October 25, 2010

Paper or Digital

groceries: paper or plastic? I even did research on the Web to figure out which was the right choice. Talk about confusing! I finally just gave up and now I bring my own—cloth, thank you.

But there’s another choice we face with our proposals: paper or digital? We know which is greener. But which is more effective?

That’s our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Paper or Digital

Would you prefer to submit your proposal as a printed document or as a digital file? Perhaps more important, which format do your prospects prefer?

We're at a flex point in proposal writing, I think. Traditional methods have involved writing a document, printing it out, binding it and putting it between nice looking covers, and then delivering it—usually multiple copies—to the prospect.

Many RFPs still specify that you must submit hard copies. State and local government agencies often require a paper submission.

But increasingly, RFPs call for digital submissions. At the simplest level, they may require that you submit your document via e-mail or that you upload it to a Web site. At a more complex level, they may require you to fill out Web-based forms.

I believe that at some point in the next few years, proposals will be true digital documents—more like Web sites than Word docs. They will feature embedded video clips, hyperlinks, search capabilities, and other functionality that will make them interesting and easier to use. That kind of development is inevitable, I believe. But will it be a good thing? I honestly don't know.

Each of these modes of delivery has advantages and weaknesses.

Traditional paper-based proposals have the familiar form factor that all paper-based documents have. They're easy to skim, easy to flip back and forth in and easy to score. You can write notes in the margins, you can fold down the corner when you see something interesting, and you can underline or highlight stuff that you want to remember.

On the other hand, with paper-based proposals, a lot of trees have to die. Right now I have a single copy of a proposal written to the state of New York, which required paper-based submissions. The proposal consists of three volumes. Each volume contains over 500 pages of text. Each volume is bound in an elaborate three-ring binder, and each binder is housed in a slip case cover. This proposal is so big; I had to clear an area of my desk off just to house it. Reading it is pretty much a nightmare. And how much do you think it cost—both in terms of dollars and carbon footprint—to deliver multiple copies of this thing to Albany?

Digital proposals save paper, save transportation costs, and can be delivered to the prospect almost instantaneously. There's no need to make multiple copies, because the prospect can simply forward your digital version to whomever needs to see it. You're probably creating the document digitally; using Microsoft Word, so delivering it digitally eliminates an extra step in production.

But digital documents can be difficult to work with. If the proposal has been saved as a .PDF file, which it probably should be, the reader will have extreme difficulty annotating it. Skimming digital documents can be very difficult, too. And when you deliver a document in native Word format, its appearance can change (and never for the better) if the recipient has the Normal template set to something unusual. In fact, you may have problems delivering the document if the client is using an older version of Word (accepting .doc files) and you're producing your proposal in a newer version (such as a .docx file).

The next generation of digital delivery sounds pretty exciting. The ability to embed video, to create hot links to Web sites outside the proposal, and the opportunity to use advanced search technology, hyperlinks, and a more creative interface all sound pretty cool.

But there are a whole host of issues associated with the use of technology that will have to be addressed. In the public sector, it's unlikely that such submissions will be accepted for a long, long time, because they usually require the least technically advanced mode of delivery—in part to keep the playing field level and in part because that's all they can handle. Even if you're dealing with a technically sophisticated clientele, we've all had problems from time to time getting a video to open, a photograph to display, or a page to load properly. What happens if your evaluator has similar problems? Do they simply mark your submission noncompliant and move on to the next one?

What do you prefer? Would you rather produce a paper-based document or do you prefer to submit via e-mail? Or are you excited about the prospect of creating a true Web-based submission?

In the meantime, you know that whatever the future holds in terms of delivery, our tools will simplify the process. From our early days, when we first generated proposals in Word, WordPerfect, and AmiPro, until our latest versions when we can build them from components in multiple media and deliver them the same way, we have tried to take the hard work out of formatting and make your deliverables as crisp, professional, and consistent as possible.

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