Community, Strategy

The Stress-Free Marketing RFP: How to Find the Right Tech Partner and Stay Sane in the Process

By Jason Grunberg

If you want to strike fear into the heart of a marketer, just utter these three words: Request for Proposal.

There is a reason that marketers who have been through the RFP marketing process sometimes jokingly describe themselves as “veterans.” Even at its best, the process can tend toward chaos. Unreliable timelines, complex tech evaluations and no end of cross-departmental cat-herding — the list of potential headaches goes on and on.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t actually have to be that way. In fact, while they’ll never be easy, with the right approach RFPs can be generative, career-advancing and — dare we say it? — fun.

This, at least, was the takeaway from the latest installment of Bluecore’s recurring Coffee & Commerce roundtable series. Our most recent discussion featured three of Bluecore’s retail strategists with experience on both the tech side and the retailer sides of martech RFP processes: 

Their advice touched on every aspect of the marketing RFP process, from building connections to mapping tech capabilities and beyond.

Plan intensively — and make sure to think ahead

RFPs are daunting, and it can be tempting to dive right in. But this would be a mistake.

A successful marketing RFP is all about planning — not just for what your company needs today, but what it might need in the future.

“What will you need today, tomorrow, next year to make your program work better?” said Randi. When you determine those things in advance, they become your “filter for negotiation.” You know exactly what you can and can’t compromise on.

It’s important to remember that this needs to be a team process. Ideally, you won’t just be posing these questions to your team. You’ll also be soliciting the opinions of your colleagues in other departments who have different perspectives.

“By integrating other people, such as your tech leadership, into the process, you’re going to come across questions you wouldn’t necessarily be able to come up with on your own,” said Gena.

Thoroughly planning an RFP also means not getting tangled up in received wisdom that might be outdated — and instead actively solving for the issues you have now. Don’t enter the process assuming you need to find, for instance, a CDP.

As Bradford put it, “You’re not shopping for letters, you’re shopping for problems. The important thing is: What outcomes are you trying to achieve?”

Too often, those involved in the RFP process get stuck in the weeds of what they think they need, which can pointlessly complicate the process. “You’re never going to go down the wrong path if you’re taking a high-level look at what you need and the problems you’re trying to solve for and going from there,” said Gena.

On a related note, it’s important not to get seduced by buzzwords. Vendors may throw out acronyms that they claim can solve all of your problems, though how remains unclear.

“In this industry there’s always a shiny object,” said Sarah Cascone, VP of Marketing at Bluecore and the event’s host. “You need to ask yourself, ‘Is this something I need? Is this actually going to solve the problems my company has and allow me to hit my goals?’”

Use references, tap into communities, and uncover the intangible elements of the partnership

Speaking with a tech vendor can tell you far more than just what their product can do for your company, such as whether they’re a cultural fit.

“I’ve seen instances where vendors were coming and meeting with us without any senior leadership represented,” said Gena. “So even if we love the engineers or tech people, we’d still have to wonder, if senior leadership isn’t showing up on the call, are we just a number to them?”

While vendors can be tremendously helpful and responsive during the RFP process, Bradford pointed out that at the end of the day, “the companies you’re interviewing are trying to sell you things. The best thing you can do is talk to [other clients of the vendor] and ask specific questions.”

According to Power Reviews, 91% of online shoppers regularly read reviews. Given that the average online purchase costs many magnitudes less than any vendor partnership, it follows you’re going to want to do even more research.

As Randi put it, “I don’t buy a blow dryer without a reference.”

She continued, “In sales, everything sounds solvable: ‘We’re going to build it, you’re going to be able to use it.’ But we all know that’s not the case. That’s why conducting reference calls with people you trust — and those provided by the prospective vendor — is so important.”

The marketing RFP process can be a great networking opportunity — don’t waste it

Reference calls are important in and of themselves, but they also offer a valuable secondary benefit: namely, a chance to network. An active RFP provides an excellent opportunity to introduce yourself to people at other companies and get to know other people in your field. 

And as the panelists pointed out, this applies not just to other retailers, but also to people on the vendor side.

“Develop relationships with people on the vendor side, and perhaps even with people who used to work at those companies,” said Bradford. “These are relationships you can maintain throughout your career. You can rely on them down the line for career advice, or your next opportunity, or just to get more educated about a given space. These people will be valuable to you beyond your current position.”

When you develop real relationships on the vendor side, you can quickly shoot off a Slack or an email to your contact without having to schedule a full-scale meeting. The informality speeds up the process and keeps your RFP on track.

Keeping everything on track with cross-functional buy-in

Of course, as anyone who has been involved with one knows, keeping things on track is arguably the most challenging part of the RFP.

“Make sure, especially in the early stages, that you can devote as much time as possible to the RFP. You need to advocate for what you need early; you need to fight for time. This is one of the only times in your early career you’ll be sitting with C-levels. Getting cross-functional buy-in early on is essential,” said Gena.

Understanding that level of cross-functional buy-in — really knowing what you can expect from the rest of your company — can help immeasurably at every step of the RFP process. Knowing what resources are available will help you determine which vendors are ultimately a fit.

Pro-tip: don’t hesitate to actually formalize this aspect of the RFP by building an inter-departmental task force. When you designate a contact in each department, assign an executive sponsor, and align on a timeline, you go a long way towards establishing the kind of dependable rhythm that can keep everything reasonably on track. 

How much time should a team allocate to each component of the process? The panelists were unanimous: “More time than you think.”

We host Coffee & Commerce events monthly. Be sure to sign up for the next one here!

Jason Grunberg

Jason Grunberg

Jason is a value-obsessed CMO, with more than two decades of experience leading large-scale marketing efforts that put customer needs first to drive new and existing business expansion. After serving as General Manager at Sailthru (a Marigold company) and CMO at Marigold, Jason leads Bluecore’s marketing team in helping retailers create best-in-class omnichannel customer experiences.