Ink-Dipped Advice: Holiday Considerations

We all like to get as much work as possible off our own desks and onto someone else’s before the holidays and/or the end of the year.

But sometimes, you risk getting lost in the shuffle.

Everyone needs a break, so consider the why and the who before you hit “send.”

Contracted Deadlines
Obviously, if you have any deadlines around the holidays, meet them. In fact, put in time earlier in the season (like October and November), so that you can get them in to your agent or editor a little early.

Submission Deadlines
Some contests and publications have year-end deadlines for a particular issue or event. Again, try to get it in a week or two early. Don’t wait until the last minute, when something is bound to go wrong.

Pitches, Proposals, Queries, Manuscripts
Unless I’ve been asked for something by a specific date that falls within the winter holidays, I stop submitting/pitching on December 12 and start up again January 6. Unless it’s a short piece with a quick turnaround, there’s really no point.

That means, of course, that I have to plan earlier in the year to cover what’s basically three weeks without those going out – that means I’ve pitched early, and already scheduled work that is due/pays soon after the holidays, so I don’t have a fallow period.

In theatre, we always struggled in January and February; I try to make sure I plan ahead well enough so that I’m covered in my freelance life then, too.

Of course, if you hit fallow points, then you dig in, do your research, and pitch soon after the first of the year.

But I don’t do cold pitches/proposals/queries/submissions to agents, publishers, or editors during those three weeks. It’s not fair to any of us.

I do use the time for work that has a longer lead time, or for researching new-to-me markets and preparing pitches and queries to send in the new year.

Holiday Cards
As I’ve stated before, I’m big on holiday cards. However, when I send a holiday card, it’s just about sending a good wish for the holiday. It’s not pitching myself or asking if the former client needs anything – that happens again, after January 6.

Those former clients and prospects who got cards? They get a follow up note or email, along the lines of “now that the holidays are over, what are your needs for the coming months? Is there a project where you’d like my help?”

This way, you haven’t put pressure on them during the holidays, but you’ve reminded them of your existence, and now you’re following up for business.

Planning
This is a great time to plan what you want, need, and the changes you plan to implement to your working life in the next year.

I usually start thinking about this in autumn. I have a site called Goals, Dreams, and Resolutions, where we work on questions for the upcoming year, and then track our progress.

The planning involves what I want for the next cycle, the research, and a list of new prospects. I prepare proposals or LOIs as pertinent. I have everything written and ready to go by early January.

It’s also a good time for me to look at submission deadlines for theatres for their reading cycle for an upcoming season. Then, I pitch, query, or propose as is relevant to each organization that I think is a good prospect.

It’s also a good time to assess what didn’t work for you in the past year, and what you want to change. When you know what to release, when you make room for what’s better, you can start planning active steps to make it happen.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Spend time with the people you enjoy.

Also make sure you pay attention to those around you who are struggling. A kind word or a helping hand can make all the difference.

Go to at least one new-to-you event locally, whether it’s a networking event or a concert or an art opening. Do something different to prepare for positive change in the new year!

Ink-Dipped Advice: Holiday Business Etiquette, Blaming Women, and The War on Theocracy

The original intent was to be a simple post on suggestions for business etiquette during the holiday season, but there’s so much crap being thrown around, that it’s not going to be simple or mild.

First, the basic common sense:

What is the culture of your workplace?
For most freelancers, the bulk of our “workplace” is the home office or the creative space we rent to work in. Sometimes, we are on site, for meetings or for short term work. Sometimes, one or more of our gigs requires us to spend X amount of hours on site (I have one long-term client where I’m in their office for a handful of hours on three regular days at the moment).

What holidays do staff members celebrate? Are there company traditions?

When I worked backstage, each show had their own holiday traditions — usually including everyone’s different holidays, a mixture of decorations and Secret Santa joy and potlucks with favorite foods of the season. It was truly a joyful time. Since we worked while others played, we built family. We shared. We made sure that those who struggled during the holidays had love and support and family.

It was similar when I worked for a publishing company and a library. We had traditions, we included, we celebrated, we supported those struggling.

As far as physical contact, it’s important to gauge someone’s comfort level. Some people don’t like to be touched, unless it’s by an intimate partner or family member. I spent most of my life in theatre. We are a huggy-kissy, physical contact bunch. We find strength and comfort in touch. But most of us (except for some slimy producers and directors and executives) can also read when someone DOESN’T feel comfortable with that kind of contact, and then we refrain.

What are appropriate gifts?
As freelancers, it’s rare for us to get a bonus the way one does in a regular company situation. I was shocked this year that one of my clients gave me a bonus. I’d grown the profile of the company in a way that was appreciated.

I’m big on cards. I send physical cards to anyone with whom I’ve dealt in the last three years for whom I have an address. I send e-cards only when I don’t have a physical address.

Depending on the relationship, I’ve sent small gifts as well as cards to my agent, my lawyer, my editor, my book designer, my copy editor, etc. Those are small gifts that show I know a little about them, and it’s something specific to their interests. Cards, too, but often small gifts. If I don’t have a close relationship, or rarely talk to the editor or whomever, then it’s just a card. But when it’s a relationship where we are in contact several times a week, it’s a gift. Nothing elaborate, but something individual and sincere.

For neighbors, local clients, and people I deal with regularly — the firemen, the library, the transfer station, my mom’s doctor, non-profits with whom I work, etc. — I prepare and deliver one of my infamous cookie platters. I talk about the cookie platters on Ink in My Coffee in this week’s Upbeat Authors post here.

The 80’s and 90’s were full of more elaborate gifts. And, in theatre, the actors I dressed and I exchanged personal gifts (in addition to Secret Santa, et al) and anyone else on the show with whom I was particularly close did, too.

My gift to my newsletter subscribers is usually a new holiday story. In following years, it may be reworked and then released, but I try to come up with something fresh and fun for them each holiday season.

If I know someone is passionate about a particular cause or charity, I’ll donate to that, in the person’s name.

Books
As a writer, I’m also a reader. I love to give books as gifts.

I’m uncomfortable giving my own books as gifts. I try to introduce friends and family to new authors I like in the genre they like to read.

Where appropriate, I also give books to work colleagues.

If you have writers in your life, I have a post up on A Biblio Paradise with suggestions for gifts for writers; an upcoming post will also be a list of books I love to give.

Greetings and the Faux “War on Christmas”
If I know which holiday or holidays someone celebrates, I greet them with their holiday. If I don’t know, I with them “Happy Holidays.”

“Happy Holidays” is not an insult. It is an inclusion.

I had a client, a few weeks back, start screaming, “it’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!”

I looked at her and responded, in that calm, reasonable tone guaranteed to annoy, “I start my celebrations on October 31 and go straight through until January 6. There are a lot of holidays in there. I celebrate holidays.”

She shut up.

There is no “war on Christmas.” That’s a marketing term by those who want this to be a theocracy. What they are doing instead is to wage war on inclusion.

Not going to let your narrow definition of the holiday destroy my joy in celebrating the holi-DAYS.

When I lived in NYC, just off Times Square (I could see the ball come down from my window), our entire floor used to put up a display that included Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. We had potlucks and cocktails and enjoyed each other’s joy all season.

The Corporate Holiday Party/Blaming Women
There’s a lot of huffing and puffing this year that companies have cancelled their holiday parties because of the #MeToo movement. They claim they’re worried about lawsuits.

I call bullshit.

First of all, this is an excuse for them to save money. Instead of spending money putting on a nice event for the people who actually do the work, they can hand a check to executives who sit on their asses all day while their assistants to the work.

It’s about money.

Second, it’s a way to reinforce the “blame the woman” cliché. Women are blamed when men prey upon them, harass them, or attack them. They wore the wrong clothes, they said the wrong thing. They smiled or didn’t smile. They were breathing.

It’s a way to blame women for “ruining the fun.” It’s a way to say, “We can’t have fun because you’re too sensitive and can’t take a joke.” Because, hey, there can’t possibly be a party with laughter and alcohol and witty conversation if there’s no groping or hasty sex in a closet involved.

What an insult. Not just to women, but to men.

Hey, corporations, how about not hiring sexual predators and harassers? How about working on changing your culture, instead of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink and then telling women they have to “deal with it”?

When I was in college, I worked as a temp for a lot of companies. One of them was a large company, now defunct. The male executives would go out to lunch every day and come back drunk, and start groping the women who worked there. I wasn’t having it.

I complained to their HR department, and was told, “they’re just being boys.”

Most of them were middle-aged men, married, and should know better.

I complained to the temp agency and was told I had to “deal with it, because it’s important to keep the client happy.”

The next day, I slugged the man harassing me, walked out, and quit that temp agency.

I have no regrets.

By the way, that temp agency no longer exists, either.

We’ve forgotten how to flirt. We need to take lessons from some of the Europeans, especially the French. Flirting isn’t about scoring later that night (necessarily). It’s about acknowledging and appreciating the attractive qualities in the person with whom you’re interacting, without pressure.

We can be witty and gracious and friendly and charming without being aggressive. We can enjoy each other’s company — even over drinks — without demanding the Big Finish.

We can appreciate each other as people.

The best holiday parties support that. You get to talk to people you don’t normally see often, and can have actual conversations. It’s not venting about work. It’s about appreciating your co-workers as unique and interesting people.

That is how we take back the holiday party.

Your company’s not throwing one this year? Host a potluck, invite your co-workers, and to hell with the corporate crap.

When In Doubt, Create What You Crave
Holidays can be stressful because they come with expectations.

Instead of letting others dictate how you feel during this time, decide how you WANT to feel.

Integrate your favorite traditions of past years with new traditions that evolve, and that make you and those around you happy.

If someone derides what you’re doing, listen. Are they in pain? Do they need or want to be included? Or do they just not want to participate? Do they want to force you into bending to what they want? Don’t force participation, don’t be forced into doing something you don’t want to do, but leave room for those around you to be included, as they want or need to be.

This ties in to another post I wrote for Upbeat Authors a few months ago, about conferences. About being the one who notices the wallflower, the shy one, the scared one, and offers a smile, and says, “Pull up a chair.”

Especially at this time of year, it matters.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Word Choice Matters — and Has Power

I had an interesting conversation with a client the other day. She shared that she parted ways with her previous marketing/social media person because that individual did not work with her to communicate the client’s message effectively.

Ms. Marketing Pro came in with the attitude that she knew everything and the client knew nothing. She set up a series of social media channels, used marketing buzzwords, spread identical content on all the channels, but didn’t communicate the message or the product that my client sells. When my client wanted a particular type of promotion set up, or a particular message communicated, she was told that she didn’t know what she was doing, and to leave it to the professionals.

My client was paying; the business did not grow. They parted ways.

When I started working with her last year, I tweaked the message for each content platform, aiming to use the strength and identity of each platform to its best reach. In one month, I expanded the social media reach by 86%, resulting in a 26% sales bump.

I know, as a consumer, there are certain buzzwords that turn me off. If I see something listed as a “boot camp” or a “hack” — no, thanks. I’m not interested in that. Nor do I promote my own work using those phrases. At this point, they are overused and meaningless. Plus, the choice of those terms does not effectively communicate what I want to say to people. It doesn’t give them any information about what makes my work unique.

Also, if a business has marketing materials out there that show a lack of discernment between possessive/plural/contraction, as a potential customer, I assume they’re too stupid to be worth my money, and I go somewhere else.

No, I don’t approach them and tell them their materials are full of errors and they should hire me. That would guarantee they wouldn’t. But when I meet them at a networking event, I give them my card and say, “If you’re looking to freshen up your marketing at any point, I’d like to work with you.”

As a marketing person, I have an arsenal of tools I use to spread a message, that includes web content, media kits, blogging, social media content, press releases, ad creation on multiple channels, PSAs or radio spots as appropriate, pitching articles to the media, and, again, if appropriate, event scripting or video scripting.

Not every client wants or needs all these tools.

I offer them, but I don’t tell them they “have” to use them. We work together to find the best tools to communicate the message.

One of the most important thing I can do, as a marketing person, is genuinely listen when they tell me about their business, why they’re passionate about it, and what it means to them.

By listening and getting to know who they are AS WELL AS what they want, I can help them craft their story, their message, and expand their reach in a way that is unique to their business. Sometimes that does what I call “drawing the ear” — which, to me, is as important as drawing the eye.

Sure, you want strong visuals, and you need to work with a great graphic designer.

But you also need to choose the right words to communicate your message in a way that engages rather than attacks.

When someone hard sells at me, when I feel attacked or as though my space is invaded — be it physically or emotionally — I shut down. If I’m really uncomfortable, I fight back. What I don’t do is spend money with someone who makes me feel bad.

It’s often the same societal structures that cause problems when they are transformed into sales pitches. For the women reading this, how often has a male salesperson used the tactic of invading your personal space, of patronizing you, of treating you as though you should “listen to the man” in order to part you from your money? Or how often has a female salesperson used negative language to make you feel bad about something personal, and tried to convince you that only by listening to her and buying the product, can you feel better and will you change others’ negative perceptions of you (which exist in her mind, and which she tries to plant in your mind).

At this point in my life, when someone is aggressive towards me, I push back. Hard, without filters. As a potential customer, I tell them exactly why I’m not buying what they’re selling.

As a marketing person trying to shape the message, I do my best to:

–listen to the client
–offer suggestions to shape the message for different platforms
–communicate the message in a way for a positive reception by the target audience
–offer options and a variety of strategies, so if one thing doesn’t bring return, we have something else ready to launch

That means choosing words with care.

Just because a marketing Pooh-bah says this is “the” way to present something doesn’t mean it is.

Wanting to cast a wide net doesn’t mean use bland language. If anything, you need to be more specific in word choices.

You want to create a positive, sensory response. So choose words to evoke positive sensations.

Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.

The five senses evoke emotions.

What kind of emotions do you want to evoke in your audience?

Taste and smell are closely related, as are sight and touch (or texture).

Use active language — verbs rather than adverbs, and avoid passive or past perfect as much as possible. “have been eating” is weaker than “eat” or “ate.”

Use specific adjectives and avoid overused tropes. If someone tells me it’s a “bold” wine, it means little to me, other than I expect a vinegary aftertaste. If they tell me it’s a “deep red with plum, cherry, and chocolate tones” — now I have sight, texture, taste, and scent cues. Not only that, but I expect a deeper sound when it pours into the glass.

My favorite medium is radio. One of the reasons I love to work on radio dramas or radio spots is that I choose specific sounds to drive the story and character. I love that challenge because the more specific I am, the better I communicate with the audience.

Individuals will receive the specifics within their own frame of reference. You won’t please everyone. An individual may have a negative association with a specific detail you and your client choose.

In my experience, I’ve found that those are rare, and more people will respond positively to compelling sensory detail than to vague marketspeak. Overused marketing terms always makes me feel like the seller is trying to get my money for snake oil, and I’d rather put my money elsewhere.

More and more people are practicing conscientious consumerism, choosing where and how they shop to align with their values. I think that’s great. I want people who align their wallets and their ethics to connect with my clients.

Here’s an exercise for anyone who reads this to try, be they a marketing person, a business owner, a consumer: For one week, only speak and write in specifics. Remove vague language from all your interactions. Keep track of it.

You will notice a remarkable difference in the level of communication.

What are your favorite ways to choose the best language when you work with clients, or as you communicate your business?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Artists Are Expected To Settle For Less — And Shouldn’t

As a published author, I’m getting a little tired of getting pitched to by marketing organizations that want me to hand over a bunch of moolah, but refuse to commit to results.

I understand the value of getting one’s name out in front of as many people as possible for name recognition and business growth. That’s part of how I earn my living.

I work with other businesses to communicate their message effectively and grow their business. They expect me to grow their name recognition. To get their name and their product in front of those who will actually open their wallets and buy it. They expect – and demand – that the work I do – the work for which they PAY me — results in more sales.

If it doesn’t, within a reasonable amount of time, that client will end our business relationship and hire someone else who gets him a better return.

Why are authors and other artists told they must expect any different?

Almost every author/artist promotional service has a disclaimer that they can’t guarantee sales. Why not? Other businesses expect a return on their investment. Why shouldn’t artists?

They should. We should. We need to stop settling for less.

When I hire someone else to promote my book, I expect it to result in sales. Otherwise, there is no point in hiring that firm. I can do it myself.

If it does NOT result in sales, then I’ve put my money in the wrong place, and it’s time to try something else.

The way any reputable business owner does.

Because, as an artist, I AM a small business.

We need to stop settling for a lower return than any other business because we’re artists. We need to stop ALLOWING others to treat us as second-class individuals. We need to start acting like smart business people, so that we will be treated as such.

Part of that is expecting a reasonable return on the investment.

So what is a reasonable return? At the very least, I want to make back what I spent on the promotion, plus 20%. Which is a low, but that’s my personal threshold for feeling like a campaign was worth the money spent. When it goes above that, I’m delighted.

Then I see how I can build on that for the next campaign.

Plenty of people will wail that one “can’t” expect a return on art/novels/etc. The demand I’m making here will anger a lot of marketing people.

Why can’t we expect a result for money spent? Movie studios do. Television content providers do. Fine artists do. Commercial theatre productions do or they have short runs. Traditional publishing houses do, too.

Because the artist is dropped from the contract if the artist’s work does not sell.

Now, more and more artists are forced to hire their own marketing for their work. If my publisher tells me I have to get X amount of sales or I won’t get future contracts, and I’m required to hire my own marketing firm, then, yes, I expect that firm to be savvy enough in the kind of marketing I need in order to deliver the results FOR WHICH THEY ARE PAID. If my publisher paid them directly, or had an in-house marketing team do the work, the same expectations would hold. Lack of results means the business relationship ends.

So we need to stop thinking that we don’t “deserve” results simply because we are not a corporation. We are a small business, and we deserve the same results when we hire in a service as any other business does.

I’m done settling for less.

(Note: This has been a tough time, especially for progressive women. I joked on social media that this year’s Nano needs to have a “Women’s Rage” forum. Instead of that, I’m starting a private virtual group to develop creative work in multiple disciplines called Women Write Change. Stay tuned here, on Ink in My Coffee  and the main Devon Ellington site  for more information. It’ll take me a few days to set up, and then I’ll have an address where interested parties can request invitation).

Ink-Dipped Advice: Positive Networking Practices

 

It’s been a busy time for me lately, and in a good way. But I’ve had some positive results of the various networking I’ve done.

When I meet people at events and exchange cards, I try to send them a note or an email within a few days of the meeting, just to say I enjoyed meeting them and to continue whatever conversation we began at the event.

Most places I’ve lived and worked — New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Edinburgh, Australia, Western Mass, Vermont, Washington DC, etc. — this is standard. You exchange cards, you exchange messages post-event and build from there, or have the initial post-event pleasant exchange and put the information aside in case it’s needed down the pike. And then use the information when and where appropriate.

Here, it’s quite different. Most of the time, I do the follow-up, and it’s crickets. If it’s a visiting artist/instructor/agent/editor from somewhere else, there’s response, but local? Rare.

If I mention, the next time we run into each other, “Hey, I sent an email after we met last time; did I get the address wrong? I want to make sure I have your correct contact information”  — the answer is usually, “Oh, I don’t have time to respond to emails” or “I didn’t answer, because I figured I’d run into you again.” In my book, those are not solid practices that grow one’s business.

I try to reconnect with those I’ve met about once a quarter. Just a quick “Hey, how are you, thinking of you, how’s it going?”  When I have an address, I often send a postcard rather than an email. Whereas email response to quarterly follow-up is about 3% locally and 15% beyond the bridge, response to postcards (by email, since I add my email address) is usually 25% or more.

I attended an event a few months ago, a lovely networking event, with about forty or fifty people. I exchanged twenty or so cards. Followed up within two business days (standard) with all twenty. Heard back from four (which, around here, is a huge response).  From those four, one was a person with skills that was useful to one of my clients, and I got them in touch and he was hired; the other opened the door to an arts group with whom I hadn’t had previous contact, and we’re talking. So that was pretty decent.

Wearing my playwright/novelist hat, I was a reader at the Provincetown Book Festival a few weeks ago (which was one of the best festivals I’ve attended in years). After the festival, I thanked the organizers and the sponsors (I’m still tracking down contact information for the fellow readers in my event, to say what a pleasure it was to read with them). I heard back almost immediately from festival personnel (not at all a surprise, since it was one of the best-run events I attended). 

I also heard back from several sponsors, absolutely thrilled that I contacted them and told them how wonderful the experience was.

One sponsor stated that they support so many local events and hardly ever hear back from anyone. So they were delighted that the event went well, and that I took the time to contact them. On my part, “taking the time” took probably less than five minutes.

And now that sponsor knows the event was money well spent.

I attended two events last week. Followed up on both. From the first, I heard back from two out of the two dozen or so people contacted. From the second, there were thirteen of us at the event. I followed up with all thirteen. I’ve heard back from and made plans with six of those thirteen so far, which is positive.

Will any of those above contacts end in cont-RACTs?

Who knows? But these are interesting people who love what they do. Interacting with them improves my quality of life, even if it doesn’t end in a contract. I hope they feel the same way. And even if they don’t hire me, there’s a good chance they’ll recommend me if they feel it’s the right match. As I will do, in the same situation.

What’s the moral of this little tale?

Follow up and follow through when you meet people. Don’t just collect cards and stick them in the drawer. Think beyond being hired on the spot. Think about getting to know some really interesting people who enrich your life.

Even if I don’t get hired by any of these people — there are some of them in fields relevant to upcoming books. You can be darned sure I’m going to consult them on their areas of expertise and thank them in the acknowledgements.

Connections are about people. As much of an introvert as I am, I find other people interesting. So I make myself get out of the house and interact, and I am almost always glad I do. Because their stories are interesting, and fuel my work.

Remember, as a writer: Nothing is EVER wasted.

Ink-Dipped Advice: The Ballad of the Necessary Contract

I relate an anecdote so you can learn from a mistake I made about ten years ago, about too much off-the-cuff brainstorming before there was a contract in place. I will not reveal the name, the company, or the location. But learn from my mistake.

I met an extrovert at a networking event. We hit it off. This individual had a big project coming up and was unsure how to proceed; thought I might be a good fit. I explained my general fee structure, and how it would work for a project of this scope. We had a long conversation, basically outlined a project this individual needed done on a tight time frame. I sent the notes the next day, along with a quote, and the written schedule we’d discussed.

Nothing.

For months.

No response to any type of contact.

I took other gigs. At a completely different event, over a year later, I ran into this person again. We were introduced by a third party; the original individual looked puzzled. I reminded this person we’d met over a year earlier and talked about a project that had a tight deadline, that I’d sent requested materials, and never heard back. The person shrugged and said, “Oh, I didn’t feel like putting in the time. But let’s set a schedule and do it soon.”

I said words that were both true and necessary. “Sorry. I’m booked. For the next eighteen months.”

“Oh, my, one would think you were in demand.”

“I am.”

Of course, this meant the individual HAD to have the project done BY ME. AT ONCE.

I was booked. Plus the whole not trusting this person. The person kept bugging me. I gave a high quote (and, yes, if it was met, I’d have worked it into the schedule).

Response: “Oh, I wouldn’t PAY you. You’d be doing this for EXPOSURE.”

I said it before and I’ll say it again: Honey, people die of exposure. Give me the cash.

I reminded the person of the fees we’d discussed. 

“Oh, I’m sure I wouldn’t have agreed to PAY you for any of that.”

My response: “I wouldn’t have brainstormed the outline for nothing.”

Huff, puff, walk away. (On the other party’s part).

Two weeks later, this person asks me to re-send the outline, because the person lost it.

I said I would be happy to, upon receiving a consulting fee. I named the price.

Never heard from this individual again.

Hope I never do.

And no, the project has never shown up. The person truly lost the notes and couldn’t remember what we’d discussed — which means the project would have likely been a nightmare anyway.

I ate the nonpayment for the brainstorming session. It happens sometimes, especially when you’re talking on the fly at a networking event. That’s why, in interviews, I’m now circumspect when the question is, “What specifics would you change/develop/grow if you worked with us?”

Until I’ve spent time in the trenches of the company, there’s no way to know.

What they’re looking for, here, is ideas they can do on their own without paying.

So I formulate marketspeak answers that are full of buzz words and don’t hold actual information. If they are serious about me, they will re-formulate questions into something that is suitable for the interview. If they are trying to get ideas for which they have no intention of paying, they keep going down the same road. The real information comes when the contract is in place, the upfront fee clears, and I’m actually in the environment.

Because if they are actually interested in you doing what you do best for them, as a marketing writer, it’s not “what would you change” it’s “how do you see what you do as enlarging our communication and getting our message out to a broader audience?” They will say things like, “We’re having trouble in the social media aspect of our business. What are your ideas on enlarging our growth there?” Not “what would you change in the company” — it’s a trap question. I’m not here to CHANGE your company. I’m here to effectively communicate your message to a broader audience. It’s YOUR company. I’m expanding your reach.

So learn from my mistakes and don’t over-brainstorm without a contract. 

Ink-Dipped Advice: How To Lose A Customer

A few months back, a start-up that claimed to be dedicated to health and wellness offered me an invitation to an invitation to be one of the first subscribers to their new monthly box.

They sounded interesting, so I said yes, I’d like an invitation to the invitation.

I got on the mailing list, I got emails.

Then, the invitation came through. The same week that I had two deaths in 24 hours close to me, and was overwhelmed on many fronts. There was a flurry of emails, every day. The products were good, but not what I wanted at the time. I had questions about the pricing structure – the way the initial invite was worded, it looked like it would fluctuate, month-to-month.

Honestly, I couldn’t deal with it at the time. I put it aside and MADE THE CHOICE not to subscribe.

As a POTENTIAL customer, that was my right.

It was an INVITATION to an INVITATION. It was not a commitment.

About two weeks ago, I got an email from the company ATTACKING me for not subscribing, with language such as “did you not understand what we’re offering?” and further phrasing berating me for not subscribing. As though I was too stupid to understand the product.

As though they were supposed to be my priority, and as though I’d let them down.

No.

I understood the product. I CHOSE not to buy it. As is my right, in any such transaction.

I sent back a strongly worded email that not everything was about THEM, I was dealing with two deaths, and I’d never committed to purchase. I said I was interested in the invitation. I had the OPTION to buy or not buy, and I chose not to.

I unsubscribed from their mailing list.

I wanted an apology, although I knew I wouldn’t get one. I also realized that it wouldn’t matter. I wasn’t looking for anything free or a discount coupon. There was NOTHING they could say or do that would make me trust them with personal and/or financial information.

I also felt, that, as a supposed heath & wellness company, they were hypocrites.

Hmm — wellness meant THEIR well-being, not that of their customers. Got it. Moving on.

I understand that starting a small business is stressful. But this is not the way to woo potential customers.

I moved on and did other things. I have a subscription box already, with the wonderful, amazing, stunning Goddess Provisions, who always seems to know what I need and time the monthly box to arrive at the right time. For instance, the day after those two deaths, the Heart Chakra box arrived. It was exactly what I needed in that moment. Plus, they are kind and responsive and quick to answer questions or concerns.

I finally received a sort-of apology last week. The company stated they “didn’t mean” it to feel like an attack, and they understood it was an emotional time for me. If they didn’t mean for it to feel like an attack, then they shouldn’t have used phrasing that made it so.

I didn’t bother to respond.

While I know we all make mistakes and believe in second chances, I found the exchange revealing. Instead of actually supporting a potential customer going through a rough time, first they attacked, then they did nothing, then, weeks later, they sent a half-baked whatever it was.

Would a response within the standard 48-hour business protocol response time have changed anything? I don’t know. But a sincere response, instead of further defense, would have smoothed things over. Taking two weeks to respond, and then sending something mealy-mouthed didn’t cut it. Take responsibility. Work to fix it (which doesn’t necessarily mean offering something free )– just work on phrasing. As in maybe hire qualified writing/marketing people for your product and pay them fairly, instead of going off half-cocked and turning off your customers.

Not a way to run a business in my opinion.

Not a company I plan to spend my money with.

Does it make me more careful in my own interactions? I should hope I already am, but it also makes me remember not to send out a mass email in a moment of anger. The person who wrote/sent the email to non-subscribers felt angry and betrayed. Feelings are feelings, and valid. How you use them on other people is something to consider. Because there are consequences.

And perhaps, instead of sending something in a flash of emotion, you should have written it, taken a step back, a breath, and thought it through. Thought if, perhaps, there was a better way to entice those who had passed on the first opportunity you sent them. Where did it fall short for them? Was it only timing? Money? Content? Presentation? Ask for feedback. Don’t attack.

Frankly, that email should have remained in the “unsent letter” file that I learned when studying journals and their writers, and when I taught journal and diary writing. You write the letter to figure out your feelings. You use it as a tool to figure out positive ways to deal with the situation.

But it remains unsent, unless you are willing to burn that bridge.

As far as I’m concerned, the bridge is burned.

I wish them well, but I will not be one of their customers.

My conscious consumerism takes me elsewhere.

Thoughts? Comments? Anecdotes to share?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Research To Prepare Your Perfect Pitch

 

The best freelance gigs I land generally come about when I get interested and excited about a company and decide I want to be a part of their team. Which means convincing them that their lives are better/easier/more profitable if I’m part of it.

When I was younger, I used to emphasize my flexibility – my chameleon-like ability to adapt to most situations (unless I find them unethical or feel my integrity is being compromised).

As I’ve aged and gotten more experienced and more confident, my angle has changed to be more about being very much myself instead of what I think they want. At this point in the game, I bring a lot to the table. Either it will be a good fit to move their vision forward, or it won’t. I’d rather know by the end of the first interview than find out six months in. The best way to do that is to be unabashedly MYSELF from Moment One.

But Moment One won’t happen if I don’t do my homework.

When I find a company that interests me, with whom I think I’d like to work, I go through the website. I go through press clippings. I read about the members of their staff, about what’s important to them as human beings as well as well as the overall company vision. I go through social media, articles, interviews, newspaper articles.

Then I figure out how and where I’d be an asset. Where do my skills, and, even more important, my energy and enthusiasm for what they do, support and fit their platform? How can I expand and engage their audience? Spread the message in a way that is positive, productive, and truthful?

From there, I craft the pitch/cover letter. I mention what I like about their company and how I think my unique skill set would add to what they do and what they WANT to do. I don’t tell them they’re doing something “bad” or “wrong.” I might not agree with the current approach in their marketing/web content/etc. materials, but I don’t know the story behind it. As someone who claims to be excited by their vision and want to work with them, why would I shame them? If there are things I think could use a different approach, I can talk about it in the interview, but within a positive construct.

As someone who regularly gets spammy emails from content mill marketers and faux writers stating my content is “bad” and theirs is better, I know how off-putting it is. Also, most of these generic emailers stating they want to “help” me reach a wider audience are full of errors AND have obviously not spent any time reading ANY of my sites – or they’d know my specific needs and vision.

If I wouldn’t hire someone like that, why would I want to BE someone like that?

I don’t.

I do try to find an individual to whom to send the pitch, not just a general, vague email. I have a cover letter template, but I slant each letter to highlight the parts of my experience I feel are best suited to their unique situation. I read carefully to decide which of my several resumes are most suited, what kind of samples to send. Of course, if they demand unpaid, project-specific samples written just for them, I stop the process and look elsewhere (see last week’s post).

Of course, there are always companies that, once you do the research, don’t look so inviting. I’ve ditched more than one pitch when they demanded that contact be to a specific individual at a specific email, but then didn’t have a staff list and stated “no phone calls.” If it means digging all the way back into the articles of incorporation filed with the state, it’s probably not a place that’s a good match. Or, if, as I do my research, I get that feeling that maybe they aren’t working along lines I can agree with. Of course, when I read negative or positive pieces, I then research THE WRITERS of those pieces, to see what the context of the article/interview/critique is.

I also keep detailed notes, much like my fact check sheets when I do an article, to follow the path in case I need to double back and reconfirm a piece of information.

I also see if any of my colleagues know anything about the place, and what their experiences were.

Yes, it takes time. But, if I really want a gig, it’s worth it.

In the course of my research, of course, I come up with some of the staff. Still, I prefer to check a current staff list just before I send something, to make sure I’m not sending a pitch to someone who just left. Or was promoted.

Or, if there’s an “online application” through a third party head hunter, and I have to re-enter, manually, everything that’s on my resume – pass. Waste of everybody’s time.

My rule of thumb now is, if I find the process of contact irritating, that’s probably a good indication of what it’s like to work with them. Best if we don’t put ourselves through the pain.

Because there are an awful lot of exciting, passionate, ethical entrepreneurs out there.

It just takes a bit of work to find them!

Ink-Dipped Advice: My Rolodex Isn’t Free

Note I didn’t say “My Rolex.” I don’t have or need or want a Rolex. I stopped wearing a watch years ago.

The job listings for one of my areas of marketing work, especially when it comes to working for non-profits, have a disturbing trend, especially in my region of the Northeast. One of the job “requirements” is that one have high-end, recognizable contacts in the field. And share those contacts in the interview process.

The jobs themselves, with this demand:
–are part-time;
–have no benefits;
–barely pay above minimum wage.

Yet they expect me to bring my Rolodex, which has been built and curated over decades of hard work at market rate (with benefits) for . . .what? Why? Why would a professional at the top of the field give away a carefully built and curated contact list?

That’s not how it works.

A full-time, benefitted head-of-department job requires a proven track record in the field and solid examples of accomplishments. Contacts are part of that package. But contacts are used as part of a process, not as a product delivered in an interview.  A part-time, un-benefitted, underpaid job is not going to attract the level of worker you demand. Because those individuals are being paid what they are worth, by people who understand the market, the value of these workers’ skills, and how relationships are built over time, from job to job.

I’ve actually been asked for my contact list as a requirement for landing an interview. I refused and was told I wouldn’t even be considered. Which is just fine.

That’s like those content mill/fake article markets that say you have to write a “test” article for free. Then, they tell the applicants they hired someone else, gather up the free articles, change the company name, and use them without payment or permission. Which is why I don’t do unpaid “tests.” Pay me or look at my portfolio and see if my style fits your needs. Don’t expect me to work for free.

I also get angry when an organization who knows I worked on Broadway with recognizable names demands, “Tell (recognizable individual) to give us X.” Or “You know lots of famous people. Add them to our contact list.”

Um, no.

First of all, I don’t make demands of the people with whom I worked. If something comes up that I think is appropriate (a donation for a cause or lending a name or a signed whatever), then I will make THE REQUEST. When I feel the request is not appropriate, I won’t. And I won’t randomly hand out their contact information, either. It’s a breach of trust. It’s also against the anti-spamming law.

Why hasn’t the organization itself built and curated a contact list over the years?

Obviously, I have contacts in the field (in many fields) that I would use in whatever job where appropriate. With their permission, I might even add them to the organization’s contact list. But I’m not going to hand over my contacts in an interview, or even as a condition of a job. Especially not one that’s underpaid and without benefits.

These relationships were built over time and based on trust. The contacts know I won’t hand out their information without permission and allow a barrage of inappropriate demands. To break that trust hurts my contact, and hurts me, beyond my work for the one, demanding organization. The organization will receive a “no” and I will use a valued contact. Not worth it for any of us.

You want to hire me because of my CONTACTS rather than my skill in communicating your business while expanding YOUR contacts? Unappetizing on every level.

The arrogance and the sense of entitlement in these demands astonishes me. It’s also a good indication of an organization with whom I do not wish to work.

Ink-Dipped Advice: The Art of Being A Good Guest

 

Guest posting is terrific. I love to be a guest. I love to be a host. But anyone who runs sites knows how frustrating guests can be when they don’t behave well.

I’d planned to open one of my sites, A Biblio Paradise, to pitches for posts; however, the invited guests over the years have sometimes been such trouble, for the moment, I’m sticking with invitation-only. I’d opened it to fellow authors with several publishers – publishers that we shared, to give my colleagues more opportunities.

There will always be problems here and there, but this is what my fellow authors did after demanding a slot:

–book a slot and never send the material;

–when I asked where the material was, told me they were really busy and forgot and why hadn’t I reminded them (hello, are you a grown-up? Your schedule and commitments are YOUR responsibility);

–when I said I needed a media kit (especially to form interview questions), the response was, “Oh, I don’t know what that is. I don’t use one. Just look at my website.” First of all, you call yourself a published author and don’t have the most basic marketing tool of a media kit? Second, when someone tells you they need a specific type of marketing material, if you don’t have it or know about it, you do your research ELSEWHERE and the come up with it instead of showing your lack of professionalism; third, it’s YOUR responsibility to provide requested material. Hosts usually run multiple websites and need a streamlined process. They’re not a way to get extra hits on your site. Don’t make them do your work;

–sent me material so poorly written and badly copy-edited it was unusable;

–sent it in a format I couldn’t use and told me they “don’t do conversions; you’ll have to do it.”

In all of the above, the response is good-bye. I am not doing YOUR work.

As a guest, if you’re looking for blogs on which to appear, keep in mind the following:

–research the market to which you pitch and keep it appropriate. I currently run seven websites and six blogs. Yesterday, I got 13 of the exact same pitches from an individual with only a first name pretending to want a guest spot to sell a product for which he’s probably being paid $1 post from a content mill. The product had nothing to do with ANY of the sites.

–don’t insult the host. “Your content really sucks and you need my content to make it better” will not get you hired.

–don’t cold-pitch and demand payment that has nothing to do with guidelines. Read the guidelines. They will say IF the host pays and, usually, HOW MUCH. If the host is paying $50/post and you say you won’t work for less than $200, guess what? You won’t get the slot.

–the pitch should be short, relevant to the site, and focused.

–don’t argue if the host is interested and wants more information. If you feel the information is inappropriate to the pitch/slot, then simply say you’ve changed your mind and decline. Don’t wait until the last minute and not send anything.

–don’t commit to a date and then ask for a different one at the last minute. Most hosts book in advance. You don’t have the right to demand someone else is bumped. If there’s an emergency and you have to miss a deadline, suggest another writer you know would step in and step up.

–send clean copy!!!!!!! Proofread. The host may need to make certain edits, but send the best copy you can.

–on the day your post appears, visit the site. Respond to comments. Say thank you.

I’d like to bring up something else: If you run a blog of your own, especially if you’re a fiction author appearing on a blog run by another author, it’s nice to reciprocate by inviting your host to guest on your site. It amazes me how rarely this occurs to the same authors who shoot off poorly-worded pitches, asking to guest.

But don’t just listen to me: here are some tips from some of the best in the business: Tara Lynne Groth, Jennifer Mattern, and Lori Widmer.

Says Tara Lynne, “One of the best things a guest contributor can do is follow through. I host about one guest blogger per month and the schedule for the year fills fast. Last year, a handful of confirmed contributors never sent their submissions. They never contacted me to ask for an extension, apologize, or send their piece late. They simply never contacted me and left me with a gap on the blog, plus they took away an opportunity that someone else could have taken. Good guest bloggers are professional, meet deadlines, and extend the professional courtesy of an update should the deadline become an issue for them.”

Lori Widmer agrees: “When writers commit to a deadline, it’s a good faith promise to the person they’re working with that the content will be there on time. Every year I put together a month of guest posts for Writers Worth Month. It’s planned in advance, and if someone drops out, there’s a scramble on my side to fill it with content. Because the writers I know who post are professionals, I’ve never had to fill a space during Writers Worth Month that was left by someone who was unreliable. These writers build trust, and that goes hundreds of miles with clients. Yet I do occasionally have people promise things they never deliver.

“I had one writer disappear on me. He sent me what was clearly a cut-and-paste ‘personal’ note asking to guest post. He introduced himself and went into detail about his idea. Only problem – he already knew me because he’d posted a few other times on my site. Turn-off #1. And his idea? If he read my blog at all (Turn-off #2 because he clearly didn’t), he’d know I will never promote what he was suggesting was a great idea for finding work – content mills. Deal-breaking Turn-off #3. That is the antithesis of what I believe in. In fact, my entire blog was started based on a rant about content mills that I had to write down somewhere. But, since I knew this guy, I talked with him and we came to an agreement on what he could present. That was three months ago. Where he went is anyone’s guess.”

“Being a PR professional on top of a freelance writer and blogger, I get particularly peeved about bad guest posts,” Jennifer Mattern states. “Basically, guest posts are one of many ‘old school’ PR tactics marketers hijacked and abused. They started out, and still exist, in the realm of professionals seeking to reach the audiences of trade publications. Guest posts are just the expansion of that traditional strategy to an online medium.

“That focus hasn’t changed though. The most important aspect of good guest content is the audience or readership, even if it’s sometimes overlooked by the SEO crowd trying to exploit them in their link schemes. If you want to get the most out of guest posts, put your host’s community first. Who are a blog’s readers? And what value can you offer them?

That is the goal of a guest post done well — providing value to a reader base you can’t already reach with your own properties. That value is what helps you build legitimate links, followers, shares, and conversions if you’re hoping to make connections to reach future clients or customers. So don’t focus your guest posting on links. Focus on being of service to others.”

Lori expands on this: “My must-haves for guest posts: Commitment, a guarantee that the content will be delivered, and content that is free of any advertising. I don’t stump for other companies, and I won’t accept it for guest posts. Links to your website in your bio, great! A link or two in the post if it’s relevant to what you’re writing about, terrific! But if every other sentence has an affiliate link you’re not telling me about, you’re not getting published on my blog. I’ve spent a ton of time building up my reputation and credibility with my readers. I won’t insult them by constantly selling them something. That’s not my business model.

“My post guidelines clearly state I won’t accept content from companies. Yet last week alone, I received three pitches from companies. The worst was one that offered a post loaded with links back to their site and promised me ‘profit’ through monetizing. Really? Dangle a few pennies and that’s going to make me forget my guidelines? Not happening.

“Even worse are the writers who are now asking in droves for guest posts, saying they love my blog and want to write for it. Only…. They say ‘Hi’ and never use my name; they all send nearly identically worded pitches, and; they never suggest a topic but wait for me to say yes. Oh, and I don’t know them from anyone. While that last one isn’t a deal-breaker, it shows good faith if you actually comment on something before you pitch a guest post idea.”

All of these speak to issues I raised earlier.

Lori continues, “Etiquette should reach beyond guest posts, in fact. Once I’d arranged a webinar with a writer that had to be canceled last minute. The writer, who’d never done a webinar, got a serious case of jitters, and backed out. Unfortunately, he did so about three days from the actual event. I couldn’t line up another writer, nor could I wing it. I had to cancel, which left me looking like I was unreliable. That is not the recipe for trust among other writers. I get nervous, too. I get anxious, in fact. But if I commit, I follow through. I remember being in a hotel in Manhattan with a serious case of stomach upset the night before a big client meeting. But I went through with it. I medicated, didn’t eat before the meeting, and meditated to reestablish my balance. You don’t cancel on a client who’s got their own deadlines, and you push through no matter what. I think I’d have to be hooked to an IV before I’d cancel on a client. Then again, if the IV is on wheels, we’re good to go.”

That reflects what I tell my writing students: The only excuse for missing a deadline is death. Yours.

Deal with potential hosts with courtesy and reliability. Do your research; offer something relevant. Then fulfill your commitment.

Tara Lynne sums it up well: “Guest blogging is a great way to connect with platforms other than your own, but make sure you use that opportunity to impress and not disappoint.”

Being a courteous cyber-guest is similar to being a good houseguest, but with a wider reach.

Tara Lynne Groth:
Tara Lynne Groth writes SEO content, develops blogs and provides content marketing for site owners. Before running her writing business she was a marketing manager and public relations director. She speaks at conferences and teaches classes on best blogging practices and search engine optimization. She’s also a journalist, a poet, and writes short fiction.
www.writenaked.net
www.taralynnegroth.com

Jennifer Mattern
Jennifer Mattern is a freelance business writer and PR consultant. She also runs All Freelance Writing, where she has helped freelance writers establish and grow their own businesses since 2006.

Lori Widmer
Lori has a BA in Business Communications from Rosemont College and additional education and course work in Journalism from various colleges and universities. Add to that more than 20 years of writing experience, including writing for publications, corporations, small to mid-sized businesses, and individuals, covering topics including finance, health care, workers compensation, and sales/marketing. With over 2oo articles in various business and trade publications, she delivers compelling, relevant content that improves your message and can help boost profitability.
http://loriwidmer.com/
http://wordsonpageblog.com/