How to Write an Effective RFP: A Comprehensive Guide for Higher Ed Institutions

Posted: May 24, 2023

Joy George Proofreader

10 min read

If you’ve found this page, there’s a good chance you’ve just been assigned to write a request for proposal – an RFP. It’s another thing added to your mile-long to-do list. We get it. You’re working hard. You have fewer people in your department. And now you have to write an RPF –  which maybe you’ve never done before. Or, maybe you’ve written one but not gotten the results you’d hoped for.

RFPs are a big part of the higher ed world. We see them every day, and as a higher ed-only marketing company, we go in search of them, too, hoping to find projects that can change the course of an institution – just like the one you’re about to work on (No pressure, right?).

Writing an RFP is hard work, and it may feel daunting, but if all goes well, the foundation you’re setting now can set up your institution for success, matching you with a vendor that can be the perfect partner for everything your RFP hopes to accomplish.

So let us help you. In this article, we’re going to work with you to understand RFPs – what makes a good one and what makes a great one. We’ll hook you up with some industry terminology that will be helpful when you’re writing your RFP, and hopefully make this a stress-free (or at least less stressful) process for you, allowing you to get the responses you need to get your project in motion.

What is an RFP?

First, a little background. Maybe this is your first RFP, maybe it’s been a while since you’ve written one, or maybe you’ve just never been trained on how to write an effective one. When institutions have big projects and big goals, they need companies that can meet or exceed their expectations, and an RFP can be the tool to help them find their right-fit partner. While rules and best practices say you should utilize an RFP – with companies aplenty bidding for your time – it’s important to find the company best suited to work with you. That means it’s to your advantage to clearly communicate your needs. If you’ve written an RFP before and received a lot of questions from potential vendors in response, or if you’ve never written one before, we’ve got some tips to help you make sure your RFP is seeking out the best partner for you.

To write a proposal that gets the responses you’re looking for, it’s important to include some critical information. If your RFP is missing these details, vendors will either make a guess based on assumptions, or worse, they might not even respond. (It’s true – your perfect vendor partner might not have enough information from a vague RFP to send a proposal and, if they’re busy, they may not have the time to track those answers down, even if they think they’re the right fit. Unfortunately, it’s a call we’ve had to make more than once.) So being clear up front with a few specific details can get you the responses you want to help your institution succeed. And it can save time for you in the long run. If you want the best proposals, and if you want to find someone who can deliver what you need, it is critical that you use a finely crafted RFP to make this happen.

What’s Needed in an RFP 

You don’t have to be Shakespeare or Hemingway to write a great RFP. We’ve never seen a flowery proposal, and if we did, it probably wouldn’t work. In our experience, there are some critical components that, if included, can make our responses to an RFP better for everyone involved. All of these pieces individually may seem pretty small, but they actually play a big role up front in scoping, pricing, and budgeting a proposal. And when you’re spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on this project, you want to ensure the proposals you’re getting are from the vendors that can provide the best service for you. So what should you be sure to include in your RFP? We feel strongly that RFPs should include:

  • Background information – Tell vendors about your school. What makes it special? What are your demographics? Who are the key players and stakeholders? What team/department/people will vendors be working with?
  • Situation – Who do you want to reach? What problem are you hoping to solve with this solution? (And even more detail here – if requesting help for digital/traditional media buying, it’s helpful for potential vendors to know your institution’s target markets (DMAs), specific enrollment or retention goals, KPIs, and specific initiatives/programs you’d like to advertise. With this information, we can determine a suggested media budget for you. It also allows us to see how much we can spend on agency services, helping out with the Scope of Work that you’ll receive in our proposal. 
  • Goals/Measurements – Be sure to include what your goal is for this project and how you hope to measure it. Being specific and setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) helps everyone involved know the expectations and have concrete ways of measuring success.
  • Expertise – Be sure someone in the field (marketing, web, etc.) has a hand in creating the RFP. The more technical you can be in an RFP, the better. It will cut down on assumptions and questions that you may receive if you can be as specific as possible in what you want.
  • Relationship – Be upfront about the type of relationship you want to have with a vendor. Is this a one-off project? Do you hope to work an extended period with the vendor? Or is it a short-term project with a chance to grow?
  • Expectations – Be upfront with what you want in a proposal. How long should it be? What are the factors that might automatically disqualify a vendor? Do you have any “hard” requirements? For instance, will you only be selecting an agency based in your state? Do you plan to re-select your incumbent agency? When vendors can see all of this information upfront it will save you time in the long run!
  • Budget – We know it can be tempting not to disclose a budget in the hopes of getting the lowest bids, but withholding a budget in an RFP means vendors are taking a shot in the dark. You’ll get vendors who aim too low and vendors who aim too high. You’ll get proposals missing deliverables you want and ones adding deliverables because they don’t have a baseline. Providing a budget allows an honest, equitable evaluation process. Not to mention, knowing a budget lets an agency come up with pricing that your institution can afford. An agency would rarely submit a proposal higher than your budget. If you give us a budget number, we’ll make it work or we won’t submit it. This information allows you to have a smaller, more accurate list of best-fit agencies to review.
  • Timeline – Understanding the timeline of the evaluation and acceptance process as well as your expectations of the actual creation of deliverables lets vendors know if they can meet your expectations or if they need to propose different ideas. Being open about your timeline will allow understanding and expectations to be established on both sides. Not to mention, a timeline helps us scope your project better and provide more accurate pricing.
  • Materials – Will the vendor you select to work with be working with already-made creative, or will they be creating new brand/advertising materials? Do you need campaign concepting? Creative assets? This allows better clarity for vendors to create a scope that fits what you want to accomplish.
  • Evaluation Criteria – Explain how you will evaluate proposals. What is the scoring process? Who (in general) will be involved?
  • Deliverables/Execution – What do you expect at the end of this partnership? What are the deliverables? Will the execution of deliverables be involved? Is that included in the budget?

The Icing on the Cake

Above are pieces of an RFP that, if included, we’re certain will have you receiving proposals that match what you want and will give you the most information for your decision-making process. Adding anything from this section will really make your RFP shine and will help make the proposals that come back to you top-notch.

  • Ensure your RFP is well crafted and take time to have a proofreader read over it to catch mistakes (including copy/paste mistakes from a previous RFP). Remember, this may be the first time a vendor is having interaction with you and your institution. Typos may seem small, but as with anything else, they can make your RFP look careless, which can lead to other questions about your institution.
  • If you have control over formatting, ensure it is published as a PDF. Sending an RFP as a Word document risks vendors being able to see those side comments from everyone in your department when the RFP was being drafted.
  • If allowed, send your RFP to specific agencies. While the money you spend may come from the government, meaning you have to allow anyone to send in a proposal, see if it will allow you to send RFPs to specific agencies. If you’ve done some homework, reviewed agencies, and feel like you might be a good fit, take some time to reach out directly to them with an RFP. That ensures they’ll see your request and be able to respond appropriately if they think they can work with you.
  • Provide examples or “we like” links. Maybe you’ve taken the time to look at creative or websites from your competitors, or you’ve come across marketing from another institution that catches your eye. There’s no harm in showing what you like. A reputable agency isn’t going to copy another institution’s design, but your preferences certainly can help inform the design.
  • Include a wish list. Separate from what you need the project in your RFP to accomplish, a wish list allows vendors to see possibilities that you may not originally think of. As we build proposals, we can take those wishes into account and perhaps offer a proposal that can incorporate some of those ideas as well.
  • Respond to proposals that didn’t win. It doesn’t have to be a long response, but a general idea of why a proposal didn’t get selected will allow vendors to ensure the next proposal they send you is more of what you need. Any debriefing notes, scoring rubrics, qualitative feedback, the name of the winning agency, and a copy of their proposal are all really helpful pieces of information that agencies like to have to learn from if they’ve lost a bid.

Some Don’ts for Your RFPs

Don’t Ask for Spec Work

As a marketing firm, our success depends on the time and effort of creating creative and media plans for our client partners. While it may seem like a good idea to request spec work (“We’d love to see some ideas of what you think our creative might look like!” or “Could you give us an idea of what our media plan will look like?”), the opposite is true.

Why? Creating a design, a brand, and even media plans is not a quick process if done right. Here at VisionPoint, we take time to research your institution, understand the demographics and goals of your audience as well as the goals your institution has. We include strategists, account directors, and project managers, and hold stakeholder meetings to truly understand what our client partners need. Once we feel like we know our client thoroughly, it’s time for our writers and designers to get to work. They went to school for this and have created award-winning designs for our client partners, and this process takes time and expertise, though. Asking us to create what we think will work for you without the research means you don’t get our expertise but a stab in the dark based on our limited understanding of your institution and problem. The idea may not be the best and it may mean you could be leaving a really good idea on the table that just needed more time and investment. Another way of approaching this would be to ask the vendor to walk you through case studies of what they’ve done in projects similar to yours.

Don’t Ask for a Short Turn-Around Time

In all honesty, agencies need at least two weeks to fit RFPs into their schedule and develop well-crafted, accurate, and custom proposals for you. We understand that sometimes the timing is out of your hands and you may need to get an RFP out, but as much as possible be sure to pre-plan and be proactive with your RFP development and publishing. A good agency wants the time to give you a well-crafted proposal. There can potentially be red flags in next-day perfect proposals or in vendors who are available immediately.

Don’t Narrow Risk Management Options

We understand that sending out RFPs can be a bit nerve-wracking. You want a job done well and now you’re dependent on people outside of your organization. But while bid bonds and proposal bid bonds may feel like the right move, it narrows the pool of potential vendors significantly. In short, it limits a vendor’s ability to put the most cost-effective solution in front of you. Instead, consider adding a default requirement to your RFP. Require vendors to state whether they’ve defaulted on a contract before and make a decision as a team about what you’ll do about that. Will you take off points on the RFP scoring matrix? Will you deny RFPs from vendors who have previously defaulted? Or, require vendors to include their renewal rates? What percentage of higher ed clients renew with you year over year? By using one of these ideas instead, you’ll be able to better align the right vendors serving the higher ed market, thus giving you the best candidates for your job.

Now That You Understand RFPs, It’s Time To Go Write One!

We’ve laid out what we hope is a helpful blog post to get you started writing – to help you polish – your RFP. If you’re like us, though, you thrive on as much information as you can get. So, stay tuned for our guided template for writing an RFP, which will be full of step-by-step instructions, a glossary of frequent marketing terms, and tips for crafting the best RFP you can!

With over 22 years of enrollment-focused work in the higher ed industry, VisionPoint is eager to continue making strides to help client partners see the results they need to build classes that not only show up but graduate. We’d love to talk about what VisionPoint can do for your enrollment needs. Schedule a free consultation call today to discuss how we can help solve your challenges.