How to write an RFP for your next market research project

When organizations use custom market research services for the first-time or only sporadically, a common question is how to structure the RFP.  RFPs can be the proverbial double-edged sword.  Done well, the market research RFP is a valuable tool for both the client and their prospective market research partners.  Done poorly, it becomes a barrier to effective discussion, and can result in proposals that meet the RFP specs but don’t actually solve the business need.  Rather than ask “how to write a good RFP”, start by asking whether you should write a formal RFP at all.

Developing the RFP requires time, a resource in short supply for many B2B product managers and marketers.  It may also be difficult to write the RFP because your needs and specifications aren’t yet well defined.  You may be tempted to search online for an RFP template form or examples. RFP templates and examples provide structure, but may focus too much on tactics and process.

In Isurus’ 19 years we’ve written many proposals, working both with and without an RFP.  Reflecting on that experience, we offer these guidelines and tips for how to determine whether you need an RFP and how to construct an effective one. 

Focus on the big picture

The best research engagements result from a clear articulation of the project objectives and outcomes.  The entire project flows from an understanding of the information needed and the decisions that will be made based on the research results.  Whether you write a formal market research RFP or take a more informal approach, it is always useful to articulate your objectives and outcomes in writing.

As the research buyer, your time is best used to develop an overview of the needs driving the research, high-level questions that the study should answer, and how the results will be applied in your organization.  This information is not only critical to share with potential market research partners, the process also helps internal stakeholders reach a shared understanding of goals and outcomes.  Articulating the project goals also helps make the case to fund the project: Budget holders are more likely to invest in research when goals and outcomes are well-articulated.  

Typically, your background and objectives can be summarized in a page or less – you don’t need to write a detailed treatise. In fact, a summary works as a good launch pad for discussion with prospective partners.  You’ll learn about their working style and relevant experience by listening to the questions they ask (or don’t ask) as you review the project goals.

Stay out of the specification weeds

Most market research buyers are familiar with standard methodologies such as focus groups, in-depth interviews or survey research.  It is therefore tempting to prescribe the methodology and research design for vendors to quote on. 

While it may seem efficient to tell vendors exactly what you want, there are a couple of problems with it. Your ultimate goal is to gain insights that answer a central question and facilitate a business decision. The research methodology is just the tool to get there. Your needs should drive the tools used, not the other way around. Buyers often focus on the logistics because they are easier to conceptualize than the insights needed.

A highly specific RFP can mislead vendors to infer that you know more than you really do.  We received an RFP earlier this year that prescribed a very granular research design.  The level of detail gave us the initial impression that the client knew a lot about market research and had given significant thought to the study parameters.  In our discovery call, we determined that the client had little experience and wanted to collaborate with vendors to develop/refine the research design.  We took a step back to focus on their business goals and the nature of their marketplace, and recommended a research study that was more streamlined than their original request in the RFP.

Treat the proposal process like a test drive for the project

Telling a research firm exactly what to bid on is also a missed opportunity to test drive each firm’s working style and thought process. What questions do they ask?  How clearly do they present their ideas or recommendations? Does their rationale reflect experience that’s relevant to your objectives or target market?  You’ll learn more by providing general parameters and listening to how each firm responds, rather than telling firms exactly what you think is needed.

Do you need to write an RFP?

The question to ask isn’t “How to write an RFP”.  Start by asking if you need one at all. RFPs work well for market research needs that are more transactional, and for which the buyer has a high degree of confidence in their needs.  If you’re certain you need to test your ad campaign with veterinarians by doing six focus groups in Miami, Denver, and LA, then write an RFP with those requirements.  If you know the objectives and outcomes the study needs to address, but want guidance on how to execute, then focus your time on articulating your goals and engaging in collaborative discussion with potential partners.