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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?

Got This Fun, In-Demand and Lucrative Copywriting Specialty in Your Project Mix?

So, suddenly I’ve been thinking a lot about case studies. For starters, I just finished a big one and it consumed a big chunk of my commercial writing life (details in the July and August ezine “Appetizer” courses).

Then, my friend Casey Hibbard (The Case-Study Queen), announced she’s offering a six-month intensive case-study coaching program for copywriters.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about how marketing is moving in a much softer, gentler direction – more informational and educational (think white papers). Customers have become savvier and more skeptical (haven’t you?) over the past few decades as more and more unbiased product information is readily available. So “selling” needs to be more low-key, more genuine, and more real-world. Case studies – essentially third-party testimonials – are a perfect example of that.

In a recent email Casey sent out about her program, she noted that “survey after survey shows that happy customers are the #1 thing that influences buyers’ decisions.”

Makes sense. After all, what’s more compelling: some company telling you their product does this, that and the other, and you should buy it (even if not that inelegantly)? Or reading several verifiable stories about actual customers saying, essentially, “We had a problem, this product solved it, and we couldn’t be happier”?

Think about a case study, whose basic form discusses The Challenge the client company had encountered; The Solution offered by the vendor (for whom you’re writing the piece); and The Outcome, complete with gushing quote from the now-thrilled client.

The whole goal of the piece is to have the reader find themselves (i.e., their company) in that story, to have them say to themselves as they read about this company, “Interesting. That’s the same thing we’re wrestling with.” And given that the company is named, they can even call them up to confirm the information.

So, a case study can sell a client – or at the very least, move them a lot further and faster along the sales cycle – without any direct involvement of the company selling the product or service. True third-party selling.

The key? People don’t want to be “sold.” They want to come to their own conclusions, at their own pace, without someone (with a vested interest) breathing down their neck. They can find that company’s web site and all the information they need about the company’s offering by themselves, thank you very much, with no need (yet) to talk to a salesperson.

So a case study can do the heavy sales lifting, and if a series of them all resonate with a reader, that prospect could essentially be sold by the time they call the company. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Third-party selling is credible because, presumably, the company in question who bought the product and is now happy with the solution, would have no reason to tell tales, and no reason to speak well of a product and the company selling if it weren’t true (notwithstanding outright bribery, though again, all of it’s easy to confirm).

I have one commercial freelancing client for whom I do longer-form case studies (4-8 pages) and for fees that range from roughly $2000 to over $4000. It’s fun and challenging work. I interview several players involved in a particular project, spin an interesting (hopefully) narrative, weaving in quotes throughout – including many that gush on and on about the company. See some samples here.

If you haven’t added case studies to your freelance copywriting menu, you’re no doubt leaving money on the table – AND missing out on some enjoyable work.

And for all you ex-journos out there: case studies are one of the easiest commercial copywriting project types to transition to from a journalism background. You need to be able to add a marketing spin, but remember, you’re simply reporting how a “solution” unfolded (facts) and including quotes (more facts) from those whose company benefited from that solution. It’s the juxtaposition of those components that make it compelling to a reader.

Are case studies a part of your copywriting mix?

If not, why not? If so, what do you like about them?

If you hail from a journalism background (magazines or newspapers) and have parlayed that into writing case studies (among other projects), how did that transition go?

Any comments/observations, from your own experience, about the place of case studies in marketing today?

“What’s the Current State of Freelancing?” is a Bogus Question…

So, about a week ago, I get an email from a good friend and fellow commercial freelancer who’s presenting on an IABC panel on freelancing a few days later. She’s written to me to get my input on an issue of exceptional interest to the many would-be attendees. Her question is:

Can you sum up “the current state of freelancing” in two sentences?

Sounds like a logical question, and one phrased in precisely the manner we’ve all become accustomed to. After all, there’s the current State of the Union, of the healthcare debate, of male/female relationships, of the Atlanta dining scene, etc. So there must be a “current state of freelancing” as well, right? Well, actually, no.

Here’s my reply (with a few embellishments after the fact):

I’d actually take issue with your wording. There IS no “current state of freelancing.” Think about it. That implies some condition pervading ALL of the freelancing market, which, by definition, affects everyone. Sort of a silly notion, actually. There’s MY current state of freelancing, yours, and everyone else’s, and none of them have much to do with the others.

Our respective states are dependent on how good a writer each of us is, how broad a network we have, how aggressively we’ve been tapping into that network, and a ton of other things inherent to us alone and how we run our businesses.

Buying into the idea of a “current state of freelancing” is victimization waiting to happen. It implies a reality to whose dictates we’re all subject, and hence, can do little except ride the wave along with everyone else, and “wait for things to turn around.” Which is exactly what a lot of people are doing, having bought into the idea (after listening to what some “experts” said IS that current state) of a “force” beyond their control. I suppose some people just like to be told what to do next (or not do).

In truth, my current state of freelancing is pretty good, as are those of a lot of others I know. And part of the reason for that is because we realize our commercial freelancing businesses are OUR businesses, largely under OUR control.

Sure, many businesses have pulled, back, but many haven’t, and the work is out there. Magazine and newspaper writing? Absolutely, those arenas are way down, but that’s not our field of freelance copywriting. So, don’t buy into the gloom and doom. Remember: the average commercial freelancer needs such a tiny slice of the overall universe of freelance commercial writing work to do well.

How would you respond to the above question?

Why do you think people are so anxious to be told what the “reality” is?

How IS your “current state of freelancing”?

The Power of NO…When Turning Down Work Just Feels Right…

So, I’m working on a project with this agency and they start hinting at this other gig. Seems they’ve been writing the copy for this consumer products line for seven years, and while the client is fine with the design work they’ve been doing, they’re just not thrilled with the copywriting. They wanted me to take a look at the latest round of copy and see if I had any ideas. But, before I did, they gave me the deal on the situation. Get this…

They can only use a pre-approved list of words – no deviating. The middle management layers of approval have their own biases AND their own need to justify their existences by making changes or otherwise showing their disapproval. And after those managers are done, they’ve culled down the three concepts that the firm gives them to ONE, which is the one they have the agency creatively execute and then present to the top boss. ONE concept.

And gee, big surprise, he often isn’t nuts about it. Give someone ONE idea to choose from, and that’s a whole lot of pressure to like it. Give someone three to choose from, and even if you know which one you want them to choose, by having a few others there as “filler,”? you make it easier for the client to like yours. Of course, clients are notorious for turning that particular piece of logic on its head and loving one of the filler concepts. But hey, if they’re happy and we get paid, life could be a lot worse.

It was clear to me right from the get-go that the issue wasn’t the copy – it was fine. It was the process that was the issue – a process structured in such a way to make it nearly impossible for the agency to succeed.

And heck, for all we know, this account is one of those that likes to keep their vendors in a constant state of anxiety about their worth to the company. Praise ‘em too much and they might just start asking for more money. Keep convincing them that “you’re just not quite hitting the mark, but I guess we’ll go ahead and use your lame copy anyway…”? But seven years into the process, they’re still working for them, so maybe they don’t suck that badly after all…

As many of you know, this craziness is more common in Corporate America than most people would ever imagine. Well, needless to say, I said, “Pass.”? NOT interested in working under those circumstances. Feels good to say no sometimes.

What sorts of client/project situations do you run from?