Selecting a Vendor for an EDU Web Rebuild

Choosing the right vendor to rebuild your institution’s website is the most important aspect of the project. The process and outcomes of researching, planning, designing, developing, deploying, and supporting an institutional website are determined by two factors controlled by you: who directs the project internally and with whom you will partner.

As director of web and electronic communications at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), I’ve been leading the beginnings of a major web property redesign and rebuild project for nearly a year. What follows is a recap of and lessons learned from this experience.

Acknowledge the Need and Gain the Support

Oftentimes, the people calling for the website redesign will determine whether there will be a project or not. Random comments might seem like nothing more than end users griping, but if you begin to notice patterns in their complaints, it’s time to look more closely into the problems. If key decision makers don’t see the need for a redesign, it likely won’t happen. Being able to communicate your website’s issues and how they are affecting the college’s mission will help you get the initial support you will need to engage a meaningful and beneficial project.

I started working at MICA in early 2012, three years after the launch of our current website. While I interviewed, I was asked several questions about engaging another redesign process. I got the impression that my vice president and others across campus didn’t like the website and wanted to redesign it, despite the site’s appearing on several “Best of” higher ed website design lists. As I became more familiar with the website and CMS early on in my career at MICA, I agreed that the site needed to be redesigned.

My supervisor and I made the case for a new website, and our then-president half-agreed, but the project stopped in finance—we didn’t have the money for another redesign, especially so soon after the last one.

As more time passed, more voices decried the website and the CMS. Our president retired and there was a change in leadership in my department. In one of my earliest discussions with my new VP, we discussed the need for a new website. The topic was broached with the president, who agreed 100%, and promised the funds for the project.

Understand Your Own Limitations

In higher education, the website is no longer the only web-based system faculty, staff, students, alumni, and others use when engaging your college. These systems often include learning management systems (LMS), customer relationship management (CRM) systems, event management tools, social media, and human resource management systems (HRMS, likely PeopleSoft), to name a few. If these systems aren’t already integrated with your website in some way, you might want to consider integrating them as part of your next website rebuild.

If you’re primarily a designer, developer, or marketer, find knowledgable decision-makers in your IT or academic technology departments.

I had managed website redesign projects before, but not at this scale. MICA’s website has about 15,000 pages that receive well over 1,000,000 views per year, and a CMS user base of around 100.

I knew that there was a lot I didn’t know about our digital ecosystem, so my VP and I identified three key leaders in our IT department to partner with. We became the project’s core team.

Team Building

Working with the leaders who control aspects of your web ecosystem including but not limited to the website will help you gain further buy-in across campus, share resources, and validate all the requirements of prospective vendors that exceed your own core competencies.

My VP and I formed the core team for this project along with the VP and AVP for technical systems and services, and their enterprise systems developer. The five of us bring experience in marketing, communications, web design and development, database administration, server-side computing, academic technology, and other areas that are core to our project. This team has been the primary planners and decision makers throughout the project.

Once you’ve formed your core team, you’ll need to gain the trust of those who will be affected the most by the project. The CMS’s most frequent users, the website’s primary audiences, faculty who are knowledgable in web design/development, and those who are most dissatisfied by the current website can be powerful allies in making this project successful.

Fortunately, during our last website redesign, a pan-institutional committee of staff and faculty, our Web Advisory Committee (WAC), was formed to provide feedback on the process. The WAC, which includes the members of the project core team, has continued to meet several times per year to discuss various topics related to our website. They’ve been a valuable resource for vetting project ideas and gathering feedback from diverse perspectives.

RFP Discovery

Without a well-written request for proposals (RFP) with clearly defined scope and goals for your project, you’re project would likely go over budget and miss key milestones. Well-written RFPs require broad and specific knowledge of the website, content management, auxiliary systems, challenges currently faced, and aspirations. It should also be concise, specific when necessary, and — equally important— non-prescriptive when necessary. If there are no compelling reasons for a specific solution (e.g. specific CMS), don’t specify it—allow the responding firms to present their own best solutions.

Early on, we realized we didn’t know the whole scope of what would make the project successful. We knew the scope would be immense and that we didn’t have the internal resources to dedicate to uncovering everything we needed to know to write an effective RFP.

We decided to work with a local firm to write our RFP. This phase kicked off with a few meetings to discuss objectives and the history of our website and ancillary systems. To gain a clear picture of all the systems used on campus and how they interact with business practices and other systems, I and two key members of our IT department met with our representative at the firm, listing out all known systems on campus, what they’e used for, and who is responsible for the associated data and content. The result of this six-hour meeting was a system diagram. This document has been very useful to help us understand our existing digital ecosystem.

Next, they met with small groups of staff members that manage website content and other data on campus to learn more about their processes, their impressions on the CMS, and the issues they experience related to all our web properties. They also met with division leaders to discuss high-level missions, goals, and challenges.

To gather more information from a broader range of audiences, they created three different online surveys targeting staff and faculty, current students, and prospective students. The questions used on these surveys were written based on what was learned during the in-person meetings. We received several hundred responses.

Meanwhile, the firm had their own internal team reviewing our current site and authenticated environment and evaluated it against a standard rubric.

The firm used the responses from the electronic surveys to produce an end-user survey findings summary. From their internal review, they created a heuristic scoring review. These documents were the basis for much of the RFP, which was delivered not long after these were finalized.

RFP Dissemination

How many vendors you decide to send your RFP to will be determined by several factors: the scope of your project, the number of firms you’re familiar with from previous work, and how many you expect you’ll need to send it to in order to receive the number of quality proposals you desire.

Some interested vendors will ask how many firms will be receiving your RFP, and you’ll have to decide how to handle this. If you tell them, they might balk at the number and decide that it’s not worth the time or effort to write a proposal when the superficial odds are perceived to be against them. This can be very helpful in weeding out firms that may be more interested in your business than your project.

We distributed our RFP to around 30 vendors. This number has stunned several of my colleagues. We sent it out to so many because we knew that our project wasn’t a simple redesign. It’s a redesign with a new content management system (CMS); it’s the building of a new authenticated environment; it’s the integration of our envisioned single web property with dozens of other systems; it’s the implementation of a digital asset management (DAM) system. We knew the scope of the project would exceed what many traditional web firms could do, so we sent it out knowing that many of them would choose to not submit a proposal. And that’s what happened. We received ten proposals.

Make yourself available to receive and respond to questions. The better your RFP recipients understand your project, the better proposals you’ll receive. Respond to emails as soon as possible and accept all invitations to phone discussions.

In our RFP, we included a timeline for the review of proposals, including a deadline for submission and another for questions. As I received questions, I compiled them into one document, writing my responses inline. After about a week, I cleaned out any questions unrelated to more clearly understanding the project and the college, and shared it with the prospective vendors who had asked questions. These questions and inquiring phone calls revealed a lot about the vendors. If the questions were more about the budget (which had already been stated in the RFP), their odds, etc., they left a negative impression. The firm we ultimately chose spent an hour on the phone with us asking dozens of questions about the project and our goals, not one question about their competition or our budget flexibility. They cared about the project and making something awesome, and it showed.

Proposal Evaluation

One person’s perspective is insufficient when evaluating proposals. While the quantity of proposals alone might be daunting, it’s important to have multiple people reading them from the perspective of their own disciplines. Having each member of your core team is a great start, but you should also consider enlisting people who are more knowledgeable about specific aspects of your project than you are. Your library director, e.g., while reading the proposals, will be better able to vet the vendors’ ability to discover and architect the right taxonomy system for your project.

Including our core team, the proposals were reviewed by nine people. Each person completed an electronic evaluation form for each proposal.

While you want to have a group of diverse perspectives reviewing the proposals, you should consider using a consistent online survey for each proposal reviewer to provide their feedback. The survey should have questions that ask for a ranking of different aspects of the proposal based on the important specifications of the project and how much confidence the proposal elicits of the vendor. Be sure to also include at least one comment box for open responses.

From these evaluations, we selected three semi-finalists. All proposal reviewers met for two hours to discuss each proposal. As I introduced each proposal, I’d ask the team if anyone wanted to discuss the proposal. If no one said “yes,” the proposal would no longer be considered. If a proposal had at least one person interested in it, we’d discuss it until we could reach a consensus on whether or not the firm should advance to the next stage or not.

Presentations

We invited the three semi-finalists to campus to present to a group of people including our WAC, president, provost, and others. Each firm introduced us to their principals, key designers and developers, account managers, and project managers.

Each firm presented using PowerPoint (or Keynote) and allowed for significant time for questions and answers. After the presentations, internal participants were asked to provide feedback using an electronic evaluation form.

Again, the core team met and reviewed all the feedback. From this feedback, we were able to identify two firms as finalists.

Meetings

One-on-Ones

To ensure that your college’s leadership has a voice in the decision and can understand your eventual decision, you should engage the president, provost, and any other vice president who can and will affect the project once it’s happening.

Each finalist met either in person or via telephone with our president, provost, vice president of admission and financial aid, and vice president of advancement. These four stakeholders were asked to provide feedback in any format they wished via email. Each shared their comments and gave a soft recommendation. Three of four recommended the vendor we eventually selected.

Group Conversations

Gathering quantified feedback from your broader team can help you decide on a short list of vendors. Giving them the opportunity to ask more questions and drive the conversation will empower them to give you even more specific feedback on the firms’ capabilities. Assuming that your broader group is made up of people who will likely be engaged with the selected firm during the project, group conversations also afford you and your team the opportunity to get a feel for what it will be like working with each finalist.

We invited the two finalists back to campus to meet with our WAC for more-casual meetings. The firms were asked to provide examples of projects that addressed specific components of our project, including user-customizable and contextually delivered content, DAM integration, and event calendars, but the meetings were primarily driven by the questions posed by our own attendees, most of whom had already reviewed their proposals and attended earlier presentations. This allowed us to take advantage of the specialized knowledge of our own staff and faculty to more clearly learn about how each finalist would approach different aspects of the project.

Reference Checks

It’s easy to assume that because references have been hand-picked and likely prepared to tell you what the firms want you to hear, you won’t learn anything helpful. It’s understandable to consider not bothering to call them at all, but this is an important step and if you can view yourself as an investigative journalist, you can learn a lot from reference checks. Based on your concerns of each vendor, create a list of questions that you think will get you to the truth you desire. Ask your questions, but allow the reference to passively guide the discussion. Let their responses inspire follow-up questions and you’ll learn more than you had hoped, and in greater detail.

While the one-on-one meetings and following group conversations occurred, three members of the core team contacted all references provided by each of the finalists. We created a list of questions beforehand, allowing for the discussions to lead us to alternate follow-up questions. Each reference was recommended by their respective firm positively (as expected), but the references for one of the finalists were consistently more praising. This finalist was ultimately selected, but not for this reason, solely.

Coach the Vendors

If the proposal review and vendor evaluation process succeeds, you should end up with two or more firms that present you with a difficult decision. You and your core team should be able to say that either firm would be great to work with and deliver the results you expect. Be their coach. You should want each firm to succeed in the process. Within reason, give the finalists all the advice and feedback they need to better present themselves and their solutions to your RFP.

I was having a particularly hard time picking a favorite towards the end of the process. Once we selected our three semifinalists, I acted as a coach to each firm, hoping that the firm that would be the best fit for our project would become more apparent. I wanted each of them to present themselves as best as they could.

I provided a list of all key stakeholders they’d meet and a short paragraph on each, describing their role at the college and their motivations and experiences. I frequently invited questions from each semifinalist and answered them as quickly and helpfully as possible.

I thought of myself as an advocate for each firm, hoping that each would win the project. I believe this attitude and how it was executed assisted in making this decision difficult in the best way possible.

Vendor Selection

Collect all input, plan for a closed-door meeting, advocate for all finalists, and aim for consensus, not unanimity.

We, the project core team, met for an hour and a half to review notes, feedback from outside of our team, and reference checks, and agreed on which vendor we should work with. While the decision was made by the core team, we considered input and comments from diverse sources across the college.

We didn’t have to compare and contrast two firms of varying capabilities. We had two highly competent and proven agencies to select from. We didn’t have to choose between staying within budget and getting everything we wanted. We didn’t have to choose between a good fit and a bad fit. Both finalists were more than qualified to complete the project on time and within budget. The firm we selected seemed like they would be a better fit, but the difference wasn’t significant.

Sharing the Decision

Once we made the decision, I wrote a one-page memo announcing our decision. My VP edited it and we emailed it to our president and all those who generously participated in the process.

Informing the winner of the project was rewarding. Their excitement was professionally appropriate but noticeable. They really wanted to work with us on this project. Informing the runner-up was not as easy. I was nervous leading up to and during the call. I had to tell the principal of a well-respected firm, who was more than qualified for the job, that they hadn’t been selected. When I told him that I hoped I could have the chance to work together in the future, it wasn’t an insincere consolation—I meant it.

Next Steps

You’ll need to sign the contract and any other documents related to scope of work, etc., and prepare for a project kickoff meeting. Gather all the research documents produced during RFP discovery and ask the selected vendor what else they could use to help them better understand your institution and commence the project smoothly.

Follow Our Project

If you’re interested in following the progress of our project, you can read my periodic updates on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/rebuilding-our-edu-site-part-5-vendor-selection-justin-codd