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The Website RFP: Avoiding Common Problems and Mistakes

Ah, website RFPs. If you’re planning to partner with an agency on a website redesign project, you might be tasked with writing one of these scary documents. Unfortunately, there’s no universal website RFP template, and often the RFP process falls on the shoulders of a project manager—or a project team—unfamiliar with all the complexities of modern website development projects, making it nerve-racking, confusing, and difficult.

So what do you do? If you’re like many organizations, you gather every person in the organization who has a stake in the website project and you ask for a wishlist of everything they want to see. You hurry through the RFP writing process because your completion date is looming, quickly send out your website redesign RFP to every possible agency you can think of, begin the selection process, and hope for the best. Then, the web design agencies take a look at your RFP and make all kinds of assumptions about size, scope, breadth, or budget of the project based on your listed requirements.

Potential vendors end up confused about what you actually want, pitch services you don’t need, and you have to start all over or just go with your gut and choose the proposal with the fanciest font, best-looking photos, or cheapest price.

Sure, writing RFPs can be a scary process, especially if the subject matter is outside of your typical area of expertise. If you aren’t crystal clear about what you want to achieve with your new website, you won’t get what you need out of the project. The moment you start rushing through your RFP or trying to include everything under the sun, your website redesign is doomed to fail. You’ll spend your time and money on an unsuccessful, ineffective project, and potentially ruin your website—the focal point of your organization’s brand. Trust us, we see it every day.

Now that sounds big and scary, don’t you think?

Before you start hyperventilating, take a deep breath. We’re here to walk you through common mistakes we see in requests for proposals, so you don’t repeat them. We’ll help you create website RFPs that set your project up for success.

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Problem #1: You’re Creating a Website RFP When You Don’t Have To

Some organizations are required by company policies, stakeholder bylaws, or legislative regulations to create a request for proposal when they need help redesigning their website. Higher ed institutions, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations often fall into this category.

But, other organizations merely choose to create a request for proposal when they need assistance with a project, even when it’s not required. Organizations with an option to avoid creating an RFP might opt to do so anyway because it’s common in their industry, they think it’s easier, more thorough, and saves them time.

Remember, RFPs can be BIG projects, themselves, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Even if you go into the writing process with an idea of how long it will take or how thorough it needs to be, you still risk running into issues that require you to backpedal and pin down more details, adding days or even weeks to the creation process.

Solution: Talk to agencies

If you find that your organization doesn’t require you to write an RFP, don’t do it.

Instead, schedule time to chat with agencies you might want to work with. Look to trusted colleagues and people in your network for recommendations. Perhaps there’s a company website that caught your eye recently. Maybe the agency they worked with is a good choice. Read testimonials about web design agencies in your area and bring in their team members for interviews; you can even give them a call! It will take a bit of initial grunt work for you to find the agency you want to hire, but you’ll save boatloads of time and reduce your risk of error if you forego the RFP altogether.

By nature, the RFP process limits communication between your company and potential agency partners. Think about the process like a hiring process. You wouldn’t hire someone having only looked at their resume, right? Of course not. You want to get a sense of how well they listen to you, and what their thought process looks like. You want to find out if you enjoy meeting with them and if you see yourself collaborating well. These factors are more important than even the most well-written RFP response.

Problem #2: You Don’t Have a Budget or Timeframe Established

Having a website budget in mind is an absolute must. Costs can add up quickly, so it’s important agencies know your ideal budget. That way, they can more accurately prioritize and provide guidance in their proposal, and get you the best level of service for the budget you’re comfortable spending.

The catch-all solution to your website RFP woes is to talk to prospective agencies, even if you’re still working through the RFP process.

Think of it like this: Let’s say you’re building a house. You should probably pin down your budget before doing anything else, right? You wouldn’t consider talking with a construction company, real estate agent, or architect without giving them a rough idea of a budget. Why treat your website—your primary digital property—any differently?

The same rule applies to your timeline. Do you want your new house built in six months? A year? Two years? Just like in that house-building project, a timeline for completion plays a huge role in what’s possible for your organization, so it’s important to take the guesswork out of it for prospective agency partners.

Without a timeframe or budget, both you and prospective agency partners suffer. Agencies are literally making guesses about what your budget allows, and you, therefore, are far less likely to receive a proposal you love in your price range and within your desired timeline.

Solution: Include a budget estimate and rough timeline

Try to pinpoint one number that works for your budget, and a tentative completion date. If this proves to be too difficult, a range is far better than simply providing no information. Have no idea how much a project like this should cost? It’s also acceptable to talk with an agency about what you should expect to pay and what a feasible timeline should look like.

We have to ask: When you’re reviewing proposals, are you guilty of flipping right to the page that lists the budget and timeline, and then eliminating any proposals that fall outside the budgetary or time frame limitations you’ve decided upon? We thought so. You’re not alone.

The bottom line is this: Your RFP isn’t the place to negotiate pricing; it’s where you get to communicate exactly what you want and what you expect to pay for it. Including a budget and timeline allows you to read through each proposal, knowing that each one is a tailor-made solution to your problem, based on information you’ve provided. That will allow you to focus on picking the best strategic plan for your business instead of the best price point.

Problem #3: You Haven’t Specified Which Part of Your Website Needs to be Included in the Project

This is an all-too-common issue. You’re so familiar with that certain problematic section of your website—you’ve likely been discussing it internally for months—that you forget to be specific about what exactly you want to see changed.

For instance, if you’re part of the marketing department at a 4-year university and you’re hoping to improve the athletic department’s website, it’s not helpful to simply say, “we want our website redone.” For many organizations—particularly those with complex structures and multiple stakeholders—websites get bigger and bigger as pages are added to satisfy the newest initiative or campaign. You might be thinking of the homepage and product/program pages as your “website” when, in fact, your site includes thousands of pages.

If you’re not specific about what you want redesigned, agencies are left to guess, leaving too much up to chance. If they guess wrong, you’ll be left to compare a slew of very different proposals to each other, making it difficult to choose the best agency partner.

Solution: Solidify the parameters of your project

It’s hard for agencies to get a handle on the scope of your website when you’re unsure of it yourself. The best way to definitively determine what needs to be included in your RFP is to conduct an audit of your website before you create it. There are several tools you can use to “audit” your website—Google Analytics, Screaming Frog, SEMrush, or Moz, to name a few—but it’s equally important you have someone who can interpret the data you’re collecting, whether they’re an in-house employee or agency partner.

Once you’ve conducted your website audit, you can then clearly decide what should be included in your web redesign project and what can be omitted.

Problem #4: You Haven’t Detailed Your Content Needs

It’s important to understand that a website redesign project is a lot more than fonts, images, HTML, CSS, and color palettes. Much of a website redesign will focus on content that currently exists on the pages or content that is missing from your site.

The “content” needs of a site redesign can take many forms: a content strategy may need to be developed to guide additional content resources; site content may need to be audited to assess relevance and value; entirely new page or section content may need to be written from scratch; existing content may need to be updated, repurposed, or reorganized; and, in some situations, content may need to be migrated from one content management system to another.

If you’re not laying out exactly what you need when you say “content,” you can bet agencies will assume you need the type of content they provide and it’ll be a big part of their proposal.

Solution: Consider your budget and get specific

Err on the side of being too specific. Some of the questions you should consider include:

  • Are you looking for content creation, content strategy, or both?
  • How much new content do you want or need on your website?
  • Who will be creating that new content? You, or the prospective agency partner?
  • Do you have content that requires repurposing? Do you have in-house subject matter experts who can provide guidance on this?
  • Will you require a content migration to a new CMS?
  • Are you planning to conduct your content audit? Or should the partner agency include that in its proposal?

Keep in mind, websites today need high-quality, timely content to be relevant, so your content requirements will likely take up a large part of your budget. If your needs include new content creation and a full content migration, you can expect it to be more expensive than a content repurposing plan using your existing CMS. Whatever your requirements are, make sure your budget is in a range that makes your requests feasible.

Problem #5: You’re Conflating Project Goals and Business Goals

If you want prospective agency partners to clearly understand your wants and needs, be clear in your ask. “Business goals” and “project goals” are terms that are peppered throughout most RFPs, and though they’re similar concepts—the latter is a component of the former—using them interchangeably is incorrect and only confuses the situation.

A business goal is an overall achievement your company hopes to accomplish in the long term—consider this your organization’s “why.” Project goals act as stepping stones to meet that business goal—consider this your organization’s “how.” For instance, if your business goal is to increase sales, a project goal might be to establish a lead generation foundation through updated site architecture and experience. two project objectives might be to

This is a common problem we see all the time: You must understand both the “how” and the “why” of your website redesign project in order for it to be successful. Conflating or failing to clearly articulate business goals and project goals will lead to web development partners losing sight of what you’re hoping to achieve with your website redesign—and you can bet their proposals will veer far and wide from your vision.

Solution: Clearly define and differentiate your business goals and project goals

This will help agencies clearly understand your long-term and short-term goals, and how to best help you achieve them. This can also help agencies decide how to allocate your budget, what metrics to track, and define true success in your project. The clearer you articulate your business goals and project goals, the more likely it is you’ll receive high-quality proposals that include carefully conceived strategies.

Have the “how” nailed down, but haven’t quite pinpointed the “why”? Talk to agencies, even if you’re still working through the RFP process. We’re happy to help.

Problem #6: You Haven’t Considered Website Accessibility Requirements

If you’re thinking, “Web accessibility? Never heard of it,” you’re not alone. Far too few brands are aware of what this means or why it’s important. Web accessibility is about making sure everyone who wants to engage with your website is able to do so, and it’s scheduled to become legally required for all “places of public accommodation” in 2018.

If you launch a fully redesigned website that isn’t compliant with the accessibility guidelines, guess what? You’ll be looking for another redesign later this year!

Because of that, we recommend all website redesign projects follow the guidelines for website accessibility as laid out by WCAG 2.0. As a general rule, we recommend fulfilling Level AA, at least, but this could vary depending on your client base or industry. This will impact website aspects such as text sizes, color use, hyperlink guidelines, and mobile-friendly layout accommodations.

Solution: Consider what accessibility could look like on your website

Work with your legal or compliance team to see what requirements your organization’s website might have to fulfill, and make sure to clearly list them in your RFP so agencies stay within the parameters of legal regulations.

As always, the catch-all solution is to talk to prospective agencies. Though we aren’t lawyers, we can provide guidance and insight on accessibility considerations and how they’ll impact your redesign project scope.

Problem #7: You Haven’t Included Anything About Your Branding Needs

Even if your organization is looking for a full website redesign, one thing that should remain consistent is your brand. Your website should still look and feel like it belongs to you, but be a new and improved version. Unless you’re specifically looking for a “rebrand”—which is far different than a site “redesign”—your website should still carry a similar voice, tone, mission, logo, and color palette to ensure it’s recognizable to your current customers. If you know you want to start fresh with a new brand, but your RFP fails to mention anything about branding, agencies will assume your brand is solid and won’t address it in their proposals.

Solution: Be clear and detailed about your branding needs

Give them as much as you can. If you’re looking for changes to your logo or corporate mission, vision, or values, great! Be clear about it. Provide details about which elements of your brand you want to keep, and which you want improved. If your brand only needs small updates, it’s okay to keep branding requests in the same RFP. If you’re considering something more significant, like changing the name of your organization, it should be addressed as part of a brand strategy initiative before moving on to a website redesign project.

Make sure you don’t conflate a website redesign with a rebrand and ask for the wrong thing in your RFP. If you don’t want a rebrand, share your current brand guidelines with prospective agencies so they get at a chance to learn a bit about your branding.

Problem #8: You’re Trying To Kill Too Many Birds With One Stone

Let’s say you’re looking for an agency to help you with website redesign, brand strategy, and a digital marketing campaign. It’s easier to just put these all into one RFP, right?


When you put several different projects with variable goals and timelines in a single RFP, you gloss over too many details, leaving prospective agency partners to do the same. Even if you’ve listed your budget, how much of it should be allocated to brand strategy? How much should go toward your new website? Is the timeline pertaining to just your website redesign, or all of it? How do you plan to measure the success of the project?

If an agency helped you launch a successful new website and build a brand you and your customers love, but faltered in its digital marketing campaign, does that constitute a failure of the entire project? The point is, the scope of your website RFP should always be built around whether or not success of the project can be clearly measured. This approach will help you realize when you’ve created an RFP that’s too broad, too general, or includes divergent success metrics.

Solution: Focus on the most important project, for now

We can hear the alarm bells sounding in your head already, but don’t worry. This is important to the success of your company, so don’t invest time, energy, and resources into a project that is prohibitively broad or vague—that’s how companies lose interest and projects get postponed.

Use your website RFP to focus on a single problem or initiative and work with your agency partner to prioritize and tackle the other problems when it makes sense to do so. Start with the problems that are mission critical—i.e., those that will impede your ability to achieve your business goals—and go from there. The right agency partner will be able to help you create a wishlist as new initiatives emerge and develop a plan to address them.

Partnering with an agency to work toward your project goals will improve your chances of having successful, effective projects, that provide true value to your organization and its customers.

Ready For Your Website Redesign?

Go forth and write that request for proposal! Not so big and scary anymore, right? If you take nothing else from this post, make it this: Your primary objective when creating a RFP is to remove the need for prospective website designers to assume anything. Ask us questions. Get clarification. Let’s talk.

The moment an agency has to assume, guess, or speculate about what you’re looking for from them is the moment your website RFP is doomed. Specifics are your best friend here. Take the guessing games out of it, and put your RFP on the road to success.

Still have questions? We’re here to help.

Picture of Nora Allen
Nora Allen
Nora's appreciation of good storytelling leaks not only into her work at Olive, but also her love for music and food that's too good for words. When she isn't working hard on the Olive blog, you can find Nora geeking out about keyword research and SEO.