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?
Had a chat recently with a commercial freelancer with whom I had a long-term mentoring relationship last year. Our goal was to give his business-building efforts some serious structure and discipline (i.e., regular cold calling and ongoing follow-up), as he ramped up a former part-time commercial copywriting practice to full-time and operational.
As of late fall of 2010, he was landing some solid copywriting gigs. He shared with me his process when working with new commercial writing clients, and I was so impressed, I asked if he’d write it up for me, which he did below. Really good stuff:
Peter, I recently landed a new client, and as part of my value proposition, I do a thorough business analysis – all part of the package they invest in. I spend approximately three hours reviewing my client’s web site and marketing materials, as well as the web sites of their major competitors – all with an eye toward understanding their respective businesses and how they’re positioning themselves in the marketplace.
Once I finish my research, I’ve learned a good deal about their business – and, what I want to know more about. In fact, I’ll typically end up with a list of 20 to 25 follow-up questions. Next, I set up a face-to-face meeting (which could be done by phone in the case of remote clients) with the client, during which time we discuss my findings and I ask my questions to fill in any blanks.
I tape the conversation and have the tape transcribed – providing the client with a copy of the transcript as well as giving me a verbatim record of our discussion for future reference.
The end result of all this is a deep understanding of my client’s business and industry, from which I can make knowledgeable recommendations for effective marketing initiatives (and the accompanying written materials) moving forward.
More importantly, it serves as a true market differentiator for me. Few commercial writers delve into a client’s world as deeply as I’m doing (though none of what I do is particularly difficult), and that sets me apart. My clients are typically delighted at my approach, which, in many cases, actually leaves me more knowledgeable about their industry than even they may be.
As a result, I quickly go from being a copywriter to something far more than that: someone who’s made it his business to intimately learn their business, and who can then apply strong writing skills more effectively and strategically. This in turn fosters a longer-term mentality on both our parts, which is, of course, my goal: clients with whom I can work closely for many years to come.
While most commercial freelancers I know – myself included – will study a client’s site and materials, in my experience, few of us – again, myself included – are taking that research to as deep a level as this writer is. In a tough economy, shouldn’t we be grabbing every potential edge we can? Especially, as he points out, when it’s a relatively easy way to set ourselves apart from the pack?
One of the things I like most about the approach, as he notes, is the groundwork you’re laying to build a long-term, loyal partnership. When you start out interacting with a client on such a deep level, you powerfully transform the traditional client-vendor relationship into something much more solid and interconnected.
Put another way, when you can tell a new client things they didn’t realize about their business and industry, based on your research (vs. just following their instructions as to what they want written), you’ll earn a whole new level of respect, and will be viewed radically differently from the writer who didn’t do all that.
Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do as he does. Most of us don’t, and most of us have built good businesses. Just think of it as a tantalizing “what-if” scenario.
No, this approach isn’t always appropriate with every client (if you’re contracted, say, by a Fortune 500 client to just develop a brochure, they may not agree to pay for a full analytics package as well…). But, for many smaller- to mid-sized entities (50-200+ employees – arguably, THE “sweet spot” for freelance commercial writers – it would absolutely fly.
If you don’t conduct such analyses with new clients, what is your process?
Might something like this give you an edge over your competition?
If you are doing something on this level, can you share your process?
How have clients reacted to your process?
Have you always followed this process, or did it evolve over the years?
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)?
Wow. That sure sounds like an opportunity tailor-made for me. I’m a pretty good writer (I mean, my Mom’s told me so, and that’s good enough for me!). And I’d sure love to turn that skill into “$300 an hour”! That’s what they promised in this copywriting program I saw on the Internet. And it has to be true if it’s on the Internet, right? I mean, they could get into BIG trouble if they told lies. But there it is, in black and white!
And the best part? According to the program, I can get started as a “commercial writer” in just seven days! And here’s what those seven days look like:
Day One: I’m going to learn the basics of the freelance commercial writing business. I mean, it’s just writing – how hard could it be?
Day Two: I’ll create my copywriting portfolio. They say it’s easy, and I believe them. Heck, I’ll probably be done by lunch!
Day Three: I’ll create and send out a press release to my local paper, letting them know about my new copywriting business. Wonder how long after I send it out till the phone starts ringing. Could I end up with too much business? It’s possible!
Day Four: I’ll explore making money in PR writing. Working around all the “movers and shakers,” yeah! Sounds like fun – and profitable, too!
Day Five: I get to figure out if I’m going to a generalist or specialist. Decisions, decisions. This is just too easy.
Day Six: I’m going to learn the “ultra-easy” way to market my new business so I can, according to the program, “stay booked up for months.” Like the sound of that. Heck, maybe I will go ahead and buy that Camaro I’ve had my eyes. I mean, obviously, I’m going to have the money to make the payments.
Day Seven: I’m going to learn all about writing for TV and radio. Bet you can make big bucks there, and get to be around all the cool actors. Life is looking up!
I wish the above was just a dramatization of some poor slob getting reeled in hook, line, and sinker by some fictionalized copywriting course, but alas, it’s based on a real one. THIS one. What a joke. I know, why am I surprised? I mean, I know stuff like this exists. It’s just that seeing flat-out fabrication up close still sets you back on your heels a bit.
Someone sent it to me, asking if I knew anything about it. A two-minute visit revealed all. I don’t know who you are, but your offer is a scam, and you know it. And people like you have buyers looking for legit information on copywriting lump the rest of us trying to do the right thing into the same scam-artist boat.
I mean, their “7-Days-to-Riches” timetable would be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that countless unsuspecting folk are dropping $147 for nothing but a mirage. And $300 an hour? Have you no shame? Yeah, right. Silly me.
I can hear them now: “Well, if you read it carefully, I’m not actually promising people they’ll make $300 an hour inside of a week.” Ah, the old “have-‘em-connect-the-imaginary-dots-in-their-mind” strategy. So, you’re weasels on top of being scam artists. Quite an accomplishment. What an unbelievably fragrant and steaming pile of road apples this is.
Our mothers were right: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” As the experienced commercial writers on this blog know, our field can be a wonderful way to make a great living as a writer. But they also know it’s no cakewalk. As writing fields, go, it’s one of the most accessible, but it still take a lot of hard work to get established and work up to healthy hourly rates. And $300 an hour as a copywriter? In a week? I can hear the hysterical laughter echoing across the land. From sea to shining sea.
Did you ever fall prey to any offers like these before you got started?
What would you say to someone considering this fairy tale of an offer?
What truths would you want them to know about our field instead?
I was sitting with a client the other day in a marathon on-site session. We were putting together a high-level presentation for a major executive pitch coming up in a few days. They’d brought me in because the presentation, in its current form – for the most part cut-‘n-pasted from an earlier version – just felt choppy and disjointed.
His goal was to build the case for his company to this audience, and knew from experience that I’m good at doing that kind of thing. It was a lot of data, information about the company and how they do what they do, but as he reminded, “It’s still a story. You have to tell a good story…”
How true. You have to tell a good story. As kids, it was our mantra to our parents, “Tell me a story!” But no matter how old we get, we never tire of hearing stories. And that’s never truer than with the audiences for the commercial writing projects we create for our clients. It’s something magazine and newspaper journalists have been doing forever (so if you hail from those arenas, put those chops to work here…).
Proposals and presentations – like the one described above – if they’re going to hit home, MUST tell a good story, must lay out a rational step-by-step case for what’s being “sold.” That doesn’t mean boring and linear – hardly. The good ones are exceptionally creative and will jump around, while always knowing exactly where they’re going and the most effective path to get there.
Marketing brochures – from simple tri-folds to lofty corporate image pieces – can tell the story of a company’s history and evolution, complete with testimonials from satisfied buyers. They can give a prospective customer a compelling narrative, which, when done well, can more expeditiously move that prospect along the sales cycle.
Every description of a product or service within a brochure, sales sheet or newsletter can be enhanced by creating a one-paragraph mini-story that showcases the experience of someone (even if fictitious) actually using the product. And in the process, demonstrating its features and benefits. An example…
In a newsletter for UPS I worked on years back, instead of just describing the features of one of their services, I told the story below. And I put it together simply by asking my client who might use the service and for what reason:
It’s late morning. One of your best customers calls – frantic. A key machine on his 24-hour production line just threw a part. With no spares on-site, he’s dead in the water. Overnight me a replacement, he says. I can do even better than that, you reply. Thanks to UPS “next-flight-out” Sonic Air service, the part’s on its way within an hour, and by mid-afternoon, it’s been installed. Production is restored at 4:00 P.M., not 10:00 A.M. tomorrow, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think he’ll remember you the next time the competition comes to call?
Using characters and a dramatic story line (where possible, and as dramatic as such a subject can be, of course…) makes far more interesting and credible writing than straight marketing copy. Stories draw in readers, and make it more likely a piece will actually get read (i.e., The Goal, in case you forgot…).
Course, the above (and other story-telling strategies) could be used in web content, white papers (a story as well – one that leads a reader along a very specifically-plotted path), trade articles, direct mail (especially the long-letter type…) – even ads. And what about a case study? It’s the quintessential story.
Before starting ANY project, always ask yourself, “How could I make this more interesting to read?” Be a storyteller and you’ll be a better copywriter. AND people will notice, and that can only be a good thing.
How have you used storytelling in your commercial writing practice?
What specific story-telling techniques have you used effectively in your writing?
Can you give some examples of how being a storyteller improved the effectiveness of a piece?
What kind of feedback have you gotten from clients when you’ve suggested or implemented storytelling in your marketing copy?