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How Do You Respond to Prospects Who Make Requests Like These?

So, I got an email the other day from a reader in the Northeast whose note underscored an issue we commercial freelancers wrestle with all the time. While this particular case seems a bit more straightforward (see my reply below), variations on this scenario can present challenges to writers like us. As a result, I’d love to hear others’ strategies on this. She wrote:

It seems that, where I live anyway, people have no problem meeting with me, picking my brain for marketing ideas, and then not offering a paid writing job. Happens all the time. I’m starting to think it’s my fault.

In the case below, I competed for a full-time job with the company. Though I didn’t get the job, my contact called to say she’d like to stay in touch, as she wants to work with me in the future. Since then I have maintained a positive attitude and stayed in touch thinking that I could turn her into a paying commercial writing client.

This morning a message came in from her: “Would you be around to meet with me and a few other staff members (including the person who landed the job I competed for) on (X) date/time? We don’t have any projects ready to go at this point, but I’d like to toss around some ideas for down the line. That would include some help on things like _____ (i.e., a short list of writing projects).”

Should I go, and with the same positive attitude that they’ll become a paying client?

My response:

Given that these particular folks haven’t made a habit of doing this (i.e., calling you in to talk but not hire you), I’d go ahead and meet just to get in front of them. AND limit it to an hour, tops. AND not give them all sorts of ideas they could run with without having to hire you. Nothing wrong with giving them an idea or two that demonstrate you know what you’re doing as a copywriter, showcase your range of capabilities and underscore the value of working with you. That’s often what it takes for a prospects to quantify you as a resource and start developing a comfort level with you.

It’s a fine line, no question. But, as I see it, if someone wants to pick your brains for ideas that would be worthy of a consultation fee, then you don’t want to give it away for free. An example of where it can make sense to meet (without pay) is if you’ve taken a look at their business and seen possibilities for several writing initiatives (involving you doing the writing) that could move their business forward (i.e., a newsletter, direct mail campaign, case studies, white papers, etc).

Still no guarantee that you’ll get hired, but to a certain extent, it’s often the nature of the beast that you have to show your value before you get hired. And in the above case, giving them ideas of possible projects still means they have to do them, so the idea itself is only worth so much. Not sure whether your frequent experiences of this kind (prospects happy to milk you but not willing to hire you) points to the “nature of the beast” scenarios we ALL face, or whether there’s something else at play here.

One thing I might suggest asking and clarifying before meeting, in a casual, “in-passing” kind of way, is what sort of in-house resources they have to handle projects like these. As a way, of course, of determining if they could indeed just take your ideas and execute them on their own. Any whiff of that and you should be careful…

What advice would you give her?

What’s your policy? Where do you draw the line when it comes to initial (unpaid) meetings?

What red flags have you come to recognize as signs of a “Moocher”?

Have you come up with any sort of standard response to similar requests?

“Start Making $300 an Hour as a Copywriter in Just Seven Days!”

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?

Any general comment for this shyster?

Be a Good Storyteller, Be a Better Copywriter

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?

What Would You Do About a Client Like This One?

Got a note from a fellow commercial writer recently. She wrote:

I have a client who’ll give me two or three days to write something (when I really need a week), insisting such a tight deadline is necessary, and then take a week to review it, revealing the deadline wasn’t real after all. I know they’re not getting my best work because there’s no “dwell” time. I’ve pulled all-nighters to get projects done, and then hear nothing for days or even a week. When they do come back with comments, I might get a day or two to generate a second draft.

The last time this happened, I did ask for a rush fee and got it. But the extra money isn’t worth the extra stress. After all, reducing stress is one of the biggest reasons I became a commercial freelancer.

Yes, I’ve brought this up to them, but it’s come to nothing. They try to do better for a week or two and then the old habits return. Moreover, these conversations just seem to make our otherwise genial relationship tense. And other than this, they’re great clients: they’re fair on other matters, pay promptly and I’ve worked with them for seven years. A commercial copywriting client like this is a godsend in this crummy economy. Is this just the way it is? Or can you suggest some tricks I might be able to use to manipulate them into better behavior?

My reply:

Alas, no tricks, but you may have more leverage than you think. If you’ve worked with them for seven years, obviously you deliver a lot of value and they know it. That being the case, you should be able to make your sentiments known without them freaking out. Clearly, while they may appreciate what you do for them, they’re not showing you much respect. Though, I suspect there’s nothing malicious in their actions, but rather garden-variety cluelessness.

To repeatedly insist a job is a rush job and then repeatedly take a week to review it shows they believe, perhaps even unconsciously, that their time is more valuable than yours. If it were me, I’d draw a line in the sand. But obviously, you have to weigh the value of this otherwise good client vs. the stress this situation causes.

If you decide to have this talk, make sure you ARE prepared to walk. The old sales adage, “He (or she) who cares least, wins” was never truer than here. If you’re truly fine with losing their copywriting business (and it’s totally okay if you’re not), you’ll come across with conviction and confidence. Which, I suspect, might just impress the heck out of them and have them suddenly see you in a brand-new light.

Many commercial freelancers have “come-to-Jesus” chats with problem clients that turn out just fine. The client develops new respect for the writer, AND often, the writer has an epiphany along the way, suddenly “getting” their own value. After all, if their client changes an offensive behavior as a result of a talk, they realize it’s indeed a two-way street, and that the client didn’t want to lose them.

I’d thank them for their ongoing confidence in you, but I would NOT go overboard in thanking them for all the copywriting projects they’ve given you over the years. Remember, this is an uncoerced market transaction: if they weren’t getting as much, if not more value out of the relationship than you are, they wouldn’t keep hiring you. They’re not hiring you out of charity, so don’t go to them hat in hand.

Explain that, as a copywriting professional, your goal is to always deliver superior work, and these conditions make it impossible to give them your best effort. But, that you could even live with THAT if the constant tight deadlines were legitimate deadlines, but they’re obviously not.

I’d wager they don’t kick you to the curb after all these years. How long would it take them to train a new copywriter? And do they want to go through that, when they could simply start making deadline requests based in reality, not whim?

Bottom line, nothing IS going to change on their side unless you somehow interrupt their pattern of doing things as they always have by getting their attention in some way.

What would you suggest she do in this situation?

Do you agree with my take or would you do things differently?

Have you had such a conversation with a client and how did it turn out?

Where do you draw your line in the sand with a “problem client”?

Good Clients (Like this One) Understand a Good Writer’s Value (and Will Pay…)

I couldn’t have scripted it better myself. A little background….

Got a call from a prospect in early November. About 18 months earlier (May 2008), the local daily, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, did a “Why I Love My Job” feature on yours truly in the Sunday paper. Following a few live seminars I’d done in March 2008 on commercial writing and self-publishing, I’d been approached by one of the attendees who turned out to be the writer of the popular weekly piece.

“You seem like someone who really enjoys what you do,” he said. “Would you be interested in being featured in WILMJ?” “Is this a trick question?” I asked. Uh, yeah. Course I would.

We got it done, the piece came out, and my new prospect, a successful local entrepreneur, saw it, tore it out and said to himself, “I may just need this guy some day.” Well that day came last month. In a nutshell, he was angling for a strategic partnership with another company and wanted a professional writer to work on the proposal. Long story short, I ended up putting in roughly 30 hours – including two back-to-back 10-hour days – over a five-day period at a most healthy hourly rate.

As we were wrapping up the thing on the second marathon day, he stopped, looked up and said (you’re going to love this…):

“It’s a amazing what a difference a professional writer makes. I think of all the times over the last 10 years (as long as he’s had his business) that I really could have used one, but tried to do it myself. It’s great to know I have a resource like this now.”

Seeing the impact a professional writer could make and seeing a proposal turn into an eloquent statement was nothing short of an epiphany for him. THIS is what we need to be communicating to people. No, not everyone will get it, so don’t waste your time beating your head against the wall trying to convince those who don’t. Just find the ones who do.

There will always be people who think writing is something anyone can do, and they’re not worth wasting your time on. But there are plenty of folks out there who, a) understand the value of a good writer, b) know they’re not one, and 3) realize good talent doesn’t come cheap.

True, it took my new client a long time to come to that realization, but I say it’s because he simply didn’t know how to go about finding one or that copywriters like us even existed. Meaning, that in 10 years, chances are excellent not one single commercial freelancer ever made contact with him.

The first time he was exposed to someone of that description, the idea resonated enough with him to have him cut out an article and set it aside. Remember, he didn’t hunt for just the right copywriter; he flagged the first and only one who’d crossed his path. But had he known HOW much a difference a good writer could make, I’d wager he wouldn’t have waited 18 months. And there are TONS of people like him out there.

Update #1: The proposal is moving along nicely, and he shared that his main contact person at the target company, someone, who according to him, is not the complimenting type, told him, “This is very well-written proposal.” Yes, I was part of a larger team, but we writers still love to hear stuff like that.

Update #2: He called me last week to jump on a crisis situation that had just cropped up in a completely different area, and in less than a week, I’d logged roughly 20 more hours. And there are three more projects on tap. With each project, I more firmly establish myself as a valued member of his team – not just a vendor.

None of this is said to toot my horn, but simply to share what’s out there and possible – even in a down economy. I’m telling you, I’m not doing anything more monumental than writing good persuasive copy for letters and proposals. That said, do I think that any $10-an-article, content-mill writer could do what I do for him? Absolutely not. But any good, strategic-minded commercial freelancer well schooled in marketing? I’d bet on it.

Have you had any similar situations?

What sorts of things have you had delighted clients say to you?

Based on these experiences, how would you describe what a good freelance copywriter brings to the right kind of client? What skills are most crucial?

How hard/easy do you feel it is to deliver those things?