By Lexi Milani
I’m a communicator at heart and by trade, so I jumped at the offer to go to INBOUND in Boston last month. The conference is focused on inbound marketing techniques that bring your customer or client to your company through the power of excellent content. There were over 21,000 registered attendees: that's a lot of content creators and salespeople.
There was a lot of talk about connection at the conference: connection with customers, with colleagues, with consumers in general. But a moment that truly stuck with me was the conclusion of Brené Brown’s keynote address the very first night. Her remarks were about belonging, and she emphasized the importance of truly listening to others, of seeking out opportunities to connect through shared experience, and of reaching out to help whenever possible.
After clapping furiously, the crowd left, most of them staring down at their phones and tapping furiously.
In session after session, we were told to put our phones down and just listen. In session after session, attendees took photos of every PowerPoint slide they saw, even though we were getting a link to the deck at the end of the presentation.
One of my favorite pieces of advice from any session was when Melissa d’Arabian told us to practice being bored. Put down your phone, she said, and practice living without constant stimulation; that practice will help you focus better later when you really need to. Everyone nodded along and then kept right on texting or emailing or Tweeting or whatever it was most of us were doing.
Dr. Brown pointed out that in a lot of ways, we Americans are more “sorted” than ever before. Our neighborhoods are stratified by politics. We cannot understand how our beloved aunt or friend could have voted the way she did. Religion, education, public policy: all of these ideas that should connect us have become intensely divisive somehow. I started thinking: is part of the problem really the smartphone? Are we so “connected” that we have disconnected from one another?
So what does this all have to do with what I do professionally: business development in the government contracting space? More than at first glance.
The government is not impressed with our pithy LinkedIn posts or an erudite Twitter feed. The only opportunity we have to get a leg up, so to speak, is to build relationships with contract officers and back up our promises with the best work anyone could possibly provide. Attention to detail, timeliness, efficiency: all these qualities are crucial for winning proposals, and none of them are benefited by your phone constantly dinging and beeping and begging for your attention.
Teaming partners and potential clients? They might be interested in what we say on our various public platforms. The content we put out must be high quality and on point because that reinforces the ideas inherent in our brand. But that doesn’t mean that LinkedIn newsfeed posts are going to replace an actual relationship.
At some point, personally and professionally, we are going to have to put down our smartphones and just talk – and listen – to one another. That’s it, in a nutshell.
Maybe it’s odd that my primary takeaway from a conference focused on using technology to sell more services would be that we need to use less technology. And I’ll still be posting to LinkedIn and Tweeting and mining for leads online. When it really comes down to it though: I’ll be asking you out for coffee, trying to get to know you, your business, and your needs better, so that I can figure out how Qocreate can serve you best.
Where do you want to meet?
Lexi is a strategist at Qocreate, where she is responsible for providing communications expertise and business development services to clients. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you responsible for business development in your company? If so, do you know what your website and social media are saying to potential clients about your business?
A strong online presence makes you look sharp, but it can be tough to keep content fresh with limited time or budget. Here are five easy tasks you can do this week to better represent yourself online. These actions will increase your chances of influencing contracting officers, program managers, teaming partners and potential commercial clients.
Complete one of these tasks each day and you’ll have a rejuvenated online presence in just one work week!
Thanks for reading this installment of To Do This Week. Are you interested in a comprehensive online strategy for your firm? Contact Qocreate for a thorough review of your online assets.
Qocreate’s CEO, Mike Huckleberry, founded the company in early 2016 after working in technical writing and proposal management for more than a decade. He lives in Mendocino County, California.
How did you find your way to owning a proposal agency?
I started working proposals as a pricing analyst back in 2006, working on large telecom bids. This required an extreme level of detail and a complete understanding of how the work gets done. We were pricing well, but losing bids on technical evaluations. So, I decided to switch to writing the technical solutions. Since then, I've worked on and won many proposals because of the technical merits of the solutions.
But many companies struggle to consistently turn out high-quality content in a short time. This is where Qocreate's system comes in. We use single-source content, updated on a quarterly basis, to feed management, past performance, resume, and technical input for proposals. So, when a proposal drops, we're 70% of the way there on day one. Starting my own company allowed me to put this solution in place and share it with others. And it seems to be working!
There are lots of proposal shops of all sizes. What’s Qocreate’s niche?
We're a perfect fit for small to mid-size businesses ($2M - $25M) who need dedicated and top-tier proposal support. These companies tend to over-spend on high-priced consultants and systems, and end up with unnecessary overhead and underperforming proposals. We provide as-needed proposal management, writing, and graphics support. Our near $300M in revenue supporting clients in this range proves that our work has been and continues to be successful.
The company tagline is “Story. System. Style.” Can you explain a bit how that describes Qocreate’s work in the proposal industry?
Of course! This is really the differentiating element of our service. You might be able to write a winning proposal without a compelling story (we certainly have!), but the core story of an organization drives much more than the narrative of a proposal. It gives people in the organization something to work toward, and leadership a byline to operate from in carrying out day-to-day business. It also gives salespeople a good talking piece for client meetings and serendipitous acquaintances.
When we start working with a client, the first thing we do is try to understand and articulate the story and unique selling proposition of that organization. We also help build the media and material to communicate that story (e.g., websites, video, marketing collateral).
The system is how we create, maintain, and use data and information to complete proposals as quickly as possible. When you have a compelling story and a means of quickly accessing up-to-date information, writing a proposal becomes much, much easier. By developing a series of single-source documents (i.e., for past performance, management vol., technical solutions, etc.), we give clients exactly what they need to write winning proposals.
As for style, we like to look good. We have designers, photographers, videographers, and marketers on staff to help make sure a client's look matches their story. And that it's something that will attract people in their industry. Helping with style is often the most fun part of the job!
All of these things together - Story, System, Style - give a structured, beautifully simple way to manage proposal work. Because of this approach, we're especially efficient in our work, which gives us time to continue learning and getting better. Because, let's face it: proposals can be burdensome and really stressful. Anything we can do to help lighten the load and give some time back to people working hard on these things is a win-win for everyone.
Have you read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey?
With more than 15 million copies sold, the principles in this book have helped many people become more effective both individually and in collaboration with others. It also provides exceptional advice for shaping your business story.
Together, the Seven Habits can profoundly influence the coherence of your story as told through your website, company messaging, social presence, business proposals, and client deliverables. These habits, once formed, get at the heart of good content: well thought out, beneficial to the customer, audience-appropriate, actionable, and iterative.
Habit #1 - Be Proactive. This first habit involves responsibility, and derives from your company’s mission and strategy. (If you don’t have a mission or business strategy, this is a good place to start.) When shaping your company’s narrative and deciding on the avenues to tell your story, being proactive and taking initiative comes first. Your organization possesses the self-awareness, imagination, independence, and creativity to determine how you present yourself to the world.
What do you want people to know about you? How do you want to be perceived? What problems are you trying to solve? How can you effectively communicate your solutions to these problems and the associated value of your offering? When you take the time to tell your story clearly and simply, this foundation provides solid direction for your business marketing and proposal content.
Habit # 2 - Begin with the End in Mind. Having a sense of direction or what you want to become greatly influences your story. If you know you want to be a multi-million-dollar health-food company, your story will be different than if you want to be a locally-based, sustainable food provider for your community. A small-scale, specialized application developer will tell a different story than Apple.
It is time to tie your mission and strategy to your story. Where you want to be in 5, 10, 15, or 20 years helps determine your customers and audience, the quality of the products and services you provide, the types of people you hire, the avenues you use to get your message out, and the look and feel of your content. The company you want to be dictates the story and how you get there.
Because you’re being proactive and taking responsibility for the direction of your story, you begin with the end in mind (creating a mental picture of the success you want), and then you design your content to fulfill your vision.
Habit #3 – Put First Things First. Habit 1 says that you are the creator, you’re in charge of the story. Habit 2 helps create a mental version of the story, determining the end state and success you desire to have in your company. Habit 3 is where you determine the most important elements of telling your story.
Business creates the tyranny of the urgent, and the top and bottom lines often threaten to undermine and undo a company’s narrative. You start out with the intention of completing a certain number of proposals, writing a blog every week, or developing content to improve employee communication. As the year goes on, mission and strategy get lost or put away because there are too many other important things to focus on, and the inbox is filling up with demands.
Maintaining and curating your story, along with performance statistics and data proving the quality of your products and services, should occupy critical space in your businesses management practices and processes. Setting aside time to develop and refine the story, and setting roles and responsibilities to make sure the story is updated and maintained will pay off in the end.
When deciding on priorities in a content strategy, we recommend focusing on single source, reusable content that tells who you are, what you stand for, what you do, how you do it, and why you are doing it. Accomplishing this articulation at a high level, putting it one place where anyone can access and update it, and then establishing a routine for refining it will make all content-based work easier – from updating websites, to writing proposals, to keeping current on social media and interacting with your client base.
Habit #4 – Think Win/Win. Win/win seeks mutual benefit in all interactions. This applies directly to content of any type. You develop content and write proposals and copy to connect with an intended audience and grow business. When developing your story, it is imperative to consider the target audience and customer in a way that makes the relationship and interaction enjoyable, informative, and mutually beneficial. Customers get what they want and need, your company makes a sustainable profit.
Your content, in this sales context, carries ultimate importance, influencing relationships and leading to win/win agreements – i.e., contracts, purchases, life-long customer loyalty. In order to get to a win/win agreement, you must develop a script and narrative that shows you understand the customer and have an authentic and genuine approach to making things better for them.
Habit #5 – Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. The first 3 habits focus on internal considerations – your company initiative, vision, and priorities. With Habit #4, you begin to look outward and consider the customer and how they benefit from your content, shaped by your mission and strategy. Habit #5 helps you to understand what the customer is looking for in content.
Too often, websites and marketing material miss the mark. For example, students use university websites to find class schedules, campus maps, building locations, and contact information for professors. But many university website landing pages are littered with the direction of the institution, awards, building projects, alumni events, and other largely irrelevant information. The student is a main consumer of the website’s content, but you can’t tell that the content has been oriented to the consumer.
When thinking through presenting your content to your intended audience, consider what they want to see – What do they want to know? In what order do they want to see the information? How would they like it presented (e.g., words, visuals, interactive design)? What is the best way to present the content given the message and audience? When you present customers with content that meets their needs in a way they can understand, you have a much greater chance of connecting with and influencing them.
Habit #6 – Synergize. This is where we get down to creative cooperation and interacting with your customers in a collaborative and engaging way. You begin with the end in mind, you initiate the interaction in an effective way, and now you work with the customer to achieve the end result – making your product, service, and their experience significantly better than it was before. You created a story to attract and connect with your customer, now together you are continuing to write the story.
Watch how customers interact with your content. Through web analytics, proposal debriefs, customer feedback, and performance statistics, gauge how the story is being received, and make adjustments as necessary. Take into account the mental, emotional, and psychological differences between yourself and your customers. When you can recognize your own perceptual limitations, and adjust the story accordingly, you will see profits dramatically increase and enjoy a better relationship with your intended consumers.
Habit #7 – Sharpen the Saw. In order to accomplish the other 6 habits, this is perhaps the most important. Sharpening the saw is taking care of your own company, and fostering a sense that the story is vital to all aspects of success – from marketing to sales to operations to delivery of your product or service.
Sharpening involves physical, mental, and social/emotional dimensions. The mission and the strategy of the company provide a foundation for meaning and purpose. Physical well-being ensures livelihood and endurance to live the story you are creating (Habit #1 – Be Proactive). Mental discipline allows for renewal in Habits #2 (Begin with the End in Mind) and #3 (Put First Things First), where you organize and plan for accomplishing the end you have in mind. The social and emotional dimensions feed Habit #5 (Think Win/Win) and Habit #6 (Synergize), centered on interdependence, empathy, and creative cooperation.
In all, applying the Seven Habits to your content development and management process allows you to ensure your mission and strategy live in the story you tell, regardless of the medium.
For more information on our philosophy about content and proposal development processes, visit our blog or contact Qocreate.
Companies tell stories all the time - to themselves, to employees, to potential customers, to the competition, and to the world. Stories help us to position our organizations to successfully sell products and services to specific markets.
We tell these stories by developing well-thought-out concepts around establishing and growing our businesses. The resultant messaging manifests itself in brands, logos, marketing campaigns, websites, business proposals, internal communications, and deliverables or products for customers.
When there is a great, well-maintained narrative that customers want to believe, an organization has a great opportunity to succeed. All too often though, the story doesn’t exist, it gets lost in constant retelling, or some employees and customers have never heard it.
This is where storytelling and organizational coherence come into play. When you have a central account of your reason for being and the value you bring to others, it can permeate your team, your company, your audience.
Qocreate incorporates the art of storytelling and, always, emphasizes the critical importance of coherence in business and business proposals.
Here is the gist: your business begins and ends with a story. Your company marketing materials, proposals, technical reports, social media posts, website content, and everything else should reflect that core story.
In many organizations, different departments take responsibility for different parts of the message. Marketing handles social media, the website, and promotional material. Business development or sales teams handle proposals. Operations handles the technical reports, deliverables, product development, and packaging.
A problem begins to surface over time – if there is no coherence to the story, no attention paid to who is telling it and how, and if no one believes it, the quality and truth of the story begin to fall apart. Without attention, you have many people working to tell the story over and over, reaching for whatever they used last, sprucing it up a little, and sending it on to whoever needs it for whatever purpose.
The story starts to change. Over time, without care, it begins to fall flat.
In order to solve the problem of a non-existent, flagging, or inconsistent story, Qocreate works with clients to develop organizational coherence around a remarkable narrative. Organizational coherence means that the underlying values and vision of the story manifest in content and behavior across the organization.
More importantly, others recognize and believe your story because they feel it in the way your people treat them and treat each other. Everyone knows the message and it shows up in front office emails, greetings, executive memos, customer service calls, field team deliverables, and authentic and compelling proposals.
Part of working to develop this coherence is making sure that the story you tell is consistent in all of your content.
Two books our staff has been reading recently -- Seth Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars and Jeffrey Gitomer’s The Little Red Book of Selling -- confirm the importance of making certain that a coherent, compelling narrative infuses our clients’ organizations. Godin writes “…if you want to grow, make something worth talking about. Not the hype, not the ads, but the thing. If your idea is good, it’ll spread.” And in The Little Red Book of Selling, Jeffrey Gitomer states, “…branding is sales: it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.”
Taking these two ideas together, we encourage our clients to focus on making something remarkable -- worth talking about -- and then telling the story in a way that compels others to talk about it -- it’s who knows you. When you form the core message, then you work to incorporate that message into every aspect of your organization.
Here are three steps to follow:
1) Get your story straight and write it down. Developing and articulating your story is the first and hardest step. Many of our clients don’t know where to start, even those with companies that have been in business for years. The story begins with the product or service you provide, the motivation behind providing it, the benefit to your customers, and what sets you apart from others. Developing this narrative takes time and dedicated work. (If you don’t know where to start, visit our Story page.)
2) Assess your content needs. Once you know the story you want to tell, and it genuinely represents an exceptional product or service, begin with listing all potential content that you need to develop or reorient to incorporate this story and get it out to the people who need to know. Your content needs may include websites, marketing materials, company manuals, capabilities statements and business proposals, and any documentation or content media your people use to produce or provide whatever products or services you sell. Visit the marketing, sales, proposals, and operations teams to get perspective on their needs. Do your homework on the content they are using to represent your organization and its message. Then plan for change to incorporate the story in a coherent fashion across all possible content mediums.
3) Develop your content and get the word out. Now it is time to develop your content and share it with the audience you’re trying to reach. Put a plan in place and a schedule for developing your material. This may include reworking your business strategy, creating a new logo, refreshing your website, creating reuse material for proposals, or updating the look of your technical reports. Focus on creating content that reflects your story and elicits the feelings you want others to have about your products and services. As Godin writes in All Marketers Are Liars, “The good news is clear: authentic marketing, from one human to another, is extremely powerful. Telling a story authentically, creating a product or service that actually does what you say it will, leads to a different sort of endgame.”
The challenge in accomplishing these three steps is often getting people to work together. More often than not, motivation and direction for this effort has to come from the executive level. However, we’ve worked with more than a few organizations to help writers, marketers, and business development people create their own coherent narratives. Once customers and others in the organization see the quality of content being produced, they want to know how to get in on the game. Then you have an opportunity to grow that organizational coherence (same story across ALL content) from within, rather than top down.
If you want to prevent your message from getting lost between disparate functions and multiple teams, and if you want people to talk about your organization, then think about how to drive a consistent and remarkable story throughout – from the front desk to the executive’s office to the field where your products and services are impacting customers.
When it comes to business proposals, make sure you include the narrative being lived and promoted throughout the organization. Play with the art of the story in responding to customer requirements. Make sure that your offer is coherent with your brand and messaging.
For more information on how to get started on this kind of work, contact Qocreate or check out our other blog posts. We’re happy to talk through any content problems you’re having, to recommend ideas, and to help you establish the best content to grow your business, from marketing to proposals to technical documentation.