Stop ‘Spamming’ Your Proposals!

“Eastern European Hotties are Waiting for You to Call!” This particular email subject–in bold, eye-catching text–was in my inbox this morning. And, based on the junk email I receive on a daily basis, I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about unpleasant communicable diseases and dysfunctions, while multiple websites offer me an international panoply of beautiful women with whom I can have a discrete affair. I’m not sure where this “profile” comes from, because other than searching Harvard Business Review or downloading books from Amazon, I’m reasonably confident that I’ve haven’t gotten on any sites that would indicate that I’d be a target customer for this email campaign.

Like most things I write, however, this blog is about marketing and, more specifically, about targeting and tailoring how we market professional services. However, the fact that the first line of this blog is about ‘Eastern European Hotties” suggests that I perhaps I should apologize to any readers who were expecting a different search result.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks reviewing proposals for a number of my clients. We’re helping some write better boilerplate, and I’ve performed emergency surgery on several proposals in advance of quick-turn deadlines. After several late nights, I continue to be amazed at how generic most proposal content is, and how often we miss opportunities for grabbing our audience’s attention in most marketing documents. Most proposals in our industry are too long, uninspiring, and difficult to navigate.

Some of the fault lies with generic RFP documents and a lack of rigor in proposal production that values volume over quality. However, all of us in marketing who spend time working on proposals can—and should—push for better content that is more focused on our clients and their projects. We should not be satisfied with getting documents out the door; we need to look at each proposal as representative of our firm’s best work. In this market, we have to win in the proposal in order to win in the interview; a great interview presentation cannot overcome a non-responsive, generic, or poorly prepared proposal.

When we write a generic proposal full of poorly written, bland content that lacks focus on our clients’ real needs and expectations for their projects, we are no better than my Nigerian prince who has an investment opportunity, or the ”Eastern European Hotties” who are waiting for me to call.

Clients skim our documents looking for content that is responsive to the questions they asked in their request and that resonate with their hopes and aspirations for their work. We need to write from two perspectives: 1) Have we written something that helps the client see the project in a new way and that differentiates us; and 2) Have we written content that is easy to follow, well organized, and responsive?

When writing proposal content, consider the reader. The reader is often someone (or a team of people) who must quickly review multiple documents and come up with a shortlist. The goal of the reader is not to select from the proposal, but rather to deselect teams from the shortlist, to narrow it down. Thus, when reviewing proposals, clients are looking for content that both demonstrates that you understand their project (and their pain) and that your team offers something compelling and different from the other teams. If you don’t differentiate, you make it easy for your firm to be deselected.

When upgrading—and updating—your boilerplate content, take the time to clean up the writing, providing detail to make it interesting, and organize it in a way that your marketing coordinators can expedite the proposal process by putting the boilerplate in the right places to be responsive to the RFP. Avoid flowery language, which often comes across as sophomoric, and focus on clear, distinct, and well-written differentiating statements. Tell your potential clients clearly What you are going to do and Why you are going to do it (i.e., “What we offer is this. The value your organization gets from our doing it is that.”)

Then—AND THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT!!!—proposal leaders and technical team members need to tailor the boilerplate to the needs of the particular client and project for which they are proposing. If you stop at the boilerplate without making content directly relevant to your audience, your proposal will have about as much impact as the organizations that promise to cure my baldness, fix my obesity, or make bathing easier with a walk-in tub.

As I clean the spam from my inbox, I have to believe that somewhere, someone has their wires crossed. I also know that I’m not alone in this challenge, so I don’t take it personally. But, I am planning to take it up with my Nigerian prince next time he gets in touch.