Relax. No, our field hasn’t suddenly shut its proverbial doors. No, all companies haven’t suddenly stopped hiring folks like us. Nothing that earth-shattering (or ridiculous).
Rather, the above semi-apocalyptic-sounding title springs from, shall we say, a semantic epiphany I recently had. Hang with me here. I think you’ll like this (or perhaps, indulgently, you’ll just chalk it up to, “PB headed off on one of his mental-gymnastic routines…”).
To really understand the potential in our business, I say we need to think of it less as “The Copywriting Industry,” and more about servicing an eternal need that exists, by definition, in a business world that needs to communicate.
This hit me after I’d recently been asked, for the umpteenth time, “Is commercial freelancing still a good opportunity?” When you’re an insider, the question might appear silly, but to those on the outside looking in, it’s a perfectly logical inquiry.
After all, it seems like there’s this field called “freelance commercial writing,” so if there’s a “field,” then it can ebb and flow, right? Well, not really. The idea of a “copywriting industry” somehow implies that a bunch of people got together at one point and decided to create this industry writing copy for businesses. Wrong.
After all, if you go down that mental path, then, you open yourself up to having the rules (about “the copywriting industry”), expectations (of “the copywriting industry”), pay scale (in “the copywriting industry”), and any other component, change on you—without notice. And that doesn’t leave you with much control.
It’s far more valuable to view the existence of this field as nothing more than a response to an ongoing, never-ending, systemic need for writing in the business world. And as practitioners, we’re simply molding our writing skills to the needs of the marketplace.
It all starts with understanding how a typical medium-to-large-sized business works. Any such business that wants to stay in business needs to generate a constant stream of written materials in the course of their ongoing and everyday communication with prospects, customers, and employees.
When you get this, you start to realize there will never be a time when they don’t need to do this. They’ll need writing always and forever, and that need is completely independent of any of us out here. The only question becomes how they’ll get it done – in-house or outsourced.
And because it’s a response to an external, already-in-place need (versus some proactive initiative on the part of a bunch of writers to foist unsolicited services on business people), it’s a writing direction with serious staying power. We couldn’t stop it if we wanted to.
The only question—and challenge—is how to get a piece of the action for ourselves. I say that’s a more useful inquiry than asking—one more time, just to make sure, in case Something Happened overnight— “Is there still a market for copywriting services?”
Is this a useful distinction?
Does it give you a better sense of the work we do, and the opportunity it offers?
Does it help you feel a bit more in control of your career?
Any other thoughts? (besides that I might need a shrink…)
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.
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?
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?
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?