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7 Steps to Writing an RFP That Will Get You Great Responses

A man prepares to take notes as another man across a small table gestures in conversation.

By \ January 30, 2020

There are so many elements that go into an RFP because RFPs tend to be, well — really, really long. And because I’d like to give myself a break from assembling 50+ page documents, this blog isn’t meant to be a “beginners guides” on everything a request for proposal should include. This blog is meant to take you from beginner, to expert.

I’ve taken a look at such “beginners guides” (here’s a couple great examples: HubSpot, Forbes, Template Lab) and while I think they get most of the process right, they skip over several sections of your RFP that are extremely important for sussing out a great partner for whatever type of project you are bidding.

In my experience of reading and responding to hundreds of RFPs every year — and yes, I do mean hundreds — these are some of the most important sections to focus on if you want to find qualified bidders and ensure your project is successful.

  1. Include a budget
  2. Include Criteria for Selection
  3. Provide Examples. Set the expectation.
  4. Timeline. Both for the process and the project.
  5. Goals and Metrics.
  6. Scope of Work/Deliverables
  7. Do your homework and self-select a handful of vendors.

7. Writing an RFP is hard. Responding to an RFP is hard. Reading 50-100 responses from a good percentage of unqualified vendors is even harder. Do yourself, and your selection committee, a favor, select a handful of vendors that you’ve researched and send them the RFP directly. If you’ve been discussing your website or marketing project for any length of time your committee probably has a number of contacts or knows agencies that are qualified to respond. Do a little digging on agencies — look at recent work on their website, search them out on social media, see if they would be compatible with your brand. Chances are if you don’t see any case studies on their website that are in your category, hate all the work they display, or if you don’t connect with the brand they project on social media, it’s probably not going to be a successful relationship.

If you are a state- or government-funded organization you don’t have the luxury to predetermine your vendors, but doing this preliminary research will get you thinking about what it is you’re looking for in a marketing partner.

6. Create a specific list of items you want your vendor to deliver and services they may be requested to offer. You may be working with a specialty provider for direct mail and not want your creative agency providing competing services. Same goes for digital vendors. If you need a website and are already working with a brand agency that has created a look and feel for your organization, it will be beneficial for vendors to know this before they submit a bid.

This is important beyond vendor partnerships, too. If you know you want a specific functionality on your website, list it. If you’ve looked at a particular service that you’d like to explore further to determine if it can be used in your project, list it. Try not to leave much to the imagination (but still leave room for creativity). Vendors will then be able to match their proposals with the solutions you are looking for.

5. Establish the end zone by clearly stating the goals and metrics that will indicate success. If your board is looking to increase the number of video views, or RFI (Request for Information) form submissions from the website, list them in the RFP. A solution to drive video views is going to differ greatly from one which drives form completions. Any vendor wants to know where they are going if you intend for them to tell you how to get there.

4. Timelines are important. You’ll save yourself follow up emails and calls if you provide deadlines for your RFP process, as well as your project. Include deadlines for questions from the responders, answers to vendor questions, when the proposals should be submitted, when you expect to notify bidders of a short list, and when you anticipate making a decision. Make sure to leave ample time for you to answer questions that vendors have. Unless you’ve started out with a small list (see item 7) you need enough time to organize and respond to hundreds of questions.

3. Provide Examples. Don’t anticipate anyone knowing what you are thinking. If you have competitors (or colleagues) that you want to be benchmarked against, let bidders know.
If there is creative work you’d like to emulate, vocalize that too. Feel free to look outside your industry. Are you a tourism board that likes the shopping cart functionality of Are you a University that prefers the commercial styling of Microsoft? You aren’t necessarily looking for that exact solution but your bidders should have an idea of what you like and don’t like. You know what kind of brand you are, just like bidders know what kind of agency they are. Give everyone an opportunity to self-assess to ensure compatibility.

2. Include what criteria bidders will be judged against and what type of scoring will be used to select the winning bid. Technical merit/previous experience, price, and oral presentation (if there is one) are the minimum criteria that should be considered in your evaluation. Additional criteria that can be added include: Warranties/Terms and Conditions, References, and Proximity. How the criteria will be ranked is equally important. If you rank proximity to your office as a high-determining factor it’s helpful for distant bidders to know that they won’t score as highly as an agency located down the street.

1. Include a budget! I can not emphasize this enough. A budget allows bidders to determine what services they should offer to maximize your budget, AND it allows you to compare “apples-to-apples.” Without a budget, you are leaving something to the imagination (see point 6) and bidders do not have any frame of reference to create an accurate proposal. You’ll get a wide range of price proposals and either the solutions will not be what you expected, what you need, or worse yet, what you want. You are creating one more diversion point between vendors that you just don’t need. Give everyone the same pieces to the puzzle and see how they put it together.