How to Sell Projects: A Framework for Project Proposals

This blog post will be focused on external sales, i.e selling your company’s services to clients. Nevertheless, a lot of the advice is applicable to “selling” projects internally as well. The framework presented here isn’t totally comprehensive, nor should it be; after all, each project is different. Regardless, it can serve as a solid starting point for any project proposal you may come across.

Understood broadly, the goal of a project proposal is to eliminate as many questions as possible, distilling a client’s decision into a series of cost/benefit analyses. Conceptually, this is done by using data to show where their needs overlap with your expertise and how, based on some well-grounded assumptions, the benefits of contracting your services will outweigh the costs for your client. Tactically, here are four steps towards building a compelling proposal:

1. Outline the project before providing a proposal

As your project is shopped around an organization, either a prospective client’s or your own, it will most likely be met with numerous stakeholders. Even if you only meet with one person or a single team, it’s virtually guaranteed that the decision to pursue your project will have input from multiple sources from within an organization. Having a concise and organized outline is vital; it creates a physical reference for your project that can be shared (print your outlines!). This saves your client time and makes it easier for them to discuss the proposal with their colleagues, which has a good chance of favorably dispositioning their opinion of your proposal.

Outlines are basic to the point where they might seem like busywork, but they’re instrumental in gaining momentum for fledgeling projects. In short, do not to write them off. Even if you don’t end up sending your outline to the client, it’s helpful to think through these elements before diving into drafting a proposal. In fact, the outline framework detailed here shares some standard elements with a scope of work documents, so you may be able to repurpose an outline for that.

It’s fine to use a template, but tailor and customize your outlines to each client as much as you can. Your project outline should identify, define, and lay out the following elements:

Purpose – The goals of the project.

Scope – What is this project setting out to accomplish and what it is not setting out to accomplish?

Impact – What can your client expect to gain upon the project’s successful completion?

Cost – What will this project cost your client in cash and other resources? Bear in mind that “cost” is not the same as “price” - the price of your proposed project might be $100,000 over one year, but if the project requires developer resources that your client doesn’t have then they will either have to draw those resources away from existing workflows or hire an external vendor. Both of these actions would add to the final cost of the project for your client.

The case for your project’s prioritization – Why it makes sense for your client to take this project on right now. Your prospective client will most likely have some level of resistance to taking on a new project over what they’re currently already working on, because whatever they’re working on is what they’ve concluded will have the biggest impact. If you can’t build a compelling case for why your project is more important, it’s going to be hard to sell.

Basic project proposal framework

After you’ve thought through your outline, it’s time to draft your proposal. Here’s a simple framework that we here at Distilled use:

  • Primary goal – something discrete and measurable that will be the final litmus test for the project’s success. Be as specific as possible. It’s more effective to have an ambitious goal, consciously presenting it as such (“this is a reach goal, but we think it’s doable). Limit your proposals to a single primary goal; if your client says two different goals are equally important, push back and ask them to choose one.

    • Bad goal example: Increased conversion rate

    • Good goal example: minimum 5% greater conversion rate from organic traffic on specific product pages within 1 month of project deployment

  • Secondary goal(s) – positive results that may occur due to the project that are not the project’s primary goal. Ultimately, secondary goals should be considered nice to have and not critical to the project’s success.

    • Primary vs. secondary goal example: Increased sales (primary) vs. increased organic traffic (secondary)

  • Timeline – As precisely as possible, describe the timeline over which the project will unfold. If possible, include important benchmarks (e.g what results do you expect when the project is 25% done? 50%? 100%?)

    • Bad timeline example: The project will be done in 6 months or earlier

    • Good timeline example: We will spend two months speccing the project with your dev. team, two months executing with their support, and a month performing review/QA. The last month will be dedicated to planning future work and providing ad hoc support.

  • Required resources – The resources will the project require in its entirety. How much will it cost? How long will it take? How many people will it require? Will the project require external vendors to help fulfill? What is the opportunity cost of taking on the project at this time for the client or your company? It’s a good idea to ask your client about their capabilities and available resources to help fill this section in.

    • Bad required resources example: $10,000 per month for six months

    • Good required resources Example: $10,000 per month for six months, ten hours of dev. time per week, one 1,000 word articles written by editorial per week, 1-2 graphics designed per article.

  • Expected return – This is the crux of any proposal; after all, you (hopefully) aren’t selling projects where the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. This should be directly related to the metrics used to measure the primary goal’s success. If you don’t think you can reliably put a figure on this, a good strategy is to use a range of return based on project impact. This also allows your client to more effectively evaluate your proposal.

    • Example expected return scale:

      • Lower than anticipated impact (worst-case): 100 conversions per month

      • Most likely impact: 200 conversions per month

      • High impact (from holistic secondary goals): 400 conversions per month

Extra Elements (optional):

I include these as ancillary proposal elements. Usually, clients want lightweight proposals that are easy to digest. In some cases, however, such as when fulfilling a formal and robust Request For Proposal, these items can help round your proposal out.

  • Project leads and points of contact – The teams or individuals who, collectively, are responsible for the project’s timely and satisfactory completion. This should also highlight who will be delivering the project on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, from both sides of the contract.

  • Communication process– How often and in what way will your client communicate with your team?  

  • Key deliverables format and timeline – It’s often helpful to break out key deliverables into a separate timeline of their own, going into more detail of what they’ll actually consist of. This helps your client internalize the project checkpoints and can help drive their team’s internal discussions.

2. Support your case with data

Snake-oil is, unfortunately, a common practice in the services industry. Clients and prospective clients often express their reservations in starting a project because they’ve been burned one too many times before. In cases like that, instead of off-the-cuff assurances, the most effective salve is data.

When crafting a proposal, we recommend always asking your potential clients for access to any data sources that may be relevant to your project. For Distilled’s marketing retainers and ad hoc work, these sources can comprise Google Analytics & Search Console, PPC, staging sites and dev. environments, social media platforms, A/B testing platforms, and many other marketing tools. When you ask for access be direct and transparent about what you’re asking for and why you want to have it; don’t ask for data that isn’t going to be in the scope of the project. It’s a good idea to keep an NDA handy for this step!

Sample data view

This data details monthly search volume for a hypothetical client’s ranked keywords, segmented by which page the keywords rank on and whether they’re high volume or longtail keywords. So for keywords where this fictional client ranks on the first page, there are 28,400 monthly searches for their high volume keywords and 5,400 searches for longtail keywords, totaling 33,800 organic searches per month. As discerning viewers will see, however, this chart only tells part of the story.

This second chart gives us a complete picture of the client’s current organic keyword targeting

For page 1 keywords, just four keywords total 28,400 searches per month. Indeed, we can see from these charts that high volume keywords have significantly more search volume for this client. Based on information in the two charts, we can begin to create a project plan and initial focus. There are more unanswered questions here (how well do high volume keywords vs. longtail keywords convert for this client?, e.g) but it’s a solid starting point.

Don’t set the bar too high for data; a lot of the value it brings to a proposal is front-loaded, i.e obtained just by having the data present. Even if your data doesn’t reveal anything new to your clients, they’ll appreciate your not making assumptions and being thorough in your approach to their project.It’s important to do the legwork by collecting this data to build a case that’s compelling from start to finish. Having data to show your client also makes your case more credible and compelling!

3. Differentiate yourself: underscore your plan and highlight Its value

It’s the unfortunate reality that there are a lot of RFP’s that show up in your inbox that you’ll never have a chance to win because a lot of clients source proposals from agencies en masse. Clients understandably do this to save time: they throw everything at a wall and see what sticks.

Having said that, do not try to sell your clients on something that you’re inexperienced in or incapable of delivering satisfactorily; it might net you a juicy invoice but it’s unsustainable, hurting your brand and the industry as a whole in the long run. What you should do is define your top value proposition (we have development expertise, we are capable of multi-channel holistic digital solutions, we’re really good at creative, etc) and highlight what’s more pertinent to your client’s situation. Make sure you tie this all back to your outline and the proposed project plan contained in your initial proposal, so that the information you’re providing is actually of value to the client; don’t include a slide in your deck for a service that your client’s not going to want to use.

4. Turn RFP’s over quickly

This is old school sales and comes in no small part from the influence of Noah Lemas, Distilled’s VP in NYC: when you get a request for a proposal, don’t let it sit.

Here’s Distilled’s typical timeline for a proposal

Initial contact


First proposal


Final proposal

The client contacts us, or vice-versa.

We connect with the client and have a preliminary discussion about their project.

Based on the information we’ve gathered, Distilled sends an initial version of a proposal.

The client provides feedback on initial proposal, highlighting what they’d like to see.

Distilled sends revised proposal for review and follow-up discussion.


Within 24 hours

Within 5 days

Within 6 days

Within 1 week

Within 72 hours after first making contact we ensure that both parties know where the other stand on the project and if Distilled is a good fit; this way we get an answer quickly to clients while also staying on top of our internal pipeline. Some clients look elsewhere after the first proposal, but there’s an excellent chance that those who receive a final proposal contract a project with us.


I want to emphasize again that this framework isn’t comprehensive, nor is a “one-size-fits-all” approach to sales proposals desirable or sensible. When selling your project to clients, put in the work: the best proposals are customized, speaking directly to the client in their own language. Try to understand their problems and make sure that your solutions are actionable for the team that you’re pitching.  

With sales, like anything else, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

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