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Turning Kind Deeds to Writing Income: Helping Funeral Homes Minister to Families (Guest Post)

PB Note: Got this really intriguing guest post from Chicago-area commercial freelancer Melanie Jongsma – a great thought-starter to get your creative wheels turning. I invite you to view it not as one about someone doing “memorial folders,” but rather, as the story of someone who looked beyond the typical commercial writing box and found an income opportunity where most people wouldn’t. Ideally, it should make you go, “Hmmmm…what other arenas might I have overlooked that could be turned into a profitable copywriting direction?”

And no, projects like the ones described below won’t make you rich, but for the time expended, they’re great little “slot-ins” to keep your commercial freelancing plate full. And, again, what other even juicier untapped venues might be out there?

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My best friend’s mother died unexpectedly in 2006. I sat with her and her family as they sorted through photos and told stories through their tears. There’s not much you can do to help in a situation like that, but I did the one thing I could: I designed and wrote the funeral program.

Three years later, when my friend’s father died, I was able to help with his funeral program too. It turned out to be a keepsake that the whole family treasured.

In both of those situations, Funeral Director Mike Matthysse (of Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf Funeral Homes) expressed appreciation for the work I had done. He recognized what a value this service would be to other grieving families, so we began to talk about how personalized memorial folders could become a service option for Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf’s existing ministry.

A proposal that worked for both of us

Having learned a lot from Steve Slaunwhite about pricing, I sent Mike a carefully crafted proposal. Mike liked what I had to offer, and he wanted to hire me, but he couldn’t meet the price I had quoted. So I adjusted the quote to make it work for both of us—that is, I brought my price down, but I also decreased the time I would need to invest. For example, I reduced the number of revisions Mike could expect from me, eliminated stock photography options, and asked if there were parts of the work his staff could handle. In the end, we came up with an arrangement that looks like this:

  • The staff at Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf gather photos and information from the family, scan everything, and email it to me all with the specifics of the funeral service.
  • Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf also posts their clients’ obituaries on the MKD website, so I’m able to access that information if I need additional details.
  • I review all the info, clean up the photos, write a “life story,” and lay everything out in a format that Mike’s staff will be able to print in-house without having to worry about trimming.
  • Mike shows a proof to the family and then emails me any corrections that need to be made.
  • I email the final version of the PDF along with an invoice.

For the above, Mike pays me $250. At first, this amount did not represent $50/hour, but now that I have my systems and templates in place, the work goes faster, so I make about $75/hour per memorial folder.

A few things I’ve learned

I’ve done several of these customized memorial folders since arriving at an agreement with Mike, and here are a few things I’ve learned:

  • Good questions are important. Because I’m not present at the family interviews Mike and his staff conduct, it’s been a huge help that they are willing to include some additional questions from me. These help fill in the blanks, so I can add some color to the deceased’s life story.
  • Work like this requires quick turnaround. Mike wants to be able to show the family a proof within a day or two, so sometimes I’m working late to get it to him on time.
  • Mike and his team were already providing a valuable service before I came along. My role is simply to add to what they already do so well.
  • Families really do appreciate having this special keepsake. It requires some sensitivity, intuition, and empathy to get the writing right, but it really blesses the people who receive it. And that’s good for Mike’s reputation as well as mine.

I planned to pitch the idea to other funeral directors in my area, now that I have some well-received samples to show. But I’m hesitant because of the quick turnaround required. I wouldn’t want to put myself in a position where I need to produce two or three customized memorial folders in a day, in addition to other jobs I have!

A question for fellow writers

This income opportunity developed out of a desire to use my writing skills to help my friend and her family through a difficult time. It’s turned into a frequent (though unpredictable) paycheck with potential for expansion. That makes me wonder… Have there been other times my writing has helped someone, and I’ve overlooked a possible freelance market?

What kinds of writing “favors” have you done for friends that might represent business opportunities?

Have you stumbled on a profitable writing niche (that you’re willing to share) that you’d previously overlooked?

What other business or industries might offer hidden writing opportunities?

About the author

Melanie Jongsma loves helping people organize their thoughts and experiences into compelling personal stories, effective business collateral, and powerful ministry messaging. She blogs at LifeLines—helping you share your story. Readers of this post can download her newly-released checklist—7 Ways Professional Editors and Proofreaders Use Find-and-Replace—for just 99¢.

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

An Ode to “Good Clients” (i.e., Virtually All of Mine…)

I just got off the phone with one of my favorite commercial writing clients – someone who embodies what I like about most of my clients: she always thinks of me first when writing comes up (who wouldn’t love that?); values my contributions; respects me and my process; gives me enough time, attention, and input to do my job well; never balks at my project bids, and makes sure I get paid promptly.

And yes, most of my clients over the years have been like her. Sure, even the greatest client has their quirks and minuses. After all, we’re still dealing with human beings here. One is hard to reach and often doesn’t return calls. Another can be a bit of a micro-manager, though backs down graciously when it’s gently pointed out. Yet another may be a little scattered in meetings. But, all in all, small stuff.

So, needless to say, I was a bit taken aback by an email I got recently from a budding commercial writer recently, discouraged about this commercial writing field of ours. Based on what he’d read on the blog, he wrote:

“The message I get is more or less as follows: “Yes, you can make great money, there’s plenty of work, but most of your clients will suck – kind of like the so-called ‘colleagues’ you have if you’re employed full time.”

Hmmmm. Never really considered that the blog was presenting, perhaps, a skewed perspective of our business. Though, as I explained to him, by definition, the blog addresses issues and challenges common to commercial freelancers, and as such, often focuses on the “problem children” amongst our clients. After all, people don’t need much help dealing with ideal clients, or all the things that go right.

Yet, the blog’s often-necessary focus isn’t The Story of the copywriting field. At least, it’s not been mine. And in the relatively rare cases when my commercial copywriting clients haven’t fit the above description, some haven’t hired writers before, and perhaps I’ve failed to communicate properly, or clearly outline terms and expectations. Sure, we’ve all had a few jerks, but for me anyway, those types have absolutely been the exception, not the rule.

The fact that, overwhelmingly, I’ve had good clients, is largely a function of this commercial freelancing field of ours. Assuming you’re targeting the right prospects, you’ll be landing a higher-caliber breed of client (than say, the clients I often hear about from my magazine-writer friends), and that’ll yield good client experiences.

Case in point: in my 18+ years as a copywriter, I’ve never once been stiffed by a client. Not ever. And I can count the slow-pay episodes on the fingers of one hand. I’d challenge any non-commercial writers to make the same claims. We’re just dealing with a better class of client (or probably more to the point: corporations have healthier budgets than publications do, which makes payment challenges a non-issue).

So, who are the right prospects? They’re professional, busy, high performing and exacting. They intimately understand the difference that professional copywriting can make in their messaging, their value proposition, and ultimately, their bottom line. They have the resources to invest, and – this is key – for them, the right outcome trumps price. And when you find them, this business can be a lot of fun.

And yes, I DO know that when you’re starting out, sometimes you have to put up with more…stuff (though still less than other writing avenues) than later on. But if you’re in that place, know that as you become more established, the quality of your clients will rise – mainly because, at that point, you can afford to cut some loose.

So, I want to hear your stories of great clients – to underscore that they’re the norm, not the anomaly. I want to hear about those people who make this business worthwhile, challenging (in a good way), enjoyable, and rewarding – both creatively and financially (okay, we don’t always get creative fulfillment, but I’ve found it happens far more than the uninitiated might imagine…).

If your situation is similar to mine, good for you. If, however, most of your clients make you crazy; don’t give you the respect and consideration you deserve; haggle over fees and need repeated reminders to take care of invoices, know that that’s not typical. AND, it might be time to consider a phased “house-cleaning.”

Tell us about your favorite client(s). What do you like about them?

Do you have a favorite “Clients-Behaving-Wonderfully” story?

Do most of your clients fall into the “good-guy” category?

If so, how did (do) you make sure that’s the case?

Might This Guy’s Process Win You More – and More Loyal – Clients?

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?

What Do You Think of “The Salad Dressing Rule”?

Got an email recently from a reader with a concern (and frustration…) we’ve all come up against at some point in our commercial writing careers. He wrote:

The challenge that’s just unnerving me is how to shift prospects’ minds from thinking they can do the writing themselves instead of paying a commercial freelancer $100+ an hour to do it. What would be the best way to create a brand that would neutralize this kind of thinking on the part of prospects?

Got a similar question posed to me by one of my group coaching participants:

What’s the best way to approach an industry that often relies on in-house engineers to write its copy? Should I try to convince them that a good writer is a better choice than an engineer, or could I instead offer editorial services in these cases?

Here’s an aggregate response to the both of them. There are two ways to approach this issue and both have merit.

#1: A question immediately comes to mind: Why are you wasting your time trying to convince people who don’t think they need a professional writer, to start using one, rather than finding those clients who understand the value of good copywriting and already use writers, or, at the very least, are open to hiring one?

In one of my books, I talk about The Salad Dressing Rule (explained by a fellow freelance commercial writer friend):

If you sell salad dressing, it’s far easier to convince someone who already eats salad to try your dressing than to convince someone who doesn’t eat salad at all that they should start doing so.

In both cases, these folks are finding people who “don’t eat salad.” So, using the prospecting strategies laid out in the book, start barking up some different trees.

Bottom line, you can’t convince those who are convinced otherwise, unless you get them to try you out and they see the difference a commercial copywriter can make. Which leads to the second approach…

#2: As many experienced copywriters have noticed in their travels, getting a prospect to understand what we do by trying us out will often make converts of them (assuming we’re good at what we do, and understand that particular client’s business). As such, in the case of the engineering firm (or ANY prospect who’s hesitant to hire you to execute a writing project from scratch), yes, maybe you offer editing as a door-opener.

If the client has an epiphany (and I’ve seen it happen plenty) based on the editing, maybe they’ll try you out right from the get-go the next time around. All you can do is offer. If the client isn’t receptive, move on. If you’ve had other clients start out as they did and become converts, make sure you’re getting testimonials from them and share those with the hesitant ones…

(NOTE: this is where building alliances with graphic designers can really help. Designers hate designing around crappy copy and ending up with a sample that looks great but reads like doo-doo. So if they have a client who’s written their own copy (and it shows), and you’ve built a partnership with that designer based on delivering superior copy that makes their design shine, they’ll often try to persuade the client to hire you, knowing the client will end up with a more effective piece, which can only reflect well on them. Not to mention they get a stronger piece for their book. In those cases, you’ve got a third-party doing the selling, which can be more compelling. Doesn’t always work, but when it does… There are few things sweeter than seeing an erstwhile skeptical client find religion after seeing professionally written copy that positively puts theirs to shame.)

All that notwithstanding, the “try-a-taste” approach is still going to be harder to pull off than finding those already inclined towards folks like us. If you’re in a smaller-market area, and trying to build your freelance copywriting business there, it might prove a necessary stepping-stone to cultivating serious clients. If, however, you’re in a major metro, you might not need to beat your head against the wall; there WILL be plenty of prospects who do “get” what we do. Not saying they’re easy to find, but likely easier than trying to get the others to “start eating salad.”

Do you only pursue prospects already sold on the value of professional writing?

Or do you try to do some converting along the way?

If so, how have you gone about getting them to try you out, and has it worked?

In a tough market, should we be investing more time in “educating the unsold” or do you feel it’s still largely a waste of time?

The Secrets to Landing and Keeping Repeat Clients…

Got this email from a relatively new commercial freelancer recently:

My fledgling commercial writing business, launched in 2007, is alive after fits and starts. Upon reflection, I realize I haven’t had much repeat writing business from clients. In addition to commercial freelance writing, I also do marketing and magazine articles. The magazine keeps re-hiring me, and so does one company that retains me for marketing events. But, as far as clients hiring me over and over for commercial copywriting projects, no. This means I work hard at getting new clients all the time.

Is this common? Should I take it personally? I am confident in my copywriting abilities, so I wonder if I could do a better job at following up to increase the likelihood that clients return. Do you have tips for increasing repeat business?

Hmmm…. This one can be a challenge. When starting your copywriting business, you may be working with smaller clients who simply don’t have as many ongoing writing needs. Hence, they may be great for getting some income in the door and building your writing portfolio, but at some point you have to set your sights higher.

And even when you DO find a steady client, I’ve learned that, well, nothing is forever. Things change, personnel changes, your contact person leaves, and their replacement has their favorite writer, and you’re gone (or any number of other similar scenarios).

But, let’s separate those things we can control (i.e., the kinds of copywriting clients we’re approaching with an eye toward repeat business) from the things we can’t (i.e., what happens in a company over time).

If you’re a generalist (as I am), I’ve found that several client profiles can be good bets for repeat writing business:

1) Small- to mid-sized (50-200+ employees) companies. Often, they’re slammed, everyone’s wearing many hats, and they usually don’t have on-staff creative resources, so they’ll look to talented freelancers to help them with a variety of projects. And you have to have a healthy range of copywriting skills to be able to come through on a variety of project types.

2) Solo consultants who work with different companies needing a real mix of work. These can be creative folk (like graphic designers) or marketing people. Not always easy to find, but if you do, and can demonstrably enhance their offering through your skills (both writing and marketing), that can predictably lead to loyal clients. When you find a great plumber, hairdresser, financial consultant, tax preparer, etc, don’t you stay loyal?

If you’re a project specialist (i.e., white papers, case studies, etc), by definition, you’ve limited yourself, so you’ll have to pursue larger companies who have ongoing needs. If you’re an industry specialist (i.e., high-tech, healthcare, financial services, etc), it can be similar to the generalist scenario, in that, small- to mid-sized companies can provide ongoing freelance copywriting work across the project spectrum.

Regardless of how you’ve structured your offering, one thing is a given: to get repeat business, you have to be good. Really good. You need to be a solid writer with a strong grasp of that company’s audience, value proposition, messaging, etc. Plus, you need to be reliable, dependable and easy to work with. And in the case of a generalist, you need to be able to move easily between brochures, ads, direct mail, web content, articles, case studies, etc.

Just as importantly, you need to always have your radar up for additional opportunities. Don’t just be reactive – only responding to your client’s requests. Learn as much about their business as you can, so you’re in a position to make suggestions that can fill gaps in their marketing they may not see or may not have had time to execute themselves.

What attributes have your long-term, repeat clients had in common?

What’s worked for you in landing and retaining repeat copywriting clients?

What long-term client of yours stands out, and how did the relationship unfold and mature over time?

If you wrestled with this same issue when starting out, what would you do differently if you were launching your business today?