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How to write a digital brief

Mat Hayward

Article by Mat Hayward

When organising a digital project, it’s often difficult to communicate what it is you’re looking for to a prospective agency, especially if you haven’t run a digital project before, or if you have and it didn’t go to plan. This is the reason why, after more than 10 years in the industry, I’ve only ever seen one or two briefs that hit the mark.

So where to start? Unless working for a brand with a large digital presence, many people tasked with running digital projects will have little or no experience of doing so. The first place they might look for help is Google. Having a quick look myself, I notice quite a few checklist guides to writing briefs, most of which tell you to be specific in your requirements for a final solution.

First off, that’s a lot of work up-front for you and your team, and secondly it leaves the agencies pitching for the project with nowhere to go. At Kind, we suggest a different approach. One we find achieves much better results in the long‑term.

1. Focus on objectives, not solutions

There’s little benefit in appointing a creative digital agency to work on your project if you’re effectively giving them a todo list. By being too specific about your requirements, you’ll stunt the creativity of the solutions that are presented to you and by handing out the answers, you’ll make it easy for less experienced and knowledgeable agencies to dupe you into believing they know what they’re doing.

More important than your suggested solutions are your business or project objectives. Let your prospecting agencies know what you want to achieve with this particular piece of work and in the longer term as a business. 30% increase in online sales or a decrease in traffic to a call centre, for example.

Taking this approach will give agencies the maximum opportunity to do what they are good at and use their creativity to add value to your project’s eventual outcome.

2. Be an expert

A good digital agency will have people who know much more than you about the best practices and latest advances in digital marketing, technology, user experience, web development etc. That’s not to say you should just leave them to it, your role in the project is vital. As the project owner and (most likely) employee of the tendering business, your knowledge of brand values, competitors and target audiences is invaluable to delivering a successful project.

Focus your time on ensuring your chosen agency has as full an understanding as possible about these factors and you’ll get creative digital work that delivers and makes you look good.

3. Give a scope, but keep it high-level

While focusing on objectives is important, there will likely be some definite requirements of your project. For instance, a college looking to increase student enrolment will need to display course information, provide a search function and present information on how to enrol. How an agency chooses to incorporate this is up to them.

Once appointed a good agency will run a discovery phase with you to flesh out your requirements, and these requirements may even change over the course of the project. So when evaluating responses at this stage, look for the best high-level approach that an agency is proposing, rather than for a fully detailed map of how they will implement a solution.

It’s also a good idea to communicate what you’re not looking for. Often agencies will shoehorn additional work, like a full rebrand, into a proposal which is either unnecessary or unwelcome.

4. Be clear about your budget

A lot of project owners don’t like to give away their budgets straight away. Sometimes they think there isn’t one, but in reality there almost always is. If you’re unsure what it is, ask yourself if £30k sounds about right. Or is it too much? Not enough? You’ll soon work out your range. If you’re still unsure what the budget ought to be, consider engaging an agency for a discovery phase to help firm up requirements and likely costs.

Share whatever budget you have with all your prospecting agencies, this will give them a better understanding of the size of your project and how in-depth the solutions they offer should be.

You may even find that some agencies turn down your project at this stage as it’s not a good fit for their business. Don’t be insulted by this, it’d be far worse for them to take on a project that they can’t cope with or one they rush as the budget was too small for them.

5. Be realistic about timescales

Setting an immovable deadline might sound like the best thing to do in this case, but often even when you and your agency do everything right, a project doesn’t run as smoothly as you’d hope. Complications with third-party hosting, or simply changing requirements mid-project will take longer.

A great alternative is to set a soft launch date and agree a minimum viable product (MVP) with your chosen agency. By reducing the number of features that must go live together, you can bring your soft launch date forward to well before that hard deadline you have in your head. From here we can test our thinking on real users, make improvements and finish non-priority features, resulting in a much better finished” product all in time for your deadline”.

6. Project constraints & supporting information

You’ll likely have to communicate some administrative information like acceptance criteria, technical information and key dates within the project process. Keep this clear in your brief (preferably in table format) as its one of the first things a prospecting agency will need to see before deciding whether to pitch.

7. Remember, you’re buying a process

At first glance commissioning a digital project might appear like a capital purchase. You’re spending a sum of money (probably in one go) to buy a thing”: a website, mobile app etc. The reality, however, is that you’re buying a tried and tested process, along with the agency’s time, experience and ability to implement that process.

The best client-agency relationships are built on mutual respect and great communication, and allow both parties to combine their strengths to create great products and experiences. Give the agencies you invite to pitch the space to show you how they’ll work with you to create something truly great.

Getting started

Hopefully you now have a good idea of where to start. To make things easier we’ve created a brief template to help you get you on your way. Bear in mind that doing the work of an agency up-front will only waste your time and reduce the quality of your solution. Be clear about your objectives and budgets, but be open to the suggestions and creative ideas from a different kind of expert.

Mat Hayward

Mat Hayward is Founder and Partnerships Director at Kind