Proposals are a tool every professional writer needs to learn to be comfortable wielding.
Knowing how to get a proposal signed is vital to your success as a freelance copywriter. However, it’s a process a lot of writers overlook or don’t fully understand. But don’t worry, if you’re uncomfortable with proposals… because, with a little time and practice, you’ll nail down your own process.
A winning proposal lays out the project clearly and leaves both parties feeling happy. More than that, a winning proposal is one that gets signed promptly. Creating a strong proposal takes time. It can be tempting to rush the process and get to the money faster, but it’s vital to your authority and reputation to take the time and do it right.
Fortunately, there are tools available to make it easier and plenty of experienced writers to offer advice. We’re going to look a little at both.
Start with the Right Template
Using proposal templates is smart for a lot of reasons. They help you organize your thoughts… ensure you don’t miss any key information… and typically have been vetted, so you know they work well.
And, you don’t need to look any further than AWAI to find a great template to work with.
AWAI’s Essential Templates (Business and Billing Section)
Elizabeth Blessing, a successful financial copywriter, uses AWAI’s templates regularly in her business.
She uses the “Prospect Intake” questionnaire to ensure she gets the right information during her discovery calls. She then modifies the basic proposal template incorporating what she learned in her call along with the language her prospect used about the project.
Whatever template you decide to use, you’ll want to make sure it has everything you need… and everything the prospect expects.
Vital Proposal Elements
Any good template will include these elements:
A Project Outline
Based on your discussions with your prospect, their problem and your solution should be summarized in a detailed, benefit-focused outline of the project. Include enough detail, so your prospect can clearly see your value. For example, don’t just say you’ll write a blog post. Break down the process to include things like thorough research, SEO elements and keyword placement, internal linking, and whatever else you’ll do to deliver a great result.
A Project Timeline
Clearly state the timeline you’ll adhere to. Obviously, you want to include a final deadline, but you can also include an official start date, as well as major milestones and their deadlines, if that’s applicable.
You might also remind your client about the importance of responding promptly to your questions and requests for information along the way. And you could set expectations for how you’ll update your client regarding progress.
Caveats (AKA a kill fee)
You always want to put down a reasonable kill fee in case of cancellation, usually 50%.
Results (guarantee disclaimer)
You can guarantee your work ethic, your knowledge, and that you’ll meet the terms in the proposal. You can’t guarantee results or market variables.
This could be a set price or a price range. You might also include billing dates, if you’re breaking your fee into parts.
These last elements aren’t always necessary, but can be excellent additions depending on the project:
Original Content Copyright
Some projects (e.g., site audits) don’t require original writing from you. But in most cases, you need to assure the client they’ll have the final rights to the work.
Social Media Sharing
Some clients will want you to share the finished project on your own channels. If that’s the case, spell out specifically what you’re agreeing to.
Successful Copywriters’ Strategies
Unfortunately, putting together a great proposal isn’t a guarantee it’ll be accepted and signed by the client.
To that end, I asked a number of successful copywriters to share their best tips for getting a proposal signed. Elizabeth Blessing gave me an entire interview, and others weighed in on LinkedIn.
Elizabeth Blessing talked about the importance of doing the work:
“You should always want to put in a good deal of legwork before you submit the actual proposal, if you want a client to actually sign it. So, always have a Zoom call – or at least a phone call – before submitting any proposal.”
Keith Trimmels talked about something common to every project you do as a writer – knowing your audience:
“Know your prospect/reader. Specifically, what are their deepest desires with this project they’ve requested you to propose on?
“And the answer to that deepest desire is NOT necessarily in what they’ve said they need… it’s often uncovered by hearing subtle things they say during a scoping call or through investigation you’ve done into the organization and individual(s) you’re addressing the proposal to.”
Ilise Benun recommends what she calls the Proposal Oreo Strategy:
“Present it in real time and/or via video. That’s the secret of the Proposal Oreo Strategy!”
In this approach, you start with the discovery call, write your proposal (often using a price range instead of a specific fee)… and then you present the proposal via Zoom. This gives you the power to negotiate and to address concerns immediately.
It’s the best way not to be ghosted by a prospect, and it really ups the odds you’ll land the gig.
I use the Proposal Oreo Strategy myself, but I take it a step further…
I don’t email the proposal until I’ve reached a verbal agreement via the second live call. I present a rough draft of the proposal via Zoom and record the call.
I find live negotiation during a proposal call is much more productive if you don’t present a perfected proposal, but rather allow a great deal of editing by the client. This makes the client feel happy and powerful, and recording the call means I can quickly make the changes to the proposal and send over the final draft.
Avoid Clients Who Send Up These Red Flags
A final benefit to the proposal process is that it often reveals potential problems. Elizabeth brought this up in our interview: “Sometimes you see these red flags, but you continue on with the relationship hoping it improves. [However], you don’t want to invest a lot of time writing something, only to have the client reject it.”
When you’re on the discovery call, watch for common red flags, so you can address them before they become a problem or decide the client isn’t a good fit before you do the work of putting together a proposal.
Consistent Downplaying of Your Value
A good client will negotiate the price. A bad client will question your value. It’s a subtle difference, but once you learn to spot it, it’s a major red flag. I typically choose not to pursue work with these clients.
No Pushback on Fees
Counterintuitively, if all you hear from a client about your proposed fees is, “Fine,” you know you’re not charging enough. Raise your fees on your next call… and your next. Keep at it until you get some reasonable pushback.
Unwillingness to Communicate
Sometimes this shows up as a reluctance to answer questions. A prospect might get dodgy on budgets, project details, and internal processes.
I’ve found most of these uncommunicative prospects are fishing for the lowest price, trying to decide between you and Fiverr. These prospects are often a waste of your time, and they’re also more likely to ghost you after the proposal is submitted, or when a payment is due.
Frequently Asked Proposal Questions
A lot of writers wonder about the details and legalities of proposals, so let’s finish up with answers to a few common questions.
Is a Proposal a Contract?
Yes! Once it’s signed by you and your client, you should consider it legally binding.
Should I Sign a Contract From the Client?
“Sometimes a client will have an attorney-vetted contract for you to sign in addition to the proposal you send them,” Elizabeth Blessing says. As long as everything’s clear and in line with what’s already been agreed upon, it’s fine. If you see anything in the contract that doesn’t work for you, ask for a change and be specific about the new language. Most clients are fine with that process.
How Long Should a Proposal Be?
Two to three pages is normal. This length allows you to be quite detailed. Four pages or more, however, might scare off your prospect.
How Long Does the Proposal Process Take?
When you’re just starting out, expect to spend three to five hours on the proposal process, depending on the complexity of the project and your level of experience. But also know, you’ll get faster the more you practice.
Elizabeth shared that – after the discovery call and using AWAI’s template – she can write a proposal in 45 minutes.
Keep in mind, the entire process often spreads out over a week or two.
Write a Winning Proposal Anytime!
Proposals might sound scary, but they don’t have to be. Given the right templates, reliable advice, and a little bit of practice, you’ll quickly come to consider them one of your most important business tools.
A good proposal process will help you get to know your prospective clients better and allow you to provide much better service. And, a good proposal keeps you sane while protecting you from any number of potential problems.