Mastering your ESP RFP: 2024 Update

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Since it’s been almost 6 years since I last offered advice on OI as to how to approach your RFP process, I thought it was time to revisit the topic in the OI blog. There have been a lot of changes during that time. So let’s get started!

1. Know when it is time to do an RFP

In marketing technology, the replacement cycle refers to the typical lifespan or period during which a particular type of platform or technology is expected to remain relevant and in use before it needs to be replaced. Platforms and technology are said to be in the replacement cycle when they can no longer keep up with the competition even with continued upgrades.

Understanding the replacement cycle is crucial for both brands and vendors, as it helps them plan and budget for future technology investments and upgrades. Additionally, vendors take the replacement cycle into account when designing and releasing new features, aiming to offer enough innovation and value to encourage users to stay the course and not replace existing platforms.

While the entire ESP vendor landscape is not in the replacement cycle, a large amount of email volume is going through specific platforms that have entered it. These are ESPs that were once leaders who have fallen behind other, newer ESPs due to various factors such as:

a) Outdated Features: Failing to keep up with the latest trends and innovations in email marketing results in a feature set becoming outdate compared to other ESPs.

b) Limited Integrations: Integration capabilities with other marketing tools and platforms are essential for many businesses’ email marketing. ESPs that lack integrations or fail to adapt to new integration needs can’t meet brands’ requirements.

c) Lack of Customer Support: Responsive and effective customer support is vital for resolving issues and optimizing email marketing strategies. ESPs that offer subpar customer support may be driving users to switch to providers with better service.

d) Limited Innovation: ESPs that stagnate in terms of innovation and fail to introduce new features or improvements will struggle to retain users who seek more advanced functionalities.

Older platforms have managed to keep pace with newer platforms for a period of time by addressing those items above, but for many the gap has become too great to remedy through platform upgrades. Fortunately for these ESPs, the replacement cycle can span several years due to the high costs and complexities involved in replacing an ESP.

Brands today need to take a hard look at their ESP and determine whether or not it has kept pace with the market and with their needs. If not, they have to consider an RFP. Waiting only puts a brand further behind its competition, and only delays the pain of an RFP and migration.

2. Don’t let the calendar choose your next ESP

Too many brands continue to underestimate the time it will take them to select a new ESP and migrate to that platform. By the time they realize that they didn’t give themselves enough runway, they often have no choice but to sign a new contract with their current vendor (who is likely not happy that there is an RFP in the first place). I call that, “letting the calendar choose your next ESP.” The fact is the process of conducting an RFP and then migrating to a new platform is getting more and more complex.

I used to advise clients to double however long they thought it would take. Today, I’m not sure that is even enough time. A lot depends on your particular program, including the number of data sources, triggers, and automations you are migrating over to the new platform. But perhaps the change with the most significant impact on migration timing is brands moving from a legacy ESP built on a relational database to a NextGen platform on a NoSQL database. And while that migration might take longer, in the right situations it can be well worth the extra effort. We’ll get to that shortly.

So how far out from your current contract expiration date should you start an RFP process? Depending on the items listed above it should be anywhere from 12-18 months before your current contract expires. And if you think that’s overkill, ask Ryan Phelan, the CEO at our migration partners RPE Origin. His answer will be to start the RFP even earlier!

The simple fact is, no one ever made a bad vendor choice, or did a subpar migration by giving themselves too much time. In fact, for RFPs there’s no such thing. But a rushed RFP is very likely to involve a bad choice and/or a rushed migration (which can lead to all kinds of problems, both immediately and down the road).

3. Determine if the database type matters (to you)

The first ESPs typically used flat files for data storage, although there was a lot of experimenting going on as to what was the best approach to data storage, including relational databases. Without getting too geeky, flat files are simple and flexible for storing small amounts of data, relational databases offer a more structured and efficient solution for managing larger datasets with complex relationships and integrity requirements. It’s hard to say exactly which ESP first used a relational database for storage, however ExactTarget (now SFMC) was one of the pioneering ESPs that significantly contributed to the adoption of relational databases for managing email marketing campaigns. While ExactTarget might not have been the absolute first ESP to use a relational database, its innovative use of technology played an important role in shaping the email marketing landscape between 2000-2010.

NoSQL databases began to gain traction among ESPs after 2010 as a response to the growing awareness of some of the limitations of traditional relational databases, particularly in handling large-scale, distributed, and unstructured data. NoSQL offered advantages such as horizontal scalability, flexible data models, and better performance for certain use cases. In fact, every new enterprise ESP platform launched since 2010 is built on a NoSQL database (as well as every single CDP on the market).

For brands running an RFP today, the first question to ask is whether a relational or a NoSQL database might be a better fit for their program. The choice between using an ESP with a relational database or one with a NoSQL database depends on various factors, including the specific needs and characteristics of your email marketing operations. If your email campaigns rely heavily on structured data with well-defined relationships, a relational database might be the answer. This includes customer profiles, purchase history, subscription preferences, etc.

On the other hand, an ESP with a NoSQL database may be better suited for email marketing programs that prioritize scalability, flexibility, high availability, real-time processing, schema evolution, and cost-effectiveness. It's important to note that these are general considerations, and the optimal choice for a brand depends on its specific requirements and the capabilities of the ESPs being evaluated. The point is that if one or the other of these scenarios reflect a particular brand’s needs, that should impact the ESPs included in its RFP evaluation. I’m not suggesting that every RFP include only one or the other type of ESP, I am merely pointing out that these are important things to consider before deciding on a list of vendors to include.

Choosing the right ESP is never an easy task, nor is it something that should be done quickly. It takes a lot of hard work, and the right knowledge to get it right. But the risks associated with getting it wrong are endless, painful and costly. So be sure that you honestly evaluate your current ESP, that if you decide to RFP you give yourself plenty of time to select and migrate, and that you consider whether or not the database structure of your new ESP matters one way or another.

annie spratt XyBeP4K9Vzs unsplash 1 600Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash