In Tough Times, Are You Keeping Your Thinking Tough?

Tanking economy. Up-and-down stock market. High and growing unemployment. The end of the world as we know it. Etc, etc, etc. How’s all this affecting your commercial writing business? Perhaps less than you might imagine…

Okay, rest assured, I’m not here to say that all the economic turmoil is just a mirage. It’s not. But I am here to say that you’re in control of how you view it, and in turn, the extent to which you allow it to affect you.

I thought about offering a collection of tips on dealing with your commercial freelancing clients in tough times, but others, like Mike Stelzner are doing a good job of that. Instead, let’s talk about our thinking….

When you watch the news (Mistake #1), do you go into a sort of trance-like state, mumbling to yourself along the lines of,

… STOP!!

Okay, that’s called flabby thinking. Understandable, perhaps, but still flabby. Let’s toughen it up a bit. No mind-control hocus-pocus here. Just a few facts. During tough times, will businesses stop marketing, stop communicating with employees (internal communications), stop trying to reach new customers (ads, direct mail case studies), stop building web sites or updating existing ones, and all crawl into holes and wait and hope for things to get better? The very idea is ludicrous. And incidentally, I’m busier than I’ve been in a long time…

Will some businesses cut back on outside resources and perhaps bring projects in-house? Yes. But many can’t because they don’t have the in-house resources to do them.

And if there will be some cutting back, does that mean that bigger companies who’ve been using pricey ad agencies, design/PR firms and marketing companies might be cutting back on them? Yes. At which point, might the idea of hiring a far more economical, but-just-as-if-not-more effective freelance writer/designer team sound much more attractive? You bet it will.

And how much effect does the economy truly have on ONE person’s quest for financial self-sufficiency and freelance success? Given that that ONE person needs to garner only a tiny sliver of the entire universe of possible lucrative commercial writing work out there? Not much.

And don’t forget: there will be a certain chunk of your competition who will buy all the gloom and doom, will blink and run, opting for something they perceive will be more secure, and will leave you with less competition.

Feeling better yet?

If you’ve been around the block a few times, what are your thoughts?

What other tough-thinking strategies can you suggest?

What are you seeing from your clients?

What do you see as the keys to getting through tough times?

14 replies
  1. QuietRebelWriter
    QuietRebelWriter says:

    Good points all. I haven’t been too worried about the state of my business during all this near-apocalyptic global anxiety, just because we have a few things going for us.

    We’re cheap, when it comes down to it – much more cost-efficient than a fulltime employee with all the insurance and liability needs. We’re (if we’re any good) hands-off and easy to work with, a reduction of stress in stressful times. And when we have some good long-term relationships with clients, they’re much more likely to keep sending work our way than with newbies.

    So while I’m watching the epic clusterf*$age unfold, and maintaining my marketing efforts, I’m fairly confident.

    Ah crap. I just jinxed it, didn’t I?

  2. Alan Stamm
    Alan Stamm says:

    Hear, hear! I’ve also got more on the active projects whiteboard this autumn than earlier this year, Peter. Client comments confirm it’s at least partly because they realize well-targeted, well-crafted marketing communication is particularly essential in tough times.

    Savvy entrepreneurs and managers get the importance of reinforcing top-of-mind awareness, stressing value propositions and highlighting points of distinction when customers or prospects watch dollars more closely.

    Two professional service clients (small legal office and mid-size commercial interior design studio) just started quarterly newsletters and two larger ones (property developer and security services) commissioned website upgrades/expansion — one of which awaits Q1 ’09 for budget reasons.

    Business survivors — only ones we want to serve, right? — recognize that waves from Wall Street and Washington haven’t eroded the spend-to-earn equation that has worked since . . . well, since always.

    The only real refinement during stormy weather seems to be that strong clients pay closer attention to spending smartly and more slowly. (Others have pushed projects to ’09 and a few suddenly lag behind my 30-day net terms — though not by more than a couple of weeks at most . . . so far).

    I agree with Amy, the Quiet Rebel Writer, that our benefits-free, hassle-less outsourcing model shines even more brightly in cloudy times.

    So stay optimistic, productive, solution-oriented and well-fed, fellow FLCWs.

  3. peter
    peter says:

    Thanks Amy and Alan,

    Great stuff! Amy, thanks for echoing the value proposition offered by commercial copywriters in these times, one not lost on MANY clients. And no, you didn’t jinx it. We have to keep asserting it. And Alan, thanks for sharing your evidence of smart, savvy, in-it-for-the-long-haul clients who are quietly but confidently going about their business. That’s the kind of folks I’m working for as well.

    I have a relatively new client who’s been moving forward aggressively in building up her business. She helps colleges increase enrollment. You think entities like that can afford to stop marketing? Not on your life. So her business is cranking. In the past few months, I’ve done a brochure for her, edited a 10-page prospectus, gathered 10 testimonials by phone from her clients, done a three-piece direct mail campaign for an event she’s coordinating with a bunch of her client schools, an invite for a related event, and next week, I’ll be working on a five-piece direct mail campaign for one of her clients. This is a two-person shop, and she hasn’t flinched at my $125 an hour rate. They’re out there and they’re taking care of business. And that’s just one of my clients…


  4. Ron Miller
    Ron Miller says:

    I’ve been a freelancer for more than 20 years and this is at least the fourth bad period I’ve seen. I do freelance technology writing and freelance technical writing, so if the downturn hits the IT industry I’m going to feel it. A few thoughts here:

    * From a technology perspective, it seems this industry is better positioned now than in 2001 to ride out the storm. I’m not saying it’s going to be a great time, but I think it’s probably going to be less volatile for technology writers than last time.

    * Being diversified helps you ride out the bad times. If you only do one thing and that industry goes in the tank, chances are you are going to lose business too. I do both technical writing (manuals, online help and so forth) and technology journalism. I found in 2001, when the internet bubble burst, the tech writing business went quiet for a long time, but I kept a few regular technology journalism gigs and was able to keep my head above water in the bad years. It helps to spread out your skills if at all possible.

    * Always have a nest egg for the downturn because there is always going to be one.

    I’m happy to say that I’m still very busy right now, but I’ve been around long enough to know that these things can change quickly. You have to be flexible in times like these. They aren’t pleasant, but you can continue to make a living as a freelance writer.

    Ron Miller
    By Ron Miller

  5. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    I used to work in the media. After I left that career I stopped paying attention to the news too much because I was very aware of how it was negatively affecting my outlook on life in general. These days, I don’t subscribe to a newspaper and, at various times, we haven’t even had TV service to the house. I’m a bit plugged back in at the moment because of the presidential race. But because I’m generally “unplugged”, it’s quite possible I could have gone through much of this economic turmoil without being too aware of it.

    By working from home and not being “around the water cooler”, I’ve saved myself from being swayed by how people react to what’s going on in the news. Which, without a doubt, has been very serious for many people.

    But all this bad news hasn’t affected my career as a freelancer. In fact, I’m about to be as busy as I’ve ever been. Despite the impression we often get from the media, the world goes on and people still need to market their businesses. In fact, some will market more to take advantage of their competition that may be hurting. Others see it as a great time to introduce something new to the market. Still others will play off all the that’s going on in the news to recast their products/services in a new light. That all requires fresh marketing material.

    I’ve pretty much got three companies that will keep me busy into next year. Three! That’s pretty amazing when I think about it. (In fact, I just had to let a new client go after only one project because I felt they were going to consume far more time than I had to give them.)

    I’ve talked to plenty of folks who come into this field thinking they have to have dozen and dozens of clients to make things work. They may go through dozens and dozens to find the best long-term clients. But once they do that, it only takes a handful to keep your calendar full. As PB said, it just takes a tiny sliver of the available work to keep you busy. And even given the situation these days, a sliver isn’t hard to come by.

  6. Craig
    Craig says:

    Excellent post, Peter. I don’t think people understand how much their internal voice is prone to the negative. I consider myself a pretty positive guy, and still catch myself getting caught up in the doom-and-gloom sometimes.

    I learned to fight off these negative urges early in my sales career. If you buy into the media’s take on things, you’ll end up in a pretty sad state.

    1) Reality is rarely as bad as the news makes it out to be. The more they sensationalize – the higher their ratings. Pretty easy to figure out how they’re going to report the news.
    2) If you buy into it you will subconsciously start to think negative, feel negative and sound negative. Your business will suffer; who wants to deal with someone like that?
    3) As a matter of fact, these are good times to pass along some positivity – like Peter is doing – and let your clients know your are here for them if they need anything.

    I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish; the reality is, things aren’t really that bad. At the risk of bringing politics into this, I’ve heard the rhetoric that this is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Have you seen double-digit inflation and 35% unemployment. Yeah, me either.

    When you hear someone spouting bad news, ask yourself if they might have an agenda. Often the answer is yes. You can’t control the news, so ignore it, and get on with the things you can control.

  7. Michael Kelberer
    Michael Kelberer says:

    Hi Peter,
    Great post and follow up comments by all. My two cents is that we remember the advice we give to our prospects and clients: when times are tough, market more, not less!

  8. peter
    peter says:

    Thanks everyone!

    Great advice, Ron, on several points. And Mike, thanks for your usual pithy contributions. Especially love the comments about not listening to new – something I’ve NOT been doing (listening, that is…) for a long time (yes, I’ve been more plugged in during this election cycle, as has everyone, I suspect…)

    And as Craig, points out, things really AREN’T as bad they may seem. Hence the reason I wrote decided to do this particular post. I just know that many people WILL buy into a skewed perception of reality. NOT that there isn’t heckuva lot of hardship right now, but rather, is that, in fact, your experience of events. As Mike and Michael point out, marketing more is what smart people (writers and our clients) do in tough times.

    And Tom, I echo your comment. Can’t help but think of Honest Abe’s famous saying: “A man’s about as happy as he makes up his mind to be.”


  9. Alan Stamm
    Alan Stamm says:

    Two days after you started this discussion, Peter, The New York Times reported on the Association of National Advertisers’ annual meeting under this head:
    ‘Resolved to Keep on Marketing, Even in Tight-Fisted Times’

    An HP exec echoes us:

    “It’s incredibly important to be risk-takers in the economic climate we’re in when people have a tendency to pull back. In economic times like these, you don’t hunker down and go in the bunker.”
    — Michael Mendenhall, SVP/chief marketing officer at Hewlett-Packard

    Full report here:

  10. Alan Stamm
    Alan Stamm says:

    Back for seconds, to borrow a phrase.

    Y’know how it is when we learn a new word or expression, which then keeps popping into view? Just had that feeling in relation to this thread . . . and who else can I tell?

    Back-burner client in electronics engineering/manufacturing calls to request multi-stage proposal for expanded online content, monthly ‘new’ product releases and direct mailer because [here it comes . . .] trade show attendance is waaaay down due to the economy. So he’ll minimize that marketing channel and increase WRITTEN outreach.

    We’re onto something here, Peter.

  11. peter
    peter says:

    Great stuff, Alan,

    Exactly what I’m talking about and I appreciate the real-word affirmation! And when you stop and think about it, it’s totally logical. Where else might it be happening?


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