How to brief a website agency (with free website brief template).

Two people with clams for heads having a business meeting

Website Planning Guide – #6

This article covers writing a preliminary brief for your next website project – so that you can request proposals and select the best agency to partner with.

Suppose you follow the advice in this article and use the template provided. In that case, you will be giving your potential agencies the information they need to write proposals that are targeted and accurate — making your job far easier. This article is not about covering every detail of the project – not yet. That’s your agency’s job to work with you, once engaged.

What does the preliminary brief need to do for you?
First up, let’s consider why you need this preliminary brief and what you are aiming to achieve. At the start of a project you are faced with two immediate challenges:

  1. There are thousands of agencies our there. You need to find and choose the right one for you.
  2. A website is made up of many aspects: creative design, brand messaging, accessibility, functionality, connectivity, budget. The list goes on. You need to include the right amount of information to get accurate answers.

You can tackle both of these by writing a preliminary brief. You’ll get a better, more useful response if you get the information and questions balanced just right. Also, you can’t possibly know all the answers now, and why would you want to shut the door on consultancy and creativity with your agency by nailing down every aspect.

Consider your preliminary brief to the agency as the first stepping stone. Your chosen agency, if they are any good, will have a detailed meeting, planning and creative session to build out your project in full detail, once engaged.

It is essential to leave room in your briefing for your agency to bring solutions and ideas to the table. This might affect costs somewhere down the line, but the result – the performance of your website – will be worth it. A better brief produces better results.

“What’s your name and where d’ya come from?”
It can help to think of the agency selection as dating. You are looking for commonality, understanding, capability, and a good general match to your needs. Luckily with a preliminary brief, you will have more than three questions to interrogate your suitors with. Picking an agency is not exactly like Blind Date, but there is still potentially a virtual screen between you and your perfect agency at this point. Your preliminary brief will allow you to get way beyond “What’s your name and where d’ya come from?”, and into the good stuff sooner.

So, how much information is needed in a brief?
Well, if you start by completing this preliminary website briefing template, share it with some potential/shortlisted agencies, then collate, analyse and review the results, you will be on the right road to finding the perfect agency for your next business website.

Here are some of the critical items you must include in your brief:

The most important question to answer in your brief is, “what is this project’s business objective?”
This is your project’s North Star. Everything in your project should be aimed at getting you there.

For example, someone in the business might want a fancy interactive animation on the home page, which could add significantly to the cost and therefore your budget juggling headache. But, if your project has a North Star from the start, you can question “how does this animation get us there?”. If it helps, go for it. It’ll look fab for sure. But, if it doesn’t get you any closer to the North Star, then bin it, or put it in Phase 2 as a nice-to-have.

For more on how to establish your website’s North Star, please read this: How to target your next website’s North Star and give your project the best possible start.

It is vital to plan your business website for what your audience needs.
Your new website isn’t for you. It’s not for your CEO. It’s not for your I.T. team. It is for your customers and prospects. I know this is obvious, but it so often gets forgotten. Your users’ needs are the most important factor to deliver in this project.

Giving your potential agency an overview of your audience is useful at this early juncture. You don’t need to go into deep detail yet. That should form part of the website Discovery Phase. For now, including an overview of who these users are, and most importantly why they are on your site. This will help your agency to understand the scale of tasks for your project. Especially when establishing the cope and scale of information architecture, user journeys, navigation and wireframes.

Make it easy for yourself and turn tech-speak into plain English.
You don’t need to know the ins and outs of every techy acronym, nor do you need to understand the working of a web server redirect to be able to brief a website project. However, your agency does need to know, from you, what you want this website to do.

When thinking about the functionality of your new website, break the requirements down into simple user steps. For example, writing the following is far easier than trying to describe the data connectivity required between three APIs and the subsequent display of live data as HTML5 and Javascript interactive graphs. Just turn your requirements into step-by-step, plain English. For example:

  1. We update an internal database with our performance statistics weekly.
  2. We would like this to feed into the website.
  3. We want to display this data live, so that our prospects can see how secure and beneficial using us would be.
  4. We would like this data presented as beautiful, animated graphs that work on mobile phones as well as desktop browsers.

Use this technique for all of your website functionality. Include how you will need to use the website internally too. Consider what editing you need to do and how the site needs to connect and support your marketing.

Budget. Give the elephant in the room a name.
The price range of a ‘website’ can be anything from hundreds to millions of pounds. The two ends of the website spectrum are more diverse than buying a car. Yet, nobody would consider walking into a second-hand car dealer on the high-street to enquire about a brand new McLaren. They are different horses for different courses.

If an agency’s typical starting price is £80K and you have a budget of up to £20K, you can save yourself the time and bother at the first hurdle. Likewise, if the agency is only capable of building tiny template-based sites and returns you a budget around £5K, you can drop them off of your pitch list far earlier and avoid a lemon.

One of the main requirements of your preliminary brief is to build a shortlist of agencies. And if they are all giving you widely different prices, you have no way of measuring value.

There is absolutely no benefit in holding back the topic of the budget at any stage of the conversation with a potential agency.

“I need it yesterday”. Timescales and deadlines
Hot on the heels of the budget comes timescales. Designing and building an effective B2B website should not be rushed. Even if the timeframe is narrow, you cannot afford to skip or over compress a step. The reputation of your business is at stake here. That’s not to say an agency can’t work quickly. And, in my experience, the time and resource constraints usually come from within the business, rather than from the agency. No matter how much you pay for a website, there is always work for you to do – reviews, content, testing, etc. Start by giving your agency a target launch date. Then work with them to establish all of the individual milestones and deadlines.

Give some thought here too, to your stakeholder team. Who will be ultimately signing things off? If you are going to have to bring the board in for their opinions, then make sure you let your agency know, so that they can allow for this in the planning. A late opinion from CEO can too easily be a crunching spanner in the works if it hasn’t been planned for.

As a rough guide, you can break a typical B2B website project into three sections, with each taking (at the very least) one month to complete:

  1. Discovery and design
  2. Content and reviews
  3. Build, testing and launch

Build for today, allow for opportunity tomorrow.
Do not see your website as a one-hit job, to be replaced in a few years. Consider this project the foundation for now, and the springboard for years to come. We call this approach Progressive Enhancement. Essentially, if you select a good code base and the right agency today, your new website will last you for years to come.

“If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them… maybe you can hire The A-Team.”
I have one final piece of advice for you – find the right team. And work with them as if your business and theirs is all one.

There is a lot of work to be done on your website. By lots of different people. A good agency, led by a clear process and an experienced project manager, will pull this all together for you. Your preliminary brief is not about finding the best price, the best coders, or the best creatives. It’s about finding the best addition to your team to get this job done.

To discover your website A-Team, start by writing your brief using this handy template preliminary website briefing template.

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