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“Commercial Writing” Has Many Faces (as these Unusual Projects Prove…)

So, I’ve been working on an interesting commercial freelancing project lately, one that doesn’t fit the typical list I (and others) rattle off to explain the kinds of things we commercial writers do: “marketing brochures, ad copy, newsletters, web content, direct mail, case studies, etc.” Here’s the deal…

Every year, a group of folks from numerous foundations go to Washington to meet with their legislators to talk about foundation activity in their districts at home, and the positive difference it’s making. All with an eye toward heading off possible deleterious budget cuts or legislation that could harm their efforts.

Each group (11 states are represented) is armed with one double-sided-page synopsis outlining their home state’s foundation activity, mostly facts and figures showcasing that impact in black and white. But they also wanted one short story that would appear at the top of the first page.

To gather the info for those 11 stories, they originally wanted me to interview all the state “captains,” but as the deadline hurtled toward them, they decided to just send a questionnaire to the captains and let them fill it out.

I created the cover letter and questionnaire, they sent it out, and the responses they’ve received back are my source material to write the mini-stories (we’re talking ~100 words, total).

P.S. Because so many of the players involved in making this happen are crazy-busy, they’ve appreciated the fact that I’ve taken ownership of the project: suggesting and then writing the letter/questionnaire; proactively hunting on a foundation’s web site for story fodder when my source got tied up elsewhere and couldn’t write his story, or the info they provided didn’t include all the salient details, etc.; writing well and quickly, and generally making it easier on everyone (the goal, after all).

Don’t even know how you’d classify this project, except to say it looks very different from most of what we do. And that’s kind of the point here: While a lot of what we do as freelance commercial writers looks familiar and falls into one of categories listed above, a ton more doesn’t and doesn’t.

Meaning, freelance commercial writing can be anything that helps any enterprise (for-profit or non-profit) communicate more powerfully to their target audience, regardless of the form it takes. So, keep your radar up, and don’t be afraid to suggest something you haven’t seen before, if it indeed will help a client speak to their audience more effectively.

In case you’re wondering how I even landed this project… I cold-called a graphic designer last fall, made a relaxed, un-pushy pitch to help out when needed, and we started talking. He first hired me (another atypical project) to rework a two-page white paper he was posting on his site as a credibility-builder for his design business (focusing on non-profits). Think about that for a sec: designers (or any business-owner, for that matter) want to raise their profile and credibility, and writing “reports” on various subjects showcasing their expertise, is one way to do it.

But how many have the time to do them? Or, in his case, how many are confident enough in their own writing ability to post what they’ve written? As it turned out, he was delighted at the results of my rework, and now knows he can bang something out, and for a very reasonable fee (far less than if I’d written for him from scratch), I’ll get it ready for Prime Time. Getting your wheels turning?

So, when he was brought in to design these one-page synopses, he naturally thought of me to help write the stories, and brought me in.

Then there’s my book-titling business (“The Title Tailor”), another unusual specialty, but certainly one that fits the criterion above: “Helping any enterprise communicate more powerfully to their target audience.”

So, expand your field of vision. Know that the project types we typically talk about in forums like these are a starting point, and they can go in a lot of cool directions.

Do you usually think of commercial writing in terms of a fairly strict set of project types?

Can you share examples of some unusual projects you’ve worked on?

Any stories of successfully suggesting unusual projects to clients?

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.

Carve a Niche & Build Your Own Demand through “Query-Free Freelancing” (Guest Post!)

PB NOTE: I’m delighted to have Jennifer Mattern as our first guest blogger in this go-round (AND to have this piece be part of her virtual blog tour). Jennifer, the founder of the critically acclaimed AllFreelanceWriting blog, is a consummate freelance professional and someone with a wealth of knowledge and experience in all aspects of freelancing and freelance business-building.

In this piece, she shares a great story that encapsulates any commercial writer’s ultimate scenario: clients finding them, not the other way around. Hence the term “query-free freelancing.” And don’t get hung up on the term “query” – which, yes, is usually associated with magazine writing. Here, she simply means it as any contact made directly to a prospect. Thanks again, Jenn, and take it away!

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Build Your Own Demand!

Query-free freelancing means, first and foremost, building demand for your services – not waiting around hoping clients are going to find you. I’d like to share a story about how I not only did that, but how I created demand in a relatively new market at the time by identifying a need and choosing to fill it.

(NOTE: If querying works well for you, then stick to it. But understand it’s not the only way to land lucrative commercial writing gigs. To put yourself in a position where prospects find you, not the reverse, you build demand and increase your visibility. Most freelance professionals I know get at least some gigs this way. I chose to build a career on it. And despite the common “you have to pitch, pitch, pitch” thoughts, I’ve never hurt for work since going query-free.)

I ran a music PR firm. I worked with clients throughout my region. It’s an industry where everyone knows everyone else in the local scene, so word spreads. We had a few well-known publicists in the area so I needed a way to stand out. I knew I needed to increase my visibility if I was going to create greater natural demand for my work, so I launched an indie music webzine. After a while, I turned to a webmaster forum to ask for advice on improving the site.

Identifying the Needs of a New Market
As I spent time there learning and improving my own site, discussions cropped up among the online business owners. They were interested in press release writing but didn’t understand it. The few press release writing jobs advertised in the community were picked up by generic Web content writers (the “Sure, I’ll write you over-hyped, keyword-stuffed garbage content for $10 and throw it into a press release template” kind of writers).

There was a need for better information. I took part in press release discussions there, trying to educate the market about how to use them more effectively. I emphasized focusing on real coverage and exposure over blatant links and how that could actually do more to help their SEO efforts too. Interest quickly spread within that group about press releases (not just in that community, but all over the Web due to the growth of distribution sites like PRWeb).

Because I stepped into that market, building my visibility and authority status early on, the work flowed in naturally, even though I charged much higher rates than most that started targeting the market. That played a role in my move from music PR to online PR for a wider variety of clients, and even now that I’m solely a full-time writer it doesn’t stop. That’s what happens when you build a platform, build visibility, and build a strong professional network — the building blocks of a query-free career.

Plenty of Opportunities Still Exist
It’s something you can do too. Let’s say you’re a sales letter writer. It doesn’t matter how many other sales letter writers are out there. All that matters is how many competitors are focusing on the same target market in the same places. Not all people looking to hire a sales letter writer fall into the same market group. You may find client groups that have a demand for the service but who aren’t being exposed to qualified writers. They’re itching to find someone like you, but no one’s making it easy enough on them. Step in and fill the void.

What have you done to build your professional platform as a commercial freelancer?

Have you ever landed gigs without directly pitching prospects — where they came to you? How did you get those gigs?

Contributing to a larger community is how to show prospects you know your stuff and are competent at what you do. How might you be able to increase that interaction (and sharing) to demonstrate your own authority status within your specialty area?

Or if you’ve done so successfully, what’s worked best for you so far?

About Jennifer Mattern
Jennifer Mattern is a freelance business writer and professional blogger who writes about freelance writing, social media, indie publishing, and small business. She also publishes e-books for freelance writers and is scheduled to publish her first nonfiction book, The Query-Free Freelancer, next year.

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

Got a Guest Post for The Well-Fed Writer Blog? (Now Three Years Old!)

Okay, so I tried this waaaaaaay back when, shortly after the blog’s launch – asking for guest posts. Got a few submissions from my fellow commercial freelancers, but after a while, things sort of fizzled out. And yours truly had to load that big blog burden back on my shoulders. I know, get out your violins, right? 😉

But seriously, I’d like to revisit this idea. Why? Because over the past three years (almost to the day – we launched on 3/30/08), we’ve developed a pretty extraordinary commercial writing “master mind” here. I’m happy to say, this blog has made its mark in that time, and has enjoyed great participation, with an average of ~25 comments per post! Compared with typical copywriting blogs, that’s a smokin’ number. So, thanks to all of you!

I’ve kept the blog frequency low: about twice monthly (heck, it usually takes 7-10 days to work through the commentary on any given post). That said, I’d love to start posting weekly, and to do that, I really need your help.

After all, The Well-Fed Writer approach has always been collaborative. My books, ezine, knowledgebase, the new Partner Pantry, and yes the blog, wouldn’t have been possible without the countless stories, insights, inquiries and experiences from commercial writers across the country and the globe. I’m just one guy, with one limited set of commercial copywriting experiences. What could you share?

Perhaps a prospecting strategy that’s borne some serious fruit over the years?

An unusual market (if you’re willing to reveal it)?

A particularly great success story – with a lesson attached?

A fabulous tip that’s made you more efficient, better networked or more profitable?

An insight into the business that’s made a huge difference for you?

Anything else to share that can help commercial writers make more money, have greater professional fulfillment, or enjoy a higher quality of life?

And keep in mind, you don’t have to be a seasoned freelance copywriting veteran. Had an experience that taught you something and enhanced your career in some way – something that others would benefit from? I don’t care if you started your commercial freelancing career a few months ago; let’s hear it!

Guest posts should be 400-800 words. And you know our drill: real-world stories and experiences are best. And of course, please include questions at the end to turn it into a subject with “legs” – one that can spawn a rich discussion.

What’s in it for you? Besides the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll get from helping your fellow commercial freelancers? Not enough? How about raising your profile in the eyes of your peers? More? Geez, tough crowd… 😉

Seriously, if you’ve got a book, ebook, ezine, report, program, service, blog or web site you want to promote, I welcome your promo copy at the end of the piece.

The first three years have been fabulous – yielding a mighty impressive body of work covering subjects across the commercial writing spectrum. I’d love to see where we can take it during the next three years, and beyond.

Got a blog post idea? Post the particulars here, as a comment, or email me at peter at wellfedwriter dot com.

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?