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Should You Be Worried About This? I’m Not…

Got this email from a reader in Canada a few weeks back:

Writers in my market are noticing a trend towards clients hiring low-cost writers, mostly journalism students from the local college. Journalism has been pretty much wiped out here so there’s been a huge increase in these writers. We’ve also noticed several big clients are now offering minimum wage for copywriting positions. So there’s pressure.

A few of us “senior” writers have been talking about collaborating on some sort of marketing strategy based on selling a higher-quality writing service. The general idea is not to compete directly against the will-write-for-food crowd, but to become the go-to writers for clients by offering a consistent, professional and accountable service.

I’ve partnered with another writer to offer this service to a client whose reputation may have suffered some by hiring cheap writers. What we’re seeing with these cases are things like websites with glaring typos, businesses with poor Google results, etc. Are the clients noticing this? Maybe. Is it damaging their reputation in the marketplace? Probably.

While this idea of ours looks positive, the question is this: Do you know of anyone else who has tried this strategy, and have you seen what works and what doesn’t?

At first blush, a little disturbing, but I’m not at all sure we’re comparing apples to apples. Here’s my thinking on this…

I haven’t been seeing this trend personally, but I’m sure it’s happening. The key question: What sorts of copywriting projects are these writers being asked to do?

I ask this because a journalism student from a local college will, in no way shape or form, know their way around good, effective marketing copywriting.

And hiring cheap writers will reliably yield the unreliability he mentions. I can certainly see cheaper freelancers being able to write passable-looking “content” like white papers, case studies, blog posts, etc.—given their more “article” nature.

Commercial Writers Do It Better
Needless to say, a copywriting pro would render those content projects far better, while their versions of ads, direct mail, brochures, landing pages, etc., will be infinitely better, more effective, and far more likely to pay for themselves many times over, than anything a cheaper writer might deliver.

It’d be interesting to get into the heads of these writing buyers. Maybe they know they’ll be trading off some quality for the lower wages paid. But they’d only do that if they truly believed that what these bargain-basement scribes deliver is all they really need.

Don’t Know Good Writing (or Writers)
After all, these clients have already proven they don’t understand the value professional writers bring, so they’re just as unlikely to be able to recognize good writing when they see it, and be happier with inferior stuff.

In the long run, I suspect those same clients, if they start seeing that they’re losing out to companies who are investing more money in writers better equipped to deliver effective content—and general marketing copywriting—may end up doing the same themselves.

In answer to his specific question, I wrote:

If you feel you and your compadres ARE stronger marketing copywriters, that’s probably your best pitch. Yes, I’d also play the reliability, accountability and detailed-oriented (i.e., clean, error-free copy) cards, but I wouldn’t lead with those: Even though they’re exceptionally important, they sound a bit thin, compared to the effective marketing-copy angle.

That should have them thinking that they’re potentially losing far more money in sales, than they’re saving by hiring cheaper writers. And heck, why not make that part of your pitch?

Back to School?
Bottom line, If your prospecting hasn’t turned up enough “good” clients (i.e., those who understand the value people like us bring, and are willing to pay well for it)—and they’re certainly out there—you might need to do more educating of those clients who think, “Anyone can write.”

In many cases, clients don’t even realize there are writers like us (i.e., marketing copywriters). They just need a writer, and if they don’t have success with lower-budget ones, they’ll find a “better writer”—i.e., a more experienced journalist-type writer.

Let ‘Em Know Our Kind Exists
So, the marketing we do for our practices not only lets the world know that we—in particular—are out there, but just as importantly, that marketing copywriters like us, very different from the typical “freelance writer”—are out there.

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Have you noticed this trend in your market?

In your experience, do clients realize there are marketing copywriters out there, not just journalist-style “freelance writers”?

In your experience, do the prospects and clients you cross paths with know the difference a good marketing copywriter, and know what quality marketing writing looks like?

Ever had a client who just didn’t get what a good writer could offer, and your amazing copy rocked their world, and gave them a new appreciation for folks like us?

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How are your marketing-writing chops? Not sure? If you’re ready to BE sure, and truly separate yourself from the writing masses, check out my (rapidly-filling) Well-Fed Group Coaching series focused on “craft” and starting October 18. Full details and testimonials HERE.

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

Why Estimating Copywriting Projects Is Like Learning to Play Tennis…

I got an email from a commercial writer recently voicing a common concern:

The one sticking point I keep running into is not knowing how many hours a project will take me to complete (and the obvious quoting struggle related to that). Do you know any resources where I can find that information? By trolling other writer’s sites, I can sometimes assume an average if they list their hourly fee along with project fees, but it’s not always consistent from writer to writer.

Project estimating. A common dilemma, no doubt. And a serviceable analogy is learning a sport like tennis. If you ever started taking tennis lessons when you knew very little about it to begin with, there seemed to be all these things you had to remember: foot placement, keeping your racket level, stepping into each shot, keeping your eye on the ball, following through completely, and about 10 more.

To a beginner, it all seemed overwhelming. How in the world am I supposed to remember all this, much less do them all well? But, if you stuck to it, it all became second nature, automatic.

Same thing here. You’re new at commercial writing. How can you expect to be an expert at it right out of the gate? It’s like a tennis novice wanting to know the “secret” to being to do all those things perfectly the first time he sets foot on the court. Just not realistic.

I DO touch on some nuts-n-bolts about this in The Well-Fed Writer (p. 173). Here’s the Cliff Notes version (and DO check out the passage for a more detailed version):

Break a job down into its component parts: research, background reading, travel, meetings, brainstorming (a.k.a. “concepting”), interviewing, writing, and editing (you won’t have all these in every job). Then assign a time figure (i.e., X hours) to each category. Then multiply the total number of hours calculated by your hourly rate to get a flat fee estimate (which can be a range that varies by 10 to 15 percent—e.g., $1,500–$1,700, $3,600–$4,100, etc.).

(NOTE: What should your hourly rate be? Arrive at that number based on your experience level, and by asking fellow writers in your market what they charge. Or by calling ad agencies and design firms, which routinely hire copywriters, and as such, will have a very current idea of what writers in their market charge. And while you’ve got these folks on the phone, ask what they look for in a writer they pay X$ an hour.)

Don’t know how much will be involved in each component part? ASK the client. You can’t know how many meetings until you ask (OR until you make your preference known for, ideally, one, which is all you should need). You can’t know how you’ll be gathering your source material until you ask. You can’t know if there will be any interviews, background reading, or research until you ask. No one expects you to be clairvoyant.

Furthermore, no two brochures, direct mail campaigns, newsletters, case studies or web sites (or any other project) are the same. Take a marketing brochure. How many pages? What format? How will you get your source material? Every one is different. And questions are the only way to get accurate parameters.

Bottom line, learning accurate estimating is a function of both asking questions and gaining experience. Questions will only take you so far. Sure, you can break down a project into its component parts, and figure out exactly what will be involved, but assigning an amount of time to those individual components takes practice.

Just know you’ll probably get it wrong in the beginning—shooting too high or low, and hence, losing a bid, or eating hours on a project you do land. But, in time, with more and more projects under your belt, you’ll get good at it.

And a note about posting rates or a price list on one’s site. Neither ever struck me as a particularly good idea (but that’s just me). Posting an hourly rate—especially if it’s reasonably high—can scare off clients, who don’t have a sense of how many hours a given project will take, and may imagine the worst-case scenario.

Sure, you want to run off the wrong kinds of clients (the ones who want that brochure for $150), but listing your hourly rates can give pause to legitimate prospects as well. And here’s the clincher: good clients don’t expect to see rates posted.

Ditto for price lists. The kinds of clients we want to work with know that every project is different so posting a list of prices for different project types isn’t necessary. And as I note in TWFW, because you know that every project is different, you’d have to provide such a wide range of prices (e.g., “Marketing brochures: $500-$2500”) as to render that list pretty meaningless. I suggest skipping it.

What estimating advice/tips can you offer to those starting out?

What’s the process you follow to accurately quote a project?

Are questions as crucial in your estimating process as they are in mine?

Do you include a price list or hourly rate on your site? If not, is your thinking similar to mine? If you do, how has it worked out?

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

Are Long-Term, On-Site Gigs (Even in Hawaii!) Worth It? (Guest Post)

I went fulltime with my commercial writing business about three years ago. A scary move, as so many of you know, but within about six months, I was starting to build momentum. I was landing copywriting projects on a fairly regular basis, and some referrals were starting to come my way.

Then in late 2010, I got the dream offer: the opportunity to work on a long-term project for an organization located in Hawaii. I’d always wanted to live in Hawaii, so it was a fairly easy decision. It would be guaranteed income for 7-8 months, and I’d get to escape Colorado winter and walk on the beach every day after work. I mean, come on—it was a no-brainer! So, I packed up and headed to the islands.

My intentions were good at the start of the project. Of course I’d stick to my weekly marketing tasks. Yeah, the time zone difference might pose a bit of a challenge as far as cold calling, but I’d make it work. Right? Wrong.

What actually happened was…I went beachside and the marketing of my commercial freelancing business went by the wayside. And eight months later when the project was complete and my contract ended, the reality set in that I was going to be starting from scratch. And it was worse than I thought—I was literally back to square one.

I don’t regret accepting the opportunity, and not just because I got to spend eight months snorkeling and wearing flip-flops 24/7. It was an interesting project related to subject matter I’m passionate about. But truth be told, there’s a part of me that can’t help but wonder where my commercial copywriting business would be today if I hadn’t detoured and put all my eggs in one basket for almost a year. At the end of my contract, I found myself holding an empty basket and yelling, “Hey, where’d everybody go?”

If presented with the same opportunity again, I’d still take it. But I did learn some lessons about the long-term cost of working for just one client, and about the pitfalls of working on-site at the client’s location. For anyone who might be tempted to consider a similar opportunity, I’d offer the following food for thought:

1) Think carefully before accepting the project (yes, even in the case of tropical island locations). Ask yourself honestly how the decision will likely affect your business in the long run. Do you have the discipline needed to stick with your marketing efforts? Will it take a toll on your business, from a long-term perspective? If so, are you willing to start over when the contract ends?

2) If you do take on the project, insist on working from your own office. You can always attend meetings on-site when necessary. But working from your own location will help you look at the job as you would any other project, versus seeing yourself—and having them see you—as an employee.

3) If working on site is a requirement, maintain a professional, independent contractor attitude. Don’t let yourself get pulled into office politics, and beware of staff members who try to recruit you to their camp during in-house power struggles (and believe me, they will try). I’m not saying don’t ever socialize; just be sure and maintain the professional boundaries. If you get cornered in the coffee room by the company gossip king/queen, politely excuse yourself because of “that pressing deadline.”

4) Push for having only one point of contact, as far as submitting the work you do. This goes for any project, of course. We all know where the “road of multiple reviewers” leads. But it’s especially important when working on site. There’s nothing worse than having a steady stream of people stop by your desk to let you know how THEY think the article you’re writing should be revised.

5) Most importantly, maintain contact with your other current and previous clients—through a blog, newsletter, e-zine, etc. And make time each week for some regular marketing tasks (networking, cold calling, etc.). In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the importance of P-PC (Production-Production Capability) Balance. Failing to maintain your production capability in favor of focusing solely on your current production is akin to killing the golden goose (production capability) that’s producing your golden eggs.

Have you ever been offered a long-term, fulltime project with a single client? Did you accept the offer, or did the long-term cost seem too great?

How did you keep up your marketing strategies and maintain ties with your other clients?

Did you work onsite, or did you insist on maintaining your autonomy by working from your own office?

If you worked onsite, what strategies helped you maintain your independent status?

Laurie Schmidt (www.lauriejschmidt.com) is a freelance copywriter who specializes in science. She’s working on launching her new blog called “Science Misconceived.” You can reach her at laurie@lauriejschmidt.com.

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

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”?

How Important is Meeting Clients in Person?

Here we go with Part Two of the previous post. As you recall, I’d gotten an email from a commercial freelancer starting out, asking about business process (i.e., when I write, when I talk to clients, which we covered in the first post) as well as the age-old “meeting/no meeting” issue. Did I meet clients in person to discuss commercial projects, and how often? He was 90 minutes from the nearest big city and didn’t fancy the idea of shlepping himself through such a half-day (minimum) exercise if he could avoid it. He wrote:

One of the things I’m looking forward to as a freelancer is ditching the commute. Going to see a client in person would cost me two to three hours in travel time alone – not including the meeting itself. I currently work evenings, so I could do it, but I’d rather have meetings and project discussions with clients by phone and email.

I understand that you meet with clients locally. How much time per month do you spend traveling to and from in-person meetings? How many of your clients are too far away for in-person meetings? This is one area in which I’d rather emulate Bob Bly.

Referring, of course, to Bob’s well-known aversion to in-person meetings – considering them time-wasters. And I get it. They can be.

Bottom line, if that’s how you want to set up your business, in this day and age, you can absolutely do it. If you position yourself as a competent copywriter who can deliver the results and make your clients’ lives easier and their bottom lines fatter, you can set your own personal “Rules of Engagement.”

But even if you’re just starting out, you can still draw your line in the sand on this issue. Sure, having a rep as a crack copywriter gives you leverage in setting your terms, but you can just as easily play the “logistics” card: I live too far away to make meetings feasible.

Or as one copywriter shared with me: “Once I tell people I’d be happy to meet with them, but will have to charge them for travel time to and from, suddenly, they discover reasons why a meeting isn’t that important after all.” Amazing how that works. Moreover, clients are just as often driving a “no-meetings” policy – knowing as well that they can be unproductive. So, in most cases, it usually ends up being a non-issue.

My story? I will occasionally meet with clients, but that’s MY choice and MY call. Personally, I like getting out of the house now and then, and also like to know with whom I’m dealing and the best way to do that is see them face-to-face. That said, I have and have had plenty of clients over the years I’ve never met. Many are out of town, making it a moot point (and if those clients find you, then they’ve revealed themselves to obviously have no issue with a long-distance copywriter).

But, I’ve also got one right now who I’ve been working with for going on 18 months, who’s local. She’s put tons of money in my pocket and I wouldn’t know her if I fell over her in the street. And she hasn’t insisted or even wanted a face-to-face meeting in that time. Heck, I’M the one who’s been suggesting a meeting after all this time, but she’s strangely unmoved by my entreaties. Oh well.

So, to specifically answer my emailer’s questions, it happens rarely – maybe once a month these days. And when it does, I typically spend 30-45 minutes traveling, in total, MAX. And needless to say, when I do decide to go meet with a client, it’s usually because they ARE close by. Yes, I had more meetings when I first started out, but that was when the Internet was still young (geez, I’m dating myself…).

Do you still meet with clients?

Are you driving that reality or are they?

Have you adopted a “no-meetings” policy for your business? If so, gotten any resistance?

Do you run into (m)any clients who insist on face-to-face meetings?