Time for a New ESP? 7½ Tips for Optimizing the RFP Process

apple to orange email service providers comparisonWhen it’s time for a new email service provider, you’re likely looking at doing an RFP to jumpstart your selection process…and that can cause about as much stress as contemplating a frontal lobotomy!

In order to do an email service providers comparison, many organizations start out with an RFP sent to a large number of ESPs and whittle down that long list to a short list over the course of many months (and many hours invested). Once at the short list stage, the real work of finding the best email service providers finally begins.

A lot of time and energy is spent getting to the short list. Yet it is possible to get to the short list stage faster if you optimize your RFP process.

Below I offer 7 tips for optimizing the RFP process, making it faster and more effective so you can get to the short list sooner…because it’s at the short list stage that the real work of doing your email service providers comparison can begin!

Tip 1: Do your homework first
One of the best ways to optimize the RFP process is to do plenty of preparation upfront. This includes knowing what you need, and knowing which ESPs are most likely to fit the bill.

RFP responses are full of distracting features. Even experienced marketers who do enterprise email marketing can be easily distracted by the shiny things in an RFP response. That’s why you have to know upfront which features you really need, both now and in the future. Discuss this internally and make sure everyone is in agreement about what is absolutely essential, what would be useful, and what’s just frosting on the email marketing cake. Then stick to those priorities when evaluating ESPs. (One way to do this is to rank your needs on a 1 to 5 scale, then create a scorecard against which you can compare ESPs.)

Remember, the purpose of the homework is to optimize the RFP process, making it faster and more efficient. The sooner you can zero in on what your really need vs. what you might want or what just sounds really cool, the sooner you can create an RFP and get to your short list.

Tip 2: Ask around
After you’ve done your preparation and it’s time to start your list of potential ESPs, don’t start cold: Do some research. Contact colleagues and industry associations for recommendations. Find out which ESPs your competitors are using. Look at email programs you admire and learn which ESPs those companies use. Make a short list of companies like yours and find out which ESPs they use, then ask how they like or don’t like that ESP. You can create a pretty accurate short list simply by asking questions of others!

Tip 3: Focus on the 20%
RFPs are complicated. Some in the email marketing industry even question their value, because they are so time-consuming and don’t always produce the best results (often because marketers don’t do their homework or get distracted by whiz bang features, as we discussed above).

To streamline the development of your RFP, focus on the 20%. Here’s what I mean: There’s an 80/20 rule about features when you’re doing an email service providers comparison. About 80% of what an ESP does is the same as about 80% of what every other ESP does (albeit sometimes with different technologies enabling the features). That means you don’t have to compare every single feature. You can skip over the 80% to get to the 20% that matter, because it’s within the 20% that you’re going to find the differences between email service providers…and it’s where you’re likely to find the critical features you’re searching for.

And what’s that 20%? Go back to tip 1 above where you did your homework and prioritized your needs.

Tip 4: Tap into other resources to narrow your list
Although it might feel like it sometimes, you’re not reinventing the wheel when you pull together the RFP. Many have gone before you. Heck, you’ve probably gone before you, the last time you did this! So remember that there are other resources that can help you narrow down a long list to a short list in a short time. Two of them are resources we’ve pulled together for just that reason, to help you narrow down your list to a short list faster, more efficiently and more accurately.

One is the ESPinator, a free online tool that will give you the three most likely ESP choices for you based on your answers to a series of questions. These questions dig into and prioritize your email marketing needs. Then the ESPinator gives you the ESPs most likely to deliver on those highest priority needs.

The other is the annual guide to choosing an ESP that we update every year. This year the guide focuses on email as the workhorse in the world of cross-channel marketing. Our subtitle for 2014 is “9½ things you absolutely have to consider when choosing an ESP,” and it’s available for download here.

Tip 5: Ask the right questions
When you create your list of questions as part of your email service providers comparison, remember that 80/20 rule I talked about above in tip 3: They can all send email, and about 80% of their features will be the same as everyone else’s. Try not to waste time asking about the basics. Instead, ask about the 20%, the features that make them stand out in a crowded ESP arena. Ask about your priorities as a marketer, now and in the future, and how the ESP will help to make those priorities happen.

Note: For help with focusing your questions, definitely download our annual ESP guide. It includes dozens of the most important questions you’ll need to ask (and answer) internally plus dozens to ask the ESPs.

Tip 6: And be ready with answers
You’re not the only one who should be asking questions. It’s also important to recognize that the information you provide vendors about your current program and needs can have a direct effect on the relevance of the information you get back from the ESP. This is when you’ll be glad you did your homework upfront and figured out your priorities and goals for the future, because that is the input the ESP will need from you.

Tip 7: Take your time
Yes, I realize I’m talking about optimizing the RFP process to make it go faster and easier, but you still need to take your time or else potentially end up with an ESP that doesn’t work for you…and then you’re right back to the RFP in 12 months or so. So take your time. Allow at least two weeks for an ESP to respond, and build in time for answering any questions you get from the ESP. And here’s a huge time saver: Don’t spend time on system demos until you’ve narrowed down your list to a true short list.

And now for tip 7½: Get help. There are agencies like ClickMail that know the ESPs inside and out. Consultants like the email experts at ClickMail work with a variety of email service providers every single day, making us intimately familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. We can help you get straight to the short list simply by listening to you describe your needs and goals. In fact, going straight to a consultant might be the best way of all to optimize your RFP process!