In this post, I’ll share an outline I use to create marketing project proposals. I’ll also throw in some tips and tricks I’ve learned from going through the sales process and putting proposals together.
A Collaborative Effort
Many of the proposals that I work on arise from a collaborative effort between a collection of partners who may be taking on different aspects of the project. This brings up a couple of issues that should be addressed early. First off, one party needs to be the primary driver of the proposal and the lead identity behind the project. Second, it’s essential that the team uses a collaboration tool to ensure that proposals get generated in a robust and time sensitive way.
I’ve been using Google Docs to manage the writing process because it’s easy to invite collaborators and share notes on changes for participants that may not be in the same office. I also like using docs because we can share not only the proposal but also the spreadsheets that contain project schedules and pricing information. Google Docs makes it easy to do real time edits, while chatting, plus there are some great widgets that allow you to quickly produce Gantt charts which visually express project timing.
Though this is not often the case, I’ve also worked on proposals where there is an internal stakeholder who wants to understand the proposal process and be involved to insure that the proposal meets the exact requirements of his/her supervisor. Google Docs makes it easy for them to participate in the process as well.
- COVER – The first impression, keep this clean and simple.
- HEADER – This is the brand identity of the project lead.
- CLIENT & PROJECT NAME – So they’ll know what it is before opening it.
- CONTACT & DATE – Who it’s from and how to get back in touch with you.
- EXECUTIVE SUMMARY – In this section you’re trying to succinctly demonstrate that you’ve been paying close attention to why they’ve requested a proposal, what their needs are, and why you are uniquely qualified to solve them. Here are some things you’ll want to work into this paragraph:
- What the client does
- How they are positioned
- The current challenge/opportunity
- How you will address it
- GOALS & SCOPE – Clearly outline the project goals based on the above summary. Also, define key constraints for the project in the scope area.
- PHASES – I like to break my projects into phases such as “discovery”, “strategy” and “implementation”. Depending on the size of the project there may be as many a seven distinct phases. Each of these phases needs a detailed description ofÂ activities, technologies, participation requirements, deliverables, and dates.
- SCHEDULE – The schedule is a visual representation of the timing elements from the previous section, usually a Gantt chart, but you can also use a table. In general, I prefer to avoid specific dates and instead use “week 1”, “week 2”, etc because it’s almost impossible to nail down specific dates until after you’ve been selected for the project. It is, however, possible to provide a clear view of how long the project should take.
- DELIVERABLES – This builds on the schedule and shows where deliverable fit into the schedule, usually in a table. Include sign-off dates, turn around times, etc.
- METHODS – I often put in a section on the methods that I’ll be using in the project, which I’ve already mentioned in the phases area of the proposal. This is also an excellent segue from the deliverables section because it flushes out some of your key practices and demonstrates how the deliverables are produced. This is a great place to include interesting visuals of deliverable and the process, if you have them.
- PRICING – Now that you’ve got them excited with the methods sections it’s time to talk dollars. How you handle this will depend on your fee structure. I usually charge based on the deliverables in the project, so it’s easy to tie a pricing schedule into the delivereable schedule. Of course, you’ll also want to include a down payment due on signing the contract. Make sure the pricing is clear and concise. I also usually highlight areas where it might be possible to save money, for example, showing what happens when we reduce our research participant group from 20 people to 10. Many clients appreciate the built in flexibility.
- LETTER OF INTENT- Including a letter of intent ommunicates that you’re serious about the project and that you’re ready to take the next step with the production of a statement of work contract. Much of the copy from this contract can be taken directly from your proposal. The letter basically states that the client has chosen to work with you.
- PROJECT TEAM – As I mentioned above, I work with partners on some of my projects so this is the place to let them shine. Make sure to include the key information about why they’re a good fit for the project. I like including photographs as well because it supports the tangibility of the project and team.
- FIRM BACKGROUND – A brief statement about your firm, past clients, website, etc.
- PROJECT MANAGEMENT – I usually also include a statement about the relationship of the project lead to the subsidiary service providers and how the project management will be conducted (i.e. what tools will be used).
- CASE STUDIES – if you’re planning on including a relevant case study, this is the place to include it.
- THANK YOU – I like to put a simple thank you at the end of the proposal along with an open invitation to call with any questions of comments.
Here are a couple of mistakes I’ve made, which I hopefully won’t repeat:
- BID SAFE – Always add some cushion to your proposals. It’s rare that a project goes from start to finish without a couple unexpected turns. This goes hand in hand with clearly defining your scope. If part of your project includes defining the scope for a larger project, then break the proposals up so that you have pricing flexibility moving forward. Most importantly, don’t take a project that you can’t make a profit on. I know that last part sounds obvious, but I’ve underbid on projects because I was really excited about them. In the end, it’s hard to stay excited if you’re losing money.
- STOP TALKING – You’ve got to know when to stop talking, and writing for that matter, during the proposal process. I’ve been involved with several clients that want to talk their way through the discovery phase before signing a contract. Once, I even provided so much information about how I was going to do the project that the client ended up trying to do it on their own. Make it clear that your time is as valuable as theirs and cut to the chase. It’s ok to say that continued conversations should be part of the project. In fact, doing so can help get you over the finish line if you feel like the conversation is beginning to go in circles. If your proposal is thorough it should solidly demonstrate that you understand the client and are ready to take the next steps.
- PROOF IT – Always have someone else, who hasn’t work on the proposal, read it before sending it to the client. After working on a proposal, often on a short deadline, you can’t see it for what it is. Find someone you trust to read it line by line and I guarantee that they’ll catch stuff.
At the end of the process you’ll want to share the proposal with your client, how you do this can have a significant impact on your likelihood of being chosen. One of the challenges of selling services is that they are not tangible, therefore it’s helpful to focus making your proposal “feel” like a representation of your team. I’ve written about this a greater length in my post about how product marketing informs service marketing. Key areas that support tangibility in the proposal include, the cover design, the methods presentation, the case study, and the project team presentation.
For my proposals, I usually include work samples that show samples of the kinds of deliverables the client will receive. I also include a case study if possible that relates to their project along with detailed team bios including photos. Though it’s possible to include links to additional material, I try and collect all the necessary information in one place to create greater continuity for the client’s experience reading the proposal.
You may ask, “to print, or not to print”? Printing proposals is one sure way to make them, and your firm, feel more tangible. This is especially true if you can include printed collateral from past projects. So, in general, I like sending hard materials if the project size justifies the expense of doing so. Ideally, you can design a presentation format that can accommodate these materials. I also always include a PDF. For the smaller projects, I just do the PDF.
As a last word, the best proposals are portfolio pieces that support your case.
Thanks for reading and shoot me a note with any tips or tricks you might add!