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Even After 22 Years as a Copywriter, I Still Wrestle with This One…

So, I’ve been dealing with several cases of “scope creep” of late: when a copywriting project goes beyond the agreed-upon (in writing) parameters. We’d like to think it’s pretty cut and dried: If the project scope goes beyond what you contracted, they pay more. Period.

And, sometimes it is easy, and the client “gets it,” and you get your extra money. But as I’ve discovered, it’s a heckuva lot easier to talk tough when you’re discussing the idea in the abstract vs. being in the middle of a real-world situation and about to have an uncomfortable conversation with a commercial writing client. Especially if it’s your first gig with them. You want to stand up for what you’re owed, but, sometimes, you have to give to get.

(NOTE: You see my “(in writing”) bit above? Do not even think of moving ahead with any commercial writing project without some sort of written agreement (even if it’s just the simple one-pager I discuss in TWFW). I can’t believe how many commercial freelancers have sent me “What do I do now?” emails over the years, because what they discussed (i.e., as opposed to put in writing) with their client as far as a scope has now expanded, and the client doesn’t want to pay them any more. And while I’m sorry they’re going through that, they only have themselves to blame. ‘Nuff said.)

So, I had one of those gray-area projects recently. I was working with a graphic design team on a commercial project for one of their clients. After meetings with the end client, we submitted a creative brief to the client, outlining our proposed direction. The client signed off on the direction, and I came up with a first draft.

My design client loved it, and felt it nailed what the client said they wanted. But, after we submitted it, the client said, “Now that I see this, I realize that that (i.e., the concept that the project was based around, and which they signed off on) just doesn’t really capture what we’re all about. We’re really about this.” Pretty straightforward, right? They changed direction, so we renegotiate, right? Well….

So, he wanted us to rework the copy with a new direction. And not having worked with a creative team before, he just doesn’t get that he can’t just change direction in mid-stream, and expect that there won’t be a change in fee. Plus, they’re a non-profit and with a tight budget. And, stickiest of all, he’s such a nice guy, and so sincere and earnest (and yes, clueless in his way), that it’s just really tough to say, “No can do.”

So, I discuss with my design clients, and while we both agree that it’s not right for the client to do this at no additional charge (and, this means more work for me, not them, since we’re not at the design stage yet), I make a decision. I say, “Listen, we’re right; they’re wrong. But, I’m happy to do another round if it makes them happy.”

And I arrived at that decision after a simple calculation, and after looking at the big picture: How much work this design firm has given me over the past 2-3 years, how they never haggle over my fees, how they look out for me, and how hard they work to make my job as hassle-free as possible.

Viewed through that lens, it’s a pretty easy decision. Sure, if I stood my ground, they’d have totally understood, but by taking the high road, I absolutely endear myself to them.

They’re delighted and relieved that I’m willing to “take one for the team,” and they agree with me unequivocally, that if the client pulls this again, they’re putting their foot down in no uncertain terms.

This commercial freelancing business of ours is so great largely because we get paid very well, and by clients, who, overwhelmingly, know how the world works, and don’t play games over fees. And for every deal like this, where you eat some hours, inevitably, there are those gigs where you quote $4K, the client says, “Let’s do it,” and the project takes, only, say, 21 hours.

So, it all evens out in the end. Not necessarily with the same client, but across your client base as a whole. As such, you’ll ensure your happy longevity in the business by taking that long view, and knowing that while you may have to give here, you’ll get it back over there. And if, in the process, you can make solid money, and enjoy your work on most days, and, on your lifestyle terms, life is pretty good.

What’s your philosophy on projects that go beyond scope?

Do you take them on a case-by-case basis or stick to a firm policy?

Have you had a similar situation to the above, and if so, how did you handle it?

Any other comments or insights to share?

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

Your Portfolio: Stop Making it So Hard (Guest Post)

PB Note: A provocative post from Indianapolis-based commercial freelancer Andrea Emerson. I don’t agree with all her points in all situations, but it’s a solid and well-reasoned piece. And to me, it just underscores, yet again, that there’s no “One Right Way” to run your copywriting business. Takes a healthy level of confidence to take this stance right out of the gate, but her “read” on clients, and what they don’t like, is solid. Thanks, Andrea!

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An alternate headline for this post could’ve been “Why Most Freelance Writer Portfolios Suck.” Because they do.

Take a gander at freelance writer forums and you’ll notice a lot of advice about how to put together a writing portfolio. Often, that involves a physical binder showcasing printed copies of your work.

Don’t do that.

I never have, never will. As you can guess, I have pretty strong feelings about it.

Let me take you to a meeting I had a few months ago with Daniel, the owner of a local marketing firm. I contacted Daniel via LinkedIn, pointing out we shared a few mutual acquaintances, and making myself available for freelance commercial work. He didn’t have a need for a new copywriter at the moment, but invited me to stop by his office for a chat since, you know, all marketing agencies have an insatiable need for content.

I came to the meeting with a notepad and a pen. Nothing else. We talked about the needs of his agency and how those needs aligned with my forté and background. At the end of our time together, Daniel said:

“Hey, send me a work sample or two. Just the stuff you’re most proud of.”

Then, he added:

“I hate it when writers send me a bunch of writing samples. I don’t have time for that.”

I chuckled because, (1) I’d heard this before, and (2) I could SO relate.

Years earlier, while working in the corporate world, I occasionally interviewed candidates for marketing communications jobs. I hated — HATED — when someone walked in with a fat binder and insisted on walking me through every page.

First of all, it’s impossible to mentally digest and make judgments on so much content during a job discussion. The best I could do was to jump around the material, gazing at headlines and sentences in a random fashion, then zone out the rest. My eyes glazed over in a hurry.

So what’s the alternative?

Here’s how I’ve approached it. I did link to work samples on my website, but never shared those links with prospects until they asked for it.

You see, the purpose of your first or second interaction with prospects is just to tease them — to create interest and start a conversation. Don’t expect to close the sale with your first email or phone call. (In fact, don’t even try. It may happen, but it’s a huge turnoff if you push for it.)

If interested, the prospect would naturally talk about his/her needs, then ask me for samples. Armed with what I’ve learned about them, I’d email just 3-5 select samples that were relevant to what they were looking for.

Eventually, I also deleted most of the samples on my website. I had started with 10-15 samples and one day I thought, “What prospect in his right mind is going to read 15 samples? Wouldn’t it be smarter if I limited their choices to just my favorite work?” So I shaved that list down to a handful and bulked up on testimonials instead.

Copywriter Steve Slaunwhite follows a similar rationale. After observing the same dynamic I described above (where hiring managers only read random lines of a portfolio and ignored the rest), Steve adopted what he calls a “Portfolio One Sheet.”

In that sheet, Steve describes the project, its goal, the extent of his role, and showcases just a couple of excerpts. (Naturally, the strongest parts.)

What if you’re brand-spanking new and don’t have writing samples yet?

Make some up. Seriously. You can write for an imaginary business, write for a family member, choose a worthy cause or local business and offer to rewrite their brochure, landing page, sales letter, email promo — whatever. You can also take something you’ve written at a past job or writing course, give it a nice edit and you’re good to go.

This isn’t shady, and it isn’t uncommon. It’s how you get started. The point is to prove you can write. No one cares if you got paid for it.

Pressure’s off. No excuses left.

With the approach I described above (which, by the way, never failed me once), you don’t need a lengthy, bulky portfolio. A couple of samples should be enough for someone to determine whether your writing lines up with their standards and needs.

If you’ve been stressing over a writing portfolio, don’t. We’ve just removed that excuse and the pressure that followed it. (You’re welcome.)

What’s worked for you in the past?

What portfolio challenges, dilemmas or hang-ups give you heart palpitations or hinder your interactions with prospects?

If applying any advice from this post, what will that be?

If not, why not?

AndreaEmersonPicAndrea Emerson is an Indianapolis-based copywriter & freelancing coach. She blogs about what it takes to build a profitable freelance business here.

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

Want More Work? Get Out And Ask For It (Guest Post)

Cool guest post from Brett Stone, who sent me this last fall, when she was still a commercial freelancer (and commercial real-estate investor). She’s since moved into some new and exciting directions, leveraging her past experience and teaching women how to raise their wealth consciousness and create more of what they want in their lives. Find out more about it here.

Regardless, this is a great primer on getting out from behind our “boxes,” and drumming up business through face-to-face contact. I’ve always been a fan of more direct, personal approaches to building one’s business—especially as the world gets more and more impersonal and virtual. I subscribe to the belief—as echoed here by Brett—that business-building is about relationship-building. Enjoy!

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When it comes to digging up clients, most commercial writers would prefer to stay behind the computer and let words do the selling of their services. Yet one of the fastest and most satisfying ways I know to build up a client base comes from taking a deep breath, grabbing a handful of business cards, and getting out and networking face to face.

Truth is, with the glut of information out there today, most people would still rather hire someone they already know and like, than spend time sorting through a miasma of avatars on elance, or blindly respond to an unsolicited email.

It’s always interesting to discover just how many people, upon learning I’m a writer, will suddenly launch into telling me about a book they’ve written that needs editing, a direct mail campaign they’ve been considering doing, or that they need help getting some good quality content on their website. Often these people have had a desire for help for a long time, but they just really had no idea where to turn.

The best news about face-to-face networking, though, is that 99% of the time, you’ll be the only copywriter in the room. Yes, you’ll encounter bloggers and people who’ve published an ebook, but rarely is this their main source of income. Just by getting your services in front of someone who needs them and is dreading having to look for it, you’ve already helped them by saving them a big chunk of time. They’ll be so grateful to already know you that, chances are excellent, they’ll hire you.

So though it can be absolutely terror-inducing to stand up in front of a group of 60+ people and plug your business, I’d like to offer a few strategies that can turn face-to-face networking into something that’s not only a successful work-generating activity, but an awful lot of fun.

Finding Opportunities
The first thing you’ll need to do is identify where your clients are hanging out.
Unless you’re just looking for supportive friends to go and have coffee with, don’t go to events for writers. Instead, look for events that target the people who hire you. If you write for ecommerce, then go to events for ecommerce owners; if you write for the natural health industry, go to events for practitioners, etc. You get the idea.

I also attend small B2B events. Even though the attendees there aren’t prospects for my commercial freelancing business, often they serve people who are (such as marketing professionals) and recommend my services to a client they’re already working with.

The Chamber of Commerce is good place to check out, but don’t stop there. If you live in a good-sized metropolis, Meetups.com is a fabulous resource. They have groups focused on all different sorts of interests and businesses. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, you can also start your own.

Many cities also have private companies that sponsor networking events you can attend for a small fee. If you have a little more money to invest, you might also consider attending conferences.

When talking with people, ask what other events they go to, and consider attending yourself. Also, keep your ears open for introductions to mastermind groups. These are little more difficult to sniff out, but a good mastermind group can get you in with highly successful entrepreneurs. These are people that pay good money to farm out writing tasks so they can keep their valuable time focused on growing their business.

Go In With A Plan
At the majority of events, you’ll be asked to stand up in front of the group and introduce yourself and your business. Yes, this is the scary part—public speaking is a greater fear than death for most people—but there are things you can do to allay any anxiety.

The first “must-do” is to prepare. Sit down and write out a script (you’re a writer, right?). In most cases, all you need are three to four lines you can deliver in a clear, friendly way.

Instead of talking about yourself, state your job and then briefly tell people, not what you do, but what you can do for them. I focus my pitch on how my copywriting can help people make more money. Don’t try to be funny unless you’re really skilled at it, and don’t try to engage with the audience unless you’re a seasoned public speaker.

Once you’ve created your lines, memorize them. Stand in the middle of your living room and rehearse, delivering them as if you were addressing a room full of people. As you speak, work towards sounding spontaneous, as if talking right off the top of your head. Be sure to practice standing and gesturing in a way that’s relaxed and natural.

Effective “Mingling”
While people are introducing themselves to the group, take note of those who are in positions to hire you or could possibly refer you to people who would. When the evening turns social, make a point of approaching each of these people and making a connection.
This is actually a very easy thing to do.

Simply go up, introduce yourself, hand them a business card, and then ask them to tell you about their business and their goals for it. Don’t talk about yourself unless they ask, and then only in a context that relates to ways you might help them. Don’t sell. Share a little and then show more interest in what they do. Often people will continue to pursue you to write for them without you having to promote yourself at all.

If the people you want to approach are already in conversation in a group, it’s perfectly acceptable to go up to them and join in. Just like you, people are there to make connections and they welcome the burden being off of them to initiate it.

Don’t Forget The Follow-up
The very next day (or later that same day), take ten minutes and send an email to every person you met who you think might become a client or a valuable relationship. In the letter you can comment about the event, tell them it was a pleasure to meet them, ask if they have any ideas how you might help them and refer them to your website.

I usually write one short, friendly letter that I personalize by changing the name and then send out as separate emails.

Often, that follow-up is just the little comfortable opening someone needs to take the next step towards hiring you. Several times I’ve had people write me back and tell me how they’ve been to many events, and I’m the first person who ever bothered to make contact with them afterwards.

The truth is, when it comes right down to it, whether you’re a commercial copywriter or a dog-food vendor, success grows out of forming relationships you nurture by putting yourself out there, and genuinely asking “How may I serve?”


Have you had any success with face to face networking?

What are your strategies for creating profitable relationships?

Do you have any events you regularly attend?

What sort of statements do you use to describe your business?

BrettStonepicBrett Renee Stone is a copywriter and investor who specializes in the areas of real estate and ecommerce. Over the years she’s helped her clients raise or generate millions of dollars. Currently, she’s shifting gears, teaching women the process of wealth creation to get more of what they want in their lives. Find out more here.

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

This Fallacy Trips Up a Lot of Writers (and Limits Their Income…)

I got this email recently from a newly-minted commercial freelancer:

I recently quoted a tri-fold brochure and three cover letters for a local university. I gave a range of $650 to $735 for the project, but my proposal was turned down because of budget. Could you offer any advice about pricing writing jobs that fit with the going rates in a particular area (we’re a smaller market than Atlanta).

Okay, several points worth making here:

I don’t think she can come to any conclusions about the opportunity, try to imagine “what I could’ve done differently,” or alter her pricing strategy, based on ONE possible gig. If anything, $700-ish for that scope of work seems on the low side to me.

She (or anyone starting out) needs dozens of situations like this to gather any useful knowledge. One is meaningless, except as a single brick in your wall of experience as a commercial writer. One has to make a TON of contacts to get to critical mass and have things start happening.

But for today’s discussion, here’s the most important point…

There’s no such thing as some set copywriting pricing for all copywriting clients; that implies all clients are reading off some “standard price sheet,” and of course, they aren’t.

Yes, it’s good to have some idea of ballparks when quoting rates in a particular market, but know there are different tiers of freelance commercial writing clients, all with different fee thresholds. Our not-easy job is to find those willing to pay the good rates (and that’s more likely to be in business than academia).

The discussion of “going rates” in any given area is related to my last blog post, “There IS No Copywriting Industry.” I’d planned to include this with that post, but felt it deserved its own dedicated post.

I routinely get asked about “going rates” in the commercial writing field. If there’s a “Copywriting Industry,” then there’s some “going rates” for that industry, right? Sure, what a commercial writer can command in NYC is likely more than they’ll get in Peoria, but the longer I’m in the business, the more subjective I believe rates to be.

Add in a wired world that invites us to prospect anywhere, and it makes the idea of “going rates” even more irrelevant.

Most importantly (see the sidebar, “Debunking the Myth of “Standard” Writers Rates…” on p. 171 of The Well-Fed Writer for the fleshed-out version of this idea):

Following some “industry pricing guide” or the anecdotal advice of other commercial copywriters (even those in your area) will give you, at best, only a partial view of the rates-picture in your area.

Just because a copywriter or guide says you can “expect” to make $ ___ per hour—given a certain experience level or geographic are—while useful as a ballpark guide, does that mean that’s all a copywriter can hope to earn at those levels, and in that locale?

Absolutely not. ALL it means is that some copywriters are making those rates, and some clients are unwilling to pay more. Sure, many clients think $50 an hour is too much to pay even a pro, but there are also plenty who won’t flinch at $125 an hour. And I’m working for a bunch of them.

What’s sad is that tons of talented commercial freelancers (and yes, you need to have the chops to be able to consistently land high rates), are making pathetically low hourly rates for NO other reason than that’s what some guide told them they can expect to make at their experience level, and because they’re working for clients who pay no more than that. Just because it’s your world doesn’t mean it’s THE world.

Meanwhile, other writers who never got that memo (like me when I started out, and perhaps those who read my books), and don’t realize that they shouldn’t be able to command higher rates, are doing just that. All because they looked in different places, believed different people, and found those willing to pay more.

Heck, land a few entrepreneur-type clients with big budgets—which I’ve happily done quite a bit over the years—along with big egos that drive them to pay high rates for “the best,” and all discussions of “standard rates” go out the window. When people like that routinely pay, say, $400+ an hour for legal services, $125 an hour for a professional writer will make them downright giddy.

One caveat: Someone starting out with little experience and armed with the concept of “going rates” can end up deluding themselves into thinking they should be able to ask for and get the “standard rates,” when they’ll likely have to work up to them.

Sort of a “Duh,” but more commercial copywriting experience (in general) will boost what you can ask for, and more industry-specific writing experience will boost it even more (assuming you’re pursuing work in that industry).

Just know that the concept of rates is far more fluid than we’re often led to believe, and sticking to “conventional wisdom” can limit income potential significantly.

Have you ever used others’ guidelines to determine your copywriting rates, only to land a client that defied rates expectation? In other words…

Have you ever had an “Aha!” moment when you got far higher than you expected to, and henceforth rewired your thinking about what you could ask for?

Have you had a sense that you’re shortchanging yourself when it comes to rates?

Any other thoughts or ideas on the subject?

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

Living This Crucial Sales/Marketing Principle Will Make You a Better Copywriter

I ran this piece below as a feature this month in the March edition of The Well-Fed E-PUB. But I wanted to also post it here, so I could get feedback from all of you (and partly because I’m on an extended trip away, and want to make my life easier…;) Would love to hear your thoughts!

Websites that are wildly unclear about what the company does or sells. How-to guides that assume far too much knowledge and understanding on the part of the reader. Brochures and sales sheets that leave the reader with more questions than answers. Emails that have you scratching your head as to their meaning.

Pretty much every day occurrences for all of us, right? And at the heart of all of them—and many other scenarios—is a principle so important, I unhesitatingly add it as #4 to the big three of sales/marketing (IMHO, anyway): “Who’s the audience?”; The Features/Benefits Equation (arguably, this new one is related to these first two); and USP (Unique Selling Proposition), all outlined in detail in Chapter 3 of The Well-Fed Writer.

What is this foundational principle? The Curse of Knowledge.

While I first encountered the idea of TCOK in the wonderful book, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” (Chip and Dan Heath; buy it), according to Wikipedia, “The effect was first described in print by the economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein and Martin Weber, though they give original credit for suggesting the term to Robin Hogarth.”

Its definition (also from Wikipedia)? “The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias, according to which, better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.”

Understanding and deeply internalizing this principle will pay huge dividends for your commercial writing practice (or any business you’re in) in how you present your business to the world, how you interact with clients, and how you help clients market their businesses.

Why? Because the effect of this principle is at the root of so many poorly executed communications materials, as well as marketing/advertising campaigns in general.

It can potentially rear its ugly, clueless head in:

1) How you showcase your own copywriting business on your web site, or in your marketing efforts—whether direct mail, email, cold calling, etc.

2) How you communicate with clients and prospects while working on projects.

3) How your clients communicate with their prospects and clients, with you potentially aiding, abetting and exacerbating the problem with your copy.

What’s the magic incantation to lift this curse? Simple. Not easy, but simple. Any time you need to successfully convey information to someone else (i.e., in all the scenarios described above, and, for that matter, any other time you’re communicating with anyone else for any reason), ask yourself this question:

If I knew absolutely nothing about this subject (very possible), was in the middle of doing something else when it crossed my path (highly likely), and had a short attention span (a given), would I “get it” quickly?

And if not, rework it until you can say yes.

And no, your audience won’t always be totally lacking in knowledge about a subject, and may in fact, be able to devote more than a miniscule sliver of their attention to the piece of writing in front of them, but it’s far wiser to assume they’re ignorant and distracted than the reverse.

It’s not easy to put yourself in a position of ignorance when, in fact, you are so close to something, but it’s an exceptionally valuable skill to develop.

Can you share any real-world examples you’ve seen of TCOK in action?

Any tips on cultivating the ability to view all writing with “fresh eyes”?

If you’re familiar with TCOK, how have you put it to work in your copywriting practice?

If you weren’t familiar with it, how can you envision applying an understanding of it to your business?

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