Do You Really Need to do an RFP?

I think everyone hates RFPs. As a guy who’s been around this industry for quite a while, I’ve seen, managed, created and responded to more than my fair share.

Overall, I tend to have a completely different view of RFPs since I started a technology company in 2015. When building from the ground up, you tend to prioritize what is really important to get the job done vs demoware and fluff.

I was staying at a hotel recently and the design was amazing, wood trim shower door. Just really a nice design. The problem was the shower door opened towards the wall and I had to step out, close the door to retrieve a towel. Not the best user experience.

This is what I like to call “Aesthetics wins over functional design”. This, in my opinion, is common for most platforms. Many features are just for show and not optimal for production email or efficiency. But when Request for proposals are 250 lines of feature related questions, simple YES/NO responses just don’t help you answer what is really different or important to your operations.

I believe the day of the RFP has outlived its purpose. RFPs were created decades ago as a procurement vehicle, not a pure capabilities fit.

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Today’s landscape has changed; we are in a world of prove it, show me and hands-on. The feature sets across a Lumascape of 1000 vendors who have email campaign management and mobile/social capability are so generalized, it is hard to distinguish who is good, best or better without simulation testing.

The Motivations Behind RFPs

I remain resilient on the core reasons anyone considers an evaluation for new marketing technology. RFPs are historically a painful process, adding additional overhead and cost to a very understaffed direct marketing/ digital team. But the root of the need to do something else has not changed:

1. Reducing cost
The reason many people switch jobs? They figure they’re likely to get paid more by leaving — only to find out it’s not as rosy at the other end. Reducing costs is one of the top reasons most switch, in addition to pressure from their company’s leadership. They’ve heard that email CPM prices are declining, they haven’t renegotiated for a few years and fear they’re leaving money on the table with existing vendors. It’s a price hunt in a nutshell.

2. Dissatisfaction with services
The vendor doesn’t open my car door any longer! Quality of performance, response and strategic advice has dulled. You’re on the Aluminium Plan, not the Gold Support Plan, or no plan at all. But the contract you had and budget you’ve flattened has just not met your needs, or you were oversold in the first place.

3. Better capabilities
This is the strangest rationale, but trade shows will always be full of impressive WOW demos that you want to take home. Strange, since most marketers don’t even come close to maximizing the capabilities of their existing technology, yet still write 250 line RFPs. And if you’ve ever tried to score an RFP, it is NOT a science, and it’s never as simple as a YES/NO scoring process. A perfectly rational conclusion is to come to feel like you’ve outgrown your ESP or your team isn’t working well with your services team, but in many cases it may be hard to financially justify that investment in new email technology .

4. General changing of the guard
We still find that the average tenure of an email marketer is two to three years, and a CMOs life span tends to mirror that. Change is good in marketing, yet we find programs that consistently outperform others in retail have an ability to retain people in these roles longer than average. That experience absolutely pays off, with fewer mistakes and better cost management. But with all new regime changes, most will have a history with other providers and often seek to do evaluations.

What makes all this more of a challenge is that procurement gets involved at the end, rather than the beginning, so things often get peeled back with cost compression pressures. 90% of contract buyer’s remorse is because the contract fees don’t match the needs. You typically get what you pay for in the end.

If You Must…

Most marketers still use the typical analyst guideline for top enterprise selectors (like Forrester Wave email marketing or Gartner), and then you have the specialists, and email marketing agencies that all specialize in a subset of marketing technologies. These organizations are great at helping you figure out what you need and helping you align to select vendors that you don’t know already.

There is value in third party inputs to help “sell” the decision upstairs and help you organize your thinking when you are busy driving 60mph. But do think about the economics. My hope is that the industry revolts against RFPs and uses that time/energy and expense to force the community of technology providers to “prove it” vs. burn excessive energy in less than conclusive RFPs.

Proof of Concepts are viable, even among email marketing toolsets in which deliverability features play an important role. The bonus is that you can pick a program you’ve always wanted but didn’t have time for, to isolate for a Proof of Concept. Not only will this help you see it in action, how you use it, learn it and how support is provided to assist you- all critical to any evaluation.

Things to keep in mind for your RFP

A few things to keep in mind (that I keep as a general guideline) if you are forced down an RFP path:

  • If you don’t think you can compress costs more than 20 percent, it’s probably not financially worth the effort.
  • Your operational model must match the company you want to work with— Self/Full/Hybrid/Global? If you can’t operate it yourself and plan to support your own team, you’d better understand how to remedy problems, or your ability to respond will put you at a disadvantage to your competitors. (Resource costs never outweigh response and accuracy opportunity costs).
  • You can’t evaluate technology parity through a 400-line questionnaire. You need to find a “live” or “lab” setting to demonstrate this. Force that problem on the vendors competing for your business. Don’t be oversold again.
  • RFPs/RFI’s do provide value in terms of details about the companies you are considering. How they address security, deliverability management, privacy and are they reputable in the industry, but again, you don’t need an RFP to get that information.

In the absence of divorcing yourself from RFP processes, you might just consider condensing it so it’s not a beast for vendors to participate in and helps you accomplish something valuable in the process. By streamlining this you will get through it faster, limit the switch barriers and ultimately be in a better position to negotiate terms, since the vendor cost to participate is not high.

About David Baker

David Baker is a founder and the COO of Cordial. With more than 25 years of experience in digital marketing and marketing technology, Baker is an award-winning industry thought leader, columnist, and speaker. He has held executive roles at publicly-traded, leading agencies and marketing services providers including Razorfish, Targetbase, and Acxiom, as well as startups including TwelveHorses, MindArrow/RadicalMail -- a first generation rich media messaging company -- and DigitalThink -- the first eLearning Platform that went public in 1999. Baker has also held direct marketing roles at American Airlines and Franklin Covey, and served as an adviser for Datran Media in 2012 and Gelper in 2015.
Baker is one of only three individuals to be awarded the MediaPost Lifetime Achievement award (in 2012) for his contributions to the digital marketing industry, and he was also the recipient of the DMA-EEC Thought Leader of the Year award in 2016 for his positive impact on the email marketing community.

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