PDFs Part One: Four Ways to Improve Electronic Proposals

Proposal professionals have long explored ways to optimize their hard copy submissions, from adjusting paper colors, tabs, and binding types to developing unique packaging materials. However, as many government and commercial organizations shift to electronic-only submission requirements, a new challenge has emerged: how to optimize a proposal file.

That’s why this week we’re discussing four underused ways to improve the appeal and functionality of a proposal in portable document format (PDF)—the most common file type of electronic submissions. That’s right, while PDFs are popular for their accessibility, security, and compression, they can also be customized in ways that vastly enhance a proposal’s impact on evaluators. On to the list!

A Quick Caveat Before We Begin: Since most businesses use Adobe Acrobat for PDF creation, we’ll be discussing features specific to this software. For similar features of other common PDF creators, such as PDFCreator and CutePDF, please consult their respective websites.

1. Create a Customized PDF Portfolio
Requests for proposals (RFPs) often require the submission of several documents (e.g., technical volume, pricing volume, forms, terms and conditions, and other supporting documentation), forcing you to create and submit a jumble of separate files. There’s a better way.

With Acrobat’s PDF Portfolio feature, you can assemble these documents into a single, customized portfolio PDF file, making them easier for the evaluator to understand and organize. As seen in this example, you can arrange files with various formats, from Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations to Flash videos and PDF documents, each with a title and brief description. Furthermore, you can customize the look and feel of the portfolio to reflect your corporate branding (or that of your prospect). Bonus.

The How To (in Acrobat X/XI): On the left side of your toolbar, click the Create button, then PDF Portfolio. Choose your layout, click the Add Files button, select each of your files, and click Open. Voilà, your portfolio is created. Organize the files as desired, and add a title and description for each. On the right side toolbar, you can adjust various aspects of the portfolio appearance, such as colors, background image, and header. We prefer to add our company logo and the proposal title to the header and a prospect-specific image to the background.

2. Make Your PDF Interactive
In addition to adding multimedia files to your PDF Portfolio, you can embed these files directly in your PDF documents, providing a convenient and dynamic experience for evaluators. This is big. If you think custom proposal graphics are valuable, consider this: according to Dr. James McQuivey of Forrester Research, one minute of video is equivalent in value to 1.8 million words. Wow.

Let’s say you’re a professional services firm and want to highlight the key aspects of your project approach. Think a video or animation would be useful in that section of your proposal? You bet! Acrobat also allows you to choose a still image from your video or animation to show as the clickable thumbnail, so the evaluator will know what they’ll be watching.

The How To (in Acrobat X/XI): With your proposal PDF open in Acrobat, select the Tools pane on the right side toolbar. Click Interactive Objects, then Add Video. (You can also add other object types, such as buttons, sounds, and Adobe Flash animations.) Move your cursor to the appropriate proposal page, then click the left mouse button to designate the size and location of your video. Finally, browse to the desired file to embed and click OK. Your document is now officially awesome.

A Word about File Types: Please note that your video must be Flash compatible. If it isn’t, you can convert it using Adobe Media Encoder or similar freeware converters, such as Any Video ConverterFree Studio Manager, and YouConvertIt.

3. Maximize Navigation with Bookmarks
When creating a PDF, Acrobat automatically generates a vertical panel of bookmarks (shown on the left of the video image below) based on your Word document’s table of contents, providing readers with an ever-present, hyperlinked navigation aid. Evaluators love this. Think about it: As part of the evaluation process, they’re often jumping to different portions of a document, not necessarily in a linear manner. This behavior makes your document’s table of contents page painfully inconvenient, forcing evaluators to constantly refer back to it for direction. With the bookmarks panel, easy navigation is just a click away.

Automatically generated bookmarks are good, but you can make them better. You can edit the text of each bookmark, delete unnecessary bookmarks, and add new bookmarks to highlight important items both inside and outside your document. For instance, we typically add bookmarks that connect to and expand the size of any important videos, animations, or graphics included in the PDF document. We also add bookmarks that connect to related documents in our PDF Portfolio (e.g., pricing spreadsheet, terms and conditions). Doing this saves the evaluator time and frustration, and a happy evaluator is a generous evaluator.

The How To (in Acrobat X/XI): With your proposal PDF open in Acrobat, go to the page where you want the bookmark to link and adjust the view settings as desired. With the arrow tool selected, highlight the image or text you want to bookmark, right click your mouse, and select Add Bookmark. Type or edit the name of the new bookmark. To add an action to the bookmark (e.g., change page view, play media, open a file), right click the bookmark in the bookmark panel and select Properties. Under the Actions tab, select the appropriate action from the dropdown list.

4. Set the Right View
You’ve developed an attractive and compelling proposal, created your PDF, and added your desired features. But before you sit back and admire your masterpiece, make sure that when the evaluator opens your proposal, their initial view of the PDF is to the magnification level, page, page layout, and window layout you want.

For instance, we recommend setting the navigation to Bookmarks Panel and Page, which ensures that the bookmarks are visible (otherwise the evaluator may forget about them). We also recommend setting the page layout to a Continuous option, which allows the evaluator to scroll pages rather than snapping from one whole page to another, and setting the magnification to Fit Page. Check out the many other options and see what works for your proposals.

The How To (in Acrobat X/XI): With your proposal PDF open in Acrobat, click on File, then Properties. In the dialog box, click the Initial View tab. Select the options you want under Layout and Magnification, Window Options, and User Interface Options. Click OK. Note that you have to close and reopen the document to see the changes.

One Final Caveat: As with all aspects of your proposals, make sure to review the formatting and submission guidelines of each RFP before incorporating the above features. After all, there is no sense in creating a dynamic, persuasive PDF document only for it to be disqualified.

Shameless Plug Alert: A great way to ensure you have effective, persuasive proposals and presentations is by hiring a professional writer, editor, or trainer. You know, like the ones at Freestyle Editorial Services. Visit our website and contact us today to discuss how we can make your company stand apart from the competition.

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