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How to Write a Higher Education Website RFP + Template

illustration of folded paper with graduation cap on it with text 'website RFP for EDU"

It’s a digital-first world, and we’re just living in it — which means that your university’s website serves as more than just your online presence. Your website is often the very first impression prospective students and stakeholders have of your institution, and likely also serves as a way to select courses, communicate with faculty, connect with alumni, and more.

EdTech company Anthology reports that, when asked to select their primary sources of information about an institution or its academic programs, 66% of prospective students selected “internet search” and 63% chose “university website.” Clearly, the importance of a well-designed website for higher education institutions cannot be overstated.

To enhance their online presence or completely redesign their website, universities may want to consider submitting a request for proposal (RFP) to various web designers and developers to see which one can best meet their needs.

Writing and issuing an RFP is no small task, and one that can generate poor (or zero) results if not executed well. So let’s get into some best practices and tips for creating the ideal higher education RFP, one that will generate in-depth, thoughtful responses from promising agency partners.

[ Just Want the Website RFP Template? Download It Here > ]

What Is a University Website RFP?

A request for proposal (RFP) for a university website is a formal document that outlines an institution’s requirements, expectations, and criteria for selecting a vendor or contractor to design, develop, and potentially maintain their website. An RFP is intended to solicit bids from qualified parties interested in undertaking the project.

The document itself typically includes details such as the university’s goals and objectives for the website, technical specifications, desired features, timeline, budget constraints, and evaluation criteria. It’s also a chance to ask questions about vendors’ process, approach, capabilities, timeline, or experience.

By issuing an RFP, a university can ensure transparency, fairness, and competitiveness in the selection process, ultimately leading to a website solution that aligns with its strategic objectives and meets the needs of its stakeholders.

When to Submit an RFP… And When Not To

Regardless of the industry, RFPs can be a drag to respond to. The significant time and effort it takes to review and craft a thoughtful university website proposal may deter some agencies from taking on the task — which is why it’s crucial to seek out agencies with specific experience in higher education website development.

If you have a very specific vision for what your university’s website needs to look like, an RFP is not the way to go. By nature, RFPs tend to limit creativity, so issuing a set of demands with extremely rigid parameters will elicit an immediate “no” from most agencies. Obviously, if you possess the in-house expertise to develop the website and have the resources available to complete the project internally, then writing an RFP is unnecessary.

Also, don’t issue an RFP without doing your research! Identify a handful of agencies with experience in building websites for universities and tailor your request to the services they offer.

[ Just Want the Website RFP Template? Download It Here > ]

Finally, an RFP is not a request for pricing. If you want to know how much different agencies charge for comparable projects, just ask them. Don’t go through all the trouble of crafting an RFP — and make agencies go through the trouble of reading and responding to yours — only to learn that they are out of your price range.

The 10 Benefits of Universities Submitting an RFP for a Website Design and Development Project

Maybe this goes without saying, but it’s in your university’s best interest to submit an RFP to multiple agencies. Doing so enables you to:

  1. Get to know different agencies before you work with them and determine whether they’d be a good culture fit for your university
  2. Be sure ​​that potential partners understand the scope of the project and what is required to meet your objectives
  3. Compare agencies to each other and see their relative strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities
  4. Exhibit transparency in the selection process
  5. Make more informed, data-driven decisions
  6. Employ more leverage when negotiating terms, pricing, and deliverables
  7. Mitigate risk by providing alternative options to explore should your initial agency fail to meet expectations or encounter unforeseen challenges
  8. Weigh proposals from a diverse range of agencies and see how each one responds to different challenges and opportunities
  9. Hold vendors accountable for meeting project milestones and delivering satisfactory results

Finally, should it come to this, issuing an RFP can protect your university from potential disputes or misunderstandings with agencies by establishing clear expectations from the outset.

[ Ready for the Website RFP Template? Download It Here > ]

The 12 Items Every Higher Education Website RFP Needs to Include

There’s a fine line between comprehensive and overkill when it comes to RFPs — since responding to them can be a hefty task, you don’t want your RFP to be so long that a potential partner bails before getting to the good stuff. That said, every RFP should include the following key information to elicit a comprehensive response.

  1. Website history and current status.
    When was the last time your site had an upgrade? Is the branding up to date? Does your content governance structure drive you insane? Who currently handles any updates or changes to the site?
  2. Redesign priorities.
    It’s helpful to list priorities in order of importance so potential agency partners can tell right away if their capabilities are aligned with your needs.
  3. Website goals.
    You don’t necessarily need to know how these goals can be accomplished — that’s an agency’s job! List them all, from boosting enrollment to establishing better content governance to improving website accessibility.
  4. Launch goal.
    When do you absolutely need to go live? Keep in mind that a web build can take anywhere from 18 weeks to a year and a half, so set your own expectations accordingly.
  5. Core functionalities (required and optional).
    Do you need your new site to integrate with an existing third-party platform? Do students need to be able to sign up for courses or make tuition payments on the site? Think about all your current integrations and all the functions you’re unable to perform well (or at all).
  6. Market research, enrollment studies, and engagement data.
    Demonstrate that you’ve done your own performance analysis and understand what metrics you need to improve.
  7. Current CMS (and intentions to switch or upgrade).
    WordPress, Drupal, Cascade — any higher education web development agency has likely seen them all. Be open to changes though, as there might be a strong case to be made for switching platforms. Trust the experts.
  8. Open-ended questions for designers and developers.
    You don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s okay! Ask any clarifying questions regarding functionality, user experience, and design, so the agency can answer them in their response.
  9. Budget.
    Be honest — if you know your university can’t afford a quarter-million-dollar project, you’ll automatically weed out the agencies with higher price tags and will only receive responses from those who won’t bait-and-switch you (hopefully).
  10. Points of contact and project managers.
    Who will the agency be communicating with throughout the project?
  11. Contact information.
    This seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget!
  12. Proposal / formatting requirements.
    How do you want to receive and review proposals? Establish a standard structure or formatting requirements so it’s easier to review proposals side-by-side.

How to Structure Your University Website RFP

Still with us? Okay, now we get down to business. Taking all the information from the previous section, organize it into the following 10-point structure:

  1. Introduction/Project Overview: Outline the project request and give a brief overview of the purpose of the RFP. Provide crucial details such as budget and response deadline to engage (or weed out) potential vendors from the outset.
  2. University Overview: Introduce your university. Keep it concise, giving pertinent information about your mission and offerings without overwhelming the reader. Think snapshot, not slideshow.
  3. Target Audience: Describe your ideal website users, including prospective students, faculty, stakeholders, parents and caregivers, etc. This helps designers and developers know what kinds of UX functionality is required. If you have buyer personas, include them here.
  4. Website Objectives: Define your primary, secondary, and tertiary objectives, such as enhancing student engagement or streamlining administrative processes, so vendors can align their proposals with your goals.
  5. Current Website Assessment: Provide an honest assessment of your existing website’s deficiencies and flaws to highlight specific areas for improvement. (Don’t worry, you won’t be judged on past choices.)
  6. Functionality Requirements: List the functionalities that are essential for the new website’s success. Even if you don’t know the names of specific solutions, or even if they exist, try to describe the need in as much detail as possible.
  7. Wishlist Features: This is, of course, contingent on budget and timeline considerations, but include the “nice-to-haves” along with your “need-to-haves,” differentiating between the two to clarify priorities.
  8. Budget Specifications: Reiterate budgetary constraints and provide any pertinent details, such as payment schedules, to ensure alignment with vendor proposals.
  9. Proposal Guidelines: Clearly outline expectations for vendor responses and include the criteria by which you will be judging the proposals.
  10. Project Timeline: Reinforce the RFP deadline and communicate the timeline for response review, finalist selection, and project milestones. Be sure your dates are realistic — research comparable projects so you have a clear idea of what to expect.

It may help to follow a standard RFP template to establish an intuitive flow and keep all your information organized. Download your university website RFP template here.

How to 10X Your Higher Education Website RFP

Submitting an RFP is a lot like interviewing for a job — you’re demonstrating why you might be a good fit for the vendor, but you’re also assessing whether you would like to work with them. You want to be sure that the RFP you write will elicit the desired response so you have a pool of quality, viable candidates to choose from.

Ultimately, you want to 10x your RFP. This means you want to achieve results that are ten times greater than what might be considered a typical or standard outcome — or, in this case, find an agency partner that is ten times more capable than what you envisioned.

To find the best fit for your university website project, your RFP needs to:

  • Show off your personality: Even if you see your university as the most straight-laced institution out there, every school has a personality. Don’t be afraid to let that come through.
  • Encourage creativity: Agencies don’t like to be boxed in! Make sure you’re asking open-ended questions and leaving room for creativity as you explain your vision.
  • Ask the right questions: For example, rather than asking something like, “Which WordPress plugin do you recommend for auto-posting our latest newsletter to the site?” ask instead, “How would you recommend integrating our current digital marketing efforts with the new website?” This gives the agency more freedom to propose new tools and tactics you may not have thought of yet.
  • Keep it simple: Your RFP should contain the appropriate amount of detail about your goals, but don’t get too granular. It’s the agency’s job to fill in the nitty gritty stuff.
  • Make it easy for agencies to follow up: Include your contact’s name and information and deadline for responses in a prominent place.
  • Allow for flexible proposal formats: You should state your preferred response format to keep it standardized, but leave some room for flexibility. For example, you can require that responses be submitted in a digital format, but whether agencies respond with a written document or a slide deck is up to them.
[ Ready for the Website RFP Template? Download It Here > ]

By giving agencies plenty to react to, you increase your chances of garnering responses from potential partners who represent the best fit.

Make the Most of the University Website RFP Process

And with that, you’re almost ready to rock! Crafting an RFP for a university website is a daunting task, but following the best practices offered in this guide can help you get organized, crystallize your thoughts, and elicit responses from the right kind of agency partners.

Here’s how you can get the most out of the RFP process:

  • Be selective about who you submit your RFP to: Don’t just toss your RFP into the wind and hope it lands at the right agency’s door. Do your research first and only send RFPs to agencies you think would best meet your needs. Then it’s up to them to either decline or prove you right.
  • Take advantage of the Q&A period: You want your RFP to generate a dialogue, so give respondents time to ask you their own set of questions. Doing so can help both you and the agency further clarify whether you’d make a good team.
  • Ask around about agencies’ reputations: Social validation is a powerful thing. Ask marketing teams at similar institutions if they have an agency they recommend, and also what they’ve heard about other agencies out there.
  • Don’t treat it as a pricing comparison: As stated earlier, the RFP process is not for comparing prices. You can find out pricing info simply by asking agencies for their rates, then weed out the ones you know you can’t afford.
  • Focus on fit, not just features: You want to know not only what an agency can do for you, but whether your teams will work well together. You may be able to gauge fit from an agency’s response, but it’s more likely that you’ll find this out during the Q&A stage. If it doesn’t feel like a comfortable match, move on.
  • Consider long-term relationship potential: While it may seem like a website development project is a one-and-done deal, a savvy agency is a great asset to have on hand. Consider opening up your criteria to include agencies that can also handle higher education digital marketing or long-term maintenance long after the website is built.
[ Ready for the Website RFP Template? Download It Here > ]
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