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Proposal Writing: These 3 Simple Words Will Transform Your Process

The 4 Ps of marketing ruled the advertising world for much of the 20th century. But now there is a new set of Ps in town. Here’s how you can take these updated marketing maxims and use them to create compelling customer-centric proposal content.

10 min. read

It’s mid-afternoon on a Thursday. You arrive back at the office after your three-hour, multi-martini lunch with a couple of clients. As you hand over your overcoat and hat, you tell the secretary waiting outside your office door to hold all your calls.

You’ve got a big proposal that’s due by end-of-day and it’s not going to write itself, right? You throw a Beatles record on the turntable, pour another drink, and get to work.

If you were this Mad Men-era advertising agency partner, you might start by referring to the then-brand-new 4 Ps of marketing to help you shape your proposal.

Product? Yup. Price? Hmm, better put another zero on the end of that number. Place? Where else would anyone go but Madison Avenue for their ads? And, finally, promotion: hire us, we’re the best.

You smile and cover your typewriter. The proposal is complete.

Your secretary will mail your finished proposal to the client in the morning. Fingers crossed that you hear back before the end of the quarter!

Yeah, that proposal writing process is in need of an update. Luckily, there are some new marketing Ps here to help you craft great content for your proposals and win more deals.

Now, I know what you may be thinking.

“But, Lauren, I’m not a marketer!”

Well, hold on to your fedoras, folks, because proposal creators like you and your sales team can use the new marketing Ps to your advantage, too.

After all, you can think of proposals as super-targeted marketing pieces.

So, let’s get started by taking a closer look at those original 4 Ps of marketing and why they don’t work anymore.

What are the original 4 Ps of marketing?

Back in 1960, E. Jerome McCarthy first presented the 4 Ps of marketing as part of a marketing-mix approach that also included consumer behaviour, market research and segmentation, and planning.

McCarthy’s 4 Ps include:

1. Product

The product must satisfy customers’ needs and/or wants. It can be tangible or intangible, like a productized service.

Product also includes product design, mix, branding, and any guarantees or warranties offered.

2. Price

The amount a customer pays for a product. This could also include the time and effort consumers are prepared to expend to acquire a product. For example, with Apple iPhones consumers might include the necessity of standing in line for hours to get the latest version when they weigh the costs of buying one.

3. Place

Customer access and convenience, including distribution channels, franchising, market coverage, inventory, and logistics.

4. Promotion

Marketing communications, including advertising and PR. Companies would need to consider their messaging, the channels used to send that messaging, and the frequency of marketing pushes.

In the 1980s, marketers added process, people, and physical evidence (and sometimes performance) to the original four to account for the differences in marketing a service instead of a product.

These Ps ruled the sales and marketing world for decades as part of a cutting-edge marketing mix. Today, though, they seem almost quaint.

When it comes to both marketing and proposals, you still need to include product and price. Those are the foundation of consumer knowledge.

But place has become less of a factor with the rise of the internet. And the power of promotion has moved from paid media that businesses could control, like print, TV, and radio, to consumer- and algorithm-lead channels.

Remember when newspapers were a big thing? Roger does.

This means that simply hitting the basics won’t cut it anymore with your audience.

Which brings me to the fun part: I’m going to show you a few easy ways to use some updated-for-the-21st-century-sales-environment Ps to make your business proposals more powerful.

Proposals and the new 3 Ps of marketing

Digital marketer Jeff Adelson-Yan, in a post for AdAge, agrees that the old Ps are now obsolete. He takes it one step further by proposing a few new ones for the digital age.

Here are his three new Ps, plus my advice on how you can use them to punch up your proposal writing:

1. Pithy

You need to be concise to grab and hold people’s tiny little attention spans.

Adelson-Yan points out that a lot of us are using another device while we’re watching Netflix. And we love Netflix. So expecting a prospect’s full attention to your every word is wishful thinking.

Writing short is hard yet necessary. Have you seen the amount of (sometimes beautifully crafted) copy used in older advertising? Like this:

You could never get away with having that much ad copy today. (Or cars that huge, for that matter.)

But, it’s not just about being concise. You need to convey information, emotions, and other important details in your content while still retaining that pithiness.

How to use it in your proposals:

Opening a proposal and getting hit with a wall of text is going to turn off even the most eager of prospects.

Once you’ve edited your word count down to something nice and concise, what are some other ways to get your point across without hurting prospective clients’ eyes with walls of text? You can’t just slap your content into a PDF, call it a professional proposal, and then call it a day.

Good proposal design can help you create a pithy proposal. Proposal layout isn’t just about how it looks; it’s about how it communicates the vital information to your lead. A proposal with lots of white space, images, tables, and videos can convey more than a text-heavy PDF. Using sections and sub-headings makes your content scannable and more easily digested.

Not a designer? Hire one to make a well laid-out template for you or take a ready-made proposal template and make it your own with content and branding.

2. Precious

Your solution needs to be viewed as highly valued by your client’s peers.

Ad execs back in the ‘60s knew the value of using ‘real’ customers to sell the public on everything from cold creams and soft drinks to this strange new thing known as healthy fat:

Today, we’re talking about a different kind of social proof. One-to-one referrals and online reviews are now given more weight than traditional marketing messaging like Mrs. R’s up there. While that means that people will do a lot of your marketing for you for free, you have less control over what’s being said.

In order to write compelling proposals, your sales team needs to be part of or at least listening in on the conversation about you already taking place on social media, online B2B review sites, and customer forums. You’ll get great ideas, testimonials, and insight into objections and concerns.

A purchasing experience can often be okay, but not good enough to recommend to others. As Adelson-Yan points out, “...if a customer is willing to stand behind the product, that means they are truly satisfied.” You can’t buy a better endorsement than that.

How to use it in your proposals:

Take back some control by creating case studies with your most successful clients and including them in your proposals. Some tips for putting together great ones:

  • Make sure the clients you profile represent the full range of your products and services. And try for a mix of established and newer customers, too.
  • Make sure the clients are comfortable with you featuring them. Sometimes there are privacy or competitive reasons that they wouldn’t want certain details of their business being discussed publicly.
  • Ask questions that will prompt robust answers. Prospective clients will want details. If there’s information that’s confidential, see if there’s another way the client can express it. For example, instead of saying that by using your solution sales hit $10 million ARR, say that sales increased by 25% year-over-year.
  • Weave a story. A good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Or, for case studies, a challenge, a solution, and a positive result.
  • Don’t forget that first P—pithy—and keep your case studies concise. One page, tops! And include nice images from your subject’s company, if you can.

3. Prudent

You need to show how your solution is a higher-value, lower-risk choice (perceived or actual) than your competitors.

Fear has always played a role in sales and marketing. In the ‘60s, the Cold War was perfect for selling your, uh, discreet fallout shelter-building services this way.

Like this ad example from 1961, your proposal writing has to strike a balance between pressing prospects’ pain points to increase fear while simultaneously soothing their concerns with a value-packed, risk-reduced solution.

How to use it in your proposals:

Unless what you sell is life-or-death, you probably don’t need to get quite so heavy-handed about the risks of not buying your product or service.

Instead, offer extras that help reduce the risk of saying yes to your proposal. In other words, explain how your bomb shelters are built better and stronger, plus clients don’t need to worry about any nosy neighbours finding out.

Or just say you’re putting in a meditation/lap pool?

Onboarding and training programs, 24/7 customer support, free shipping or a money-back guarantee are all ways to increase value and lower risk. Just be careful that these add-ons aren’t eating into your margins.

One way to reduce risk in service-based proposals is to outline exactly how success will be evaluated. There’s a big difference, risk-wise, between this:

As discussed, your goal is to work with 200 new customers within one year (average of 17/month).

At your current close rate of 35%, you’ll need to generate approximately 50 high quality leads per month, meaning that they reach the bottom of the funnel and become a sales qualified lead. If a “guesstimated” 20% of your leads move all the way through the buyer funnel, you’ll need to generate 250 top or middle of the funnel leads. Your current visitor to lead rate is 1.2%, but your goal is closer to the 3% rate. At 3%, you’ll need to increase your traffic from 4,500 visits/mo to 8,300 visits/mo to make the process viable. 

As the following pages of my proposal will show, we utilize a wide range of skills to accomplish this boost in qualified web traffic.

and simply saying, “We’ll boost your qualified web traffic!”

A bonus P: Persuasion

It wasn’t mentioned in the AdAge post, but I’d argue that this final P truly rounds out this Fab Four.

Persuasion is so important—it’s like the John Lennon of proposal writing. Yes, Paul is meticulously pithy. George is quiet and prudent. And Ringo is the friendly

As my colleague Jennifer points out in her post on proposal persuasion, sometimes it’s not the best proposal that wins the business, it’s the most convincing one.

Here are four proven ways to make your proposal ultra-compelling:

  • First, make sure the prospect is qualified. A poor-fit client is going to be hard to convince.
  • Answer the ‘why’. Think about a parent who tells a child to do something “because I said so.” What is the kid likely to respond with? You got it: “But WHY???” Write your proposal like there’s an inquisitive child questioning every assertion you make and back those claims up with evidence.
  • Be consistent, even to the point where you think you’re becoming repetitive. Repeating key facts and information can give your proposal writing clarity and certainty. And we all know that people skim-read content, so having your main points restated in a few places throughout your proposal isn’t a bad idea.
  • Don’t forget about another classic marketing concept, PAS: problem, agitate, solution. Show that you understand the prospect’s challenges. Then, lean into those problems a bit, pointing out how vital finding a solution is. And, wow, you have one. It’s hiring you or buying your product.

Mind your Ps

Got any Qs about the new Ps or proposal writing in general? Leave a comment below or check out our proposal blog post archive.

Your upgraded, updated proposals will be strutting out like Peggy Olsen in no time.

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