Get the Most from Your Partner Selection Process
Get the Most from Your Partner Selection Process


Get the Most from Your Partner Selection Process

Aug 27, 2019By Mallory Willsea & Nicole Lentine

Considering a web redesign project for your institution? Selecting the right partner is a big undertaking in and of itself. In our experience, the task of vetting and selecting a partner usually takes two to four months — with or without an RFP. In rare cases, we’ve seen the process span an entire year. At the same time, you shouldn’t cheat the process — selecting the best-fit partner is crucial to your success.

Four Ways mStoner Will Support You

We at mStoner spend a lot of time thinking about how to support our clients’ decision-making journey. We’re committed to true partnership and to our clients’ success. In support of that decision-making journey, we have four goals in mind when starting a conversation with a potential client:

  1. Determine if a partnership with mStoner is a good match: We can typically tell if the makings of a good partnership are present from the first conversation we have with a college or university marketing leader. Beyond alignment in the scope of work to mStoner’s expertise, we listen for details on why the project is important now, indicators that show the institution is ready for a mindset shift from project-to-process, signs that collaboration and collegiality are highly valued, and anticipated success criteria. In 2019, we’ve pursued less than half of the projects brought to the agency. When the fit is there, we’re all in. When it isn’t, we’re up front. And when we’re not completely sure, we continue the conversation and explore options with you.
  2. Communicate transparently about our expertise, services, timeline, and costs: We understand there are many decision-making factors that you consider during the partner selection process. And we want to be transparent about what we can offer your institution, how long it’ll take, and what it will cost. Even during an initial call, we start to explore how we might approach your project and discuss a ballpark timeline and budget based on the information you share.
  3. Help facilitate a smooth selection process from start to finish: We understand that redesign projects take careful planning, and this work is typically on top of the job you were hired to accomplish. We get it — you’re dealing with 38 committees, senior leaders who need convincing, and constituents who complain about how the current website difficult to use, so the last thing we want is to be another burden on you. We’ll respond quickly to your emails and phone calls, and we won’t be a pest in your inbox.
  4. Arm potential partners with helpful resources: Sharing what we learn from our research and work with the larger higher ed community is one of mStoner’s six core values. We help marketing and communication professionals learn, grow, and lead. After every exploratory call, we identify helpful resources to send to you based on your challenges and project priorities.

Six Recommendations for Partner Selection Success

We’ve talked to hundreds of marketing leaders about various brand, website, and digital projects, and reviewed at least 1,000 RFPs ranging from two to 92 pages. (Length rarely equals substance, in case you’re curious.)

Based on these experiences, here are our top tips to help you prepare and get the most from your partner selection process:

  1. Know what you want and what you need: The vendor you choose for quick production is not the partner you want when you need to wrestle with thousands of pages of content and a governance policy in disarray. Ask yourself: What skills and experience do we need to augment our own? How do decisions get made in our institution? What areas of this project are likely to require the touch of an objective third-party? What sort of relationship do we want with our partner, post-launch? And choose your candidate agencies accordingly.
  2. Know your institution’s purchasing process: We’ve experienced it all, from a staunch preference against RFPs to strict procurement-driven processes to the (unfortunate) surprise of needing a more formal process after months of partner consideration. Having a handle on your institution’s preferred process, procurement thresholds, or other pertinent steps for compliance will help you plot your timeline for partner selection in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the actual project timeline.
  3. Start with conversation: The full selection process can clearly take many different forms, often depending on whether an RFP process is required. Regardless, we highly recommend spending time talking with the agencies you’re most interested in on the phone or over a video chat before asking for a proposal or releasing an RFP. This will accomplish a few things: It shows potential partners that you’re serious about considering them, it gives you and the agency a chance to candidly speak about the project, it might help you narrow your consideration set, and — undoubtedly — you’ll get new ideas or considerations that could further shape the scope of work.
  4. Be ready to answer these questions: Any agency worth its salt is going to need answers to key project information to develop a tailored proposal and accurate cost estimate. For a website redesign, we always want to know:
    1. What’s driving this project now in terms of business goals or current challenges?
    2. What internal team will your partner work with on this project?
    3. How many content contributors do you have? Publishers? Who will manage the marketing-critical pages of your site long-term?
    4. How many pages are on your current site? When was the last time you completed a content audit?
    5. What governance policies currently exist? What’s working? What isn’t?
    6. What are your biggest pain points with your current CMS? Will you explore new CMS options? Do you have a preference for open-source or commercial?
    7. Which institutions do you compete with on a regular basis? (It confounds me how frequently marketing leaders do not know the answer to this question.)
  5. Ask potential partners the tough questions: Don’t be afraid to ask questions that will give you a good sense of the agency’s core values, differentiators, priorities, and viewpoints. For a redesign project:
    1. What differentiates you from other agencies that do work in this industry?
    2. What kinds of projects or clients excite you most?
    3. What is your agency’s philosophy on content strategy, user experience, and technology?
    4. Are your developers and designers in-house, or do you outsource work?
    5. Do you work with any of our competitors? If so, how will you navigate the potential conflict of interest?
    6. What are the top three things you look for in a client? (And in turn, we want to know the top three things you want in your chosen partner.)
  6. Have realistic timeline expectations: Doing this process right takes time. Lots of time. Often, we’ll receive answers to our submitted questions a week or less before the proposal’s due date. The most important brainstorming work occurs after an agency has received your answers, and a week doesn’t give a team enough time to put together a thoughtful and detailed reply. We encourage you to plan your timeline in a way that provides at least a few weeks for proposal development after you’ve published your Q&A.Even if you don’t need to follow a detailed procurement procedure, you’ll still need to navigate leadership approvals, wrangle stakeholders, and plan meetings around your academic calendar. If you’re hoping to do a redesign in early 2020, aim to start this process in September to give yourself — and your potential partner — ample time to do this right.

Resources to Help You Plan for Your Next Redesign

Beyond partner selection, you can do a number of additional things during the planning phase of your redesign project to set yourself up for success:

  1. Gather data and use insights to justify your project internally.
  2. Set your priorities by determining goals and success metrics around engagement, conversion, brand building, and internal efficiency and collaboration.
  3. Create realistic expectations internally around cost, process, and community engagement.

Here are four helpful resources:

  1. Redesign Done Right On-Demand Webinar (Spoiler alert: We have a list of top 10 mistakes that institutions usually make, and how to avoid them.)
  2. Digital Content Planning Guide
  3. Break Up With Your Homepage On-Demand Webinar
  4. Six Signs It’s Time to Give Your Website Some TLC E‑Book

And if it wasn’t already abundantly clear: We love to brainstorm and chat with marketing leaders who are planning their upcoming redesign projects. Here’s how to get started and options for getting in touch with our team.

  • Mallory Willsea Director of Marketing and Business Development Proud ENFJ, here! What does that mean for mStoner, besides entertaining colleagues with my wit and charm? I'm a problem-solver and enjoy working through our potential client's challenges to identify solutions and how a partnership with mStoner will bring value.

  • Nicole Lentine Business Development Manager Nicole works closely with mStoner's marketing team to connect with potential clients, identifying their challenges and finding the solutions that best fit their needs. She is a former host of Higher Ed Live's “Admissions Live” web broadcast, where she led dialogue about topics and trends in higher education admissions and enrollment marketing.