Posts

“Niche or Die!” (Really? You Sure About That?)

So, I’m in the midst of series #5 of my commercial freelancing group coaching program (as I write this) – geared towards business copywriters just starting out. Not surprisingly, one of the BIG bugaboo issues for newbies is “niche.” Seems you can’t spit these days without hitting a guru or two who’ll adamantly assert, chopping the air for emphasis, that you absolutely, positively must differentiate yourself in the marketplace by way of a well-delineated niche.

If you don’t, they’ll continue, you’re on a one-way road to professional oblivion (with financial ruin swiftly on its heels). So many new copywriters agonize over this one, so afraid to hang out a shingle without a laser-specific professional focus. Sorry, but as an across-the-board strategy, I don’t buy it.

(Note: we did touch on this subject a year or so ago in the Generalist vs. Specialist debate, but I’m taking a bit of a different spin here, and looking for slightly different input from you experienced folks).

Here’s my take: If you have a well-defined niche you can pursue, by virtue of past career experience, track record or education, by all means, go for it. Having a niche absolutely can set you apart – AND earn you more money. Even if you don’t have a big portfolio of work in, say, Industry A, if you know all about Industry A by virtue of 10-20 years in the business, you’ll be attractive to writing buyers in that industry (who’ll translate that experience into “minimal learning curve”…).

Even if you hate the field in which you’ve spent a decade or two, if you’re trying to get started as a commercial copywriter, I’d still recommend you leverage that experience out of the gate. You don’t have to write about it forever, but it’d be nuts to not parlay that into work until you get established.

Remember, even if you don’t love your industry any more as a field to work in, writing about that field from the comfort of your home in your sweats is a whole other ballgame from having to go to work every day (i.e., commute, endless meetings, office politics) in that same field in a job you loathe.

But what if you don’t have a 10-20-year track record in some field? Listening to the experts, you still need to create a niche. But what niche? Pull one from thin air? Flip a coin? Declare yourself an expert on X, but without the background, training or samples to back it up? What’re you going to say if someone asks for those samples? I’m afraid I just don’t see a whole lot of sense in that approach. If a niche isn’t occurring naturally to you, it’s probably not there, so don’t force it.

So, Plan B is to build your business sans niche as a generalist. Something I’ve been doing for 17 years, incidentally. Sure, I had a sales/marketing background, and I did make sure people knew that, but most of the projects we commercial writers do are marketing-oriented anyway, so is that a clearly defined niche? Debatable.

Sure, it’ll be tougher with little to leverage. But, if the alternative is touting yourself as an authority in an arena where you’re really not, I say the anxiety level with that scenario will likely top that of someone going niche-less. And in the latter situation, if you’re a really good writer and go out of your way to be overly professional, reliable and easy-to-work with, those things will set you apart (assuming you’re reaching enough people with your marketing efforts).

What’s your take on niche?

How important do you feel having a niche is for someone starting out?

Did you have a niche when you began? If not, how did your story unfold?

Do you feel strong writing skills, professionalism and reliability can be a “niche” of sorts (given how relatively rare they are)?

Writing This Bad Highlights a Whole Other Writing World

Let’s dispense with weighty commercial writing matters for a moment and have a little comic relief. A few weeks back, an accomplished writer friend of mine sent me a link to an article, along with this note: “Holy crap, this is what passes for writing these days?!”

Here’s the link.

I read it, my jaw slowly dropping, then dashed off a note to the webmaster. I won’t bore you with my entire note, but here are a few snarky highlights:

As a professional copywriter for 16 years, I was appalled that a web site that appears to be a legitimate purveyor of information would actually post such breathtakingly bad, awkward and incoherent writing. Simply put, it makes your site look like a low-rent operation. Why you’d spend what was clearly a pretty penny to create a logo, brand, and attractive-looking site only to fill it with such crap is beyond me. Talk about sabotaging an investment. I’d wager good money you’re paying bad money (what? like $5 an article, perhaps?) for such content. Though, that said, if you’re paying any more than that, you’re getting ripped off.

I actually got a note back from the webmaster, who wrote:

Wow that was some email. But it does come as a reality check to us and I assure you we will try and put out better information in the future. Thanks for the honesty, really. I will review every article before it goes live from now on.

Well, guess what? He actually did revisit it. In fact, the link I sent you is the copy AFTER it was “revisited.” I know, it’s hard to get your arms around the idea that it was actually worse before, but trust me, it was. Here’s an excerpt, untouched. You ready? You sure? Okay, I warned you…

If you want to have a coffee table in your garden or you want to sit there at night then have a rightly sized corner specially designed with a small table and chairs or if you want to have a swing in your garden then have some creeping vines grow on the swing to make it look as if the swing grew there too.

Words fail (in more ways than one…).

My friend tells me sites like these are known as “blog networks” (not “content mills,” that’s something else, though these no doubt pay just as badly) and are largely – you ready for this? – self-edited. And as she put it, “As long as they’re getting the clicks, they’re happy. It’s all about page views in a networked blog.” I don’t even want to get to a point where I actually understand that particular kind of thinking.

One thing quickly becomes clear: what these people do and what we do may both involve quote-unquote writing, but it’s there the similarity ends. Sort of how racing could refer to both what kids do with Tonka Toys and, oh, say, Formula One?

I know, it’s not very nice of me to make fun of bad writers just trying to make a no-doubt bad living in an arena in which they’re a bad fit (or maybe not…). But, just remember this the next time you hear someone saying how hard it is to make a living as a writer with rates so pathetic for writers. No, not all writers making $5 an article are this bad, but when this is how low the bar is in so many places, a decent writer is truly throwing pearls before swine. But hey, they’ve got options. If they don’t choose to exercise them, not my problem.

Ever had any contact with this world in your travels? (Or is this about as foreign to you as Pluto?)

Have you come across some equally bad examples?

What might you tell someone who whines about not being able to make a living writing?

What might you have told the webmaster if you were writing a note?

Got a Place to Flee to from Home Office Distractions?

So there’s this cool space not too far from me here in Atlanta called Strongbox West. Geared to freelancers of all stripes, it’s a place to escape to when you want to flee the claustrophobically-closing-in four walls of the home office and get some work done while in the company (or at least the proximity) of fellow humans. And when you’re not ready (and may never be) to commit to a full-time dedicated office space.

Plenty of comfy chairs, desk space, conference tables/rooms, Wi-Fi connection, kitchen – all in this industrial warehouse-y setting. What really sets it apart and makes it a “hmmmm…interesting” is that pricing is three-tiered: for the occasional visitor, the frequent user and the near full-timer. So, no huge commitments necessary. Oh, and your experience comes complete with the resident Strongbox dog, Paloma, a sweet-girl Golden, who’s just the perfect level of friendly un-neediness: comes to say hello but wanders off soon enough.

Now, I’ve never felt the need to move my operation into a separate office. I’ve always been disciplined enough as a commercial freelancer, and fact is, I like my home office – plenty of sunlight, lake view behind the house, everything handy, etc. Course it’s the “everything handy” part that’s the double-edged sword. I’m finding of late that I’m getting a bit more distracted than usual by the fact that, in fact, everything is so darn handy.

Heck, I’ll go do a load of wash. Go check if the mail’s come yet. See if there’s anything new in the refrigerator (since the last time I looked). And the worst one: maybe I’ll just lie down for a 10-minute recharge… Yikes. And geez, as a single guy, I don’t even anywhere near as many distractions as “marrieds-with-kids” would. Pretty pathetic. I know, we’re freelancers, so why can’t we do any/all of the above as long as we’re getting our work done? Still, it’s always easier to glide at home, and also always easier to buckle down when we’re at The Office.

So, Strongbox might be an answer – at least on those days when I’m feeling like a fidgety, over-caffeinated eight-year old. I don’t know about you, but when I need to really focus, seriously hunker down, and get ‘er done (usually in the concepting and copywriting phases of a commercial writing project), I get out of the office and go somewhere – and believe it or not, usually sans MacBook.

In the past, I’ve usually headed to our local library or a Starbucks with project folder of notes, legal pad and clipboard, and aided and abetted by my iPod, shut out the world. In three or four hours, I impress the heck out of myself with how much writing I can get done. It’s a thing of beauty.

Do you find it challenging at times to work at home?

Have you ever considered getting outside office space?

If you have an outside office, what’s the setup, why’d you take the plunge, and after how many years?

What strategies do you use to stay focused and productive in the face of distractions?

Don We Now Our…Mental Armor for 2010

So, I’m hanging out with family for a few days in that dead zone at the end of the year, feeling like I need to be a little introspective….meaningful… significant… Y’know, that “let’s-reflect-on-2009” backwards glance (I know, many of you would just as soon not) “and-look-forward-to-2010” optimism (better).

Actually, all I really want to do is veg out, sleep late, eat too many holiday treats, and be monumentally unproductive. And so far, for the most part, mission accomplished.

If that’s you, too, let’s rouse ourselves up for a few moments of lucidity, brush the cookie crumbs off our ratty sweats, switch off the TV (fret not; it’ll still be there when we’re done, ready to once again serve up all manner of inanity), pensively grasp our chins in hand, and ponder what’s been and what’s coming for us commercial freelancers. A few stream-of-consciousness musings…

The world has changed for most Americans this year. But if unemployment stands at 10 percent, that means…

Employment stands at 90 percent.

The overwhelming majority of companies still open their doors and answer their phones every Monday. They still have to market (even more so now), still have to sell, and still have to communicate with employees. And that means a lot of writing. Yes, some have pulled those tasks in-house, reducing many a freelancer’s rates and pipeline volumes, but at the same time, consider that…

Many companies have dropped pricey agencies or design firms, or jettisoned creative/communications staffs, but still need to get the work done.

Think they’d be receptive to a smart, creative, strategic commercial writer/designer team? I’d bet on it. Now’s the time to forge those alliances so you’re prepared to offer prospects end-to-end solutions, not writing services. In that vein…

Stop thinking of yourselves as freelance writers (that’s about us: features). We’re problem-solvers (that’s about them: benefits), and speaking to clients in those terms will resonate.

Many smaller companies have folded and many more will disappear before the pendulum swings back. But, chances are, the ones hanging tough are smart and savvy – just the kind to understand the value of good copywriting. Because, after all…

Writing is the engine of commerce, and don’t you ever forget it.

No product or service gets explained, promoted, marketed, publicized or purchased, and no one gets informed, educated, pitched or sold…without writing. And none of the preceding gets done well without good writing. Writing is the alpha and the omega of all business and is present at every stage of every business strategy, process, campaign and transaction. Nothing happens without words. So, what’s your writing gift?

Figure out what writing value you offer.

You won’t get hired by any company unless you deliver something of real value they can’t do themselves. If you’re able to deliver great copy AND dispense sage marketing advice to companies going through a rough patch, you’ll be in demand (of course, many who’ve shared with me of late how well things are going already know that).

Maybe you’re able to transform complex subjects into accessible copy. Perhaps you’re an expert on X subject or Y project type. Whatever it is…

Make sure your web site clearly showcases what you do, is easy to get around and assumes that prospects have no time whatsoever to hunt (the truth).

If even just writing well is your strong suit, remember:

Bad writing is everywhere. It’s epidemic.

There are plenty of firms that would hugely benefit from nothing more than clear, coherent marketing materials and web content. Regardless of your gift, how to find them? Well, if your usual watering holes have dried up, consider that…

It’s a numbers game, and the Law of Averages is ironclad.

Landing business may have become an uncertain proposition, but one absolute constant is the Law of Averages. Knock on enough doors and you’ll find the work. Guaranteed. So, dust off your phone prospecting skills. I know, yuck. But it works. Every time. And that’s powerful stuff.

These days, me-too pessimism is the easy path, so let’s be contrarian and upbeat, shall we? No glibness intended. No question, the tough times are real. AND, last I checked, we’re still the gatekeeper of our thoughts. Even if you don’t feel like it, play along anyway, and after you’re done, there are a few holiday cookies, the remote and a nap waiting for you.

Why are you bullish about 2010?

What are you going to do more of in 2010? Less of?

What negative habit are you going to jettison in 2010?

What trends do you think bode well for commercial freelancers?