Friday, February 17, 2006

The potent power of proposals

In the old days, I'd lug my book around and do a dog and pony show with my work meticulously mounted to 16” x 20” black boards. It’s how they taught me to do it in art school. What they didn’t teach me was how to whip up a proper proposal.

I can’t remember the last time I showed my portfolio to a prospect. It’s sitting there in the corner gathering dust. What wins work these days are my proposals. As a matter of fact, if I get to the point of doing a project proposal, nine times out of ten, I’ll land the gig.

For a lot of folks, writing a proposal is often wrought with angst. Where to start? What to include? Don’t sweat it. You’ve come to the right place. I’m going to walk you through the process so you’ll be whipping out potent proposals that close the big deals.

Since many of my readers are graphic designers, the following focuses on a design proposal. But, with a wee bit of adaptation, the basic structure will work for any type of consulting-oriented project.

Before you start putting a proposal together, you’ll need a prospect. To find one of those elusive critters, read through some of my other posts. What you’ll learn should jump start your efforts.

Next, you’ll need to know what kind of information to gather. For instance, I use a fairly detailed questionnaire to gather information for web projects. You can find several questionnaires to jump start your interrogation, on the Resources section at Creative Latitude.

After meeting with your prospect and picking their brain, you’ll want to roll up your sleeves and get the scoop on what the competition’s up to and also get a take on the audience for your project.

Fire up your browser and begin checking out competitive sites and review any material that's been supplied to you by your client. Where are the holes? What's good? What’s bad? Where can you position your client for maximum impact?

If applicable, make some phone calls to vendors and suppliers. Ask their perceptions about your client and some of their competitors. What do they like? What don't they like?

From this you'll start to get a picture of the competitive environment. Write out your findings. If there's stuff the competition's doing better, don't be shy. Tell it like it is. Your client needs to know and you'll have the facts to back it up.

Next, look at the audience. Who are you talking to and what pushes their buttons? You can ask friends, family members and business associates that match the profile for their input and opinions. Cruise the net for forums and discussion groups where your audience may be hanging out.

Oh yeah, the profile. It's a good idea to distill the audience down to a single, albeit fictitious, character. This "person" is the one you'll be persuading (you little devil, you). You'll likely want their demographic info along with any other info you can gather such as color preferences, images that turn their crankshaft, web surfing habits, etc. You get the idea.

Okay, now you've got some ammo to play with and it's time to start playing Shakespeare. Typically, my proposals are divided into 10-13 categories:

1. Executive Summary
2. Current Situation
3. Project Goals
4. Competition
5. Audience
6. Creative & Marketing Strategies
7. Process
8. Fees & Reimbursements
9. Billing & Schedule
10. Conclusion
11. Company Overview
12. Clients
13. Awards

Here's the scoop on each.

Executive Summary
The Executive Summary is a one or two page overview of the entire proposal. It's also the last part of the proposal you'll write. Clients will usually go here or to the budget first. It's your job to direct where they go and when during the presentation meeting. Flex those bulbous biceps in the meeting and keep control. You don't want to let the cat out of the bag too soon.

Current Situation
This section is ... er ... your client's current situation. It's a recap of why they've called you in. This section will contain stuff like:

Although Client XYZ has a site in place, it is unfinished resulting in a poor visitor experience and erosion of the brand. The key issues are:

  • Most links are * not functional
  • Overall design is outdated
  • Top navigation area takes up too much screen real estate resulting in most content falling "below the fold."
  • The splash page (homepage) is unnecessary
  • The focus is on the company, rather than fulfilling the needs of the audience
  • There are no meta tags in place for search engines to index resulting in poor, if any, search engine rankings
  • The homepage is made entirely from graphics. Search engines require text in order to index pages and sites

(The above came from a real live proposal.)

Project Goals
On the heels of the current situation are the project goals. What the heck are you trying to accomplish? Well, this should be a no-brainer. You simply restate what you learned during your initial interview.

This is where any misunderstandings should crop up. It's better to address them now and not when you're 30 hours into the project and find you're totally off-base.

Here's where you're going to regurgitate all the stuff you learned doing your competitive spying ... er ... research. You'll want to document what they're doing poorly as well as where they shine.

This section is pretty much the same as the competition section. Spill your guts about who you're talking to, what's important to them and what motivates them. You'll want to either start or finish with a profile of a typical audience member — the person that reflects the entire audience.

Creative & Marketing Strategies
Here's where you'll strut your stuff — without doing any layouts or other creative work. The idea here is to explain what you plan to do — how you're doing to meet the project goals and make the audience drool, while scaring the heck out of the competition. All this while keeping within the budget and on schedule. Boy, are you good or what?

This is where you explain all the stuff you have to do to make your client the bee's knees in their industry. Detail each and every task you need to handle to get from the beginning to the end. It helps to justify those high fees you’re about to quote.

Fees & Reimbursements
This is the budget. The bottomline. Your meal ticket. List out every task and assign a dollar figure. Pretty straight forward. If you need help, swing over the Resources section at Creative Latitude and download the estimating spreadsheet.

Leave no stones, or tasks, unturned. Remember, the dough is much better off in your bank account than your client’s. They'd just spend it on frivolous stuff like payroll, supplies and such. You'd spend it on meaningful things like a Mazarati, a trip to a balmy South Pacific island, or a Rolling Stones concert. You know ... the important things.

Billing & Schedule
This is the area where you'll lay out the production schedule along with how and when you get da moolah. Be sure to give yourself some breathing room. Always, always, always under-promise and over-deliver. If you do this, you'll always be the knight in shining armor. As a rule of thumb, add 20% to keep yourself covered. Things always take longer than you expect.

You'll want to cover copyright issues here, too. What rights you'll be giving and what you'll retain. This includes a line that says you can use the work in your promotional efforts and include it in your portfolio. Reality check: Just because you did it, doesn't necessarily mean you can show it in all cases.

This is the first cousin to the Executive Summary. It should be a recap of what you're going to do and why your client was utterly brilliant in choosing you over your competition.

Company Overview, Clients & Awards
This final section is where you'll talk about your business' background, who you do work for, awards you've won, etc. It's the final section where you lay it on thick. Here's where all your experience comes to a head and shows the client that you're the right person for the job. You may want to include some current client testimonials to back up your ego-centric ramblings.

And there you have it. Piece of cake, no? Follow this prescription and you'll be whipping out professional proposals that will meet or beat your competition, every time.

Be sure you create a nifty cover and table of contents. Shoot your tome over to Kinkos or similar place and have it coil-bound with a clear cover and vinyl backing. You're potential client will be bowled over and you'll be smilin.'
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posted by Neil at 10:03 AM


Anonymous Mason said...

Thanks Neil! This is a big help to me at the moment.

11:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is awesome. Thank you very much for writing this!

6:34 PM  
Blogger Matt Williams said...

It is Maserati.

Thanks for this, to say that I angst over proposals is like saying the great wall of China is just a wall.

I'll print your article and put it on my office wall.

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate to say it after you have put so much work into a tutorial that I'm sure a lot of folks will find useful... But as a top manager in a publishing company, if you pitched me like that, I'd be very uninterested in working with you.

What you're proposing is fluff. Where are the meat and vegetables? What are you offering? It's all very well leaping about the boardroom and gradstanding a load of hot air, you devil, you (I mean, who says that in a business environment?) but I don't see any tangibles.

If you want to sell yourself and your ideas to me or other serious business people, you better make them visible. I LIKE the black art boards, glossy prints and tangible evidence that you're capable of doing some solid hard work rather than just wave your arms and say like the proverbial snake-oil seller: "Trust me!"

7:00 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

Mason, Anonymous & Matt,
Thanks for your comments. I'm happy you found it useful.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

Anonymous 2,
Thanks for your comments.

Perhaps I wasn't clear in how this process works, or at least how it works for me and several others I know. Typically, the proposal presentation comes after a referral from a satisfied client, a portfolio review or seeing a creatives work either in print or online. The prospect knows the person or firm is capable in terms of professional skills.

In my case, the majority of my work comes to me by way of referrals from clients and folks seeing my work online. My proposals help to reinforce things and give the prospect a step-by-step with regard to their particular needs.

In my opinion, the purpose of the proposal is to communicate the creative’s understanding of the project’s scope and goals. It meant to relate thinking skills, strategy and expertise. If it’s crafted correctly it’s a detailed document specific to the prospects challenge and needs. I don’t see it as fluff.

As for the “you devil,” ditty, I try to pop a bit of humor into my writing where I can. It’s something my audience has come to expect in my writing. Also, I’ve found people tend to remember things that give them a little chuckle.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Jenn M. said...

Hi Neil,

One question I have after reviewing a lot of proposal how to's (luckily, the design courses I've taken included instruction on how to do a propoal as well), is; Once you've handed over the proposal to the client, what's a reasonable length of time to wait for their reply?

I know for a fact that the most recent client prospect I'm trying for is an extremely busy Senior Vice President of a real estate company and I don't want to "stalk" her, but I know she has a lot on her plate.
It's probably an issue a lot of designers run into.


8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Both you and 'Anonymous' have a point - 'Anonymous' may be looking for 'products' or 'deliverables', ie - what will I get for this?

Your Process section implies a listing of products or services which should cover this concern.

I try to compress my proposals to one page - no one will spend time on long epistles no matter how compelling.

Best Wishes...

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great article.
it would be nice to see an actual example of a completed proposal.

3:10 PM  
Blogger HarryC said...

Good job, Neil. Thanks for the effort in doing this.

I think that anonymous2 is a mark.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

Great post! Thanks, I think I could use it, is a good pattern.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Fell said...

That was a great run-down and to the point. Thanks for sharing!

4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great starting point!
anonymous2 - get back to work

10:28 AM  
Blogger georgetheporge said...

A great starting place for writing proposal a+++++

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

F**ken love you...that's all I got to say!

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Philip Downer said...

Jenn M. asked how long she should wait for a reply before touching base with the prospect again. I have two answers to that question. After meeting for the proposal, send an immediate "Thank you for meeting with us" letter. This helps to establish you as the designated point of contact.

The best advice however, is to simply ask your client how they would like you to proceed. With as busy as your client is she may be ready to launch into development right away (albeit rare). She knows her schedule better than anyone and will appreciate your sensitivity to it. Bonus: you don't look desperate or stalker-ish!

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am preparing for a marketing proposal presentation I have next week for college. The problem is I can't come up with any good ideas. Any help is appreciated. =(

3:11 PM  

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