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Proposals

The Formula for Writing Good Web Proposals

August 2, 2016
Comments Off on The Formula for Writing Good Web Proposals

This is a long read; approximately 15 minutes.

Proposals are really hard to categorize, right? Are they a formality, or are they a gateway to your solution? I tend to lean more toward the latter, but I know others who loathe the proposal writing process. I love it! It’s a challenge in and of itself. And it’s your agency’s moment to outshine all the others. Even if you do have the deal in the bag, it’ll reinforce a client’s decision to go with you. Writing good web proposals is an art form. Proposals can be text heavy Google docs or visually stunning Keynote proposals. They can make or break a deal. They can get an organization to pay twice as much money, sometimes triple. This post is a presentation I gave last fall on The Formula for Custom Proposal Writing. This is also a follow-up to my earlier post on The Needs of Web Proposal Writing.

Proposal writing is not the same templated solution to every single web challenge, they should be different every time. And I’m not just talking about the content, I’m also talking about the presentation and design. Obviously, brand your proposal with your brand, but tailor your proposal to the individual or organization who’s receiving it. Give them a good user experience, something that caters to the authority and their needs.

Now, I understand that proposals can be considered the holy grail of an agency. I’ve worked for a few and being in the agency realm you come across other proposals, so everything I’m about to show you in this post is white-labeled (or my personal logo) and should not be associated with any of my previous agencies.  What I’m going to outline is the formula for custom proposal writing. The content should be your own, and it should focus on the prospect and their business.

Let’s Begin

Custom proposals do a few things for you. They make you look more professional, help you stand out from your competitors, and possibly land you bigger clients and higher dollar deals. I get asked all the time whether you should write a text-heavy proposal or a visual-based proposal. Personally, I like visual-based proposals, but think of your user, who will be reading this proposal? Then make a decision.

I believe that proposals should capture and showcase success. You need your recipient to be able to visualize their project succeeding. They need to be able to read that proposal and have confidence that you not only understand their challenge, but you also have the right solution or approach. Proposals are your opportunity to communicate the value your solution will have. It’s also an opportunity to mitigate against any risk that may be on the horizon. In a proposal, you want to focus on the value that a successful engagement and solution would bring to your client’s business.

First…the fluff stuff goes at the end…

Before I get into the formula for proposals, I’d like to take a minute to talk about the things I call “fluff” — and I’m not talking about the white, sugary, fluffy Fluff, I love the stuff (no rhyme intended!). No, I’m talking about the fluff stuff you as a writer want to throw in your proposals because you think it’ll beef it up a little. You know what I’m talking about too — the ‘about us’ section, the ‘case study’ section, the ‘client testimonial’ section, the ‘leadership’ section, it’s all fluff, and it’s not something most prospects really care about. This is the reality – if you’re writing a proposal for someone, there’s a really great chance that they already like your work… and know about you… and have heard from some of your other clients… and understand that you have a solid leadership team. What they want is the solution to their

This is the reality – if you’re writing a proposal for someone, there’s a really great chance that they already like your work… and know about you… and have heard from some of your other clients… and understand that you have a solid leadership team. What they want is the solution to their problem or the approach you’re going to take to solve it.

What I do in most proposals is put all that ‘fluff stuff’ at the end, in some sort of an appendix. That way if the prospect is super curious and they send the proposal up the chain, it’ll be there just in case anyone needs it.

I’m going to assume that you have all the information you need to write a solid proposal. You’ve talked with your prospect several times, you’ve asked the right questions, you know what the challenge is, you’ve somewhat scoped the project, and you have an idea of what the solution is.

The Formula for Custom Proposal Writing…

*Sidenote: I’d like to preface this by saying, this is the way I write proposals, and it’s been effective for me. It doesn’t mean that other types of proposal writing styles won’t work, they most certainly will. All I’m trying to do is share the knowledge that I’ve gained over these last few years to help others in their proposal writing evolution. I hope you get something from this.

Proposals should have a good user experience, focus on the content then the presentation, and nothing should be set in stone. If you need to take out a proposal section, do it. If you need to throw in a different section, have at it. This is a flexible guideline.

Cover Slide

Be professional and use a cover slide. It can be an image of your staff at work. It can blend two logos (yours and the clients) together, it can be a picture of a wireframe. I personally like skylines. Just put a cover slide so the first page your prospect sees is not the table of contents.

Cover slide

Table of Contents

Make sure to put a Table of Contents to give your prospect a summary of the sections and insight into what’s to come. Here’s my Table of Contents (and essentially the Formula!):

  1. The Intro
  2. Research Analysis
  3. The Rundown
  4. Scope of Work
  5. Ideas
  6. Timeline & Investment
  7. Appendix:
    • About Us
    • Case Studies
    • The Kicker
    • Info Page
Section One: The Intro

The intro needs to be short, articulate, and authentic. Short, articulate, authentic. It should really convey 5 things:

  1. Excitement: Be jazzed to be involved! “We’re thrilled to be a part of this engagement…”
  2. Experience: Showcase your expertise “Our agency has been doing this for years with industry company and sector business…”
  3. Recognition: Recognize who you are doing business with and why they’re so great. “Your company leads the way..”
  4. Acknowledgment: Admit that there is a problem… but then…
  5. Assurance: Reassure your prospect that you can fix it.

Put heart into the intro, personality. It needs to convey these 5 things and in a single page, see below.

Intro

 

I also think a way to stand out is to tailor design to the individual company. Let’s say you’re working with a newspaper, I would put together a proposal that looked like a newspaper:

 

Newspaper web proposal

Obviously, this is lorem ipsum text, but something like this can make you stand out even more. It can also make a connection with your prospect that links your work to their company and industry subliminally paving the way for you to win a deal.


Section Two: Research Analysis

Many agencies leave this section out of a proposal, but I think it’s powerful. Show that you understand their problem by knowing their industry, competitors, and business. Take some time to really explore and understand their challenge. Challenges come from different areas. Companies have certain problems that plague that particular industry.

Example: Higher Education — Higher Ed has a number of challenges just being a university or college. First, they’re usually decentralized, so ownership can create issues and different departments tend to compete with each other. They also have a number of users that they need to cater to, right? There are the older alumni who aren’t necessarily comfortable being online. There’s the faculty and staff, who can range a great deal. Then there’s the students and prospective students who live their lives online, and expect super personalized experiences online. So, imagine you’re writing a proposal for an Ivy League Institution. Would they want to know that you understand all the challenges they face as an Ivy League school? Or at least some of them? For sure!! So how do you do that?

You research. Look at their competitors’ websites, what are they doing right, what are they doing wrong? What are the best in the business doing? Convey that in this section. I always put nice imagery of sites that I looked at and snippets of text that demonstrate we have a handle on their industry’s digital realm.

Exploring competitor's mobile sites for web proposals

You can do this in different ways, but I usually explain that I took some time to explore the current landscape, their competitors, and themselves. Obviously, you’re also looking at their website, feel free to point out what they are doing well, and areas they can improve.


Competitor's websites proposal writing

Now you can call this section whatever you want, ‘researching current environment’, ‘exploring the landscape’, etc. Or you can get super creative and tailor it to the individual company by putting in titles that are custom to their business. Like if you are putting together a proposal for a Travel blog, you could call this section “Exploring Adventurous Places.” If you were working with a newspaper, you could call this section “Uncovering a Real Story.” Or something like that, you get the drift! What it needs to do, is let your prospect know that you actually have a grip on what they are going through. That you are walking in their shoes! That you understand their environment, and they can see you as a really good fit to partner with on this upcoming project of theirs.

discovering new and adventurous places web proposal


 

Section Three: The Rundown

This section is called different things. Some people call this the Executive Summary, others call it The Approach section. Internally, I like calling it The Rundown. Why? Simple—this is where you give your prospect the rundown. Now, when I write the proposal, I’ll usually call it a summation, or synopsis, or approach, totally depends. But my rundowns consist of a few things. One, we have a proven approach or methodology that works. Two, we understand their objectives and need to regurgitate them back to the prospect while also connecting them to possible outcomes (more on that to come!). Three, we have a great working style that the prospect (soon-to-be-client) will integrate with very nicely and can work with their ever-crazy schedule.

The Approach and/or Methodology is your process. The process that helps your clients succeed. The one that’s been refined over time, and the one that will make this project successful. You don’t need to go into a lot of depth here because your process will be a part of the scope of work section that’s coming up and we’ll dive a little deeper into the process then. You can do something as simple as the FDD (Feature Driven Development) Overview created by Jeff Deluca seen here:

FDD Overview - proposal writing


Or you can do something like this:


 


The point is, you just want to give them an overview. You want them to understand how the process works and why they’ll benefit from it.

For the objectives, you’ll want to quickly let the prospect know that you’ve heard their concerns, wants, needs, and you’re prepared to help. I usually do an output vs. outcome (the brainchild of Chris Murray, my previous CEO) type of comparison. Map features to objectives. Example: We want to have an email newsletter to show our biggest readers we really care about them. Or. We want to have innovative social media shares and like buttons to increase social engagement and awareness. These are outputs and outcomes. The output is the feature (or deliverable) and the outcome is the objective. When you can compare these two things and connect them for your prospect, it’s a sure fire way to let them know they’ve been heard.

Output and outcome

Now you can do this any way you want. This can be the section of the proposal that’s directly addressing your prospect. You can do this in letter form if that’s easier for you. I always think less is more in this section, but I know others who disagree.

Working style should give the prospect a quick glimpse into the project flow but not in relation to the process, but the relationship. How will your new client work with you? Why would they like it? The way I do this is by putting one page (or slide) and showing some fun picture of the team. Then breaking down how communication will work while the project progresses. You can break it down on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. You can talk about the tools you’ll use to help with communication. Believe or not, a big fear I’ve seen people have is the communication workflow. Putting together a few pages on this can really ease their minds.

Working style section of a proposal

 

Again, keep this section short, maybe 4-5 pages if you’re using imagery. 2-3, if it’s all text.

Section Four: Scope of Work

Now we get into the meat of things. This is the solution laid out, or the process in more detail. Most web projects follow a similar trajectory that starts with some type of discovery or strategy session. You can make this text-heavy, or you can illustrate it with images. I prefer the latter (again, less is more), but what you’ll want to do is outline the project overview, the task list, and the deliverables. What’s going to take place, what deliverables do you foresee, and what assumptions (if any) are there? I’m not going to go too much into this section, because for each agency, although similar, will have different scopes. The scope of work is what you did in the sales process so you should have this information.

Part 1: Strategy: Discovery, Stakeholder Interviews, Company Survey, etc.

Part 2: Design: Information Architecture, Wireframes, Mockups, User Experience Testing, etc.

Part 3: Technical: Building the platform, Systems Integrations, Iterations, etc.

Part 4: Ongoing: Continued Strategy, Enhancements, Maintenance, etc.

Certainly, this will look different if you’re an SEO agency or marketing agency, or any web agency because every project is different. This is your own. This is your solution. What I want to say about this section is this: The scope of work should detail the engagement, the project overview, the task list, and the deliverables. This is the section where you talk about actions (Discovery will include 5 stakeholder interviews, complete content assessment of materials, definition of user personas, etc.) and it should also outline deliverables (the deliverable from our discovery session will be a strategic findings document outlining user stories to drive the development process, design and creative objectives, etc.) You may also need to put in parameters (or assumptions) that mitigate any risk (based on the current information architecture we envision having to create and design up to 10 unique page templates).

The other thing that I need to stress here is making sure to connect the scope of work with the benefit your prospect’s business will receive from it.

Example — Scope of Work: Design

  • Information Architecture testing – We will create a new information architecture for the platform and leverage IA testing tools to test the navigational structure. We envision doing 2 rounds of user tests to get to a refined navigation for your site. This will ensure that the terminology used will be the most optimal for an intuitive navigation enabling your users to move through the site with complete confidence and accuracy.

You never sell the technical aspects to a project, you sell the benefits. Or I should say you communicate them effectively.

The scope of work can be a tricky section to get right. This section can end up being rather long too, so I suggest only adding in the essentials here. Often times, I will give a couple options in the scope of work section. I’ll do that for a few reasons, but the biggest one is because people like options. And when you give the prospect options, they’ll compare the options to themselves, not other agency’s solutions. Of course, if you work very closely with your prospect and understand all of their needs, then just write one scope of work.

Again, the prospect needs to know what you’ll be doing, what you’ll be giving them, how it will affect their business, and also that deliverables are not limitless (well…unless there’s a limitless budget!).

Section Five: Ideas

I always like throwing in an ideas section. You can also turn this section into an initial mockups section, but that’s only if you work with a huge team and have time/money to spend on initial mockups. But putting in an ideas section will do a couple things. One, it’ll show the prospect that you’re thinking about the bigger picture (and it shows investment). And two, you may find an opportunity to add in an extra feature and make more money.

You can either put together something as simple as a list of ideas

List of ideas proposal


Or it can be more visually stunning.


Interactive map for ideas on web proposals


Again, an ideas page should show real thought, so put some real thought into the ideas that you suggest. This can be really helpful in closing new business, and it helps a prospect visualize the possibilities.

Section Six: Timeline & Investment

This is pretty straight forward. I’ll outline the timeline like this:

Timeline overview

Or do something similar, graphs are always a good way to show the timeline. But after this slide, I’ll go into a much more granular view of the project timeline. I’ll put certain milestones like design sign-off, gray site launch, user acceptance testing, and more.

I’ll break out investment to match the scope of work section. So, if I have a Discovery & Strategy section in the scope of work, that will correlate to a number in the investment.

Investment


And as we all know, the investment is usually the last thing on the proposal.

Appendix

Remember what I was talking about earlier—the fluff stuff—well…this is where your appendix should go right after the investment. I always add something special in my appendix. This is what I’ll usually have:

  • About us: this will give the history of your agency, why you’re in business, values the agency portrays, leadership team, etc.
  • Case Studies: this is obvious, use ones that are similar to the project that you’re going to be doing for this new client. Or show case studies that have companies in your prospect’s industry.
  • The Kicker: what’s the kicker, you ask? Well, the kicker can be anything. It usually involves some type of web/digital best practice or best of breed process. It all depends on what the prospect is concerned with in conversations. If the prospect is really concerned about SEO, put in a few pages on SEO best practices (there’s plenty of resources out there — MOZ). If your prospect is worried about content, put together a few resources to generate content ideas.  You get the drift. This shows that you listened to what they were saying, and you went out of your way to lift some of their burden and help them out.
  • Info Page: this one should be obvious too, but if not, make sure to put in a quick recap of being a good fit for this engagement and thank them. Along with all your contact info. I always say “it was a pleasure getting to know your team, we’re super thrilled…”
Some Ending Thoughts

People usually write proposals in two ways — either with text-heavy documents or more visual slides. I tend to lean toward using visuals over text. It’s not to say that either way is better. Whatever works for you is better. But I’ve written 25 page super text-heavy documents and 150 page visually stunning proposals with imagery, icons, etc. I find that people usually like short spurts of information. So, I put my slides together (I almost always use Keynote to create proposals, even though it’s horrible for collaboration, I’m hoping that’ll change soon!) and don’t have much text on a page. The overall proposal will be a lot longer page-wise, but the reading experience is much quicker and they’ll go through slides fast. Which can be fun if the page that you’re viewing is interesting to the viewer. Remember when you’re writing proposals to put yourself in your prospect’s shoes. Would you enjoy reading this proposal if you were your prospect?

A quick recap on the formula for writing good web proposals…

  1. The Intro:
    • Knowledge and heart — be short, articulate, and authentic. Set the stage!
  2. Research Analysis:
    • Walk in your prospect’s shoes. Understand their challenge by understanding their business, industry, and competitors.
  3. The Rundown:
    • Referred to as the summary, approach, objective, whatever! This section should outline your approach/methodology, prospect’s objectives (outputs vs. outcomes), working style.
  4. Scope of Work:
    • The different steps to succeed at this project. Project overview, task list, and deliverables. And any assumptions. What you’ll be doing, what you’ll be giving your new client, how it will affect their business, and what parameters are in place?
  5. Ideas:
    • Show the prospect that you’re invested and thinking about the bigger picture. Possibly more opportunities for a bigger engagement.
  6. Timeline & Investment:
    • Timeline overview and granular look. Scope of work steps and their associated costs.
  7. Appendix:
    • About Us: Agency history, culture, values, etc.
    • Case Studies: similar in industry or scope.
    • The Kicker: web/digital knowledge that the prospect is concerned with and can benefit from.
    • Info Page: We’re an awesome fit, thanks for everything, look forward to continuing discussions. Here’s our info.

Ok – hope that helps! Any thoughts, just let me know.

The Needs of Web Proposal Writing

June 25, 2016
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Casting a wide net, web proposal writing is probably one of the most daunting yet creative activities one can do in the tech space. Proposals can be the gateway to a super awesome project that soars to success and makes the client very happy…or it can lead to a resounding “we’ve gone with another agency, but thanks for all the time you put into this” reply from your prospect. Proposals can also be the beginning of revision after revision to get the prospect’s challenge mapped to the right solution through hours of project scope development. Ahh…the possibilities…I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone that’s liked proposal writing as much as I do. 

For some, proposals are merely an estimate of what it would cost to get a project done. For others, it’s a templated document where little changes are made except for the company name and date. For me, proposal writing is a journey. It’s a journey of discovery, understanding the challenge, mapping the right solution, building a relationship, and finally presenting that journey with conviction and delivery. 

Many agencies churn out proposals like a shoe factory because they feel proposal writing is just a formality, a number, another template, a means to an end. But it’s not. A proposal is the gift one gives to a company or brand to solve their problem. And that needs to be done with thought and care, strategy and information, good design and presentation, and maybe even a little love. I am not an expert by any means, but I have years of experience writing proposals for web agencies. I wanted to share my evolution of proposal writing and how the actions that proceed the proposal writing process are of the utmost importance.  In order to write strong proposals, you need to ask smart questions.

Proposal writing starts with a question…

As many biz dev people know, proposal writing starts with a single question:

“What is the challenge that needs to be solved?”

This starts the conversation! Now, often times, companies and the people who work for those companies may not know the true answer to this question. And that’s where things like qualifying and scopingQuestion Mark  really help in identifying a few things.

The way I would usually start the process is by having a phone call with the prospect to understand their needs and objectives. One question I always liked asking or opening with was “what do you want the world to know you succeeded at when this project is finished?” – it’s a great way to get them jazzed about the project and get them feeling good about the conversation they’re having. Keep in mind, they are probably having similar conversations with other biz dev people at other agencies, so anything that’s a little different might surprise them and make you stand out.

The absolute must-knows when writing web proposals..

  1. NEEDS — every company has a need (maybe many) that should be addressed and this may require some digging on your part to really understand those needs. There’s nothing worse than writing a proposal and totally missing the mark on the objective!
  2. AUTHORITY — establishing this is very important. Who is the true decision-maker? But this can be tricky in the beginning stages of scoping a project. Since big brands/orgs will usually send those lower on the totem pole to vet agencies, this may take some prying (and some demonstration on your part that your agency is good) to get to the right person.
  3. TIMELINE — understanding expectations around when a company wants their project to be finished can make or break the proposal writing process. If they have a huge project, but want it done in 3 weeks, that would put the fire out instead of lighting a fire, catch my drift? Onto the next proposal.
  4. BUDGET — getting a sense of what your prospect is willing to pay for their desired outcome is really important. Many people don’t want to give you a number and say “well, just write the proposal with the price tag you think should go in it” – ugh!! That’s a sure-fire way to failure. So, make sure you get some sense of what they are willing to pay, even if it’s saying “projects like that typically fall somewhere between $30k and $50k, does that sound like it would be within your budget?” – anything’s better than no number at all.

Now that you’ve taken care of the absolutes, you can move into the decision making part of the proposal writing process. That’s right…you need to decide whether or not this fits within your parameters. That’s something only you can answer, but I would look at a few things:

  • Lead source: where did your prospect come from? Are they a referral or did they find you in a Google search? I’d opt to go for the one who came in from someone you know than the one who just searched “web agency boston” and came to your site.
  • Project Challenge: is this project challenging for your team and their skill levels? How long would it take them to do, are there any aspects of the project you’re unsure of?
  • Timeline / Budget: is the budget where it needs to be for the project? We all know different agencies charge different prices and can deliver projects at different paces. Does the prospect have a reasonable timeline?
  • Project Match: is the project good for your agency, your brand reputation? Would it be something you’d want to put your name on? I know many agencies who won’t work with the cigarette companies or adult entertainment companies because they don’t want to put that out in the world. So…ask yourself if this is something you’d be proud of when the project is finished.
  • Location: is this company nearby? Can you meet with them in person? In the age of digital, many projects are all done online, and that’s ok. But maybe you’re an agency that likes to meet face to face. Or maybe the client is in Shanghai and you’re located in New York, that’ll make for many a late night!
  • Gut feel: I think this is a good one to mention. Your instinct — how do you feel about the project as a whole, the people you’re engaged with, the company’s objective? Do you think you have a shot at winning? That’s always a tough question to answer (I never thought I’d lose any bid, lol!).

Really scoping the web project and minimizing the creep..

We’ve all heard it—Scope Creep—the infamous added feature that sneaks its way in after the project discovery session when a new stakeholder rears their head and says “hey, but what about this…”

Well, sometimes scope creep is inevitable, but if you can minimize that while you’re scoping, the web proposal writing process will be a little easier.

There are really only two ways to mitigate against scope creep. One way is to understand the full breadth of the project, which can be really difficult, right? Sometimes things just pop up or change happens due to a shift in business, market, or whatever. The second way is to use parameters or boundaries in your web proposal writing. I like to do a combination of both.

Obviously, every project you encounter is going to be different, so depending on what needs/objectives your potential client has, it will guide the questions that you follow up with. If a prospect tells you that they want you to do a branding and logo design, are you going to ask them if they want to use a membership plugin or module? Probably not. So, instead of articulating what to ask on every type of project (that might be impossible, or entirely too long of a blog post), I’m going to type out a mock call so you can get an idea of where to take things.

I’ll set the stage for this scope call…

The potential client wants to do a redesign of their website — they are a travel blog that want their users to sign up for their newsletter and they offer readers ratings and reviews of travel destinations. You’ve spoke to them one time and have gotten the logistical stuff out of the way (Needs, Authority, Timeline, Budget). Here’s the email you were sent with information from Tony at TotallyTravel Blog (fictitious blog..or so I hope!).

Hi Adam,

Thanks for the intro call, I liked learning a little more about your agency and your approach to a website redesign. Here's a little more information on our project. We have TotallyTravelBlog.com that's a custom PHP homegrown content management system. We have about 5 writers that write content for us, but would love to have more. We also have a newsletter that goes out once a month and our goal is to build our subscriber list. We offer travel ratings and reviews on our site and we would like to improve our SEO. We can definitely hop on another call to go over any questions you might have.

Best regards,

Tony

Ok — first and foremost with a prospect like this, they will almost always send you some sort of RFP RFP on blackboard(request for proposal), so you’ll have information of the basics and maybe even a little bit more. I’ve never read an RFP that’s given me everything I need to write a proposal. So you’ll need to get on a call.

But, right off the bat, we know a few things, right? They are in the media space because they blog about travel, and they have subscribers, so what does that entail? They also have writers (so think WordPress roles), and they’re concerned with their SEO (what does that look like?). Here’s a mock call:

Begin Conversation

Adam: Hey Tony, it’s Adam calling from Being AJiLe, how are you?

Potential Client: Good, good, Adam, and yourself?

Adam: I’m fantastic, thanks for asking. So, I’ve received the information you sent over on the project and I do have some questions. The first one is about the PHP CMS, how much legacy data do you have? I imagine there’s going to be quite the migration involved with this redesign, correct?

Potential Client: Yes, so all the posts will need to be migrated to the new CMS.

Adam: Ok, cool. But just to clarify, the posts aren’t all that need to be migrated, correct? I imagine there are images, authors, tags, categories, and other content types that will need to be moved over as well?

Potential Client: Yes, yes, all that stuff will need to be migrated as well.

Adam: Ok, awesome. What would be super helpful is if we could get an idea of how many content types you have and maybe we could even get a sample of the content types to get a gauge for how relationships are set up? (Sidenote: how many content types are important to know, usually content types (or post types in WP) are going to have different outputs, which could mean unique designs. Also relationships between content types can get tricky with migrations. On this one, more than likely, certain scripts will have to be written to map relationships to content types)

Potential Client: Sure, no problem, I can get that for you.

Adam: Perfect! Now you said in your email that you have about 5 writers? What does their workflow look like with the current CMS? (Sidenote: this will give me an idea of what permissions might look like, and if there’s any way to minimize steps to make things easier for them)

Potential Client: Yeah, so this is big problem internally. We actually have our authors write the posts in Google Docs, they share it with our two editors that approve the posts and then work with our web admin to put them in the current CMS. It’s been quite the hindrance, so that’s why we’d like to migrate CMS’s. We’ve heard good things about WordPress.

Adam: Yeah, so WordPress has got certain user roles written into the CMS. So, your whole workflow that you have right now could be done a lot smoother with WordPress. We could assign your writers roles of either contributors or authors depending on permission levels and they could work right within the CMS instead of outside of it. Editors and admins, also WordPress user roles, would be able to approve things in WP and could push content live. The whole workflow would be much easier to handle.

Potential Client: Ok, that’s great and exactly what we’re looking for.

Adam: Cool, yeah I think WordPress might be a really good fit for you guys, but you also said that you offer certain ratings and reviews? How is that currently done?

Potential Client: We integrate with TripAdvisor

Adam: Ok, interesting. Do you know if it’s just a snippet of code that’s pulled from TripAdvisor or are you using some sort of API?

Potential Client: I believe we just take snippets of code that TripAdvisor offers and insert it into our website.

Adam: Ok, I’ll have to do a little digging into TripAdvisor and see what technologies they offer, they could have a widget or plugin that might work with WordPress. If not, then we’ll have to take a deeper look.

Potential Client: Ok, sounds good.

Adam: Awesome, ok so since you’re in the media and publishing world, I have to ask about ads, will there be any ad-serving on the site?

Potential Client: Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s our biggest money generator. We use Double Click for Publishers.

Adam: Ok, cool, I know of a good DFP plugin for responsive sites and ad-serving, so that should be pretty straightforward. But you said that ad-serving was your biggest money generator, what other revenue do you get off of the site?

Potential Client: Oh, yes, we syndicate our content to a few other blogs in the travel industry.

Adam: Ok, and is that done through an XML or RSS feed?

Potential Client: Yes, they go out through a simple RSS feed that other travel blogs can grab on the site and we have certain agreements with them.

Adam: Ok, that makes sense. Another question I have is around your subscribers. Are these subscribers to your blog, or are they members of your site, do they get certain perks, or are they just subscribing to an email list?

Potential Client: Yeah, so we don’t have any members on our site, although that’s something that we’ve been thinking about doing and offering perks. But right now we only have subscribers through our email list for our monthly newsletter, and users also sign up to get updated blog posts.

Adam: Gotcha, so your readers can sign up to an email list to get blog posts or the monthly email newsletter, do you use a certain email newsletter provider like Constant Contact or something similar?

Potential Client: Yes, we use MailChimp. That’s what we use to send out our monthly newsletter and blog posts to users who subscribe.

Adam: (Sidenote: awesome, MailChimp is pretty easy to integrate with. There’s a plugin for that!). Ok, that’s fantastic. Now you said earlier that your team was thinking about maybe doing some kind of membership on your site, can you talk a little about that?

Potential Client: Yes, so there’s been some talk internally about offering tiered memberships where members could get access to travel deals. But I don’t see that happening for at least a year or more, we’d like to get this redesign done first and then maybe do something a little more with memberships.

Adam: Ok, cool, it’s just good to know because before anyone starts building the platform in WordPress, it’s something that we could potentially prepare for. It would obviously cost more money, but I know there are some pretty cool membership technologies that work well with WordPress like MemberMouse or Membership 2 Pro from WPMUDev. So, that’s good that we’re talking about it, I could send you some more info on those membership technologies to see if it’s something that your team might want to think about implementing sooner.

Potential Client: Yeah, that would be great, I’d definitely take a look and at the very least will have the information for if/when it happens down the line. Thanks!

Adam: Sure, no problem! Ok, I just have a few more questions. Since this is a redesign, I have to ask about actual design. Is there any rebranding initiative involved with this like logo design, brand guidelines or standards, or will all that stuff be provided?

Potential Client: Yeah, we went through a rebranding initiative about a year and a half ago, so we have everything that you need there.

Adam: Ok, great, and in terms of information architecture, would you like to revise the menu? Maybe do a little user testing to see if the terminology connects with your users?

Potential Client: Yeah, you know, I didn’t think about that. That definitely sounds interesting and something worth doing.

Adam: Ok, great, and you mentioned that you wanted to improve your SEO. Are you looking for an on-page SEO specialist or were you just talking about the technical aspects of SEO? Making sure your tags are all set properly, alt image text and meta data is setup, etc.?

Potential Client: Yes, that’s what I mean. I think we have good content, but I’m not sure what goes into SEO on the technical side, so we would be looking to our agency of choice to help us out with that.

Adam: Yeah, fantastic, so we definitely design and build with SEO best practices in mind.

Potential Client: Ok that sounds good!

Adam: Well, Tony, it’s been an absolute pleasure, thanks so much for giving me all this information. I think I have a good handle on things and I’ll start putting together the proposal. Sometimes as I’m putting together the proposal and discussing it with the team, more questions arise, will you be available to discuss if I have any more questions?

Potential Client: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Just give me a call or shoot me an email and we’ll connect.

Adam: Thanks, again!

End of Conversation

Let’s breakdown the call for the web proposal writing process..

First thing I wanted to know about was the migration, that could end up being a big piece of the project depending on how much legacy data there is, and remember that scripts will most likely have to be written to migrate all the content, but 301 redirects as well from legacy content because they still want to maintain (and improve) SEO.

I also asked about author workflow, this won’t be too difficult because it’s already a part of what WordPress does natively, but it’s good to get clarification. Noticed how I kept repeating what the Potential Client (PC) said, that just reinforces things. I also got the PC to uncover a pain point that they are having internally — remember that when you start to write the proposal — challenges to solutions!

Then I talked about the ratings/reviews, and the PC revealed that they integrate with TripAdvisor. You would have to do a little more digging here. I would search if there were any plugins that do this TripAdvisor owl eyes(honestly, I’m not sure if there are), but if not then TripAdvisor might have snippets of code to use. But keep in mind, with any 3rd party, that there might be some speedbumps that could slow down the project. If you use any 3rd party, you need to play by their rules, and that means things aren’t entirely within your control. So..I would put some buffer time (and price) in the proposal for this implementation.

I also asked about ad-serving. Often times, people in the media publishing world will just consider this a part of the package and not mention it. Remember, that these things are so ingrained in their heads as just being a part of their world that sometimes they’ll forget you’re not a part of their world. And the PC also said something that caught my ear – he said “our biggest money generator” – so that means there’s got to be other “money generators” right? Well, looks like there are, good thing I asked! I always err on the side of caution on things like this and ask. I’d rather end up looking a little stupid in their eyes than having an unhealthy project down the line. You can always play off the “looking stupid” part by saying “yeah, I thought that was the case, but just wanted to be 100% sure.” Ask, ask, ask—you’ll thank yourself in the long run and so will your team!

Then we got to the subscribers, and in Tony’s (PC) email I wasn’t sure if he had members on his site or just email list subscribers. But I asked him about members and uncovered it was something that they were thinking about internally. Now, this could be an opportunity to potentially upsell or increase the scope. I said I would get him the information and he’d take it from there. Now, you can get that info to him pretty quick and you can reach out to him in a few days to see if it’s something he’s had time to discuss with his team. He might not have, but it’s always good to get out in front of that stuff because when you’re in the midst of a project and another stakeholder enters the picture who wants the membership piece to the site, you can say “hey, we talked about that, it’s going to be $XX amount more.” You never know when the opportunity will arise. I sold one of the biggest projects of my career after I thought I had lost it! (Story for another day)

Then just to finalize, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a rebranding initiative along with the redesign, believe me, there are people out there who will get that messed up. It’s just a matter of semantics sometimes and it pays to be clear. And then we talked about SEO, because let’s face it, SEO is a beast within itself. Many people who have homegrown CMS’s don’t have great implementation on the technical SEO. Things as simple as setting up their H1 to H6 tags could be poor. Often times they don’t have meta-descriptions or tags, alt image text, an XML sitemap, or a robots.txt file. And if you want to get really fancy you can talk about microformatting, schema.org might have certain microformatting tags that it can classify their content as. Oooooo.

The needs of web proposal writing..

Now, that was obviously a mock call, but I did have very similar conversations and I went more in-depth than I did in this post. But notice how I left the communication lines open. I told him how when writing the proposal and talking with the team, often times, other questions arise. Set the expectation that they will be hearing from you again before they receive the proposal. That will also set an expectation that they’re not going to get the proposal in a day or two. Remember to leave the door open.

The trick to writing solid proposals is asking smart questions. And more importantly, it’s about asking the right follow-up questions. I know many people think web proposal writing is just a formality, but I think it’s one of the most creative activities one can do in the tech world. Why, you ask? Well…I’ll show you on the next post when I write about my web proposal writing evolution.

 

Proposals and Timelines….and Why Most Companies Get It Wrong

September 10, 2015
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If you’re involved in business in any way, be it the President of an architectural firm, a manager in a government-run organization, advertising, digital services, whatever, you probably know what proposals are and that many companies set stringent deadlines to receive those proposals by.  In my line of work, which is digital services, most companies expect proposals within one to two weeks. That’s a bit aggressive and I explain why in the following post. But before I get into that, let me give you a quick rundown of what a proposal consists of….

What’s in a proposal??

Well, that’s a great question! Depending on what type of a digital company you are, what types of services you offer, and what types of projects you work on will determine what type of proposal you write, and they’ll all be different. I’ve seen all kinds of proposals. Ones that are boiler plate, cookie-cutter, templated proposals, and others that are pure works of art, thoughtful, well-organized, with a clear direction of what the solution is, how much it’ll cost, and how long it should take. Proposals are simply a proposed solution to a company’s (client) particular challenge.

Google says a proposal is “a plan or suggestion, especially a formal or written one, put forward for consideration or discussion by others.” This is true! A proposal is a plan, and in order to propose a suggested plan, you have to put in a great deal of effort. So, what goes into a proposal.

I’ll break it down for you…

Contents of a Proposal

  1. Usually, proposals start with some kind of Summary explaining that you understand the prospect’s business challenge and are prepared to offer your plan for solving that challenge.
  2. Approach – this is the part of the proposal where you highlight your approach, usually called your methodology or your working style. You can outline what working sessions will consist of, the day-to-day operations, or what to expect when engaged with your agency.
  3. Scope of Work  – this is a pretty integral piece to the proposal. Some agencies like to detail exactly what they’ll do for your company from a digital standpoint. It’s important to note that the Scope of Work (or SOW) articulates the specifics of a web project. This causes both parties to have an understanding of what is actually being done, so that there’s no confusion as to what a company is getting and what the agency is going to do for them. It’s a liability thing. If you have a super detailed SOW and halfway through the project the company is like “well, we thought you were going to do X, Y, and Z.” – you can refer to the SOW. Put it in the proposal and take your time on it, this can really mean the difference between $10k and $$100k.
  4. Most agencies will outline the Team that the company will be getting. Some like to give the actual team members and their profiles or bios. And other agencies just give you the title, like your team will consist of a WordPress Engineer and Lead Designer, etc.
  5. Another semi important part is the Technology you’ll use in the engagement. Are you using a WordPress CMS, Drupal? Will you integrate with HubSpot or Salesforce? Are you going to be using Foundation as your framework and so on. This gives the company some semblance of components being used. But (a sidenote), I have seen proposals that leave the technology out, they say things like “we’ll find the right open source CMS in Discovery.” Which can be beneficial and non-beneficial. It totally depends on the engagement. Sometimes there’s too much gray area for what a company actually needs, like when doing an intranet or some site application. You’ll have a better idea of what technology would be the best fit once you discover more about their needs (which can sometimes take a while), and that’s okay!
  6. Timeline – a breakdown of different phases and how long each of them will take. Some agencies give it in months, others in weeks, and it’s usually dependent on start dates (which always seem to change!!).
  7. Budget – some people, like me, put the budget right at the beginning of the proposal because this is what people/companies are hugely concerned with. Does it hit my budget? Yes, No, Maybe!! Some agencies like putting this at the end. I usually do an overview of the numbers upfront and a breakdown of cost to its associated task deeper in the proposal next to the timeline.
  8. Almost all agencies will add some kind of About Us section to the proposal, telling the history and story of their agency. How long they’ve been in business for, what types of other clients they have, etc. Some agencies put this in the beginning and others put it at the end. I consider it the “fluff” stuff, because if your company is engaged with an agency, chances are the already “know” who you are and what you do. Putting it in the proposal just regurgitates that. I throw it in at the end of the proposal.
  9. Case Studies – this is pretty important, but again, if your company is engaged with an agency, you should be familiar with their work. It’s always good to show quality work and something that’s relevant to that particular web challenge or company.

That’s pretty much what most proposals consist of…. 

What’s a timeline look like? Well, I guess it depends on who you are talking to. A timeline means different things to different people. A timeline can be for a project or a proposal. Let’s talk about the latter.

Most companies that have marketing, communications, IT, sales, and other departments have internal schedules they need to hit in order to be successful (or unsuccessful). Which is why, when they send out an RFP (Request for Proposal) they attach a deadline for submitted proposals. Most of the deadlines I’ve seen are within 2 weeks of sending out the RFP (not always), but what most lack is the time it takes to a) Qualify the prospect, b) scope the actual engagement, and c) leave anytime for SOW revisal.

Most RFP’s will come equipped with objectives, history of company, scope of work (which often times can be unclear), timeline and budget that the sending company would like to hit. Now, with that being said, many companies will have unrealistic expectations (e.g. – we want four separate API integrations and we need it in 6 weeks – UNREALISTIC!). You need to set those expectations.

That’s why 2  weeks isn’t enough time to get you a solid (non-boilerplate) proposal. In the beginning, when we have that initial call to qualify the prospect (company) on our end, we make an effort to educate the prospect. If they have unrealistic goals, I’ll be completely honest and say that. Now, that might cost my company the deal, but in the long run it’s much better to underestimate and over-deliver, instead of overestimate and under-deliver!

That first call is also to “feel” each other out. You can tell a lot by first impressions. Often times, on the first call you can tell whether or not they’d be a good fit. And vice versa, the company has got to trust their vendors and unless I start building that trust on the first call, the relationship (and essentially the deal) will fail.

What happens on a second call?

A second call (usually the second week, because we need some time to check out their site and do a little research) is about diving much deeper into the scope of work. What types of functionality do they need on the site? What types of integrations? Does it need to be custom? Will a WP premium theme work? Is there any branding work? Lots of questions on the second call. This also helps solidify the relationship. By asking all these questions you’re showing the prospect that you really do care about their project and want to understand what they need. Many times when companies send out RFP’s, their scope of work section will uncover a plethora of more questions that often times the company has not thought about.
Confused computer keyThere’s confusion there, which causes a cascade effect in their organization trying to scramble to get the answers so they can meet that 2 week deadline. That second call gets much more in-depth and armed with this new information we can then begin writing the proposal. So, to recap this – we don’t start writing proposals after the first call – Qualify, Scope, then begin!

Now when you are writing this proposal, it’s inevitable that more questions arise, especially on a heavy technical lift project or one with many levels of complexity. Be prepared as an agency and a company, because good relationships and successful engagements stem from this process that I’m talking about now. In order to do great work, you have to know what you’re doing and get the majority (if not all) of the answers before contracts are signed.

More scoping in the beginning means less surprises and clearer expectations, on both ends.

Now the writing is finished and the agency needs to present, usually the fourth week. But questions will arise on the company’s end and they will need to understand any parameters you’ve put into place and any assumptions you’ve made. Clarity is the friend of the agency and the company. It helps everyone. And then there’s always the possibility of things shifting even before they begin. New stakeholders love coming in and changing things up at the most inopportune times, be prepared for that! I’ve done several revised proposals, it does happen. And once there’s a finalized proposal, companies need to sign contracts….which is an entirely different post for another day.

Just remember, expectations need to be set on that first call. E.g. – “our typical timeline for getting you a proposal is usually four weeks.” If that closes the door, it’s better that happens right at the beginning before you start sinking your time into the endeavor. The great proposals out there take time! And the great agencies out there don’t rush into anything without getting all their ducks in a row, otherwise you’re setting yourself and your team up for failure…..and that doesn’t suit anyone!