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The Whys and Wherefores of RFPs in Market Research

The success of a project can be determined by the strength of its foundation and a Request for Proposal is just that. Learn the top 10 benefits of RFPs and the best techniques in writing one.

Editor’s Note: A staple of life in the Insights Industry is the Request For Proposal (RFP). We’ve all learned that good RFPs make devising a proposal much easier, while bad RFPs can cause much wheel-spinning. Here, Paul Rubenstein does a great job of describing RFP do’s and don’t’s. This is a really valuable read for those who either write or respond to RFPs.


At Accelerant Research, we have collectively spent decades in market research and managed thousands of projects across a variety of industries in corporate-side, agency-side, and supplier-side roles. As such, we have been on the sending and the receiving sides of Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Across this history, we have been involved in studies that have succeeded by all standards and studies that were less than perfect. One thing we have come to realize is that a project is only as strong as the foundation it rests on, and that foundation starts with the RFP, as it needs to scope out the business problem and situational details from which the research is designed. There are, of course, other benefits which we will also outline.

In the market research industry, so much can be accomplished by developing and using RFPs, and so much can be lost in not doing so, or not doing so well. The main purpose of an RFP for a market research study is to be able to get a fair (read: apples-to-apples) comparison of the quality, cost, and amount of study time required that each supplier proposes for your specific study needs. Theoretically, if the exact same RFP is sent to three different research firms, these three have all been given the same chance to win the study, and judging the winner becomes an easier decision to make.

There are several important benefits of using RFPs on a regular basis in managing an organization’s research needs and budget.

Our Top Ten List of RFP Benefits:

  1. Fostering a method of fair business practice in awarding research projects
  2. Reminding research firms that any given study is subject to the throes of competition
  3. Reducing the cycle time between expressing research needs and finalizing a plan
  4. Preventing any possible perceptions of unfair business practices or partiality
  5. Ensuring what you get in a study is what you wanted
  6. Creating the perception towards you/your organization of professionalism among RFP recipient research suppliers
  7. Simplifying decision-making in choosing the best research firm for the study
  8. Managing internal clients’ expectations for relative cost and time requirements for a given study
  9. Providing a clear demonstration of understanding the business purposes tied to the study itself
  10. Having a written document that supports the organization if certain aspects of the working relationship with the chosen supplier go awry in the process of conducting the study.

RFPs vary in terms of how prescriptive they are. Some are written in a way that dictates in advance all aspects of the research project and leaves less room for a recipient research firm to demonstrate its unique and distinguishing characteristics and capabilities. Yet, if a given study’s objectives, methodology, and study-related specifications are sound and have all been decided upon in advance, feel free to be prescriptive with your suppliers in the RFP. On the other hand, even when you are not sure about methodology, survey length, sampling, and other cost-related study specifications, either provide a “straw-man” set of specifications that you request the supplier to judge and offer specific, recommended revisions, or state upfront that you seek the input from the supplier to prescribe what is best.

The most important aspect of an RFP that should be included in any RFP is the study objectives. Simply put, there is no better way to set your supplier on a course of action than by clearly stating the study objectives. A careful and comprehensive review of these objectives with internal, end-user clients will serve to enable a supplier to figure the rest out.

However, in our experiences, most RFPs are neither entirely prescriptive nor completely non-prescriptive; instead, the vast majority are somewhere in between these polar opposites. Because of this, the corporate-side researcher should be prepared to make trade-off decisions against key supplier dimensions of quality, cost, and time requirements.

Below, we have outlined a process for developing an RFP that is general enough to be portable across qualitative and quantitative research in any industry. But before we get into the specifics for each section of an RFP, there are a few noteworthy, general rules of thumb that may serve as guideposts or overarching principles of RFP development, and hopefully, benefit the RFP writer as such.

First and foremost, try to put in as many study specifications as possible, even if they are revised before fielding the study. Make it a requirement that each proposal addresses these specifications, even if they are included only as a “straw man” example. Simply put, if you request what you want and the reasons for it, suppliers will respond in kind since proposal writers are literally “programmed” to respond to the details and specifics in the content of the RFP document. This practice will improve the calibration of the comparisons of each proposal to the others as you weigh the merits contained in each in terms of quality, cost, and timing.

Here’s another technique that has been used with great success: when you meet with internal business partners to address research requests before the RFP is developed, use the sections of a standard RFP as the agenda for the meeting. That is, the background, objectives, approach, methodology, survey topics, analytic plan, time requirements, deliverables, and price or budget. In the end, your dialog time will be well spent and you will have minimized the risk of ultimately delivering insights that were not wanted or not worth the cost. In addition, after meeting with internal clients, you will have a skeleton draft of the RFP itself, thus facilitating the development of the RFP for distribution to key suppliers to whom you will invite to propose.

Background

The background section is an important component of the RFP as it provides the business context in which the request is being made by the organization and enables the research supplier to understand the underlying reasons as to why the study is being sponsored. This section represents an opportunity to educate research firms on multiple levels. First, the background section, when couched in specific business terms that are used by and important to the organization, impart key business needs. These needs represent corporate cultural characteristics that enable research suppliers to get closer to the business itself, and when expressed, can become a foundational learning opportunity and foster strategic partnership relations between suppliers and their clients. Secondly, the specific language that is used in this section teaches suppliers the “lexicon of the organization” and further deepens the suppliers’ understanding of its culture.

Objectives

The objectives section, another important aspect of the RFP for framing the study and receiving a set of proposals that can be directly compared, is worth the effort to think through as comprehensively as possible. However, these objectives should be used to list study objectives that are tied to business needs, not business objectives which are more appropriately found in the background section. In other words, a market research study will never produce a business result but can inform business decisions on how to achieve business results. For example, in the objectives section of an RFP, it is not appropriate to list “produce a 20% increase in product sales by 1st quarter 2020.” It is appropriate to list “uncover consumers’ behavioral and attitudinal barriers to increased product sales in order for 1st quarter 2020 product sales goals to be reached.”

Methodology

In the methodology section of an RFP, study design aspects that carry implications for costs and time requirements are shown. This is a very important section of the RFP where the merits of different proposals can be identified on sight. In this section, the RFP should specify as much of the design of the study that has been thought through, agreed upon, and understood within the relative confines of time and budget constraints.

To the fullest extent possible, the method should be specified as qualitative, quantitative, or both, as well as which particular type of focus groups, IDIs, online, phone (CATI), etc. Other specifications that may have been thought through beforehand and can be noted in the RFP include the length of interviews, the number of open-ended questions, and whether or not customer/respondent contact lists will be provided by the organization.

Sample Configuration

The sample configuration section of the RFP is a section that carries significant cost and time implications for any given research study. Again, if the goal of an RFP is to solicit comparable proposals from multiple suppliers, the more detailed information that can be provided in this section, the more easily proposals can be compared fairly. Even if what is provided is meant to be a “straw man” design, it is still worth including it to obtain proposal comparability. Moreover, if the research firm recommends a different design and sample configuration, usually they will provide costs for what is requested in the RFP and then re-price whatever they recommend.

A key aspect of this section to include is the number of interviews required in total and by subgroup. Explicitly state whether sample sizes or proportions are subject to hard or loose quotas or whether subgroup representation can result at random and be augmented, if necessary. Another important aspect from a cost standpoint is the incidence rate of certain groups of interest. If this can be stated upfront in the RFP, it will surely pay dividends in being able to clearly compare costs in one proposal to the next, since the incidence of subgroups has a sharp influence on overall study costs.

Analytic Plan

The analytic plan section of an RFP is to state whether something more than the standard univariate and cross-tabulated analyses are required. Since more advanced statistical techniques may be required, the RFP writer will be served by including this as explicitly as possible. Also, if multivariate techniques are needed, one should also request that the proposal identify who is (or are) the statistician(s) that will perform these analyses, his or her background, experience, and training, as these qualifications can be directly compared.

Time Schedule

If the RFP is for a study that already has time limitations before it begins, include some text stating exactly what those requirements are. To that end, the RFP writer can provide an entire time schedule from start to finish, marking each particular study milestone (e.g., survey development, data collection, final report delivery) with an associated time allotment or specific calendar dates. This will avoid miscommunication of study requirements and otherwise catch the chosen research supplier flat-footed at the start of the study. Also, with knowledge in advance of the study’s time limitations, the methodology and sample configuration should be chosen to accommodate the schedule. Not doing so is a tell-tale sign that that proposal should not be chosen.

The final few sections of an RFP are relatively simple and do not necessitate elaborating upon in this article. So, in closing, RFPs may be written very prescriptively, imparting several things on multiple bases such as how the subject matter fits with the business goals, research objectives, and corporate culture. Considered study designs, methods, sample configurations, and other project specifications, when provided in an RFP, will benefit the organization and the research manager by ensuring that proposals that are given in response will be highly comparable, and the real value of one proposal over another will be evident.

This article was originally published by Accelerant Research

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Paul Rubenstein, Ph.D

President & Chief Executive Officer, Accelerant Research