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Can You Share Some Examples of *Useful* Commercial Freelancing Jargon?

Got an email recently from a budding copywriter with a big worry. She wrote:

What is the language of marketing? What kinds of jargon can I expect when I talk to marketing execs? I am concerned that in meetings or conference calls, I might find myself up against a foreign language of sorts because I never worked in a corporate marketing environment.

My first inclination was to simply say, “Not really a big issue in freelance copywriting. It’s not really like a different language, so don’t worry too much about it.”

But then, I got to thinking about it and realized that, when you’ve been in the middle of a particular world for 20 years (this month, in fact…), it’s easy to imagine that it’s not all that complex. And bottom line, it really isn’t that terribly complex, but it’s not completely transparent, either.

And right about the time I got that question, I received an email from a new commercial freelancing client, with the background information on a new project he wanted me to quote. And in that email, he told me what files he’d attached, which included “the wires.” Commence head-scratching. Huh? Wires? What are the wires?

He was with a marketing/design firm, and after clicking through the source material, I realized that one of the documents was a line-drawing mockup of the website they’re creating for their client, and for which they need new copy. That six-page mockup with all the little boxes, arrows and greeking*—is known as the “wires.”

*(Oh, that’s placeholder copy a designer inserts in spaces where copy is needed, but hasn’t been written yet. It usually reads, “Lorum ipsum dolor sit amet…” and a bunch of other, well, Latin, actually. So, the name’s a misnomer, but it’s still “greeking.” And two Latin-to-English translation sites are telling me that the five-word phrase above means…well, “Thong team…” Hmmmm. No clue. Remember, it’s placeholder copy.)

So, “wires.” Learn something new every day. So, maybe there’s a little more to the jargon in the commercial copywriting business than I’d like to believe. Of course, a couple of standard phrases come to mind: collateral, for instance: the term for various and sundry marketing communications pieces beyond ad copy that are part of a larger campaign—things like brochures, sales sheets, case studies, etc.

Then there’s the “creative brief.” Meaning, the document you’ll receive from clients (i.e., an agency, design firm, or the marketing department of the end-user themselves) describing the scope of the project in question, what the objective is, what the deliverables are (there’s another word: “deliverables,” meaning the final end products that need to be created, and which you’ve been entrusted to write), the timetable, contact people (a.k.a. “subject matter experts”—a.k.a. SME’s, and yes, actually pronounced “Smee’s”—yet another term!), etc.

All that said, I still maintain that, even if you come from a background completely different from commercial writing, that it won’t be anywhere near the same as, say, visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

Over time, I learned all these (and many other) words by osmosis, but my overriding recollection is definitely not of one embarrassing moment after another as clients exchanged looks, loosely translated as, “Where did this guy come from?” Not so.

So, that’s a few that occurred to me off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are a ton of others I’m missing right now. So let’s help out this nervous newbie, and share some of the jargon you’ve come across in your freelance commercial writing travels.

And, for the record, I’m not talking about the silly jargon that’s the brunt of jokes about “corporate-speak”—things like mission-critical, value-added, at the end of the day, outside the box, leverage, etc.

Yes, our fledgling freelancer should familiarize herself with those as well (here’s a pretty good list), but I’m talking about the useful terms native to this field of ours.

What are some of the terms, phrases, jargon, that you’ve encountered in the course of your copywriting practice?

In your opinion, how hard is it for a newbie to get a handle on all the vernacular? Did you feel at all confused or out of your depth when you first started out in the business?

Are you aware of any resources/glossaries listing a lot of these terms (I know, I should know some…)?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Speak Up and Grow Your Commercial Writing Business…

About a month and a half before my holiday trip to Ohio this past December to visit family, I Googled “Ohio Writers Groups,” and found one right in my kin’s neighborhood, Western Ohio Writers Association. Shot an email to the executive director of the group (Gery Deer, also a commercial freelancer), letting him know I’d be in the area for the holidays, and would he be interested in exploring the possibility of an event. Absolutely, he replied.

(Funny sidebar if you’ll allow me a vanity moment: In my initial email, per my custom, I didn’t assume he knew who I was, introducing myself as the author of The Well-Fed Writer, etc., etc. Apparently unnecessary. He wrote back saying his wife had recently bought him my book, and he’d been carrying it around with him like a bible since then. Okay. That saved some explaining time…;)

Anyway, in fits and starts, the thing came together. Gery even tapped his long-cultivated network of local contacts and got me five minutes on TV on Dayton’s News at Noon show (slow news week, apparently…). We had 30+ in seats come show time, and all went swimmingly. Sold a small pile of books, possible commercial writing coaching business down the line, and left some goodwill in my wake – always the goal.

Sure, it’s easier for an author of a book targeted to a specific audience to put on events like this (especially with such an involved local ally as I had in this case). But remember this: what we commercial writers do – help businesses boost their bottom line through more effective marketing and communications materials, amongst other things – is something every business potentially needs.

By extension, any business/civic organization made up of businesspeople would be a good target for a speaking offer (though don’t expect to be paid). Kiwanis, Rotary, local business associations, Chambers of Commerce, industry-specific associations, are all good candidates.

Once there, any number of topics could strike a compelling note with this crowd. Right off the top of my head (and depending, of course, on your areas of expertise…):

“The 7 Most Common Mistakes Companies Make with Their Marketing Materials…”

“Five Ways Social Media Can Boost Your Bottom Line (and a Few Ways It Won’t…)”

“The Powerfully Effective Marketing Tool You’re Probably Overlooking…” (about case studies, white papers, etc.)

“How to Do Your Own Writing for Your Business (and Why That May Not Be Wise…)”

I’m sure you could come up with a bunch of others with a little thought. All designed, of course, to showcase your knowledge of commercial writing, marketing communications, and marketing in general (and your readiness, willingness and ability to execute the aforementioned…).

Most importantly, make it Job #1 at any speaking gig to offer truly valuable content, NOT pick up business. Provide enough practical information that audience members could put your ideas in action without your help. And therein lies a seeming paradox: the more you give away, the more of your beans you spill, the more likely many will be to hire you.

By being generous, you accomplish three things – all good:

1) You showcase your expertise in implementing what you’re discussing

2) You get people thinking, “If he/she is willing to give away this much, they must know a whole lot more.” And…

3) You establish yourself as the “good guy” interested in making them more successful and profitable.

Get an okay in advance from your contact person to offer a brief “marketing minute” at the end of your talk, explaining what you do, letting people know you have business cards, and perhaps offering a free consultation, top-line business analysis, report, etc.

Truth, be known, while I’ve done a ton of speaking related to my books over the years, I’ve done very little of the business speaking described above. But a healthy number of commercial freelancers I know do, given its effectiveness as a lead-generation tool. If the idea calls to you, start with some of the ideas above – or brainstorm your own.

Put your storyteller hat on, breathing life into talks with anecdotes and success stories from your own experiences (or those of other writers – with attribution, of course). Or even made-up “picture-this” scenarios to get them thinking about their own businesses.

Just remember, as you put any talk together, always imagine yourself as a businessperson in that audience, and keep in mind what’s most important to them: profitability, competitive advantage, industry reputation, etc. Benefits, not features.

From what I’ve heard, neither the bar nor audience expectations in general are set particularly high for civic/business group luncheon speeches, so don’t imagine it’d take more than you’ve got to make your mark.

Shy? Introverted? Don’t let that stop you. I read a great piece of advice about public speaking once that went something like this: While having good nuts-‘n-bolts speaking techniques down is always a good thing, the two most important attributes of all good speakers is, 1) they’re experts on their subject, and 2) they love sharing it with others.

Some years back, I watched author Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers), speak at a local Borders about Blink. Obviously shy and egghead-ish – wild hair and all – you could tell speaking wasn’t something natural for him. But, because he knew his subject intimately (AND used lots of great anecdotes), and was obviously passionate about sharing it, he had the standing-room-only crowd captivated for well over an hour. Food for thought…

Have you done this kind of speaking, and if so, how did it turn out?

What approaches/strategies have worked for you in the speaking arena?

What types of groups have you found most receptive?

If you haven’t done this kind of speaking, are you getting any ideas from all this?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

One Big Reason Why Commercial Writing Pays Better and Resists “Off-Shoring” (and Why this Other Kind of Writing Doesn’t…)

Okay, possibly just a “mental gymnastics” piece, but you be the judge…;)

Read an interesting book recently: Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink (author of Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind). While some of the stuff was a bit obvious (e.g.; money/prestige/titles doesn’t motivate everyone…no kidding), Pink does have a way of spawning mini-epiphanies.

Not to mention that a few things he shared had me exclaim (in the immortal words of Johnny Carson), “I did NOT know that!” Allow me a quick digression…

Most of us are aware that Wikipedia is an “open-source” undertaking, meaning it’s built, updated and revised solely by volunteers – just regular folks like you and me, when the mood strikes us, and, needless to say, for no pay.

But did you know that the browser Firefox (150 million users); the server software platform Linux (running 25% of all corporate servers); and the web-server program Apache (used by 52% of all corporate web servers), are all open-source as well? All volunteer efforts, with no money changing hands? Who knew? (everyone but me, perhaps?)

Pink shared this to illustrate that “intrinsic motivation” – doing something just for the challenge, creative expression, and reward of solving problems – can be a powerful driver for humans, and far more effective, after a certain point, than money, prestige or awards.

Enough “gee-whiz” facts…

One point he made had something click in place for me, and had me realize something about this commercial writing field of ours, as well as other arenas of so-called “writing” (that may not really be writing at all). He notes that jobs/tasks fall into two categories: algorithmic and heuristic, explaining:

An algorithmic task is one in which you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. That is, there’s an algorithm for solving it. A heuristic task is the opposite. Precisely because no algorithm exists for it, you have to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution. Working as a grocery checkout clerk is mostly algorithmic. You pretty much do the same thing over and over in a certain way. Creating an ad campaign is mostly heuristic. You have to come up with something new.

Think about jobs/tasks that get “offshored” reasonably successfully: computer programming, software development, database management, accounting, other technical processes, etc. All algorithmic tasks that follow a set path. Heuristic tasks – with no fixed set of instructions or set processes – are far harder to outsource to offshore practitioners. And writing is one of those things.

Most writing. Certainly the kind of writing we do – projects that entail original and critical thinking, not to mention facility with English as a native tongue – isn’t leaving our shores anytime soon for some sweatshop garret in Bangalore, Karachi or Manila.

But, there is one arena of writing that has been offshored, though, to a large extent, without ever actually leaving our shores. Of course, I’m talking about writing for content mills (e.g.; Demand Studios, eHow, Suite101, etc.): 500-700-word keyword-rich articles cranked out by legions of “writers” for rates hovering around $5-$10 a pop (or less; keep reading…).

Why does it pay so poorly? Because there are countless people with the same minimal skills necessary to produce such pieces (making it “commoditized” writing). And why is that? Because writing these pieces entails an easy-to-follow formula, making it one of the few algorithmic writing tasks out there.

Why is it formulaic? Because the quality of the writing doesn’t matter. The articles are just a framework to hold keywords, which are there to engage the search engines and drive traffic to the site, where, in turn, the goal is to have visitors click other links on the page. So, when the writing doesn’t matter, it can indeed get offshored for peanuts.

Exhibit A: I just got an email from a frustrated writer who’d gotten an email promo from this outfit. Their home page trumpets: “Get articles written for as low as $2.00 an article.” Can you say algorithmic? I rest my case.

Heck, given that, let’s not even call it writing. How about word-arranging? Definitely a more accurate description. Or as my frustrated writer friend enlightened me, the term to describe the process is actually called “spinning,” and in many cases, is actually done by computer (and scarily well in some cases). So, yes, there is definitely skill involved. As she put it, “You try writing a 400-word article with the phrase ‘mesothelioma diagnosis’ at a density of 6.25%.” I get it, and…

Given that its practitioners approach their task in terms of “How many pieces can I crank out in a day?” if that isn’t a piecework mentality – part and parcel of many algorithmic tasks – I’m not sure what would be.

No doubt, having what they do be called “word-arranging” will make me pretty unpopular with those folks working in the content mill realm, and truly believing that what they’re doing is, in fact, writing. Well, tough. If you think you’re a true writer, then quit screwing around in that algorithmic writing sub-basement and move up to more heuristic writing tasks – where your creative fulfillment and earnings can only rise, if for no other reason than you’ve got less competition for what you’re able to do.

After all, how could you offshore what we do? Certainly with projects where the goal is a specific, measurable response, and hence, must be crafted just so (e.g.; direct mail, landing-page copy, direct response, sale promotions, etc.), offshoring won’t work. When the bottom line is on the line, you can’t afford to do it on the cheap.

But even projects with softer metrics (e.g.; case studies, white papers, sales sheets, brochures, etc). where the goal is educating, brand awareness, image-building, impressions, etc., I’m still not seeing how offshoring would work. Yes, budget constraints could have a company seek out lower-priced resources, but the stronger and more focused your skills, the less likely they’ll be able to get what they need from cheaper writers (i.e., they may be able to write, but often run screaming from even the whiff of “marketing.” All the better for us…).

Of course, my foundational assumption is that, for most of the good clients we work with, or want to work with, the writing itself matters very much. If we get to a point where it doesn’t, all bets are off. Though, if that happens, I suspect that’ll be the least of our problems.

So, the more heuristic the writing task (i.e., the more creativity and original thinking involved), the less likely that task can be offshored (to a foreign or domestic shore…), the more in demand competent practitioners will be, and the higher rates they’ll command. Not saying it’s easy (it’s not), but if the alternative is slaving away for peanuts, then I say, taking the time to hone your skills in order to set yourself apart is worth the investment.

Was this just a useless mental exercise or am I on to something here? 😉

Have you thought about writing in these terms (algorithmic vs. heuristic) before?

Have you successfully transitioned from a more algorithmic writing career to a more heuristic one, and if so, can you share a bit of your story?

Any epiphanies of your own from this discussion?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Got This Fun, In-Demand and Lucrative Copywriting Specialty in Your Project Mix?

So, suddenly I’ve been thinking a lot about case studies. For starters, I just finished a big one and it consumed a big chunk of my commercial writing life (details in the July and August ezine “Appetizer” courses).

Then, my friend Casey Hibbard (The Case-Study Queen), announced she’s offering a six-month intensive case-study coaching program for copywriters.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about how marketing is moving in a much softer, gentler direction – more informational and educational (think white papers). Customers have become savvier and more skeptical (haven’t you?) over the past few decades as more and more unbiased product information is readily available. So “selling” needs to be more low-key, more genuine, and more real-world. Case studies – essentially third-party testimonials – are a perfect example of that.

In a recent email Casey sent out about her program, she noted that “survey after survey shows that happy customers are the #1 thing that influences buyers’ decisions.”

Makes sense. After all, what’s more compelling: some company telling you their product does this, that and the other, and you should buy it (even if not that inelegantly)? Or reading several verifiable stories about actual customers saying, essentially, “We had a problem, this product solved it, and we couldn’t be happier”?

Think about a case study, whose basic form discusses The Challenge the client company had encountered; The Solution offered by the vendor (for whom you’re writing the piece); and The Outcome, complete with gushing quote from the now-thrilled client.

The whole goal of the piece is to have the reader find themselves (i.e., their company) in that story, to have them say to themselves as they read about this company, “Interesting. That’s the same thing we’re wrestling with.” And given that the company is named, they can even call them up to confirm the information.

So, a case study can sell a client – or at the very least, move them a lot further and faster along the sales cycle – without any direct involvement of the company selling the product or service. True third-party selling.

The key? People don’t want to be “sold.” They want to come to their own conclusions, at their own pace, without someone (with a vested interest) breathing down their neck. They can find that company’s web site and all the information they need about the company’s offering by themselves, thank you very much, with no need (yet) to talk to a salesperson.

So a case study can do the heavy sales lifting, and if a series of them all resonate with a reader, that prospect could essentially be sold by the time they call the company. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Third-party selling is credible because, presumably, the company in question who bought the product and is now happy with the solution, would have no reason to tell tales, and no reason to speak well of a product and the company selling if it weren’t true (notwithstanding outright bribery, though again, all of it’s easy to confirm).

I have one commercial freelancing client for whom I do longer-form case studies (4-8 pages) and for fees that range from roughly $2000 to over $4000. It’s fun and challenging work. I interview several players involved in a particular project, spin an interesting (hopefully) narrative, weaving in quotes throughout – including many that gush on and on about the company. See some samples here.

If you haven’t added case studies to your freelance copywriting menu, you’re no doubt leaving money on the table – AND missing out on some enjoyable work.

And for all you ex-journos out there: case studies are one of the easiest commercial copywriting project types to transition to from a journalism background. You need to be able to add a marketing spin, but remember, you’re simply reporting how a “solution” unfolded (facts) and including quotes (more facts) from those whose company benefited from that solution. It’s the juxtaposition of those components that make it compelling to a reader.

Are case studies a part of your copywriting mix?

If not, why not? If so, what do you like about them?

If you hail from a journalism background (magazines or newspapers) and have parlayed that into writing case studies (among other projects), how did that transition go?

Any comments/observations, from your own experience, about the place of case studies in marketing today?