Monday, March 29, 2010

The Whys and Wherefores of RFPs in Market Research – Part II

In the last article on this subject (CLICK HERE FOR PART I), we outlined many of the key benefits to corporate-side market research professionals of using Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to engage research firms in the planning and executing of research studies. To reiterate, 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 length of time required for the study that each research firm proposes, so that judging the winner becomes an easier, more straightforward decision to make.

In this installment, 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 address 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 by us and others from whom we’ve learned: when you meet with internal business clients to address research requests before the RFP is developed, use the sections of a standard RFP as the agenda for the meeting. That is: 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.


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.


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 2010.” It is appropriate to list “uncover consumers’ behavioral and attitudinal barriers to increased product sales in order for 1st quarter 2010 product sales to be reached.”


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 includes the length of interviews, the number of open-ended questions, and whether or not customer/respondent lists will be provided by the organization.


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 up front in the RFP, it will surely pay dividends in being able to clearly compare costs in one proposal to the next, since incidence of subgroups have a sharp influence on overall study costs.


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 that will perform these analyses, his or her background, experience, and training, as these qualifications can be directly compared.


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 newsletter. So, in closing, RFPs may be written very prescriptively, imparting several things on multiple bases such as the 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.