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").

Step 2: Set the rules of engagement and stick to them

The goal of the RFP is to get thoughtful, detailed information from companies so you can make a sound decision. Therefore, it's in your best interest to make responding as easy as possible by defining a clear, straightforward process and sticking with it.

When are the responses due? Agencies often complain they're not given enough time to properly respond to RFPs. Although some of this is simply whining, don't make the mistake of thinking that a firm that can adhere to a suicidal timeline is the only one with enough passion and commitment. They may just be desperate. To get quality responses, give the agencies time to craft them.

Will you be available for questions? Agencies always have questions, and you'll want to provide answers. However, many of the "questions" will really be thinly disguised sales pitches. How much time do you have to devote to that? Answering phone calls and email should be enough. Before you agree to meet with an agency, make sure the agenda is crystal clear.

What form do you want the responses in? This is important. You want agencies spending time on their answers, not their binders. And you want to be able to compare apples to apples. Wildly different formats and presentations can make it difficult to uncover the actual information. The answer? Consider providing a simple Word document in which firms insert their answers.

What's the decision-making process? Why make the agencies guess how you will judge them? If cost is a major deciding factor, say so. If experience in tying into your legacy systems is the "make or break" issue, say so. Are you the sole decision maker or a member of a buying committee? Is this the first step in a three-stage process, or will a winner be selected immediately? The more that the agencies know, the more likely they will be able to provide their best answers.

When will your decision be made? I had a running bet with Andy Sullivan, the CEO of Refinery, where I worked before I switched to the client side. Whenever we'd respond to an RFP, we'd try to guess how late the client would be in making its decision. I'm an optimist... so I owed Andy a lot of money.

The delay may be entirely out of your hands, but you're looking for a firm that can become an important partner to your organization. Setting proper expectations is a part of building a strong, trusting relationship. Try to be realistic, or even conservative, when specifying a decision date.

Step 3: Act like the chairman of a Congressional committee

The RFP is your chance to ask probing questions, and have them answered with a smile. Don't waste this opportunity! Ask what you want to know.

Envision the attributes and experience that an interactive agency will need to successfully complete your project.

Craft questions that will elicit clear, informative answers and reveal which agency meets those criteria. If your agency must have extensive experience in the widget industry, don't just ask about their general experience; ask for a description of three projects, preferably with references, done for widget manufacturers.

Step 4: Sing like a canary

To get good information from your agencies about their creative approach, detailed deliverables, timelines, costs, and so on... spill your guts. The final step in crafting your RFP is to tell the firms as much as you can about these:

  • The challenges you face and solution you seek
  • Your stakeholders and decision makers
  • Your end-users' needs and expectations
  • Any relevant data and market research
  • The technologies and processes in place
  • Your project completion date
  • Any known internal risks to the project

Then, put the document aside. Read this section the next day, asking yourself, "Could I craft a detailed solution and commit to time and price based on this information?" If the answer is anything but an unqualified "Yes!"—go back to your keyboard and keep singing.

Put it all together

Selecting your interactive agency is only the first step toward project success, but it's a doozey. If you get it right, you're well on your way. A well-crafted RFP that has clear goals and guidelines, asks useful questions and provides the information that your agencies need is a great start.

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