RFP Do’s and Don’ts

If I need a surgeon, dermatologist, lawyer or accountant, I don’t do an RFP (define). I use a variety of other criteria to assess which option is the best fit for me. I may look at credentials, years in the field, and certifications and ask people I trust for referrals.

I’m not even qualified enough in surgery or law to know how many watts the laser scalpel should be or what the best way is to overturn a restraining order. So asking questions like these on a RFP for my surgeon or lawyer would be a waste of my time and that of the professionals being asked to participate. I don’t think I’d get many takers on my medical and law RFPs, anyway.

Ad agencies, SEM (define) firms, SEO (define) firms, and those who build technology to improve the efficiency of on- and offline marketing/media spend have been dealing with RFPs for years. High-end consulting firms and many technology VARs (define), on the other hand, don’t have to respond to RFPs nearly as often because the expertise they deliver is often unique to their firms, making an RFP a useless exercise.

I realize that, as with the ad agency business, the SEM business is likely stuck with RFPs. Changing the corporate culture at major advertisers to force them to make decisions the same way they do for other professions in their personal lives is unlikely to happen. The RFP is a CYA (define) document. When a vendor fails, the committee or individual managing the RFP process will point to the responses and say “Well, they answered all our questions to our liking” or “Look at how hard they worked on this RFP response. It has colored graphs and charts.”

Some SEM firms, like other professions, may in fact be quite dissimilar in the way they do business and service clients. It’s your job when picking vendors to distinguish these differences.

Instead of covering your tail, if you’re stuck in an organization where an RFP is mandatory and you need protection if things blow up with your selected vendor, at least ask the kinds of questions that will actually help you decide if it’s better to look for an SEM vendor based on a strategic, technology, tactical, and cultural fit with your firm. Better yet, ask the kinds of questions that will help you select a firm that will:

  • Get you a promotion

  • Get you a raise
  • Increase your roles and responsibility
  • Make your job more rewarding
  • Add quantifiable results to your résumé bullet points

You aren’t selecting a vendor with a PPC (define) SEM; you’re selecting a strategic partner that, if all goes well, will accelerate your business and your personal career. Clearly asking tactical questions, such as how a vendor accomplishes keyword expansions or if it supports dayparting, will generate unnecessary work for all involved.

When an RFP is a must for your company, ask:

  • How long have you been in business?

  • For what kinds of search marketers are you most successful?
  • Are there any search marketers for whom you don’t believe you are a fit?
  • What are your fees and how do you justify them?
  • Does your clients’ spending grow over time (if the agency or SEM is good at growing scale while maintaining profitability, they’re doing more than simply eliminating waste from a campaign)?
  • Have any industry analysts rated, ranked, or profiled your firm?
  • How much spending do you manage (monthly or annually)?
  • What is your ratio of employee to clients? (This is more important than knowing the size of your specific team, because your campaign management needs will fluctuate over time and the availability of floaters, who can pitch in during a seasonal crunch, could be important.)
  • How have you changed your service deliverable to meet a specific, unusual need from the client perspective?
  • Do clients evolve their campaigns to become more profitable over time?
  • Do I own my engine account or does the agency (or perhaps both)?
  • Do I retain logins for accounts if it’s under agency ownership?
  • How would I go about communicating changes in campaign objectives to my team at the agency?
  • Do you monitor the competitive landscape? If so, how do you monitor and how is this information used to my advantage?
  • How well connected is your team to search engine management and staff?
  • What industry trade associations do you participate in? What’s your level of involvement and role, and why?

The following optional questions touch on areas of interest but aren’t strategic. Still, they may help you understand how your prospective agency does business:

  • Do you use your own technology or someone else’s? If your technology is external, which technology is used?

  • Do I have any regular deliverables or access to reporting?
  • How do we work out areas of responsibility with regards to campaign management’s tactical areas?

If you’re lucky enough not to have to do an RFP, it might still be instructive to informally ask some of the above questions of your prospective SEM partner.

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