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Why Evaluations (RFIs and RFPs) are Critical for Marketing Technology

May 20, 2024  |  By

The world of Marketing Technology (“MarTech”) is notoriously complex. With an ever-expanding array of tools and platforms (over 14,000 at last count) promising to revolutionize marketing strategies, it is no wonder that many organizations struggle with adoption and optimization. For MarTech to truly succeed, the technology needs to be not only successfully implemented, but also fully utilized by the marketing team in a way that advances and accelerates the overall marketing strategy.

We have seen MarTech adoption accelerate rapidly in our industry – with audience engagement, analytics, and customer data-oriented technologies at the vanguard. These tools bring new capabilities and challenges. The complexity of the landscape – and the need for tools to integrate with a growing array of other tools – makes it challenging to select the right tools for an organization’s unique needs.

What adds to this complexity is the need to consider more than any one tool. Think of an organization’s MarTech setup as a puzzle, with each tool representing a different piece. The challenge isn’t only in understanding what each tool does, but also in figuring out how all tools work together to create a complete, cohesive solution. It’s not just about having all the right pieces; it’s about making sure they fit together seamlessly.

To ensure a successful MarTech implementation, starting with a comprehensive capability audit is essential. This audit should assess current marketing capabilities, identify gaps, and define future needs. By focusing on the “why,” a capability audit helps organizations choose tools that meet specific use cases and offer compelling business cases and clear financial benefits. Perhaps most importantly, a capability audit encourages a holistic approach, examining tools as part of an integrated “stack” rather than isolated solutions.

After a capability audit, an organization will likely identify areas where it wishes to make additional MarTech investments. At this stage, a detailed RFI (request for information) process is fundamental to gathering the necessary information to make an informed decision. We recommend a specific sequence to get from the RFI to the final decision and suggest that the initial RFI be detailed – as much detail as is usually found in an RFP (request for proposal). 

Even with a solid understanding of various tools, picking the right one to meet an organization’s specific needs can be tricky. An RFI led by external experts is usually needed, as these experts bring deep domain knowledge that rarely exists in-house and proven efficient and effective processes. Even when expertise can be found in-house, RFIs are time-consuming. Balancing day-to-day responsibilities and running an RFI process is challenging. Furthermore, most technology selection processes require balancing numerous cross-functional team needs, making external, unbiased support a necessity for most organizations.

Below are the top ten reasons we believe a thorough RFI is essential:

  1. Enables informed decisions, saving time and money. A well-constructed RFI goes beyond surface-level features, providing organizations with the information to make informed choices. This approach prevents selecting a tool with the wrong fit, which can lead to wasted time and budget.
  2. Prioritizes use cases and business value. The RFI process compels organizations to prioritize specific use cases, ensuring a vendor is selected whose capabilities directly align with the most critical business needs – thereby maximizing value. A tool’s true worth lies not in the breadth of its functionality but in how effectively it supports high-priority use cases.

    Throughout the process, it is essential to connect use cases to clear business goals, demonstrating how the tool will drive tangible business outcomes. This connection helps justify the investment and secure buy-in from key stakeholders.

    A robust evaluation process should augment an organization’s use cases with core industry and best practice use cases. This approach inspires and expands understanding of how the tool could be leveraged to its fullest potential. By introducing best practices and innovative applications from across the industry and beyond, the RFI process encourages marketers to think beyond their current vision and envision new ways to drive value with the tool. This comprehensive approach to use case prioritization and business value alignment ensures that the selected tool not only meets immediate needs but also has the flexibility to support evolving requirements.
  3. Unveils hidden complexities. A well-crafted RFI/RFP serves as a powerful magnifying glass, diving deep into the technical intricacies of each tool. By asking highly detailed questions about specific technical components, the RFI exposes potential gaps between the various tools’ capabilities and an organization’s precise needs.

    This granular level of examination is particularly crucial when evaluating complex tools such as customer data platforms (CDPs), customer relationship management platforms (CRMs), marketing automation platforms / email service providers (MAPs/ESPs), analytics/attribution tools, CMSs (content management systems), and social media platforms. In these cases, the evaluation must extend beyond simple use cases and delve into the granular technical components that collectively form the tool’s broader capabilities. This deep technical scrutiny empowers informed decision-making based on a tool’s capabilities rather than relying on surface-level promises.

    This insight prevents organizations from overestimating a vendor’s ability to meet specific requirements. The RFI should be designed to uncover the nuances in how different tools deliver similar capabilities. How a tool does something is just as important as what the tool does. For example, two CDPs might both claim to offer seamless integration with an email marketing platform, but the RFI will reveal the intricacies of how each CDP handles this integration with implications for email strategy.
  4. Fosters cross-functional collaboration and alignment. The RFI process serves as a catalyst for cross-functional collaboration and prioritization.  By involving key stakeholders from various departments in the evaluation process, the RFI facilitates important discussions about business priorities, use cases, and technical requirements. These conversations ensure that everyone involved is on the same page about what matters most for the organization’s success. Stakeholders from various teams can openly share their unique perspectives, challenges, and goals. This collaborative approach helps to surface any potential conflicts or misalignments early in the process, allowing for proactive resolution.

    Moreover, the RFI process provides a structured framework for building consensus. As stakeholders work together to define and prioritize requirements, they develop a shared understanding of the project’s objectives and the role the new MarTech tool will play in achieving those objectives. This alignment is essential for securing buy-in and support across the organization.

    This organizational alignment is particularly crucial when considering Marketing Technology (MarTech) solutions, as their impact extends far beyond traditional marketing functions. MarTech supports use cases across various departments, including Sales, Digital/Product, Data/Analytics, Publishing/Editorial, Membership, Meetings, and Advocacy. A well-structured and impartially led RFI process uncovers potential tensions between team needs and provides an objective framework for decision-making, ensuring the chosen solution serves the entire organization’s best interests.
  5. Helps solve the MarTech puzzle. RFIs help organizations map the shortlisted tool(s) (the tool, or tools, that has/have been selected for further consideration after an initial screening process) onto existing technical landscapes, revealing any critical functionality gaps or redundancies. This way, organizations can see how the tool complements their current setup and identify additional tools that might be necessary to create a holistic solution.
  6. Manages expectations and upward communication. The RFI process helps all stakeholders gain a comprehensive understanding of the new tool’s capabilities and limitations. This shared understanding is crucial for setting realistic expectations and ensuring the tool is used as intended, preventing misunderstandings or misuse later on.

    Identifying the tool’s limitations is essential for setting realistic expectations for executives and other stakeholders. This process involves highlighting not only the tool’s capabilities but also the timelines and complexities (and potentially additional investment) involved in delivering use cases. By providing this level of transparency, teams can better understand when and how they will realize tangible business value, fostering clearer communication throughout the organization.

    Most vendors welcome well-run RFIs. The reason is that they help establish alignment between their tool’s capabilities and client expectations, setting the stage for successful implementation and partnership.
  7. Provides proof points. A detailed RFI process extends beyond surface-level features and promises by requiring vendors to demonstrate their capabilities through detailed demos, in-depth technical deep dives, and customer references. References should be obtained from the vendor’s customers both within and outside the organization’s industry to thoroughly understand the tool’s scalability and extensibility.

    This hands-on validation process provides organizations with confidence that the tool can genuinely meet their needs. By witnessing the tool in action and hearing firsthand accounts from existing customers, organizations can accurately assess the solution’s fit for their unique requirements and use cases. This process also helps illuminate the culture of the vendor, which is crucial to ensure alignment with your organization’s values and way of working.
  8. Clarifies total cost of ownership. The RFI process is indispensable for surfacing the total cost of ownership (TCO) for any potential solution. By requiring vendors to provide a comprehensive breakdown of costs, including licensing fees, implementation expenses, training requirements, and ongoing support charges, the RFI eliminates any ambiguity or hidden fees. This granular cost transparency empowers organizations to make informed financial decisions and accurately budget for the tool’s long-term adoption, ensuring there are no surprises down the line.

    As the RFI process unfolds, important questions may arise regarding organizational resource allocation and skill requirements. While modern marketing tools are designed to be user-friendly, requiring less technical expertise to deploy, successful adoption and optimization often require a high level of marketing expertise and maturity. For example, when a new technology offers advanced segmentation capabilities, organizations must carefully align their global segmentation strategies with any ad-hoc approaches the team plans to employ. Similarly, if a tool delivers advanced testing features, the organization must have a well-defined testing strategy and messaging platform to ensure the tests are meaningful and effective. Even the most sophisticated tools may fail to deliver their full potential value without the necessary marketing maturity level.

    The RFI process prompts organizations to evaluate their internal skillsets critically and determine whether they possess the necessary resources, knowledge, and processes to deliver prioritized use cases fully. This introspection helps identify potential gaps and plan for “upskilling” initiatives, outsourcing activities, and/or strategic hiring to ensure the marketing team is adequately equipped to maximize the tool’s potential.
  9. Fast-tracks adoption and training. By diving deeper into tool functionalities, use cases, and case studies, marketing teams gain invaluable insights for user adoption and training efforts. Teams that go through RFI processes are better equipped than those that do not. The RFI process can reduce training and adoption time down the road.

    Moreover, the RFI process encourages organizations to delve into their current processes and workflows, assessing how the new tool will integrate with existing systems and practices. For example, new marketing technology often necessitates taking a fresh look at core processes such as campaign planning and marketing analytics/KPIs. As a result, the RFI fosters a deeper understanding of the changes and adaptations required within the marketing team, which improves adoption and utilization rates.

    By actively involving marketing teams in the tool selection process, the RFI ensures that marketing’s voices are heard and their needs are carefully considered. This inclusive approach helps to address the common challenge of marketing teams struggling to adopt and effectively utilize tools that don’t fully align with their workflows or goals. When marketing teams have a meaningful role in selecting their tools, they are more likely to develop a sense of ownership and commitment to making the most of those tools. This is a critical step in the change management journey. This disciplined, and well planned, approach ultimately leads to higher adoption rates, more effective utilization of the tool, and a greater return on investment.
  10. Ensures objectivity in the selection process. Vendor presentations are often designed to dazzle and persuade. The RFI process counterbalances this by injecting objectivity into the vendor evaluation. Rather than relying solely on polished sales pitches, the RFI asks vendors to substantiate their claims with empirical data, quantifiable scores, and tangible proof points. This evidence-based approach helps cut through the noise, enabling organizations to make clear-headed decisions rooted real-world experiences with the tools and vendors.

What about pilots?

While vendors may be eager to provide access to their tool via a pilot or trial, bypassing the RFI process has noteworthy downsides. The RFI is designed to gather comprehensive information, align stakeholders, and establish clear criteria for selecting the right tool. Skipping this vital step can lead to rushed decisions, misaligned expectations, and a higher risk of choosing a suboptimal solution. Plus, it also misses out on all the learning that comes from a well-structured RFI process.

That said, we are big believers in trying before buying. Where possible, we highly recommend conducting a Proof of Concept (POC) phase after the initial tool evaluation and selection process. A well-constructed POC allows organizations to trial the chosen technology before making a full financial commitment, providing valuable insights into how the tool will perform in practice. This hands-on experience can validate this important decision and increase confidence in the selected solution.

However, it is best practice to engage in a POC only after the initial vendor evaluation is completed via a comprehensive RFI process. Proceeding directly to a pilot or POC without this crucial groundwork can undermine the effectiveness of the evaluation and increase the risk of selecting a tool that may rapidly become inadequate as the organization’s needs evolve. POCs (or pilots) by their very nature need to be tightly scoped, making them poor indicators of how well a tool can adapt as requirements change and scale as the organization grows in sophistication.

Are there drawbacks to RFIs?

While the RFI process offers numerous benefits, it’s important to acknowledge the potential drawbacks and challenges involved. One significant consideration is the time and effort required to conduct a comprehensive RFI properly. Organizations must be prepared to allocate the necessary resources and commitment to ensure a thorough and effective RFI process.

Additionally, the RFI process demands significant involvement from internal resources and stakeholders across various departments. Cross-functional collaboration is crucial for aligning priorities, requirements, and decision-making criteria. Securing buy-in and active participation from multiple teams can be challenging – especially in large or siloed organizations.

Finally, there is a risk of “scope creep” during the RFI process, where additional considerations are continuously added, extending the timeline, and increasing complexity. Effective project management and clear scope boundaries are essential to prevent the RFI process from becoming unwieldy or losing focus. Experience in constructing RFIs to stay within scope can help here.

Despite these potential challenges, the value and benefits of a well-executed RFI process far outweigh the drawbacks. By acknowledging these challenges upfront and developing strategies to mitigate them, organizations can maximize the chances of a successful RFI process and ultimately select the right MarTech tools to drive marketing efforts forward. The time and financial investment in a well-run RFI are well worth it, making them valuable investments.

Colleen Scollans

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Colleen Scollans leads Clarke & Esposito’s Marketing & Digital Transformation Practice. She is a seasoned marketing, digital strategy, and customer experience leader. Prior to consulting, Colleen was the Chief Marketing Officer for Oxford University Press’s (OUP) Academic Division. See Full Bio

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