Writing a winning RFP for healthcare marketers

April 13, 2016
Stephanie Burton Director, Healthcare Marketing

“Oh, great. An RFP.”

That was my reaction when I worked for one of the Midwest’s most reputable health systems and learned I had to write an RFP. True, we needed some extra help. But, I didn’t know what to include. I didn’t want (in my most blatant whiny voice) to work with an agency. And, I didn’t know how to start my search.

In the end, my research yielded great results. I was able to find an agency that not only met our health system’s needs, but actually made working together easy (hint: it’s the agency I work for now).

I have combined what I learned during my years on the healthcare provider side with what I now know about working for an agency. The result is this list of Dos and Don’ts for any healthcare marketing professional in search of an agency partner. Don’t want to go it alone? Go to the end of this piece to download a copy of a RFP template.


DO allow for a bit of creativity.

When you’re seeking creative services, it’s important to allow room for a creative response. Sometimes, the RFPs we receive are so prescriptive they become a virtual straight jacket for those of us responding. By loosening the parameters, you will create an environment more conducive to a creative response that transcends your expectations.


DON’T ask for unnecessary information.

There is nice-to-know information and there is need-to-know information. When it comes time to reviewing the box of proposals you’ve accumulated, you’ll thank yourself for keeping your request to a minimum. So will the agencies who respond to your RFP.


DO ask about the team who will service your account.

No surprise. We want to work with people we like. Not only do you want to know who will be on your team, you also want to know what role they will play in servicing your health system’s needs. Unfortunately, agencies sometimes perform a bait-and-switch act, bringing the “suits” in during the courting process and then leaving clients to work with junior-level staff.

When issuing an RFP, ask for biographies of the team. Look for the attributes that matter most to you and your team, including provider-side experience and a proven record of success.


DO ask about agency billing rates and processes.

Not all agencies have the same billing procedures. And, not all billing procedures are right for every client. For example, some agencies will charge more for a senior-level practitioner to work with your health system; others will offer a blended rate, charging the same hourly rate, no matter the experience level.

It’s also helpful to know the frequency of billing, mark-up rates for outside materials (including things like printing and media buying) and whether you will be charged for small expenses like photocopies.


DO disclose a budget.

You’re afraid that if you disclose a budget, the agency will use all of it, right? Not to fear, you don’t have to show all of your cards, but you should show some of your cards. Not only does this help establish transparency from the beginning of a relationship, it does something even more important – it allows you to compare the value of one agency to another when reviewing RFP responses.

DON’T prescribe the solution.

Provide your agency with the challenge, not the solution. Some examples of challenges could be “declining patient volume” or “increasing competition in the market.” Allow your agency to work with you to develop a solution. Often times, the best solution is even less expensive and more impactful than what you may have originally recommended. That’s how we help add value to your business.


DO define the scope.

Of course, if there are specific needs you have (e.g. design partner, media relations, social media, content production), be sure to mention this in your RFP. Understanding scope helps agencies determine whether the fit is right, saving both healthcare organizations and agencies valuable time and resources during the vetting process.


DON’T ask for speculative creative (pretty please).

Would you allow a patient to have surgery and not charge them (or their insurance company) for the procedure? When you ask a creative agency to produce spec creative, you’re asking us to work for free. That feels about as good to us as it does to these folks.

One more thing. Spec creative is rarely representative of an agency’s best work. Effective creative involves listening to the needs of a healthcare organization’s patients, conducting research and listening – all things that are virtually impossible to do within the abbreviated period of an RFP process.


DO ask for proof of measurable results.

Good news! Even without spec creative, there are still ways to develop an understanding about the quality of work an agency produces.

  • Ask for case studies. Generally, you should be able to get what you need with five to seven case studies featuring measurable results.
  • Require a list of client references. Any agency should be able to provide a list of three to five current or past client references.


DO give agencies time to respond to an RFP.

Agencies who are making the investment to respond to your health system’s request for proposal want to impress you. Give them the time to do so. At a minimum, agencies should have three weeks to respond, but no more than six weeks (there is such a thing as too much time).


DO tell us how you’ll measure the responses.

Having been a client, I know one thing for certain … reading through a dozen responses can curdle the mind. Make it easy on yourself by providing the criteria you will use to judge the responses.


Finally, don’t write your own RFP from scratch. To make it easy for you, fill out the info below to download a template.

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