Are you about to write a request for proposal (RFP) to retain an agency for a website redesign? Then consider this cautionary tale. It’s a little story about a marketing manager (we’ll call her “Jane”) who has been tapped to lead her company’s website redesign.

Jane’s Journey…

Before selecting an agency, Jane is super excited

Everyone at Jane’s company has hated their website for years, and they envy competitor websites. Jane and the sales reps can’t wait until the new site is launched—they know it will work so much better than their old site. They hold several meetings to make a wish list of everything they want their website to include, and Jane writes a fitting RFP. The RFP details every feature and functionality: easy-to-use CMS, responsive design, delightful user experience, etc. After a few weeks of slogging through the RFP process, a responder is selected.

During the website redesign, Jane’s mood shifts

Overall, she remains optimistic, but the whole thing is just way, way more of a marathon than she thought it would be. Bumps in the road crop up, despite everyone’s best efforts to pave a smooth ride. But, working together, the job eventually gets done.

When the website launches, Jane is super excited

Success!! The CEO loves the new website and gives Jane a solid fist bump of approval. It looks amazing!

One week after launch, Jane’s mood dips

She thought the new website was going to make her work life easier, but somehow, it hasn’t. Despite the new website, reaching her marketing goals seems as far away as ever.

Why a website launch goes south

The shine of the new website quickly dulled because our hard-working marketing manager fell victim to what Harvard professor Dan Gilbert calls “impact bias,”¹ which is the human “tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events.” It turns out that much-anticipated milestones “have far less impact, less intensity, and much less duration than people expect them to have.”

A fundamental misunderstanding exists regarding corporate websites: they’re treated like a noun when they’re really a verb. To use a non-English 101 metaphor, a website is a sales and marketing tool, and as with any tool, it only works when it’s actively being used. Otherwise, it’s just propped against the garage wall hosting rust and cobwebs.

Jane’s post-launch malaise stems from this misunderstanding. She thought the website launch would be more impactful than it really was, but the truth is that launch is not when work on a website ends. That’s when it really begins.

An alternative type of RFP might have helped

In reflecting on what could have changed Jane’s outcome, a different type of RFP might have helped. There’s nothing wrong with a website wish list per se, which is what most RFPs are. The process of auditing your own and other’s websites is a concrete way to start analyzing the problem. But for many companies, the website itself isn’t the real problem; often, the true problem lies in the holistic marketing effort.

An RFP should reflect an understanding of the website as a dynamic tool and not as a passive brochure. When the focus is on marketing goals and how the website will be used post-launch, an RFP can be an efficient way to start a conversation with an agency that ultimately provides valuable insight into your entire marketing effort.

The best RFPs present the problem and ask the agency to recommend a solution. When you write an RFP, write it in two parts: the first part should be a situation analysis about your company and its challenges.


The second part should request information for the agency to include in its response. There’s a tendency to complicate this section, whereas there are really only a handful of mandatory questions:

1.    Explain your recommended solution
2.    Provide an overview of your agency
3.    Provide 3 case studies of relevant work
4.    Explain how you price your services

Once you’ve written your RFP, the next steps are to decide which agencies should receive it, and how to evaluate the responses.

Coming soon: how to gather and evaluate website RFP responses.

¹ Gilbert, Dan. “The Surprising Science of Happiness.” TED: Ideas worth spreading. TED, Feb. 2004. Web. 09 Apr. 2015.

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