How to Write the Perfect Brief

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Writing a brief for a website, or indeed any marketing or business requirement, is not commonly a regular undertaking. When you, or the company you are employed by, decide it is time to create, redesign or enhance a website, you will need to work out what is to be achieved, and how much a solution will cost.

You will also need to find and select a supplier who is able to offer you the best value for money, while capable of delivering to your requirements. The most effective way to begin this potentially daunting process is to create a brief.


What is a Brief?

To brief someone is to prepare or instruct them by giving a summary of relevant facts. In this situation, your brief is a document that informs the potential supplier your requirements, what you wish to achieve, what market and audience you are targeting, and any other related information.

The production of this document should allow you to establish which solution an agency proposes, how much it will cost, and how long it will take.

As a generic term, a brief could cover all types of projects, from a small five-page website, to a large scale, fully integrated business database system. For small projects, it may just begin as a few lines in an email, but for larger projects, it will take the form of an invitation to tender (ITT), and may span 2-300 pages in size.

In general, the response from the receiving agencies will reflect the brief supplied. For this reason alone, it is important that you set a good balance in terms of the information you provide for the agency to respond to.


Overall Guidelines

Before you embark on putting together a brief, here are some general guidelines that will help you set the right tone, and gain the most from your efforts.

Research

Have a look at websites you visit critically, and note what you do and don't like about them, with regards to design and functionality. It is best to look at sites in the same or similar industry to your own. Keep your notes as reference material, as you will need them for your brief.

Keep focused

Be absolutely clear about what you wish to achieve. The more accurate you are, the more accurate an agency will be able to cost out their solution for you. Statements such as "We wish to update parts of the website ourselves" are ambiguous, unlike "Ideally, we will be able to update the price list, products, news and contacts pages as independently and as easily as possible." Ambiguity tends to be punished by an increase in the estimate to cover all eventualities.

Avoid writing the solution

You may already have ideas in your mind at the sort of system, layout or process that may provide part of a possible solution to the challenge you propose. Resist the temptation to hint or elaborate on your own ideas in the brief, therefore asking the agency to fill in the blanks of your outline. Including such information could restrict the types of solutions that are proposed to you may mean your project will suffer in the long term.

Maintain flexibility

Whatever you do write in the brief, it is almost inevitable you will change your mind about some of the issues in the future. For this reason, give yourself the room to do so within the brief, without lacking detail. Request that there is some provision for flexibility with specific points, or within the project as a whole.


Writing your proposal

Following the format of any bestseller, there are three main parts to a good brief: beginning (introduction/background), middle (requirements) and end (supporting information).

However, unlike a work of fiction, it is not necessary to embellish situations, create twisting plot lines, or provide excessive character descriptions.

Your introduction will provide the agency with basic but vital information, including who you and the company are. Check out our example brief below;

Eldi Lawnmowers

We are a world-leading manufacturer of remote controlled lawnmowers with an established reputation in the pasture removal market built up over the past 9 years. Based in Devon, we sell 70% of our product to re-sellers (30% UK, 40% US, 20% to Europe and the balance to other countries) and 30% is sold directly from our shop.

We have uniquely combined the male traits of enjoying remote control gadgets with the avoidance of domestic chores and produced a range of high-powered unmanned grass cutting utility vehicles. Our marketing has a youthful, modern and slightly whacky feel to it targeting the 25-34, medium/high income male with low household aspirations and excessive leisure time.

Generally, an eye for product practicality and high quality of lawn finish is not a necessity. We will be launching our highest-powered model next spring once we have perfected the pet filtration system. Our brochure is included. Our competitors are well known brand names such as Qualcast, Flymo and DIY own brands.

Our current web site was designed by the son of one of the Tea Ladies and has, regretfully and somewhat surprisingly, not proved to be a very effective marketing tool for us. We now wish to have a more active marketing tool with the ability to sell directly to consumers over the web.

In essence, the Eldi introduction gives a good overview of the company and its markets. Your project may require more or less knowledge about the background of the company. The introduction may need to include any or all of the list of possibilities below:

  • Who you are (if an individual) or who the company is, complete with brief history.
  • The market(s) you operate in, their locations, size and type.
  • Your products and services currently available.
  • Your target customer, gender, age, role in client company (detail as applicable)
  • Present situation of the project - for example, if there is an existing system in place, the statistics and limitations of that system, or if there is nothing currently in place, or an outline of a system has been approved.)
  • Identify the project leader, and the sign-off approval chain.

The requirements section is the most important, and detailed part of your brief. It should be clear, concise and concentrate on the key objectives you wish to achieve for the project. Remember, at this stage, anything is still possible. Explain clearly what you expect to see as the outcome, but not the process to reach it. Challenge the agency to think a bit further, and provide you with the ideas. Here is an example, based on Eldi Lawnmowers again.

We wish to have a site that provides us with a professional and modern look reflecting our current image and providing a mix of information and entertainment. The main site is likely to have 5 sections though we would not wish to restrict the content to our initial ideas and would welcome further input. The sections will be as follows:

Products There are 6 products at present and whilst the range will be expanding we also intend to make some products obsolete as part of our standard product management. Each product page should be dynamic and possibly have some small multi-media content to show the product at its best. We have some video footage and 3D design images but would ask the agency to propose ideas that would enhance our image on the web within a reasonable budget.

About Us History, Overview and a personal profile of the Directors are required with photographs where applicable. There will be approximately 5 pages in total.

News We normally have around 4 new items per year and attend at least 3 exhibitions. Our news sections should be designed to allow us to update the site quickly and effectively.

Contact Us As a minimum, we would like a reply form (we welcome suggested field names), our address and legal information on the site.

In general, we encourage the agency to provide comment and ideas on what may be effective additions to the site and provide us the maximum value for our investment.

Requirements will differ greatly due to the type of project you wish to undertake, and the size. The list below illustrates the types of information you may wish to include in the requirements section of your brief:

The ideal outcome of the project

what goal it will ultimately achieve, and the key message it will convey to customers.

More specific details of the challenge

without trying to convey your own solutions or possibilities.

Outline details of existing systems

and practices that the project needs to cater for, or fit into (more details can be provided in the Supporting Information)

The scale of the project

whether its to be use internally by two staff, or released publically to an existing audience of 14,000 visitors per day.

Timescale of the project

deadlines already established.

Content scope

including where the content will come from, and what content will need to be included in the project.

Whether you will need assistance

to produce the required content, such as photography, copywriting and translation services. State if this is something the agency needs to provide, or whether you will seek it yourself from third parties.

Long term maintenance requirements

the areas of the project you wish to maintain yourself, and those you would prefer the agency handle in the long term.

Any restrictions

or specific issues, such as a ban on using certain symbols or imagery.

Having compiled all the important information for the agency, you will need to tie up any loose ends in the supporting information. You may not always need to include supporting information, but you may wish to include some of the following:

Competitor Listing

on a local, national and international scale as applicable. Include a quick analysis on brand strengths and weaknesses to give the agency a very quick overview of your market.

Corporate Identity Details

such as examples of brochures, the house style guidelines, whether high quality logo and branding files are available, examples of marketing material and adverts, especially if the design needs to match or even contrast clearly from it.

Examples of Sites you Like and Dislike

In respect to the design and/or functionality. You compiled these as part of your initial research. Include reasoning to illustrate

Technical Details of Existing Systems

Or current website hosting, especially if you wish to host the project there, or wish to move everything over to new hosting with assistance from the agency.


Approaching Budgets

Budgeting is a final issue, which you can approach in two ways. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages, which are summarised below:

State Your Likely Maximum Cost

This requests that the agency looks to provide as much value for you, within the budget as possible, a tactic often used by charities, public services and start-up companies with a strict overall annual budget.

Pro: relevant costs
Pro: return realistic solutions for your budget

Con: receiving a lower quote is unlikely
Con: agency may not be able to meet all the requirements within the budget

Don't Specify a Maximum Cost

By not specifying a budget, the agency is free to propose the best solution for the project, rather than be limited by a low budget.

Pro: may receive lower than your expected cost for a solution
Pro: discover the full possible cost for an ideal solution to suit the complete requirements

Con: cost could be higher than anticipated
Con: you may have to amend your brief and lower your expectations to fit your budget

Here is how Eldi expressed their budget limitations:

The project does not have a fixed budget but we wish to seek the best commercial value possible. We would not, therefore, expect the total capital costs of the site to exceed £9,000.00 unless strong justification could be given to the additional investment suggested.

Conclusion

By this point, you have a full and effective brief to approach agencies of your choice with. The time you have spent creating the brief will save a great deal of money, both in the short term negotiating with agencies, but also in the long term, for formal project quotes and meetings. Most importantly, by creating a brief, you have helped to ensure you get the best value from your marketing investment.