In my time in the industry, I must confess I’ve read over a thousand digital agency, website design and development, and online marketing RFPs, and responded to many of them. There have been plenty of good ones along with terrible ones. The best were those that were very focused in what they were asking for, and that does not necessarily mean they provided excruciating detail about every feature and piece of functionality. It simply means that they were clear in their expectations of the respondents, and sometimes admitted quite openly that they did not have answers to some of the challenges they presented.
There are many opinions about Requests for Proposals in general. Many are adamantly against them, though some organizations must issue them, or are structured in a way that makes RFPs a necessity in order to be fair and allow group consensus. They do, however, allow agencies (and bids) to be compared “apples to apples,” which can make the decision process easier for organizations.
There are other options, of course. Meeting with several agencies, establishing trust in their capabilities and advice, and their understanding of your business-level goals and KPIs, before moving to the specifics of something like a website project or marketing campaign, can produce (in many cases) much better long-term results. Though that is not always an option for organizations.
The recommendations in this article are for those organizations who, for one reason or another (or several), have decided to move forward with issuing a request for proposal for a digital agency to solve some (or all) of their needs.
Ideas or Execution?
The first question that you, as an organization, should ask yourself is, what exactly do you want your digital agency to bring to the table? Are you looking for new ideas or innovative solutions to your organizational goals? Or instead, are you clear on the way you want to reach your goals, but you need a company that is skilled at implementing the plan that you have in mind.
While it may seem that any digital agency, interactive marketing or website firm would be up to either task, that is not necessarily the case. Asking the right questions during initial meetings can help you come to a conclusion about what type of agency is the best fit for your needs.
Another option is to hire a consultant or agency to work on your overall strategy before you hire a firm to build pieces of it or execute specific marketing or advertising tactics. Think of this scenario in terms of real estate. First, you consult with an architect who translates your goals and objectives into a design. Then, you hire a construction company to build to specifications.
When is a good time to write an RFP?
The best time to write and release your Request for Proposals is when you have come to a final decision about what you do and don’t know. While this is often easier said than done, especially in a large organization with oversight committees or groups that watch over a process like this, keep in mind that adding more detail is not always a good thing in this process. In fact, it can often prevent RFP respondents from putting their best creative ideas forward.
Write your Request for Proposals based on what you know you want, and ask your respondents for their ideas about how to solve the problems that you are not yet sure how to solve.
An example of this would be the following:
You know you want to receive email contacts through your website. Your internal team has several ideas, but has yet to come to a definitive conclusion of how to do it. Once people get to your website should you offer people a webinar to entice them to sign up for an email newsletter? Should you collect three pages of information about everyone that wants to contact you? Or, should you simply make it one click to email someone directly? Have we even mentioned how we are going to get people to the website in the first place?
Instead of deciding as an internal committee how you’d like to do this, why not open it up to your RFP respondents to use their experience and creativity in finding a solution to your challenges? Not only do they solve these types of challenges for many clients across many industries (hopefully including yours), but they will most likely have good ideas of how to measure this from initial marketing contact (advertising, search, social, offline, etc.) to your website to CRM or even through call-tracking, if you display a phone number.
You’ll be surprised at the responses and creative solutions you will get if you include the right digital agencies in your RFP selection. You will also be able to determine the type of agency that is responding. Those that are focused on solving true business-level challenges will provide strategic insights and rationale in their response (the architects, if you will). Those that are more tactical (construction companies) will provide more basic, straightforward solutions, and may not be a good fit for you if you are looking for a strategic consultant that is focused on helping your business grow.
Remember that, for many organizations, there are alternatives to going straight to a Request for Proposals for your digital needs by getting to know the agencies that you want to work with first. For those that want to or must follow the RFP process, remember to be clear about what you want, and leave some room for the respondents to display their creativity and strategic thinking, and to leverage their experience solving similar problems for other clients. This lets you focus on your KPIs instead of getting in the weeds with features, functionality and marketing tactics, and also gives you a digital agency that delivers real solutions for your challenges.