compliant. Not only are these lawsuits costly and annoying, being labeled as being discriminatory against people with disabilities can really affect your brand’s reputation to not only customer but employees also.
Therefore, be very direct that “ADA Compliance” is a requirement. Define that is meeting WCAG 2.1 A, AA standards. Many web developers are not yet fully aware of what that even means. Many will assume that overlays or other automated tools for auditing and remediation will suffice. They will not. The site MUST be tested by humans that are qualified to audit websites in order to catch the 70% of WCAG issues that automated testing tools cannot even detect. So ask followup questions to determine who would be performing WCAG testing, their process, and qualifications.
Security & Catastrophe Management
If your vendor is to host your website, then you should ask for what they offer in their SLA. How do they handle backups and should the site go down, what is their procedure for continuance?
Privacy and User Data
If you’re collecting user data and that data lives on the website server, ask how they will ensure its protection and compliance with CCPA, GDPR and any other privacy protection laws where users may access the website from.
Who will be providing the content and who will load it into the website? In many cases, this can be done programmatically from the old site to the new site. Here the CMS of both matters.
At this stage, there’s no need to get into design preferences, examples of sites your team likes, or style guides and such. That time will come once the project begins. Instead ask if they have a design philosophy. How do they approach design for Brand A vs Brand B?
Do you expect a clean-slate approach or are you looking to save money by using templates. I’d only recommend a templated approach for small budget-restricted clients. This is your number one branding, marketing, sales, and recruiting tool. Unless you just cannot afford it, design is not where you should cut corners. But be clear in the RFP of what you want.
A few times too many, I’ve lost to an ad agency, who in the course of the process convinces the client that they need to rebrand. Any new marketing director will want to also add their mark (see what I did there?), so now I always ask if this is a possibility.
Just be clear with your own selves on this, and if you are open to adjustments to the logo/mark or a potential rebranding, then be up front about it.
First be clear about whether you will need SEO services as part of the project. Share any SEO issues you have or are concerned with. Then ask candidates share to their SEO approach and the scope they propose.
Similarly do you need any online marketing services now or potentially in the future?
How much does a website cost? How long is a piece of string?
This is always a debate, but it shouldn’t be. You should first do your research to understand the range to expect. By putting a budget range out there, it establishes what your expectations are and provides the vendor with the opportunity to deliver as much of your must-haves plus nice-to-haves in at a competitive price. Also, if your budget is too low, you get the opportunity to receive feedback on that earlier, rather than discover you have no bids from the bidders you want.
Otherwise you end up with bids all over the place and end up tossing out half of them.
Lastly, it shows that you're professional and not on a fishing expedition.
- Layout the desired schedule the bidding process through launch. Keep it realistic.
- Keep in mind that a mid-sized website built from scratch should take at least 3 months and often 6.
Who should you invite to bid on the RFP?
Do not blindly send out dozens of RFPs to web design firms you have not researched first. Invest the time to research firms and consider the importance of the following. I will say that “industry experience” is often overweighted. Unless there are specific challenging technical functions common with websites in a specific industry, I would put industry experience at the bottom. Assume that any good designer will thrive with the opportunity to explore a new brand in a different industry. Reputation is much more important. Find sites that you like and talk to their marketing teams to learn about their web design partner. You’ll be surprised how open people will be to recommend theirs, and if not, you’ll know not to include them.
Who should you avoid and not invite?
Simple answer: advertising agencies and graphic designers. With mobile design and now website accessibility and WCAG conformity, this is no longer the realm for graphic designers. You should only solicit bids from companies or freelancers that primarily design and build websites.
Assessing Proposals and Potential Web Design Teams
Who asks the best questions?
After you send out the RFP, there should be a period for potential vendors to submit questions. The questions asked (or not) may be very revealing. Be sure to share all questions and answers with all candidates.
The proposal should of course cover all the requests in the RFP. Assuming that all potential vendors have included all the same technical components requested, the decisions falls to less tangential indicators, such as personality, reputation, and portfolio.
Assessing the Team
Be sure to meet with the final 3 finalists and make sure this meeting includes key people on the team. Until this point, you’ve probably been in contact primarily with the sales person or president/owner. Once the project starts, you won’t see these people. Instead, you want to meet the project manager, the lead designer, and the head of development. The project manager is your primary contact and will be crucial to success. Their background, history with the company, and personality should be a key factor.
Should you hire a consultant to assist with the RFP and vendor selection process?
This is a very good idea. Unless your team is experienced and has the technical expertise to even understand your existing website and its components, then I would definitely recommend hiring a consultant from a web development agency to develop your specs, write the RFP, and participate in choosing your long term web development partner.
After running a web agency for 25 years, from my perspective, the engagements that have been most successful have been those where we have a client contact with experience managing this process. There is a lot of work on the client side herding cats to gather content, lock down specs, establish consensus and finalize decisions. The ability of our project manager to communicate effectively with this person is crucial. So make sure these two people meet in the process and listen closely to what your person thinks of their potential counterpart.
Further Reading : After posting this, I was asked to share how sift the best from the rest, and what questions to ask potential vendors. So I wrote this subsequent blog post about how to select the best web design partner.
- Dave Gibson | Founder & President