Five Steps to Smarter Website RFPs

by Sara Steever
January 25, 2012 • 9 minute read

The ultimate goal of a website Request For Proposal (RFP) is to help an organization select the right partner for building a website. As author, your task is a well-written RFP that will result in a stack of proposals with apples to apples comparison of potential vendors, making the selection process easier and the right choice obvious. As a bonus, the by-products of this approach to preparing the RFP will have benefits that will build consensus within your organization and shape the website you launch.

While there are only five steps to this process, some are handled best by an experienced team. When we build websites for existing clients at Paulsen, we follow these steps because they guarantee a clear picture of what the website should be, and they are necessary for understanding the true cost of proper website development. We are always available to help you write your RFP!

1. Gather Materials

Locate all of the marketing, educational and research materials your company has produced over the last couple of years. You will need them eventually for content development, branding references and stakeholder review.

2. Identify Stakeholders

The best mix of ideas is representative of all viewpoints across the company, but it in order to manage your group, try to keep the number of stakeholders to a minimum—seven or fewer is ideal. Marketing, sales, product or division managers, IT and C-level staff are typical, but the group depends on the size and management of your company. If you have a lot of stakeholders, break them into manageable groups, keeping in mind group dynamics and personalities. As author, one of your jobs is to act as facilitator and keep bullies in check while bringing out the best in everyone. Before you meet as a group(s), streamline the process by gathering information and summarizing findings to present in a stakeholder session.

3. Internal Assessment

The final RFP will contain statements and requests that your company stakeholders must agree on first.

Is your company branding in order? Your website may be many things, not the least of which is a communication vehicle. The RFP must communicate brand expectations to your vendors, typically through a style guide or other documentation. If that does not exist, plan on hiring a solid marketing firm that can guide you through the process of defining and expressing your brand. Plan to include the style guide with your RFP.

Who are your audiences? Unless your website is for internal use only, take into account that some of your audiences are not present at the stakeholder meeting for input. Consider your various customers’ needs and expectations. Once you have identified these audiences, you can move on to understanding their differences.

What are their goals? Five to seven interviews per audience will provide valuable insight into their expectations. Questions should revolve around existing interactions with your company, general expectations, comfort with website functionalities, use of mobile, use of social media, examples of websites they like and use frequently and open-ended wish list thoughts.

An even more effective method of determining audience’s needs is to perform usability testing on your own website and competitors’ websites. This testing will close the gap between what users say and what they actually do, and provide insight into the usefulness of the investment your competitors have made in their websites.

Done well, usability testing is a science unto itself, so hire a professional if possible. Five to seven audience members tested per website is the rule of thumb. From this research, you should be able to develop personas that will help you understand user goals. Summarize your findings for the stakeholder session.

Where do you fit among your competitive set? Identify your competition, considering companies that compete for the same wallet share even if they are not in the same segment. Perform a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) and assess their website for functionality, design, brand positioning, global navigation and search engine optimization. Bring this information before your stakeholder group.

In what condition is your current website? Perform the same style of analysis as the competitive set on your own website.

4. Stakeholder Session

Bring your research summaries and functionality checklist, along with an agenda, to keep the meeting on task. A sample agenda would include:

  • Introduction
  • Review research findings
  • A working session to determine:
    • Goals
    • Select functionalities
    • Set content strategy
    • Determine security levels
    • Plan for website maintenance
    • Accommodate external marketing integration
  • Set deadlines
  • Set budget

Review research

All summarized documentation should be presented at the beginning of the meeting. If any audiences or competitors have been missed, they should be identified at this time. Glean what you can from the stakeholders and assess if there is a need to perform more research at a later date.

Determine goals for the website

There are three types of goals to identify for your website: Primary business/organization goals, user goals and internal/political goals.

  • Primary business/organization goals should fit within broad initiatives but be related to how a website can help you reach them. The team should work to identify a primary goal for the site, although secondary goals may also be supported. For example, the primary business goal of revenue generation via the website may be expressed by providing content to paid subscribers. A secondary goal may be a strong branding presence that might communicate the perceived value or cache of the membership.
  • User goals should be developed from the research already performed. These types of goals can help identify and refine functionality offerings that help support your primary goals. The use of personas can help your team understand why user goals are different from broader business goals. In our above example, the user goals might include the ability to control outbound communication or customize the content on their homepage.
  • Political or internal goals may not have specific numbers tied to them, but may still be important to communications. For example, green initiatives, sustainability programs or charitable giving may be important for supporting and generating good will within your community. In addition, strong historic or cultural aspects of the company may be important for hiring new associates.

Establish success metrics

Determine how the success of the website will be measured. The easiest metrics may not be the most meaningful. Google Analytics is a very powerful tool, but requires experience to learn much beyond general traffic numbers. Metrics must reinforce the primary goals of the website – in our example above, data about subscriber behaviors and interactions would be more meaningful if the demographics allowed segmentation and analysis.

Establishing the goal-oriented metrics early on allows your website to evolve strategically.

Set content strategy

Content strategy is critical because your website is primarily content. Content architecture, concise communication, branding consistency, search engine optimization and social media optimization all stem from this strategy, so consider carefully the sources of your content, not just for the launch of the website, but for its long-term life and health.

In her article titled, The Discipline of Content Strategy, Kristina Halvorson lists the primary areas of content strategy.

  • Editorial strategy
  • Web writing
  • Metadata strategy
  • Search engine optimization
  • Content management strategy
  • Content channel distribution strategy

This is a tall order for anyone not trained in these disciplines, which is where your agency comes in. Setting expectations and budgets within your stakeholder group for these services will provide a website with a much longer shelf life. Consideration should also be given to ongoing content generation.

If content is to be generated internally, provide training resources to writers, photographers, videographers and graphic designers to understand search engine optimization, website architecture, social media optimization, writing for the web and communicating your brand. However, it is much less important that your writers understand technology or social media than how to communicate clearly and intelligently.

Select website functionalities

Once your goals are set, and content strategy is mapped, you are ready to refine the list of functionality that will support those decisions. Provide a comprehensive list of functionality options to prompt the team, but remember that any functionality must match up with the above goals and strategies. Pay special attention to functionality your competitors provide that passed the usability test. That’s where the bar is set from your user’s viewpoint.

If your RFP includes any business-class integrations, discuss this at length with stakeholders. A separate task force may be required to finalize the details of this type of investment.

With the increase of mobile technology and smartphone usage, include discussions for mobile development. Progressive vendors will request to design for mobile first and will include technologies that can determine the device and serve up the proper version of your website. If your website needs a shelf life longer than 12 months, you must consider mobile in your RFP.

Determine security levels

It is critical your IT or IS department is included in this process. If you do not have an IT department, or if your website is not hosted in-house, then security recommendations should come from your vendor and be based on the level of functionality chosen. E-commerce, job applications, customer account information or any other online access to sensitive information requires secure transmission and data storage. At a minimum, use a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) for transmission, and do not store Social Security or credit card numbers in an online database. Host your website with a reputable provider.

Prepare to include IT documentation and questions within the RFP.

Website maintenance

Determine if you have the resources to maintain the website over time. A good Content Management System will allow you to add, edit and delete content, but you may still need or wish to have the ability to change functionality over time. If you are going to leave this to your vendor, include specifics in the RFP.

External marketing integration

Your website is the core of all your in- and out-bound communications. Ensure all your marketing is aligned with the functionality of the proposed website. While some of this might be identified from the functionality checklist, plan to include details in the RFP for search engine optimization, social media optimization, pay per click marketing, direct marketing landing pages, email and mobile marketing.


Provide realistic deadlines to agencies for submission of the interest to participate, final proposal or presentation and the launch date of the website. Include any other milestones for your group’s participation such as the date when a vendor will be chosen, but let your vendor set their own internal milestones for completing work.

Significant websites take an average of four to six months to develop. Complex business integrations can take six months to a year. This is also the area to specify how you wish to receive your proposals, electronically or in person. You will be working closely with this team for months or years, so consider an in-person meeting at some point.


There is always a great debate about presenting budget parameters within an RFP. Most RFPs do not contain a budget, but, unfortunately, that increases the chances of receiving proposals that are not apples to apples and often wildly different in price. Think of it as building a house: are you expecting a 3-bedroom rambler, or a 3-bedroom executive home with granite countertops and a view of the Rockies?

If you cannot provide a budget, instead provide detailed functionality statements to ensure proposals are comparable. Conversely, if you are unsure of how to provide enough detail, providing a budget will set expectations allowing more productivity and recommendations from your vendors. It will also save time by narrowing the field of candidates.

Stakeholder session deliverables

The research performed and decisions made during the stakeholder session(s) are the preparation for the real work of writing the RFP. To recap, you should have:

  • Business/corporate goals
  • User goals
  • Political/internal goals
  • Competitive SWOT and website analysis
  • Company website analysis
  • Usability testing results
  • User interview results
  • Functionality list
  • External marketing efforts integration
  • Timeline
  • Budget

Provide as much of the findings in the RFP as possible to give context to the requirements.

5. Writing the RFP

In broad terms, the top-level contents of the RFP are as follows. An RFP is both informational and contractual. Remember that if your questions are vague and open-ended, it will be difficult to compare proposals. Another way to think of it is the more open-ended information you request, the more varying information you have to digest to make a decision. Conversely, the more detail you provide, the easier it will be to compare proposals and make the right choice.


  • Company overview
  • Team roles and responsibilities
  • Goals
  • Research findings

Vendor information

  • Qualifications and history
  • Staff bios and experience
  • Process: it should include frequent approval checkpoints
  • Examples
  • References

Requirements: Use the research and stakeholder session information to fill out the details. Pay special attention to functionality.

  • Branding: Attach your style guide and a list of websites you like and why.
  • Content: Provide stakeholder session requirements.
  • Functionality: Prioritize needs over wants. Ask for wants to be a la carte with separate pricing. See example below for level of detail that will get the best results.
  • Hosting
  • Security

Selection criteria: Provide a weight of importance for each criterion. If budget is most important, it should be reflected here.

  • Industry expertise
  • Branding expertise
  • Technical expertise
  • Pricing

Timelines: Allow your vendor to provide detailed milestones within the development process for your approval.

Project proposal and pricing: If budget was not already included.

  • Base price for functionality listed
  • A la carte items
  • Hosting
  • Domain registration
  • SSL (Secure Socket Layer)
  • Additional hardware or software as per your IT department

Functionality detail example: Take the list from the stakeholder session and provide enough detail for the vendor to estimate. The more detail you put into this area, the easier it will be to compare the responses.

For example, don’t just request a blog for the website, but provide details:

  • How many bloggers it will support?
  • Will your bloggers need different types of access?
  • Do you need workflows to support different blogger access levels?
  • Do you want readers to comment or post content?
  • Do those comments need to be moderated?
  • Would you prefer full or limited registration users?
  • How complex is the moderation workflow?
  • Can users subscribe via email or RSS?
  • Will blog posts support multi-media like video or audio files?
  • Will blog posts need to be fed into various areas of the website depending on the context of the other content within the website?
  • Are pingbacks, trackbacks and blogrolls important to you?

The more your RFP resembles a true scope of work, the more accurate your proposal responses and the easier to compare.

In Summary

The most effective website RFPs are written by experienced teams that understand the processes and terminology a vendor needs. Through careful planning and detailed writing, you can craft an RFP that will make your selection process easier and your choice clear.

Special consideration should be given to contracting for the service of writing your website RFP. It is time-consuming and important work that must be done by someone during the course of the process. Having the process professionally done will save staff resources and provide you a successful website that you can build on for years.

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