A while back, we came across this video about writing a market research RFP:


Obviously, the video presents a worst-case scenario for comic effect, but frankly every point on there rang true with us and is something we had already encountered or might encounter in the future. The reason for this, we think, is NOT (as one might gather from the video) that companies that send out market research RFPs go out of their way to be difficult, greedy, or obtuse. We think that the real reason some RFPs miss the mark is that most people who are called upon to prepare RFPs to select a market research vendor are inexperienced with the process. Relatively few people prepare RFPs as a major component of their everyday jobs. Often, market research RFPs are written by an individual or committee that has never done one before. (If you came across this post as a result of an Internet search, that might very well describe you!)

With that in mind, we have prepared four general principles for writing market research RFPs that we believe will yield more and better proposals:

1. Clearly state what you are hoping to get from the research.

This may sound obvious, but we see a fair number of RFPs that are heavy on the “what” of the desired research activities, but don’t mention or don’t clearly state the “why.” For example, a potential client might say that they want to conduct a series of focus groups among their customers to discuss a litany of topics, but might not specifically identify the objective of the groups. It’s important to identify the objective for a variety of reasons. It will result in higher quality proposals and some firms may come back with ideas for better ways to meet your objectives than you had considered.

2. Be as specific about your parameters, project scope, and required deliverables as you can be.

When shopping for a market research firm, some RFP writers try to play things close to the vest. The thinking is that by being purposefully vague, they can force firms to be more honest about their capabilities and areas of expertise. There is a degree of merit in that approach as some firms that respond to your RFP may try to exaggerate their abilities or specialty areas and make it sound like they are custom-built to deliver your specific needs. The problem with not being specific in an RFP is that the proposals you get back will also tend to be vague, non-committal, and have a higher risk of proposing something that you weren’t looking for at all. At the end of the day, you may wind up with no viable proposals or no ability to meaningfully compare the proposals that come in, because they’re all over the map. A better approach is to do some homework upfront about the firms you want to send the RFP to. Check out their websites, ask around to colleagues who may have used them in the past, and don’t be afraid to e-mail or call the firms themselves ahead of time to get a feel for their general capabilities or to solicit some ideas. Use that stage to broadly qualify your RFP recipient list, then use the RFP to choose the best option among places you already know can do the work.

3. Keep as narrow of a focus as possible.

We sometimes receive RFPs that ask firms to create proposals for a very broad range of services. A common example is a project that requires the services most commonly associated with a full service advertising or public relations agency (e.g., copywriting, media planning, publicity activities) in addition to traditional market research capabilities. Another example would be a location feasibility project that calls for both a market research component and tasks that are more in line with what an engineering or architecture firm would offer (e.g., assessment of a building’s condition and ability to be structurally transformed). There are certainly firms that have the in-house capability of handling both marketing communications and research, and there may be engineers or architects out there with comprehensive market research divisions, but in most cases, you are much more likely to get a better qualified pool of proposals if you break the components up. If it’s important to you to have everything handled by one firm, by all means lump everything in to one RFP (keeping in mind that the firms you send it to will likely need to outsource a great deal of the work). But if you don’t mind working with multiple specialty firms, you’ll have a lot more options to choose from by making the market research RFP and the non-research component RFP(s) into separate searches – or at least specifying that you will consider proposals that are limited in scope to the portions of the RFP.   

4. Be realistic, especially with regards to timeframe.

Everybody wants their market research done as quickly and cheaply as possible. We get that. But it’s important to keep in mind that things take time. In a research project with a large fieldwork component and/or significant setup activities, it often simply isn’t realistic to expect a project to take just a few weeks. If you are experienced with research and have a good sense of the time requirements, then spell it out in the RFP. If you don’t have that kind of knowledge and you take a guess at how long you think it might take, chances are you will underestimate it and by putting an unrealistic timeframe in a proposal, you will likely miss out on some proposals from firms who know that they can’t deliver quality work within the time specified. Again, the best remedy for this is to do a little homework before preparing the RFP. Ask experienced colleagues or potential RFP recipients to give an estimate of realistic completion times for what you had in mind. That will save you from having to resend a second RFP with a revised timeline, or worse — hiring a firm that committed to a deadline it won’t be able to meet just to get the business. 

Those are just a few general tips. For a much more detailed discussion of the subject, we recommend a couple of terrific online resources provided by researchrockstar.com. There’s this blog post, and this slideshare presentation.

If you’d like to discuss your market research needs or have questions specific to writing a market research RFP, contact Sandy Baker at SandyB@RMSresults.com.