Boilerplate a la carte

Jun 11, 2018

Marketing text has to be what the project owner needs to see. If you can standardize to accommodate an array of proposal types, great. If not, develop new recipes.

Standardizing marketing text seems like a great idea. You don’t have to write generic sections every time you start a statement of qualifications or proposal. You just import the “about the firm” section, and the “project staffing” or “project experience” introduction from the appropriate existing files.

Sounds like a great timesaver, right?

So what’s the downside?

In most of the ways that count, standardized text is text pulled out of the database; we used to call that “boilerplate,” and many people argued that it was always bad to use boilerplate in a proposal.

In the early 1990s, my then employer got a database with virtually unlimited capability for expansion. When populated with firm capabilities, awards, resumes, project experience, and other information, the database could easily produce a document of more than 150 pages including any or all of the firm’s offerings. And it could produce the document in both regular text and SF 254/255 (now SF 330) formats.

But the text was so generic that anyone reading it knew it was boilerplate.

At the headquarters office, marketing staff created documents that included more than 15 pages of resumes and projects that were not relevant to the potential client’s project. And because most people assume that what is already in the database is correct, the marketers at headquarters rarely read the documents, so a typo from the original entry might still be in the text a few years later. Or the number of the firm’s staff might be that from two years ago. Or the listing of offices might include one that closed and omit one that opened a year ago.

So the senior principal in my branch office would hand me an RFP and warn me, “Don’t do a headquarters on me.”

That meant I could use boilerplate, but only if I:

  1. Selected only files that responded to the RFP – in other words, provide everything the client wanted to know, but not everything I wanted to tell.
  2. Read the selected text and tweaked it to be relevant to the project being pursued – in other words, a proposal for roadway design did not need a beach nourishment project in the “Experience” section.

Unfortunately, some marketers are so swamped and pressed for time that they just pull files from the database and assemble the document without giving serious thought to item No. 1 above, and without spending any time at all on item No. 2.

And that takes care of the general up and downsides of using “standardized” or boilerplate text. Next, three more specific downsides.

  • Firm with multiple service offerings. Let’s say your firm provides engineering, surveying, and construction management services, and you have one standard “About the Firm” write-up. When you respond to an RFP for surveying services, does that client really want to read about your engineering and construction management capabilities, staff, and experience? So do you need one standard write-up for each type of service you provide? Or do you need one overall write-up that you edit each time you use it? And do you need both an overview write-up and a detailed write-up with bullet listings of all your services?
  • Firm operating in multiple market sectors. Let’s say your firm provides its services to both the transportation and the municipal utility sectors. And what if each of those sectors exhibits a different “personality?” The first time I wrote a proposal for a railroad design project, I was told that the text had to read like the firm “spoke railroad” or the proposal wouldn’t be considered.
  • Firm operating in multiple marketplaces. Let’s say your firm provides its services in multiple cities, states, or regions. And what if each of those geographic locations exhibits a different “personality?” When I moved to Dallas in 1987, I was told that you couldn’t market in Fort Worth the same way you marketed in Dallas. So do you need multiple versions of your marketing peripherals, each with a different level of formality and locally identifiable photographs?
  • Remember that every piece of text a marketer puts out has to be what the reader wants to see. If you can standardize in a way that accommodates this, go ahead. But if your standardization is more about convenience for the pursuit’s marketer, principal in charge, or technical champion, you need to reassess and refocus.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant of The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultancy located in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at 559.901.9596 or at

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