Remember 1996? Large companies flocked to the Web to launch expensive, experimental Web sites with spinning logos and huge blocks of text lifted from their brochures. Fortunes were made overnight by college kids who, by virtue of knowing anything about the Internet, could walk into Fortune 500 boardrooms and be revered as experts in the "cyber arena."

The people who were responsible for hiring Web design firms had no rational means of evaluating these over-caffeinated hipsters. Who should you hire? Flip a coin!

The year 1996 feels like a hundred years ago. Today, corporations understand that the Internet can play a critical role in their success when leveraged correctly, and they hire Web firms for their proven ability to solve critical business issues. That requires a well-crafted request for proposal (RFP).

The RFP dates back to the days of the typewriter. It's exactly what it sounds like: a request for a bid on a project or relationship. It typically contains questions about the bidder's history and experience, and offers details about the job to enable the bidder to craft an approach, timeline and price.

It works great if you write the right RFP. Here's how to do exactly that.

Step 1: Get clear on your destination

"If you don't know where you're going, any path will take you there." That's certainly true for the RFP process. If you're unclear on what your project is, what business problems it's trying to solve, how it will be measured... how will you know if an agency's response hits the mark?

Before you contact a single agency, write a business case for your project. Document project objectives, starting at a high level ("increase customer retention"), and moving on to tactical goals ("enable customers to access account history"). Don't forget success metrics. Think in terms of what are objective and quantifiable (e.g., "10% increase in spending per existing customer").

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Kevin Labick is the VP of eCommerce at Advanta, a credit card company dedicated to small businesses. Reach him at