How To Write A Request For Proposal (RFP)

Photo of Mike Aleo Mike Aleo · March 13, 2018

Writing a RFP can be awful. Sitting down at a blank Word document to try and come up with 15 pages of requirements out of thin air, only to send it out into the ether in hopes of getting back something usable from a mystery agency…total nightmare.

But, after years of time spent both requesting and responding to proposals, I’ve learned a couple of lessons that can help make this RFP journey a less painful one.

(If you’re short on time, I put together this sample RFP template that will put you on the right track)

Misconceptions About Length

Length can be one of the most difficult elements to get right at the outset of an RFP-writing process. It’s typically debated at length among internal stakeholders, and often results in hang-ups and delays.

Here’s the truth about length: conventional understanding is that you need to explain everything about your project in the RFP. But the reality is that you’re going to get far fewer responses with a 15 page RFP than you will with a two-pager. And your initial goal should be to get as many responses as you can, making it possible for you to weed out contenders in that first cattle call round.

Building from the “less is more” mentality, think about the RFP as a conversation starter—one where your goal is to lay the foundation for that conversation, rather than providing the prescriptive details that would ultimately emerge from the discussion itself. Don’t be afraid to leave things open ended; some of the best ideas come from those initial brainstorms (I tend to think of these conversations as brainstorms), and if you say you’re locked into a particular element you might miss a potentially perfect match.

So the most important thing to do is focus on having the right people in the room for that initial conversation. You’ll get a lot more out of it than you will trying to wrap your head around a term paper-sized RFP.

Be Honest About Where You Are in the Process

This one is fairly simple, at least in theory, but you’d be surprised at how important it is to keep in mind.

Let’s say you’re looking for a website redesign. But you also know that somewhere down the line you’re going to need an audit of your brand. The important thing to remember is that it’s always better to confine the scope of the RFP to exactly what you’re looking for from the specific project. Resist the temptation to include elements you think have the potential to pop up later; those extra tack ons can come later in the engagement—and, in fact, you’ll have a much better idea about what they might look like once you’ve set your foundation.

Your Budget is an Indicator of Time

Many people think it’s advantageous to omit a budget range because you’re likely to get a wider variety of responses. This isn’t bad logic, but it will ultimately cut down on your efficiency.

From the perspective of the respondent, we think about budget in terms of time—the factor that will determine the number and quality of deliverables we can create in the given timeframe. When looking at budgets, respondents are considering: How long will it take me to accomplish X project? How will that fit into my larger staffing questions? And so on.

Any firm you’re  talking to can likely do a website for either $30,000 or $300,000. The difference will, of course, come in the complexity of the approach, attention to detail, and amount of special-sauce brought to the table—all of which will be informed by the time that can be allocated based on budget.

“Has anyone ever told you “You get what you pay for”? It’s extremely accurate when it comes to technology and design. Also knowing your budget provides parameters for us to unleash our creativity. Innovation is the creative person’s response to limitation. Not having a budget doesn’t mean we won’t be able to deliver you great thinking, but it makes it harder and it definitely lengthens the process to getting to a solution you both want and need.” – Patrick Sims

So put down a budget range. This will ensure you get a more accurate look at a potential firms’ capabilities for your project, and it will also set expectations about what else could be accomplished within the scope.

And, honestly, if you really don’t have a budget — or if you haven’t aligned internally about what it might look like — you probably aren’t ready to write an RFP.

Anticipate the Things You’ll Inevitably Be Too Busy To Do

Here’s a common situation: a client will structure an engagement around a report rollout. The scope of the project involves design, data analysis, and the creation of a microsite to house the findings. In the initial conversations, the client decides their team will run the actual rollout of the report. But, as the date approaches, the client realizes that they don’t have the adequate bandwidth to handle that task, and need the vendor to step in.

This inevitably results in a bunch of scrambling and headache for everyone involved—undermining the quality of the products being developed, as the well as the process by which they are launched.

The takeaway here is to always remember that you have your day job — and that it’s often the case you won’t be able to handle the content, the photography, or the media rollout (in my experience, these are the most common things to fall by the wayside).

So ask for things you might be too busy to do, and don’t let the engagement redefine your job description.

Be Clear About Your Selection Process

Over the years, I’ve always appreciated a potential client being honest when they want a simple price check. I’ll always spend thirty minutes on a call to walk through and give you feedback on the quote you want to work on. Maybe we’ll work together someday, maybe we’ll grab a coffee and pass work to each other—whatever. I’m always happy to make a new friend instead of spending days working through an in-depth RFP response when all you wanted was a sanity check. – Michael Aleo

Every agency’s fear is that they’ll spend a lot of time responding to an RFP when you already know who you’re looking for.

One of the best ways to determine which RFPs are worth responding to is if they include details about the selection process. Additionally, this also helps set the guardrails for the approach that a firm will take.

For example, if the RFP indicates that selection will be based on pricing, a firm will build out their proposal to show you exactly where the money would be going. Conversely, if it’s all about the strength of the ideas, the proposal will be structured to illuminate the creative process.

A good general rule is that you want a responding firm to be thinking in terms of guardrails; it’s one of the best ways you can ensure you’re getting the format and quality you’re ultimately looking for.

The Website RFP Template

If you made it this far, I’d like to thank you for reading. Here’s that sample template again  that I think will help you structure your approach.