Effective WordPress project proposals


This week, our Saturday show was all about writing winning WordPress proposals. As a small agency or consultant, how do you put together a proposal that will be mutually beneficial for the client and yourself? What aspects of the project should you emphasize? What are things that work when it comes to writing proposals? And what things don;t work at all?

Our panelists this week were:

Morten Rand-Hendriksen of Lynda.com

Sallie Goetsch of WP Fangirl

Jackie D’Elia of Jackie D’Elia Design

John Locke of Lockedown Design


Before we got into our main topic, our spotlight WordPress news story this week was Helen Hou-Sandi’s post on theme disconnect.

Helen’s article talked about the new user experience project within the WordPress Core team, and how she would be looking at this in more depth as project lead for the next cycle of WordPress development.

Morten pointed out that there’s been a big push to move more editing to the Customizer, but there needs to be a separation between site customization and content creation. He put forth that a bigger concern would be getting new users into the WordPress Customizer in the first place. He also advocated for more user research on what the actual onboarding experience is like. Since the panel and anyone discussing the direction of WordPress itself is part of the WordPress 1%, we often make decisions based on what is best for us as developers, not for the end-users.

Morten’s point is that it will take time, effort, and money to do real user testing to decide what the best course of action is, and the Core team would benefit greatly from that research. Since WordPress is now powering 26.6% of all websites, we can’t treat these decisions in the same way we would for a regular small open-source project.

Jackie posited that the admin panel is very overwhelming for new users, and streamlining the organization of the back-end might be beneficial for everyday users. The potential is always there for regular users to change a theme and inadvertently deactivate widgets.

Sallie said overhauling the back-end would be a large project, and put forth the idea that giving users an Editor account might prevent people from accidentally changing important settings.

Morten thought making items more prominent according to importance might be an idea to explore. He advocated for user testing, because we are making decisions blindly otherwise. He cited an example of how features usually end up in open-source projects. He reiterated that starting features as plugins does not address the underlying issue, that we need to know how users actually interact with the WordPress admin area to determine what they are actually thinking.

Jackie said that the interfaces can be confusing at times, even for developers. She thought it would be a great idea to have a real-time preview of the page while working in the Text or Visual Editor.

The Main Topic: Writing Effective Proposals

We kicked off the discussion on writing great proposals by asking, “How do you handle the discovery process? How do you get information to write an effective proposal?”

Handling Project Discovery

Morten says he talks to the client, and does a very extensive discovery process. Morten says this is effective because you learn the language the company is using. He points out that learning what the company is doing in depth is critical for writing a great proposal. Insightfully, Morten also says he always talks to the secretary of the company, because they usually know everything that happens in between the end user and the company. Without getting a full understanding of their business, you can;t provide an effective solution.

Jackie said that the more she asks questions about their business, and the less she talks about what she does, the better. She stressed that digging in and using Socratic questioning is a great way to gain insight to why they are doing a web project now, and their overall goals.

She says asking open-ended questions will make it easier to put together a proposal that addresses their needs. Jackie asserts that clients are not as interested in what you have done in the past, so much as they wonder how you will address their own needs. Focusing on the clients, their objectives, their goals, and the players makes a huge difference in writing a great proposal.

Sallie says she sets up a paid discovery sessions to go into greater depth about what they are trying to accomplish. She digs into what the goals are for their business, their top two or three goals for their business over the next year, how they will measure success, and their budget.

If their needs and their budget don’t warrant a full-fledged WordPress project, she will recommend they go a different route. She says that what clients believe they want and what will actually support their business goals are often two very different things. Doing a paid discovery session allows her to find out this information and write a proposal that addresses their true business objectives.

John shared that this year, he started making a paid discovery session a prerequisite to sending a proposal, and he’s had a lot of success with it. First, it weeds out people who are trying to pick his brain for free, or who are not serious about doing a WordPress project. He says he always asks their budget range up front, so he knows if he will be a good for them, or if he needs to refer them to another solution. John says the paid discovery allows him to dig in and find out details that you can’t get in an initial phone call or email.

One insight that John shares is that he records the discovery session so that he can use the language the prospect is using in his proposal, and use the phrases that they say when framing the problem he is being called upon to solve.

Proposal Structure

John asked the panel what are the most important things to emphasize in your proposal? Do you focus on value? Cost? Features?

Morten said that his proposals are not what most clients expect. After doing an initial discovery process where he talks to the client to understand their business, he does a secondary discovery process where he talks to their target audience.

Morten’s proposals are a large scope document that breaks down the entire structure of the project in meticulous detail. These proposals articulate what will happen with responsive design, accessibility, and a myriad of other details. These project proposals also outline what happens in certain situations, timeline, and cost.

These proposals also outline content strategy, as a lot of the cost and timeline revolves around getting content at the appropriate times in each project phase. Anything that falls outside of the scope of the project proposal would be billed separately. This entire proposal becomes part of the project contract — Morten does not divide these into two separate documents. He said these are about forty page documents.

Jackie says she tries to find out what their minimum viable product would be, and uses this as a project minimum. Jackie uses three options in her proposals, and tries to construct them to point clients towards the middle option. In a recurring theme, she says focuses more on features, functionality, and how these will benefit the client; and less on technology. She states that not everyone is enamored with technology as we are, and clients are more focused on end goals.

Sallie’s proposals start with an executive summary that states the objectives of the project, points out what some competitor sites may have that their website doesn’t, then outlines a detailed scope of work. She also breaks down things the WordPress project will include (like responsive design), as well as a list of extra features that can be added in future iterations.

One thing that is important that Sallie stresses in her proposals is that the time-frame for he projects are only valid if the client provides all the material necessary in a timely manner. Jackie and Sallie both agree that content strategy is the most difficult part of a web project.

Jackie says the energy for a website project is highest at the beginning of the project, and that energy diminishes as time goes on. Getting content up front is important to making sure a web project launches on time.

Sallie says a content audit is more important to do in the beginning of the project, rather than at the end. She says auditing and becoming familiar with all the existing site content gives you a better sense of who the client is and what they do.

Jackie adds that many businesses use their blog very inefficiently, and use it as a catch-all for things that get outdated quickly, like sales and events. She says a better idea is to create a What’s New page for things that are current, that will provide value now, but not in the far future. Pruning content is important to providing value.

What Kind of Pricing Should Your Proposal Use?

John wanted to know what sorts of pricing structure the panelists used in their WordPress proposals. Did they use value-based pricing? Cost-plus pricing? Hourly pricing? Or something else?

Morten started by saying it’s important to understand what the client’s budget is when pricing. One way that he structures proposals is to give a total cost for the project, and break those stages into milestone payments, on a payment schedule. One great idea he has is at the 75% complete mark, he schedules a payment, irregardless of whether the client has content prepared for the website or not. The reason for this is, web projects usually get to a point where it is impossible to continue without the finalized site content.

Sallie agrees with this, saying she has a similar clause in her proposals. When working with smaller budgets, Morten thinks it is wise to come in and consult for a few hours, and get a proper scope of the work to be done. Knowing the budget is crucial, because most developers or agencies contract work to others, but they have to know how many hours of wok there is, so they can budget for subcontractors. Having a scope of work and a budget therefore are essential for clients to have awareness of, so the project has defined parameters.

John asked Jackie about her past and present payment schedules on her proposals. Jackie said she has structured projects based on getting content in timely manner. She cites scheduling roll-outs of client sites based on getting site content at a particular time, and when that is delayed, it cuts into the following weeks when she should be starting new projects. Delays cause a domino effect, that ripple down into subsequent projects. Jackie elaborates on payment schedules, saying she usually gets 50% down, and 25-30% when the design and development is finalized, with the final part coming when the client provides client.

She says she’s heavily considering doing content first in the future, and working with the client on that. When you see what you’re actually saying, you have a better idea of how to frame that message. This also takes advantage of the peak energy that accompanies the launch of a project, instead of grinding for site content when enthusiasm is the lowest.

John adds that final content delivery is often what holds up the final payment, so structuring WordPress projects to be content-first makes a lot of sense for everyone involved.

John asked Sallie what pricing structure she uses, and what pricing structure her clients are best able to understand. Sallie replies that her project price is mostly based on how long she thinks it will take her to complete the project. She breaks the project into components, and estimates those to get the final price. Sallie’s proposal payment schedule is usually 25% down, 50% after thirty days (irregardless of site content), and the remaining 25% on site launch.

Sallie has a great proposal clause that states if the project launch date is delayed because of content being delayed by the client, she moves them to the back of the project line, and they must pay a fee to restart the project. She does this because she has to do maintenance on the development site, plus she has to get familiar with the project all over again. Sallie uses hourly billing with a “project will not exceed this amount” statement. Anything out of project scope is billed separately as it’s project phase.

John says he is using value pricing. Some people are fine with it, and some struggle to understand it. John says the key is to outline the benefit of the project, and frame the project total around that number. John also says most of the prospects that have a hard time understanding value-based problem are used to hiring developers at the lowest hourly rate they possibly can. Sallie adds that framing the future success is a key component to writing a winning value-based proposal.

What Doesn’t Work In Web Design Proposals?

For a final question, John asked the panel, “What things have you seen that don’t work in proposals?” In other words, what are some things you should avoid in your proposals?

Morten started off by saying focusing too much on technical details is a common mistake. He said many prospects don’t understand what a high-quality web design and development firm bring to the table. If a prospect starts off by asking how much the project will cost, or if they are overly focused on price, Morten says that is a huge red flag. People with an unrealistic budget, he will try to consult with them for a few hours, so he can help them find a better fit for their needs, and so they have a better understanding of the industry.

One additional things Morten stresses is to have a content creation schedule. Recently, he has been sharing the content inventory, which he shares via RedBooth and Google Documents. Each person is assigned a certain amount of content to get done in a specific time-frame. This way, the project manager on the client side can look at who is doing what, and the content creation isn’t put off until the last minute.

Jackie says a big obstacle is consultants holding clients accountable for their portion of the project responsibility. She asserts that the relationship is usually set up where the consultant is being hired by the client, so all the responsibility falls to them. It is difficult to go to your client and ask for content, and delays are inevitable unless there are consequences to being late with content. The challenge is to set this us in a way that is friendly and not adversarial.

Scope creep is the other pervasive issue. It is important to communicate what change of scope or change orders will cost, so those boundaries are set from the start. You have no leverage if they ask for extra scope and then you say it will cost extra. Jackie says if there are any glitches in a project, those are her responsibility. Either she needs to communicate better, or she needs to make the ground rules more clear. If she doesn’t see the red flags or do the right amount of discovery in the beginning, those things are on her, and it’s a learning opportunity to improve on next time.

When it comes to pro bono projects, Sallie says the biggest mistake you can make is not creating a scope of work and assigning a value to the work. She adds that the clients who are not paying you at all will be the most trouble, because they don’t know how much value you are giving them or hoe much time you are spending.

John adds that if you are doing a pro bono project, be sure to put the full price in the proposal, and then discount the full amount, so they can internalize how much the value of the project is.

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