Five common mistakes in website request for proposals

Three people looking at a project workflow board
Feb 19, 2019
7 minute read
Project Management • Strategy • Websites

When a web design agency receives an ill-prepared RFP, they are far less likely to take the time to prepare a proposal for the project, or the proposal will be less accurate and useful. Creating a robust website RFP is a beneficial first step toward a successful new website.

Why Create a Request for Proposal?

When prepared well, RFPs can serve a valuable purpose for nonprofit organizations. For example, an RFP for a nonprofit's new website can:

● Help all partners think through the scope of a new website.
● Build consensus within the nonprofit about project goals.
● Clearly and consistently explain the project to web design agencies.
● Demonstrate to agencies that you are serious about the project.
● Help to ensure consistent proposals for easier and more informative comparisons.

In any given week, I review 5–10 requests for proposals. Inevitably, many fail to achieve some or all of the goals listed above. Here are some of the most common mistakes I see in RFPs.

Mistake #1: RFP spam

RFP spam is when an organization blindly sends an RFP to dozens or hundreds of agencies. Maybe these leads were discovered through a list of qualified agencies or collected randomly from browsing web design agency websites.

Bonus mistake: Forgetting to use a blind copy (Bcc) in the email announcing the RFP, so everyone on the list can see all the other agencies contacted. Many qualified agencies will decline to respond to this type of mass solicitation.

A more effective approach is to send thoughtful, directed communication.

Gather references from colleagues or friends or research leads using an analysis agency l. Create several metrics to inform choices likely to be a good fit, such as experience in your industry, examples of work with similar types of organizations, size, location, or quality of work.

Then contact the 5-10 agencies you've decided might be a good fit and conduct 15-minute introduction calls. You'll quickly discover which agencies are likely to be a good fit. You might also find new details to add to your RFP. Once you've narrowed your list, personally invite the 4-5 most promising agencies to respond to the RFP.

Mistake #2: micromanage the format

Unnecessarily complicated delivery processes and formatting requirements create additional challenges. Micromanagement can signal that an organization is more concerned about rules and bureaucracy than quality, likely discouraging quality agencies from responding.

Here's an example from a recent RFP:

...Strict conformance to the specified proposal format and completeness of required content is essential. Lack of any listed item will disqualify a proposal ... One (1) copy shall contain all original signatures and be marked "Original." Proposer shall also submit one (1) digital (thumb drive) and nine (9) hard copies of their proposal marked "Copy." Proposals shall be submitted in three-ring binders. Cost Proposal sheets shall be separately placed into sealed envelopes separate from Proposals and labeled "Confidential." Each section of the proposal shall be tabbed in accordance with the below number system..."

Bonus mistake: Requiring multiple print copies of proposals may send the wrong signal about your organization in today's eco-conscious business environment.

Instead, allow requested proposals space and flexibility to showcase the strengths of the agencies bidding for the contract.

In most cases, the digital agency's proposal format strongly reflects its future work. If the proposal is disorganized or filled with errors, their work will likely also be disorganized. If the proposal is organized, creative, and elegant, there's a good chance their work will be too.

You should specify the requirements of the proposal (examples, references, budget, etc.) but also allow the agency to meet those requirements in the format that best represents their work.

Mistake #3: withholding the budget

Some nonprofit organizations decline to provide a budget or budget range, perhaps because the organization wants to get a great deal (who doesn't!) and doesn't want only to receive proposals in an overly prescriptive budget range.

However, like shopping for a car without deciding on a budget, there are great values at nearly every price point.

Sadly, most digital agencies invest significant effort in preparing a proposal only to discover that the budget allocated for the project is a tiny fraction of the effort required. As a result, many agencies today will decline to respond to an RFP if a budget range is not disclosed.

Disclose a budget or budget range, so agencies can help prioritize and accurately describe what is possible in that range. Most digital agencies are pleased to work with your budget or will tell you if the budget is too low.

Mistake #4: unclear (or fake) process

Some organizations are unclear about the RFP process they will follow or requesting proposals because a minimum number of "bids" are required.

Here's an example of an ineffective invitation to submit a proposal:

Subject: Website Bid
Date: Tue 20 Mar 2018 09:38:04 - 0700
From: < Uncertain Company >

Dear Vendor,
We are considering redesigning our website. Please prepare a proposal from the attached specs. Once we receive a bunch of proposals, we'll decide if we want to move forward with the project.
< Uncertain CEO >

This email implies that the digital agency's time may be wasted if the organization decides not to proceed with the project. Certainly, any organization can reject all proposals submitted, but leading with uncertainty about the project is likely to discourage responses from qualified agencies.

Instead, agree on a process with the entire organization before issuing the RFP, and then be clear about that process in the RFP.

Mistake #5: unrealistic timeline

Some organizations propose an unrealistic timeline that can impact costs or dissuade qualified agencies from responding.

For example, here's a timeline from an RFP I recently received:

8.3 Schedule

November 1 RFP Released
November 7 Questions Due
November 8 All Questions Answered
November 9 Proposals Due
November 12 Interviews
November 14 Firm Selected
November 15 Board Approval
November 19 Project Kick-Off
December 21 Website Launches

This timeline is highly unlikely to succeed.

First, most agencies will decide to proceed and begin serious work on a proposal after questions have been answered. In this case, there is only one day between when questions are answered and the proposals are due.

Although possible, most organizations cannot review proposals and schedule interviews within two days, and even fewer can get approval from their board in a day.

Asking an agency to start a project just a few days after you've notified them they've been selected is unrealistic. Finally, trying to launch a new website within 30 days amid the holiday season would be challenging.

Instead, propose a realistic timeline and suggest that the agency can also recommend one. Leave time in the schedule to meet with agencies and answer their questions. If you have hard, event-driven deadlines, take time to explain them.

A model website RFP template

Requests For Proposals can be an effective tool when used well. Avoiding these common mistakes will help your next website RFP get the desired results.

If you're embarking on a new website design project and want to use an RFP, Urban Insight provides a free Model Website RFP Template (disclosure: name and email address required to download), which I created in collaboration with several digital agency owners to provide a concise, easy-to-modify template with sample language. We created this template to help avoid these mistakes and help nonprofit organizations think through the website project, and help find the best agency partners.

Chris Steins

Chris Steins


Advisor, Urban Insight

I am the founder and advisor at Urban Insight, a leading digital agency in Los Angeles. I'm interested in projects at the intersection of urban planning and technology. I serve as an adjunct faculty member at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where I teach about technology and public participation.

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