The proposal is one of the most important documents a researcher ever writes. (Indeed it is one of the few documents that researchers write, as reporting is nearly always in PowerPoint slides). The content, structure and quality of the proposal may account for well over 50 per cent of the decision to place the business with an agency. Within the client company the proposal will do the rounds, winning or losing approval with its many readers without the accompaniment of the human voice of the author. It is the most important weapon the agency can use to win business.

The proposal is more than just a research design with a price; it is a statement of the agency that has prepared it. Whereas the brief may be confused, limited in scope or lacking in detail, the proposal must bring clarity, add to the understanding and make an authoritative claim for the recommended research method. A spelling or grammatical error could be sufficient to cause the client to see this as a reflection of sloppy working standards and disregard the content of the rest of the proposal.

The introduction

The proposal may run to 10 pages or so in length. It deserves a title page and table of contents. In a lengthy proposal, the first section could be a summary, but more usually it is an introduction to the subject stating the background and circumstances that have led to the research project being considered. This background contains the first words that will be read in the document and they need to resonate. It may contain someadditional information to add to the story following a search on the Internet or the odd interview (also demonstrating keenness of interest in the subject). As the reader gets to the end of the first section, the proposal has done a good deal of its selling job.

The objectives

Next is the section on objectives. This is another important chapter to the client as it is a statement of what will be obtained for the money. Typically the research would be given an overall goal such as: to assess the market for weather forecasting services amongst electricity generating, transmission and distribution (retail) companies in the United States.

A more detailed listing of the many research objectives would then follow. A flavour of these can be gleaned from two or three objectives taken out of a list of what amounted to around 10 objectives in the actual proposal.

1. To gain an understanding of how weather affects business operations of energy companies in the three target markets and their key weather information needs (that is, the perceived importance of the weather to their business and business planning processes and the type of products/services they need).

2. To gain an understanding of the extent of weather information usage and the nature of that use (that is, what they use it for, how and why). This would include: where they get their existing weather information from, how it is delivered, the problems they encounter, how much they spend, and if they do not use weather information, why not.

3. To assess the perceived future demand for weather information products and services in the target energy markets (including, do respondents perceive they will use weather information more or less in the future?).

The methods

To the researcher, the methods section is probably the most important. If the researcher gets this wrong, the objectives will not be achieved. The client will clearly be interested in the methods but much will be taken on trust. If the researcher says that a particular method is appropriate, then it may go unquestioned.

In the section on methods the researcher may begin with a brief overview of the approach and the factors that have influenced the design. It is not unusual in a research programme to have an eclectic range of methods including some secondary research (desk research) to support the primary fieldwork. The fieldwork could have a qualitative
phase and this could be a number of depth interviews or focus groups. If there is a quantitative stage it will be spelled out in detail arguing the reasons for choosing the telephone or face-to-face interviews, the size of the sample and any quotas for certain groups of respondents.

Timing and costs

By the time the research sponsor arrives at the section laying out the timetable and the costs, the project will most probably be won or lost. Of course the price tag is important but research is not a commodity product. There are significant differences between research suppliers and this is recognized by clients. It is not a business where the cheapest product always wins.