RFPs can be used as an effective tool to assist purchasing decisions. They help buyers compare offerings along similar criteria in order to highlight differences and facilitate evaluations. RFPs can play an important role in executing on the strategic planning process - business goals are assessed, capabilities and gaps defined, then companies act to close the gaps by building or buying. These are key activities that must be completed before issuing a RFP.
A RFP is not a shortcut for the strategic planning process. If you don't have these answers, soliciting 50-page documents from service providers won't solve this problem for you. Like strategy, RFPs shouldn't be identical, even when companies in the same industry seek to purchase similar services. This may sound quite obvious, but you might be surprised at the lack of strategic thinking that goes into many social media RFPs today.
Business works best when designed around specific parameters of a market situation. For example, I'd advise against taking another company's social media participation policy and adopting it wholesale. Or seeing a Facebook sweepstakes idea and running the exact same program, even if you're in a different industry and geography. Or using a photo of your customer service team as your Twitter avatar because your industry competitors are using that approach. You may be thinking, "of course not." So then why copy-and-paste a RFP without customizing for your own needs?
Buyers of social media services have benefited from the work of Maggie Fox's Social Media Group and creation of a Social Media RFP template. Unfortunately, too many lazy buyers have misused this source material; in the words of SMG themselves:
"the Social Media RFP template is too long, has too many questions, and many clients and purchasing departments are simply cutting and pasting the content with little or no thought about their actual needs."
If you think the term "lazy" seems harsh, then why would smart companies be asking for credentials in podcasting, del.icio.us, and virtual worlds? Last time I checked, Second Life wasn't high on any marketer's list of priority platforms. Taking this kitchen sink approach is a disservice to both buyer and seller.
I've always been an advocate of creating solutions when uncovering issues - stay tuned. In the meantime, I'm interested in hearing about your experiences with social media RFPs from either side of the table.
Caveat emptor? Caveat venditor.