I don’t know that anyone cares for the process surrounding a request for proposal (RFP) or request for information (RFI). It is an expense in labor and brain power that, in my experience, rarely meets the original goal marketers set out to accomplish. There are in my opinion, four major reasons why a marketer would extend an RFP, with mistakes related to each:
Wild expectations for improvement. Rarely do expectations match real-world conditions. As a marketer’s business evolves and grows, it’s natural to look for new and improved ways to automate, program and manage marketing programs. But in email, most have been doing it the same way for years and the capabilities in the platforms have been around for years. Breakthroughs in technology are not the reason why companies switch ESPs. Numerous reports over the years have consistently stated that the number one driver of a “switch” of an Email Service Provider (ESP) is related to the dissatisfaction with the service. Switching platforms is no easy task, especially if you’ve spent more than a few years on the same platform. There are two pressures that are potential risks to this process. One is, procurement is centered on driving the lowest price. That’s natural, of course. Yet, if you add this to the fact that businesses underestimate the amount of coordination and service involved to convert a program from one platform to the next, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Recommendation: Spend more energy mapping out program improvements and assessing fit to your culture/processes vs. focusing on technology stack and ESP demos that are 80% demo-ware.
Cool features don’t translate to production quality improvements. Let’s not forget that email is a production channel. We are trying to move from mass marketing to mass personalization. Businesses need to recognize that the real product aspects of a platform involve streamlining repeatable processes, so you can iterate. Think of the three to four use cases that you will use over and over. Is it how you manage and stage content? Is it in ease of use in managing lists, segments? Is it in management of reporting? The majority of the workflow tools for programmatic messaging are amazingly similar, but those aren’t necessary production tools. Recommendation: Baseline your program and focus on evaluating production areas of ESP tools, which should be weighted higher than other features.
Better reporting means better decisions. I’ve always believed that reporting and program insight are the catalyst not only for performance, but also to justifying your program and showing email’s place in the experience mix. Yet, viewing proxy-based (click/open) performance reporting is like checking the temperature in your air-conditioned house: not that interesting to anyone other than yourself. If you are going to focus an RFP on reporting, think hard about drawing up use cases that, for example, expose the interrelationship between email and social web/mobile web. Or the impact of email on funnel and conversion (cross-channel). Or response modeling to cyclical patterns and in-market promotion. Micro-segmentation, audience insight etc.. The most innovation in the email industry will be in these areas over the next few years. It’s not too far-reaching, if you draw up your scenarios from the beginning and run that through the RFP process. Recommendation: Draw up use cases that focus on these aspects, and drive that through the RFP process -- you’ll definitely see some creativity in reporting as an outcome.
Drive down costs. Every major innovation has focused on two key elements: compression of time and space. (for example, radio, TV, transportation, computer technology). It’s no different here, except that procurement got involved. You have to balance out price compression with increased efficiency. This is tough to do in an RFP when everyone in the industry prices things a bit differently, and it’s really hard to baseline “efficiency” in marketing environments. I really believe performance-based contracts will evolve once the industry hits a price basement. Essentially, specific costs will remain constant, but RFPs will expect participants to prove production efficiencies and price accordingly. It’ll put pressure on marketers to manage relationships differently and vendors to perform with a different mind-set. If new capabilities greatly improve a program’s speed, that should be measurable. If migration of a full service model to a self service model is the goal and technology is the enabler, then a cost compression should allow you to do more with less, and results should spike. Recommendation: Consider performance-based contract addendums and approaches that allow outcomes to catch up with expectations and vendors/marketers to achieve success together.
The significant effort put into RFPs should yield a 20%-30% improvement in some form. If it doesn’t, then you might rethink whether this is the right time to proceed.
Whether you choose to go through an RFP process or not, you may find it helpful to narrow down your ESP choices using a tool like the ESPinator (http://espinator.com), a free, independent survey that compares dozens of vendors and matches your email marketing criteria to the 3 best-suited ESPs.