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“Niche or Die!” (Really? You Sure About That?)

So, I’m in the midst of series #5 of my commercial freelancing group coaching program (as I write this) – geared towards business copywriters just starting out. Not surprisingly, one of the BIG bugaboo issues for newbies is “niche.” Seems you can’t spit these days without hitting a guru or two who’ll adamantly assert, chopping the air for emphasis, that you absolutely, positively must differentiate yourself in the marketplace by way of a well-delineated niche.

If you don’t, they’ll continue, you’re on a one-way road to professional oblivion (with financial ruin swiftly on its heels). So many new copywriters agonize over this one, so afraid to hang out a shingle without a laser-specific professional focus. Sorry, but as an across-the-board strategy, I don’t buy it.

(Note: we did touch on this subject a year or so ago in the Generalist vs. Specialist debate, but I’m taking a bit of a different spin here, and looking for slightly different input from you experienced folks).

Here’s my take: If you have a well-defined niche you can pursue, by virtue of past career experience, track record or education, by all means, go for it. Having a niche absolutely can set you apart – AND earn you more money. Even if you don’t have a big portfolio of work in, say, Industry A, if you know all about Industry A by virtue of 10-20 years in the business, you’ll be attractive to writing buyers in that industry (who’ll translate that experience into “minimal learning curve”…).

Even if you hate the field in which you’ve spent a decade or two, if you’re trying to get started as a commercial copywriter, I’d still recommend you leverage that experience out of the gate. You don’t have to write about it forever, but it’d be nuts to not parlay that into work until you get established.

Remember, even if you don’t love your industry any more as a field to work in, writing about that field from the comfort of your home in your sweats is a whole other ballgame from having to go to work every day (i.e., commute, endless meetings, office politics) in that same field in a job you loathe.

But what if you don’t have a 10-20-year track record in some field? Listening to the experts, you still need to create a niche. But what niche? Pull one from thin air? Flip a coin? Declare yourself an expert on X, but without the background, training or samples to back it up? What’re you going to say if someone asks for those samples? I’m afraid I just don’t see a whole lot of sense in that approach. If a niche isn’t occurring naturally to you, it’s probably not there, so don’t force it.

So, Plan B is to build your business sans niche as a generalist. Something I’ve been doing for 17 years, incidentally. Sure, I had a sales/marketing background, and I did make sure people knew that, but most of the projects we commercial writers do are marketing-oriented anyway, so is that a clearly defined niche? Debatable.

Sure, it’ll be tougher with little to leverage. But, if the alternative is touting yourself as an authority in an arena where you’re really not, I say the anxiety level with that scenario will likely top that of someone going niche-less. And in the latter situation, if you’re a really good writer and go out of your way to be overly professional, reliable and easy-to-work with, those things will set you apart (assuming you’re reaching enough people with your marketing efforts).

What’s your take on niche?

How important do you feel having a niche is for someone starting out?

Did you have a niche when you began? If not, how did your story unfold?

Do you feel strong writing skills, professionalism and reliability can be a “niche” of sorts (given how relatively rare they are)?

Simon Says: “People Don’t Buy What You Do; They Buy Why You Do It…”

A little intellectual gymnastics – with possible real-world application to the commercial freelancing business….

So, I was clicking through a few links I found on a writer friend’s web site the other day, and came across this guy, Simon Sinek (pronounced, unfortunately, “cynic,” though he’s anything but that…), whose site is “Start With Why.”

Very provocative stuff, methinks. Check out the video on the home page of Simon speaking (next to the words, “The Golden Circle”). It’s 18 minutes and change, but well worth it for the mind-buzz factor…

Simon’s philosophy can be summed up in this statement on his site:

All organizations and careers function on 3 levels. What you do, How you do it and Why you do it. The problem is, most don’t even know that Why exists.

True enough. And when you have a powerful “Why,” it drives the “How” (the actions taken to realize the “Why”), which in turn, yields the “What” (the tangible end results). Along around minute 11 of the video, he says the following (aggregated from several places in the video):

People don’t buy from you because you have what they want; they buy from you because they believe what you believe. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you’ll attract those who believe what you believe.

I like it. He cites Apple as a company with a core belief in innovation and being first, and predictably, appealing to similar “firsters” (i.e., the people who stood in line for hours to buy the first iPhones at $600 a pop – with bugs and all).

Now, this stuff goes beyond features and benefits. Though, let’s be clear. If you run your copywriting business focusing on benefits (i.e., those things that matter to your clients), NOT features (i.e., those things about you and your business), that’ll generally be enough to set yourself apart from most of the pack.

But, he’s going deeper here. Now, I’m not saying this is The New Answer for the commercial writing field. Rather, that there simply may be some cheese down this tunnel for folks like us. So, how is his philosophy relevant to us? Well, mapping it on to what we do…

Clients don’t buy what we do (i.e., writing services); they buy why we do it (i.e., ________??).

What might be that compelling “Why” for us to share with our clients and prospects? Sure, we could all have ones specific to our businesses, but nothing wrong with a little brainstorming. So, what would be a powerful belief on our part that would draw to us those who share that belief and do business with us as a result?

Would it be, “I believe in the power of words to dramatically influence buyer action”? Too superficial?

Maybe, “Writing has changed history, so it can certainly change minds.” Closer, but perhaps a bit obtuse?

How about, “Speak honestly and the world will listen to you.” Better, though a bit lofty. Thoughts?

Could this strategy be a way for commercial writers to set themselves apart from the pack?

Do you have such a core belief for your business?

If so, how do you share it? Is it outlined on your site? In marketing materials? Shared in meetings?

If not, what core belief or “Why” could you come up with for your business? Or for commercial writing businesses in general?

Ever Had to Sign a “Non-Compete” Agreement Like This One?

Got an interesting note from a commercial freelancer recently:

Recently (and perhaps because of the recession) I’ve been asked to sign non-compete agreements from agencies I work with. The first time I was asked, I said no—and lost the account. Now I’m being asked again, and it happens to be a fairly substantial client.

I have no problem signing a confidentiality agreement, but this non-compete states:

For two years after the date your relationship with (agency) ends, you may not solicit any contractor, independent contractor, or agent of (agency) to work for you or on behalf of any competing business; or solicit any client or customer of (agency) to purchase from you any product or service which competes with any product or service provided by (agency).

My client is obviously paranoid; I think he has been burned in the past. While my town is a reasonably major metro, we only have a handful of large household-name corporations. Essentially, if his clients are one or more of those big companies, then I wouldn’t be able to do any copywriting business with any department in those firms – even those the agency isn’t directly working with.

Some of these companies probably use six different agencies in town. If I sign this agreement, and get a call from one of those other agencies (quite possible), I’d have to turn down that work. Or, if one of the companies themselves wanted to hire me to write, say, internal communications (work outside the agency’s scope), I’d have to turn that down as well. Help!

PB: Maybe I’ve been lucky in my commercial writing career, but I’ve never been asked to sign anything so draconian as this, so in my experience, it’s not at all common. Non-competes are typically used for employees who leave a company and, understandably, that company is a bit hesitant to have them go to work for a competitor for at least a few years. But to require a contractor to not solicit work from their clients or even competing agencies that might work for those clients, for two years? That’s downright preposterous.

Now, I have encountered the wrath of a copywriting client who thought I was going around them to solicit work directly from the client – a BIG no-no, and I get that (talk about paranoid; they saw me swapping cards with an account exec from the client, and made the totally wild leap that I was soliciting work directly from them).

So, this is similar but exponentially more far-reaching, and in a much more locked-down form. I wouldn’t sign it unless you’re okay with being shut out from doing any commercial freelancing jobs for any of these other companies, which I kinda doubt you are. My first instinct is to tell them to go jump in the lake. After all, according to this agreement, you do one $250 job for them, after which they drop you, and you’re shut out from all this potential work for two years. That’s laughable.

But, there’s definitely something else going on here, and a little digging ought to unearth it. You need to craft some sort of win-win. Ferret out their real concern and get to some middle ground. In addition to the quite conceivable inanity of the “one-$250-job” scenario described above, explain that each of their clients might have dozens of people/departments who could potentially hire you, and to do work THEY (the agency) had zero interest in (like collateral, internal communications, etc).

As such, how fair is that they put this blanket rule on ALL business? That’s heavy-handed, greedy, and not at all acting in good faith (just an editorial aside; I probably wouldn’t say that to them, but then again, I just might…).

Why not say you’ll get permission from them before taking on any other work from any division of any of their clients? Or, as a last resort (and not a habit you should get in), if you really want to work with them, and feel the upside potential with them is great (a gamble, obviously), why not offer, say, a 10% “royalty” on any work gotten from within that company?

Assuming their main concern is that you might poach work from them that would be up their alley, if they KNOW they won’t be interested in X kind of work, under the royalty situation, they might actually be motivated to get you in those doors so they make their piece. Not an ideal situation, and if they don’t agree to either of those, I’d absolutely walk.

By the way, I got an update from the freelancer recently:

“My client has agreed to let me propose some changes to that part of the agreement. I have done that, and now I’m waiting for his reply. He is clearly fearful that I am going to solicit his clients, which I think is the result of some past experience he had that is totally unrelated to me. However, I think there is generally a growing paranoia as competition has escalated in the days since the recession hit. I’ll email you with a full update as soon as this is resolved.”

Have you ever run into this situation before?

How did you handle it?

What would you suggest she do?

If crazy-restrictive agreements like these are indeed becoming more common, why do you think that’s the case?

“What’s the Current State of Freelancing?” is a Bogus Question…

So, about a week ago, I get an email from a good friend and fellow commercial freelancer who’s presenting on an IABC panel on freelancing a few days later. She’s written to me to get my input on an issue of exceptional interest to the many would-be attendees. Her question is:

Can you sum up “the current state of freelancing” in two sentences?

Sounds like a logical question, and one phrased in precisely the manner we’ve all become accustomed to. After all, there’s the current State of the Union, of the healthcare debate, of male/female relationships, of the Atlanta dining scene, etc. So there must be a “current state of freelancing” as well, right? Well, actually, no.

Here’s my reply (with a few embellishments after the fact):

I’d actually take issue with your wording. There IS no “current state of freelancing.” Think about it. That implies some condition pervading ALL of the freelancing market, which, by definition, affects everyone. Sort of a silly notion, actually. There’s MY current state of freelancing, yours, and everyone else’s, and none of them have much to do with the others.

Our respective states are dependent on how good a writer each of us is, how broad a network we have, how aggressively we’ve been tapping into that network, and a ton of other things inherent to us alone and how we run our businesses.

Buying into the idea of a “current state of freelancing” is victimization waiting to happen. It implies a reality to whose dictates we’re all subject, and hence, can do little except ride the wave along with everyone else, and “wait for things to turn around.” Which is exactly what a lot of people are doing, having bought into the idea (after listening to what some “experts” said IS that current state) of a “force” beyond their control. I suppose some people just like to be told what to do next (or not do).

In truth, my current state of freelancing is pretty good, as are those of a lot of others I know. And part of the reason for that is because we realize our commercial freelancing businesses are OUR businesses, largely under OUR control.

Sure, many businesses have pulled, back, but many haven’t, and the work is out there. Magazine and newspaper writing? Absolutely, those arenas are way down, but that’s not our field of freelance copywriting. So, don’t buy into the gloom and doom. Remember: the average commercial freelancer needs such a tiny slice of the overall universe of freelance commercial writing work to do well.

How would you respond to the above question?

Why do you think people are so anxious to be told what the “reality” is?

How IS your “current state of freelancing”?

Which Has Been More Effective for You – Direct Mail or Email Marketing?

In the June 2009 issue of The Well-Fed E-PUB, I ran a piece summarizing copywriting guru Marcia Yudkin’s take on direct mail marketing vs. email marketing. Marcia came down on the side of using direct mail marketing to promote a commercial freelancing business, and for these reasons:

1) If you irritate a client with your email, or they change providers without notifying you, or just try to reduce their volume, you’ve lost them forever. Mail? As she points out: “Way fewer people request no postal mailings.”?

2) Many folks filter and file incoming email without looking at it. Mail? “Hardly anyone discards a postcard, though, without at least glancing at both sides.”?

3) Finally, and perhaps most compelling, she observes: Email volume is rising while postal volume is dropping. Guess which medium it’s easier to stand out in”?

Right after the issue ran, I heard a counterpoint from LA FLCW Andrew Hindes, “The In-House Writer,” who’s had some good success with email marketing for promoting his commercial writing business. They are both right, which just underscores that there’s no ONE right way to do things. Andrew wrote:

1) People tend to respond to email immediately. Sure, they may delete it, but they might also reply with, “We’ll keep you in mind,” “Can you send me some samples?” “What are your rates?” or “We never us outside writers.”? This is useful in determining whether a prospect is worth pursuing in the future. With a post card, unless the recipient needs help right away—or knows they will in the near future—they’re not likely to respond.

2) An email can link to your website. True, a postcard can include your site’s URL, but clicking on a link is a lot easier – and hence more likely – than typing the URL into a browser. Once a prospect visits your site, there are numerous ways you can further engage them, including newsletters, special offers, etc.

3) Emails can easily be forwarded. If your message doesn’t reach the correct contact at the company, the recipient can pass it on to the right person with a few keystrokes. Or they may forward it later to someone they know is looking for a writer. This has happened to me on numerous occasions.

4) It’s easier for the client to cut and paste your contact info from an email into Outlook or another address book program than to type it from a post card.

5) Unless your postcard is incredibly beautiful or compelling, an executive is not likely to keep it around for long. Most people go through their mail within tossing distance of the recycling bin (I know I do). And even if they do keep you card, it’s likely to be buried under a pile the next time they’re looking for a writer. On the other hand, most people are bad at deleting old emails unless they do it right away. So if your email is still in their inbox, they can pull it up using sort or search functions.

6) Email is cheaper. I usually hire a graphic designer and use custom printing in an effort to create cards I hope will really stand out. But even using the online service you mention at $300 for 1,000 post cards, once you add the 28 cents for postage you’re up to $580 total for the mailing (or 44 cents for an oversized card, for a $740 total mailing cost). 1,000 emails? Priceless (and costless!).

7) Because email messages are cheaper and you can easily create them yourself, it’s very convenient and cost-effective to test different copy and headlines. I typically create three or four different emails and try each one on 25 prospects. If one gets a significantly higher response rate, I use that one on the rest of my list – including those who didn’t respond to the previous message. After all, I’ve got nothing to lose – and it’s free.

What’s been your experience with both?

Has one worked better than the other, and if so, why do you think that’s so?

Have you used any other related strategy to good effect?