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What’s a Commercial Freelancer to Do about Health Insurance?

After getting yet another email a few weeks back from a reader, suggesting a post on health insurance for freelancers, figured it was time. I know this is a hot button issue for any commercial freelancer, often looming as one of the key issues giving salaried employees/aspiring commercial writers pause when considering the leap to self-employment.

If you’re single and in good health (like I am on both counts), health insurance really shouldn’t hold you back from the commercial freelancing life – psychologically or logistically. As I see it, there are far bigger boogeymen (usually imaginary if you’ve planned well) facing free agents like us. Will I go broke? Will I lose my house? Will I be reduced to standing on a corner with a “Will Write Copy for Food” sign? Nonetheless, it’s still one more thing to consider.

Since 1997, I’ve used Kaiser Permanente. I rarely step foot in the place (but you’re paying for peace of mind), but over the years, have been pretty impressed with their offering, services and thoroughness.

I’m not crazy about the fact that, like clockwork, my premiums go up every year by roughly 15+ percent, but all in all, I still pay a not-unreasonable $325 a month. Co-pays for doctor visits are $30, and a surprising number of other services are covered or subject to co-pays (as opposed to coming out of pocket to satisfy your deductible).

Women will typically pay more for health insurance than men of the same age, but depending on the plan, and the deductible and co-insurance level chosen, a single person of either gender can generally find a manageable plan out there.

And with some of the new clauses of the healthcare bill, you’ve got more protections than may have been the case in the past. And do NOT try to drag me into a debate on THAT issue; ain’t gonna happen. I will ignore you and delete your comments. No hablo ingles…;)

For those pondering going without – a temptation for singles in good health and feeling bullet-proof, I wouldn’t even consider it. Not worth it. One accident or illness and you’re in deep doo-doo.

And yes, if you have a family, it’s going to cost a good bit more. Not every freelance commercial copywriter has a gainfully employed and benefits-laden spouse to cover that base. But a quick look at Kaiser’s plans turned up plans in the range of $600-800+/month for a family of four, depending on options chosen (don’t take these figures to the bank; that’s Georgia. Your mileage may vary, etc, etc.).

Not great news, but not necessarily a deal-killer, either. Remember, stay in a job you hate, just for the bennies, and your health will likely suffer. Sort of defeats the purpose.

For the uninitiated, here’s a basic overview of an HMO. As a member of Kaiser, getting insurance on my own, I’m put in with a certain group of subscribers. I have no choice in the matter – that’s the nature of the HMO model – and I don’t know who they are (i.e., we don’t catch up for coffee…).

The nice thing about the HMO group model is that individual consumption of services doesn’t directly affect one’s rates. That’s good news and bad news. Good news: if you use a lot of services in a given year, you won’t be singled out for a skyrocketing rate increase. Bad news: even if you don’t use it at all, your rates will still go up every year.

A few resources:

For more information on health insurance (as well as life and disability insurance), click here.

To find a health insurance agent in your area, click here.

For insurance plans for creative folk, click here.

Assuming you don’t have a spouse with benefits, what do you do for health insurance?

If you have a family and had to get insurance on your own, how did you go about finding the best deal?

Any good health insurance resources you’ve come across for the self-employed?

Any strategies you’ve employed to get the most from your health care dollars?

This Writer’s Landing a Ton of Work Doing What So Many Companies Need…

Caught up with a commercial writing chum of mine on the West Coast recently (we’ll call him Joe). He told me about all the work he’s landed with his latest client. So many good lessons for commercial writers in his story, I just had to share it.

Joe landed the client through a friend. Do your friends know what you do and your specialties within your profession? If not, they should…

Anyway, a marketing director with a one school of a larger university system (yes, I’m obscuring some identifying details) mentioned to a mutual friend that she needed some proofreading and editing done, and Joe’s friend suggested him. Joe and the client spoke, hit it off on the phone, quickly realizing that he lived in the client’s hometown. The proofing/editing gig ending up falling through, but the good rapport they’d developed had the client call Joe back when some new work came up.

It’s important to note that her hiring Joe was arbitrary and based on little more than he was a writer she’d crossed paths with and with whom she’d hit it off (Remember: clients don’t want to spend a lot of time hunting for a writer). But, much to the client’s delight, Joe’s background – which they hadn’t previously discussed in depth – was a perfect match for the new gig: helping with their new content marketing strategy, to which they’d committed a healthy budget. CM is becoming a popular approach for companies trying to position themselves as “thought leaders” in a particular industry.

Here’s how it works… It all comes down to searchability: helping people find you via Internet searches. You start by determining what kinds of information people are looking for via Google searches, in the relevant subject areas (in this case, information related to the school’s mission). Then, by crafting and posting high-quality content that satisfies those searches, the school draws a steady stream of traffic to its virtual doorstep, and in the end, helps support the school’s goal of increasing enrollment.

Joe’s content-generating efforts are going well enough that the university’s now pondering duplicating the strategy in several other discipline-specific schools in their system. And Joe’s in the wonderful position of recommending friends who are subject-matter experts in those arenas. Given the trust the school has in him (coupled with the desire, as discussed, to quickly identify resources) his fellow writers are basically shoo-ins.

Do fellow commercial freelancers know your strong suits, especially when they differ from theirs?

And to get your wheels turning a bit, what’s cool about a content marketing strategy is the broad array of businesses for which the approach would make sense. In addition to educational institutions of all stripes, how about medical/health practices of every kind (GP’s, veterinarians, chiropractors, alternative health practitioners, massage therapists, acupuncturists, nutritionists, etc)? How about law firms, financial advisors and accounting firms? Which just scratches the surface…

Interior design firms, flooring companies, landscape architects, plant nurseries, building contractors – heck, we could be here all day. Every single one could boost their search-engine rankings and marketplace stature above their competition, by creating solid, relevant content related to what they do, and for which they’ve determined people are searching, and which will bring those people to their door.

You can probably think of a handful of companies in your area that are doing this already? Who else could be a candidate?

Any current or ex-journos out there? Content development could be a wonderful avenue by which to transition to commercial copywriting (if that’s your goal), or at least help craft a healthy mix of editorial and commercial work. It’s not straight editorial; it will usually have a soft marketing slant, but truly soft.

Oh, Joe told me he also landed, thanks to a basic familiarity with social media marketing (Facebook, Twitter), a $1200+/month retainer to execute those components for the school. He’s the first to say he doesn’t consider himself a social media pro, but given how few writers out there today can claim to be, his skills are more than adequate.

Finally, in a serendipitous twist of fate, in the midst of all this, a government agency put out a report about the future of the field for which the school trained graduates. One of their recommendations? More education for those considering the field. Could there be a more perfect dovetail with the school’s mission?

Joe came across the report in his research, and suggested he do a four-part summary of its main points, simplifying and encapsulating the highlights, and have the school post it on their web site. The school loved the idea, and he’d just landed another roughly $1500 worth of work. So, he saw an opening for work that the school hadn’t considered but was happy he’d brought up, and more than happy to fund.

It gets better. Related entities and organizations found this solid summary on the school’s site, ended up linking to it, further boosting the SEO love coming the school’s way already. Over time, the school earns a well-deserved reputation as that thought leader, and a gateway to high-value content on a particular subject.

Getting any ideas from reading this?

Have you picked up any content marketing work?

Can you share how it unfolded, and/or general thoughts on the strategy?

Are you seeing more call for content development amongst your clients?

Ever “suggested” your way (as Joe did) to additional paying work, not on a client’s original to-do-list?

The Secrets to Landing and Keeping Repeat Clients…

Got this email from a relatively new commercial freelancer recently:

My fledgling commercial writing business, launched in 2007, is alive after fits and starts. Upon reflection, I realize I haven’t had much repeat writing business from clients. In addition to commercial freelance writing, I also do marketing and magazine articles. The magazine keeps re-hiring me, and so does one company that retains me for marketing events. But, as far as clients hiring me over and over for commercial copywriting projects, no. This means I work hard at getting new clients all the time.

Is this common? Should I take it personally? I am confident in my copywriting abilities, so I wonder if I could do a better job at following up to increase the likelihood that clients return. Do you have tips for increasing repeat business?

Hmmm…. This one can be a challenge. When starting your copywriting business, you may be working with smaller clients who simply don’t have as many ongoing writing needs. Hence, they may be great for getting some income in the door and building your writing portfolio, but at some point you have to set your sights higher.

And even when you DO find a steady client, I’ve learned that, well, nothing is forever. Things change, personnel changes, your contact person leaves, and their replacement has their favorite writer, and you’re gone (or any number of other similar scenarios).

But, let’s separate those things we can control (i.e., the kinds of copywriting clients we’re approaching with an eye toward repeat business) from the things we can’t (i.e., what happens in a company over time).

If you’re a generalist (as I am), I’ve found that several client profiles can be good bets for repeat writing business:

1) Small- to mid-sized (50-200+ employees) companies. Often, they’re slammed, everyone’s wearing many hats, and they usually don’t have on-staff creative resources, so they’ll look to talented freelancers to help them with a variety of projects. And you have to have a healthy range of copywriting skills to be able to come through on a variety of project types.

2) Solo consultants who work with different companies needing a real mix of work. These can be creative folk (like graphic designers) or marketing people. Not always easy to find, but if you do, and can demonstrably enhance their offering through your skills (both writing and marketing), that can predictably lead to loyal clients. When you find a great plumber, hairdresser, financial consultant, tax preparer, etc, don’t you stay loyal?

If you’re a project specialist (i.e., white papers, case studies, etc), by definition, you’ve limited yourself, so you’ll have to pursue larger companies who have ongoing needs. If you’re an industry specialist (i.e., high-tech, healthcare, financial services, etc), it can be similar to the generalist scenario, in that, small- to mid-sized companies can provide ongoing freelance copywriting work across the project spectrum.

Regardless of how you’ve structured your offering, one thing is a given: to get repeat business, you have to be good. Really good. You need to be a solid writer with a strong grasp of that company’s audience, value proposition, messaging, etc. Plus, you need to be reliable, dependable and easy to work with. And in the case of a generalist, you need to be able to move easily between brochures, ads, direct mail, web content, articles, case studies, etc.

Just as importantly, you need to always have your radar up for additional opportunities. Don’t just be reactive – only responding to your client’s requests. Learn as much about their business as you can, so you’re in a position to make suggestions that can fill gaps in their marketing they may not see or may not have had time to execute themselves.

What attributes have your long-term, repeat clients had in common?

What’s worked for you in landing and retaining repeat copywriting clients?

What long-term client of yours stands out, and how did the relationship unfold and mature over time?

If you wrestled with this same issue when starting out, what would you do differently if you were launching your business today?

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?

The Confidence Conundrum: How a Newbie Writer Builds Enough to Succeed…

In my first commercial freelancing group coaching series, one of the participants said: “I think my biggest problem is uncertainty. I prefer feeling confident about what I’m doing – to be able to do it with authority, and I just haven’t been able to reach that point so far. I’m always afraid I’ll do it ‘wrong.'” Welcome to the human race.

Not at all surprisingly, that statement resonated with all the other “coachees,” and the same issue has been brought up by many folks in every series since. When you’re starting out in a new field, and often, as one’s first foray into self-employment, to boot, it’s easy to get mighty wigged out by this Big Unknown (a.k.a. commercial writing).

Sure, I’d like to think that commercial copywriting resources like my book can demystify the business-building process quite a bit, and it no doubt does. But still, until someone takes those steps for themselves, everything they read about in my book (or any other) is still untried, unproven – to them – and hence, still theoretical.

So, how does one develop the confidence necessary to make it as a commercial freelancer? How do you know you’ve got what it takes to succeed? How do you get yourself to a place where you can boldly go where you’ve never gone before?

Well, the bad news is if you’re a newbie, chances are, you’ll have to deal with this. But, that’s also the good news: most commercial copywriters starting out deal with this. Sure, if you’ve left a corporate position, and carry experience, clients and work from that industry – or ex-employer – with you, you’ll likely have an easier transition. But, that’s not the norm.

I see the confidence-building game as three-fold. Arguably, a lack of confidence is driven by a lack of mental adjustment, a lack of experience and a lack of knowledge. The mental side? Get comfortable with the fact that you likely won’t be comfortable for a while (one reason this field pays so well…). Just the nature of the beast, and knowing that’s the case should make it easier to deal with.

The experiential side? Self-evident. You gain confidence by doing. Every new commercial writing experience you have, every copywriting project you work on and complete successfully, is a brick in your own personal Confidence Wall.

You learn a little more about the commercial freelancing process, you understand a little more about copywriting clients – what they expect, how they are to deal with, and how to make their lives easier (your goal, by the way…). Sure, all situations are a little different, but there are always some commonalities in every scenario.

String enough successful commercial writing projects together (translation: growing respect, competence, portfolio, testimonials, and bank account), and one day you’ll wake up and realize that this gig is for real, and so are you. That’s where confidence is born. But it takes time.

The knowledge side? Along the way, of course, you can hasten the process by reading books on copywriting, marketing, sales, etc. The more you know, the more tools you have at your command when talking with clients about their challenges. In addition, study the work of fellow commercial freelancers. Visit their sites, see how they position themselves, look at their samples (starting with mine) to get a sense of the required skill sets.

How did you build confidence in your abilities when you were starting out?

Was there one particular project that stands out as a big confidence booster for you?

Do you remember the moment when you realized you had what it took to make it in this business?