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Shopping for an E-Mail Vendor, Part 2: Your RFP Is a Recipe for Success

  |  March 21, 2003   |  Comments

What happens when one of the biggest e-newsletter publishers goes shopping for a new e-mail vendor?

Response to my previous column about the process I went through trying to find a new email vendor was tremendous. Many readers had the same horrific experience we did, so the big question on everyone’s lips was, Who did we actually choose as our new email host? Who was this "hungry" new kid on the block who was so eager for our business?

If you’re reading this column in a newsletter, scroll down the bottom. You’ll see our new vendor’s name in the appended "powered by" footer. If you’re not reading this as a newsletter -- sign up now!

In addition to curiosity about who we chose (and, for that matter, who we didn’t choose -- but I still won’t kiss and tell), people wanted a copy of our request for proposal (RFP), to help guide their own vendor searches. Naturally, I thought, "What better topic for my next column?" So here it is: a description of the RFP that got the job done.

(For those of you who are contest-minded and couldn’t give two shakes about all this "RFP stuff," skip to the end of the column if you really just want to know what the correct answers are and who won.)

RFP Format

Like any resourceful, efficiency-minded (lazy?) employee, not having written an RFP before (yes, I was an RFP virgin), I took someone else’s RFP and modified it. I stuck with the "outline" format of the original document, ending up with an RFP about 10 pages long, with the following main sections:

  1. Purpose
  2. Overview
  3. RFP Response
  4. Business Requirements
  5. Technical Requirements
  6. Support Requirements
  7. Pricing & Costs
  8. Summary

I solicited lots of advice. Why reinvent the wheel? The best I got was to phrase requirements as a question wherever possible, letting the vendor tell you about their capabilities, as opposed to you specifying what you need. An example is asking the vendor what their maximum email throughput is, as opposed to telling them you need a maximum throughput of X million emails per month. If you go out saying, "I need X million," just about everyone will reply, "Yeah, we can do that." If you go out with an open-ended question, "what’s your maximum email throughput?" you’re likely to get a more thoughtful answer.

Introductory Sections

The first two sections, Purpose and Overview, should be brief. The Purpose section contains a short description of the purpose of your RFP. Pretty straightforward. You’re requesting a proposal from multiple vendors for a possible service relationship. The Overview section provides a brief overview of your company and how you currently handle the function you need to outsource (e.g. do you have an existing email host?).

The third section, RFP Response, should be more substantial. We asked that responses take the format of the RFP itself: an outline that answers every bullet (item for item). You should request the response address the vendor’s product history, their implementation plan, process for customizations, training, and, of course, customer references.

Business Requirements

Now we’re into the meat of the document. As this is an RFP for an email delivery product, we asked vendors to provide information about their campaign management process. How do you choose a list? How do you filter out demographics, de-dupe results, enter creative, send mailings? How do you get reports? What types of reports are available? Detailing these bullet points took up about a page and a half of the final document.

Consider the individual steps you take to get a mailing out. The vendor must address all those items. At its simplest, first you choose who to send a message to. Second, you create your message. Third, you send it. Finally, you want reports on it. Your process is probably more complex than that.

Technical and Functional Requirements

The fifth section is perhaps the longest. In our final RFP it ran about three pages. This is where advice I received about asking open-ended questions really came in handy.

For technical requirements, we wanted to know what volume vendors could handle: maximum number of lists, maximum list size, maximum number of demographics, and maximum number of email messages sent per day. We also asked them to provide details on their profile and demographic capabilities; any programmatic API interface to their system (so our developers could write scripts to automate campaign management if desired); what email formats they supported (HTML, multi-part, etc); what types of tracking they could do (open, click, etc.); and how the system handled email distribution (bounce management).

For functional requirements, we requested details on how vendors handled subscription management, customer service, abuse complaint resolution and the other daily email operations functions our team would need to handle. What are the functions you need to accomplish to get your mailings out? To add and remove people from your lists? To deal with complaints? The vendor should make you feel comfortable on all of these points by addressing each of them.

Support Requirements

This section was pretty straightforward: what type of support do they provide via email, telephone, etc? Are there 24x7 beepers you can call? What’s the guaranteed minimum response time?

Pricing, Cost, and Deadline

Again, pretty straightforward. First, what format does the vendor use to price their system? CPM, flat fee? Second, the question we’ve all been waiting for (drumroll)... What’s their bid?

Also, are there startup costs, additional support costs, costs for customizations, or other "hidden" costs? And of course at the very end, we provided vendors with a deadline for their proposals, and an email address to submit them to.

Good luck, and good shopping!

And the Winner Is...

Response to my little contest last month contest was overwhelming. Although I only intended people identify musical references in my sub-headings, some people picked through the text looking for even more references. Kate Simpson came back with the most of those -- somewhere around 30 -- and won the backpack (though Rick Smith gave her a run for her money). Tom Granese was the first person to get me the short list of subheadings I was looking for. He got the runner-up prize: a ClickZ toiletries case.

Before I provide the correct answers, please remember this contest was done in fun. I can vouch for correctness only insofar as my memory (of the ’80s) is accurate (probably not very). In other words, no whining!

The correct answers:

  1. Crazy Train, Ozzy Osbourne, Blizzard of Oz album
  2. Insane in the Membrane, Cypress Hill, Black Sunday album
  3. Exit, Stage Left (album), Rush
  4. Eye of the Tiger, Survivor, Eye of the Tiger album
  5. Babe, I’m Leaving, Styx, Cornerstone album
  6. Final Countdown, Europe, The Final Countdown album


Kate’s answers (in addition to the above):
  • Without a Doubt, song, The Byrds
  • Wild West, band
  • Make Me Happy, song, Christina Aguilera
  • Total Insanity, song, Cadaver
  • Warm and Fuzzy, song, Billy Gilman
  • Insane, song, Cold
  • Direction, music label
  • Unbelievable, song, Def Leppard
  • Go Ahead, band
  • In the Meantime, song, Helmet
  • Oh Well, song, Fleetwood Mac
  • Magic, band
  • DownSide, band
  • Fly By Night, song, Rush
  • Mantra Recordings, record label
  • Ready to Leave, song, The Jet Stream
  • Comfortable, song, John Mayer
  • Tough Times, song, John Brim
  • There’s the Rub, album, Wishbone Ash
  • So Tough, song, Saint Etienne
  • Hungry, song, Kathryn Scott
  • New Kids on the Block, band
  • Oh Very Young, song, Cat Stevens
  • I Don’t Know, song, The Reliants
  • Sit Down, lyrics, Home by the Sea, Genesis
  • Let Me Know, song, Cam’ron

Winner: Kate Simpson, Senior Web Content Developer for The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Before trading paper for pixels, she was a writer and editor in the print world. She’s addicted to Scrabble and can’t resist wordplay and well-written prose (e.g., this column!!! ).

Runner Up: Tom Granese, a long-time ClickZ subscriber, is the founder of a Dallas, Texas, based retail business, Regimens, specializing in luxury men’s grooming products.

Got a question? Think I’m full of it? Let me know -- send me email!

Many of you noticed ClickZ newsletters changed recently. Executive Editor Rebecca Lieb gives you a quick rundown.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Edward Grossman Formerly vice president of Web operations for Jupitermedia's internet.com network (ClickZ's parent), Edward Grossman was responsible for newsletter operations and unflappably oversaw the production and distribution of over 200 e-newsletters. He's been an online editor, producer and developer since 1995 on sites including internet.com, WebDeveloper.com, JavaScript.com and Gif.com. Edward's articles on newsletter publishing, Web development and the Internet industry have appeared online and off. Currently he's EVP of Digital Media at CMP Medica.

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