Web Content Management (WCM) RFP and the Mystery of White Papers

There's a useful article (white paper) published today on Computer Weekly: " Best Practices for Web Content Management System Selection".

At SupplierSelect we concentrate on building tools that help buyers to make good decisions. Maybe because of that we don't know anything about marketing or sales. In fact, if you're reading this it's a miracle, because we don't get much traffic! "White Papers" have always confused me. At first I thought they represented some bleeding of academic rigor into the world of commerce. I assumed the authors would be learned professors shuffling out of an ivory tower to squint objectively at the squalor of the business world.

The reality, while less quaint, is more convoluted. The pattern seems to be this:

  1. A technology vendor has a marketing budget, and gives some of it to a marketing company
  2. The marketing company suggests a White Paper and contacts a publisher (Computer Weekly)
  3. The publisher puts forward a journalist, (Beth Stackpole), and asks her to write an article about the technology vendor's sector, ideally not saying anything too shabby about the sponsor
  4. The journalist finds some experts who know something about the industry. Maybe she already knows them? Perhaps they are old flames from the saucy days of the 90s boom. I'd like to imagine a boozy lunch in a discrete bistro but perhaps it's an Appalachian organic pumpkin juice at the yoga centre
  5. Experts provide quotes and advice, journalist writes article
  6. The article appears on the publishers website as a White Paper but it can only be read after a contact form is completed
  7. Form submissions go to the marketing company, who then present the vendor with a new list of leads

Ta-dah! A White Paper is born. I guess there's nothing wrong with this process, especially (as in this case) if the article is good and the expert provides sound advice. Personally, I can't escape a vague whiff of perfidy around the term "White Paper" - it suggests an independent rigor that doesn't fit with marketing budgets etc.. To be fair, in this case, the paper is clearly marked as sponsored by the vendor (E-Spirit) so there's no smoke and mirrors there. It's no doubt naivety on my part - why doubt the sincerity of technology journalists any more than that of academics at a grand college campus paid for by a robber baron oligarch?

There, I've talked myself around. Maybe we should sponsor one ourselves. The risk is that it might work, and we get invited to respond to an RFP. We hate responding to RFPs. Not because RFPs are inherently bad, but because we know what an efficient RFP process for respondents should be, and it's just agony to deal with reams of documents that are definitely not asking good rfp questions. It's like asking a BMW engineer to prove BMWs are good cars by making him race in a Lada.

The article about WCM selection has some solid suggestions, especially from Tony Byrne at the Real Story Group. He is quoted as stating that his firm avoids "sending a generic checklist of requirements to vendors", instead advising clients to "to develop business-related test cases so they can better evaluate systems in head-to-head comparisons". That is excellent advice and it reassures me that we're on the right track with a new feature we're developing in SupplierSelect. We're not sure what to call it - maybe "Internal Criteria" or "Private Sections" - suggestions welcome.

The idea of this yet-to-be-named feature is that it's often necessary to factor information into a buying decision that isn't captured in the standard RFP. For example:

  • For technology RFPs, there is often a vendor presentation or demo
  • In banking, there is a "Star Chamber" - basically a price negotiation conference
  • For any RFP, there might be a lookup of customer references that occurs after RFP responses are received

SupplierSelect advocates a structured RFP methodology. Evaluation criteria for a WCM RFP would be broken down into a hierarchy of sections and subsections, and weightings are applied at each level. This is great for producing pretty charts, but it risks leaving crucial aspects of the decision outside of the analytical framework. So the idea of the new feature is to be able to flag some sections of the RFP as Private, Internal or something. Those sections will not be exposed to vendors answering the RFP, but it would be possible to evaluation staff to record Scoring Comments against those criteria. Thus a Web Content Management RFP might have five top level sections:

  1. Company Background - 15%
  2. Functional Requirements - 40%
  3. Maintenance - 10%
  4. Support - 10%
  5. Presentation and Test Cases - 25%

Section 5 would be flagged as "Internal". Vendors would not see this when they submit their initial RFP response. Perhaps out of ten respondents, a short-list of three are invited to give presentations and workshops. The results the presentations would be factored into the total evaluation structure as section 5 (here shown with a weight of 25%). Regarding how to get the most insight from vendor presentations, Cynthia Siemens has some good advice about avoiding a "Dog and Pony Show" with vendor presentations.

Our previous approach to this topic was to suggest that scores in the initial RFP be adjusted in the light of future information (earlier faq article). However this never really felt satisfactory, and we could tell clients weren't very impressed with that solution. We feel much more positive about this new approach, and look forward to rolling it out in the next month or two. (any suggestions for the name appreciated!).