Ink-Dipped Advice

Ink-Dipped Advice: Creating Client Voice

image courtesy of hornstjj via pixabaycom

How does one create client voice?

There are dozens of techniques. Because of my background in theatre, I approach it as developing a character that represents the company, product, service.

This is a little different than if the company’s owner/founder/CEO is the primary spokesperson. That involves melding the individual’s personality with the personality they want to project to the public with the product or service. It’s more layered, and one often deals with more ego, especially in small business. Something the owner’s family thinks is a “cute” trait does not always go over well as part of a marketing campaign.

To create client voice, I need to know and understand:

–the company’s vision

–the company’s mission

–the product or service

–the creation process

–the target audience

–the possible extended audience

Plenty of freelancers I’ve encountered along the way will say this is more complicated than it needs to be. All you need is product/service and target market. That’s their approach, and more power to them.

But I’m creating a layered, complex character to engage an audience in a simple, direct way.

Because I am a theatre person, I approach the marketing piece as a play or film or radio drama, and I create characters. Not “representational” characters — they’re flat and boring. Not caricatures. But nuanced individuals who can communicate the company’s message.

Preliminary information is often on the website. If I’ve been hired to do a complete overhaul from the company, then we talk about how to change the tone and cadence of what’s on those sites and carry it through all the marketing materials.

“Vision” and “mission” are often thought of in terms of non-profits or large corporations, but they’re useful for small businesses, too.

“I create clothing (with pockets) that makes women feel beautiful and confident” is the vision statement for one of my clients who is a designer.

“I create pieces that flatter the figure, have pockets, and can be dressed up or down with confidence for any occasion” is the mission statement for the same client.

Yes, I created both of those to help focus her campaigns in my time with her.

But they are specific. My client is not trying to change the fashion industry or create shows for Fashion Week. She wants to make pieces that real women can wear and accessorize in flattering cuts that make them feel good. Some of them even have inspirational quotes sewn into the garment, so the wearer smiles and is inspired whenever she puts it on. She also knows the value of pockets in women’s garments, so most of her pieces have pockets.

There’s a sense of fun, easy elegance, and the use of natural fabrics that breathe and drape.

Her audience is women of all ages. Her extended audience is anyone who buys these women gifts or gift certificates.

Another client is an organic landscaper. His vision is that this area contains organic, sustainable yards around homes and in public areas that are beautiful, permaculture, and more habitat than putting green. His mission is to work with clients, one at a time, helping them create the yard of their dreams that is all of those things, and either continuing the maintenance, or teach them to care for it. His company also does educational programs for people from 7 to 97.

His target audience is residents of our area. His extended audience is anyone and everyone interested in sustainable, edible landscaping.

Both of these small business owners are strong personalities with distinct voices. It was a case of enlarging and dramatizing natural cadence and massaging out unnecessary words, such as qualifiers, too many adverbs, and passive voice.

What if a company or service does more than one thing?

Then, I create an overall “company tone.” I use what already works, and tweak, unless they specifically want a re-branding with a fresh voice. To change it simply to change it is ego on the writer’s part.

By “company tone” I mean the way any marketing material sounds inside the head of a potential audience member as they encounter it. We all “hear” as we read. By the choice and arrangement of words, I create a distinct voice that the reader hears as they read.

Within that company tone, each product/service gets a slight tweak to make it unique, but still fit within that tone. Each product or service becomes a character within the ensemble.

Part of creating the company tone is then rehearsing those who go out into the world and speak the company’s mission in that tone. The executives, the marketing people, the Board of Trustees (where appropriate). Again, this is something that many writers don’t do or see as part of their job. Technically, it’s not. The writer writes. What’s done with it from that point is not their business and out of their control.

But again, because of my theatre training, I can come in (or do via Skype) sessions that are similar to working with actors in a rehearsal studio to teach them how to speak in the company voice when they go to Chamber Events or do outreach in booths at fairs/tradeshows or however they physically deploy people to get the message out. It’s a lot of fun. It uses role-playing and rehearsal techniques to help people feel comfortable and have confidence to speak in the moment with enthusiasm and skill.  It helps the introverts of the company who are too often forced into extroversion have training and knowledge to sound spontaneous. They don’t have to search or fumble; it’s there for them to pull when they need it. They realize it’s not about them as Harry or Mabel or Serge, but about the company, and they are a conduit. Training in the voice takes a huge amount of pressure off the individuals who actually have to speak in that voice. Even for extroverts, it’s helpful for them to have the tone and points at the fingertips of their minds, ready to pull out in an instant.

We also laugh a lot, which makes any training seminar or workshop better!

I’m not telling them to be fake or be someone else or mislead the potential audience — I’m teaching them to layer the company voice over their own cadence and merge the two when they are out in the world as representatives of that company.

It’s sometimes a fine line, but an important one.

That tone is then consistent on the website, in the newsletters, correspondence, media kits, social media posts, and whatever other materials a particular company uses. It’s modified for blog posts, because it’s vitally important to have unique voices when you have more than one blogger. Still within the framework of the company tone, but with each voice being unique. I think of it as the way singers work in a choral ensemble: the unique voices blend in harmony to sing the company song. Or the way different instruments in an orchestra blend to create a symphony.

In my opinion, one of the reasons many magazines tank is because the individual writers’ voices are smoothed out to an even tone throughout the publication. I used to read magazines to get excited by snippets of unique voices; now, every article sounds the same, and the same type of piece shows up every year in the same season.

A way to make one’s blog more engaging is to have more than one person writing content, or at least SOUND like more than one person writes content if it’s in-house. I admit, I have ghostwritten blogs where I’ve written in more than one contributor’s voice. I’ve written it all, but we talked it through, and each post sounds like the individual under whose by-line it appears. Another possibility is to invite guest posters who are knowledgeable about the product or service. Yes, they’ll all need editing, but if the editor keeps the writer’s voice and lets it sing within the company voice, the blog’s readership grows. The blog will both engage and sustain.

Getting back to the “how” on creating voice:

Listen, listen, listen, listen. Then listen some more.

I talk about listening constantly.  I ask questions. I listen to the words. I listen to what is under the words. I listen to what is between the words. Subtext matters in marketing, although it needs to be even more delicate than in fiction or on stage. I look at the actions. I prefer to do this in person, or via Skype. Phone-only is the last choice (and, since I charge for phone time in 15-minute increments, more costly for the client). Meeting time is paid, not free, although a set number of meetings either in person or via Skype are part of the standard contract. Phone time is always separate.

Then I create.

The creative process is difficult to break down and dissect. Much of what I do to create client voice comes from within, once I absorb mission, vision, cadence, target, and once I know, inside-out, about what I’m writing. It’s taking the best of what I know about character development from writing scripts and fiction and melding it with a real product. Background, motivation, frame of reference, stakes, desires — all of that go into building a character. All of that relates to how an individual responds to a product. It relates to how to convince the audience, through the character, that the product or service is worthwhile.

It borders the realm of marketing writing with mission-specific entertainment.

Writing a video or audio script with actual characters to sell a product is a little different. That adds another layer to the client voice, by breaking it down into facets and challenges, and will be the basis for another post (or this one will go on forever). That is closer to mission-specific entertainment, but again, there’s a subtle difference.

I take the process seriously, and it gets results. That’s why content mill work and “you’re expected to write 10-20 articles a week” isn’t the type of situation that works for me.

Creating a client voice that shows the best of the product/service/organization and engages, enchants, and expands an audience takes time, care, LOTS of revision along the way, and focus.

But the results are worth it, for everyone involved.

How do you create client voice?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Research the Prospect

image courtesy of Dariuz Sankowski via pixabay.com

Last week, I talked about the research for prospects.

I’ve gotten several emails asking me how I do that.

The first step is to read the company website. What does it look like? What can you read between the lines? Does it sound like marketspeak? Is it clean? Userfriendly?

I had a meeting a few weeks ago with a potential client. I read through the website. I still had absolutely no idea what their business purpose entailed.

In the meeting, when I asked about goals, target markets, vision — I couldn’t get any answers.

That was a less successful research/prospect experience!

Most of the time, you get a sense, from the website, about the company’s vision and their overall tone. My next step is to check out the typical social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr. Sometimes, if relevant, Reddit or Medium or Ello or The Dots (for international clients).

From the social media sites, I get a sense of the conversational tone (if there is one) and of the level of interaction.

I also look for articles about the company and press releases for the company. I look for reviews of the company and its performance. I go through my contacts to see if there’s anyone I know who knows someone there and can give me information, either positive or negative. Word of mouth is always more interesting than something online! Small details come out in a conversation that wouldn’t make it to the page.

AFTER I’ve done all of that, then I go back to the website and look at the executive roster to see to whom I should send me LOI.

Some companies make it difficult.

I don’t blame anyone for not posting a photo. We are far too flippant about smearing our images all over the place. There are plenty of jobs where no one needs to know what you look like. It’s doesn’t make it friendlier and more personal, in my opinion. It needs to be a personal, individual choice, not a demand of the company.

However, I would like either a staff directory or an executive roster. Individual contact information is also helpful, even if it’s a catch-all email address for the department that’s sorted by an assistant.

When there’s no easily available information, that sends up a red flag for me.

Once I find out the right person for what I want to pitch, then I research the individual. Do we have any common interests that are relevant to what I’m pitching? What kind of tone does that person have in public communications?

I have a basic template of my skills, and then I tweak it to individualize it for each person I contact. Because I have an unusual, varied background in the arts, I have to point out how and why that’s an asset in business. I’m there to make their business lives easier and grow their audience, not become one more thing on a To-Do list. “This is why I’m excited by your company, and this is why I think we’d be a good match” is the approach I use.

I keep the tone friendly, professional, positive. It is an invitation to start a conversation. It is not a demand. It may be the wrong time or the wrong fit.

The length of time it takes to get a response, and the tone of the response give you more information as to whether it’s a prospect worth pursuing.

Each experience will be different, and that’s what’s wonderful about it.

I learn something from every LOI. Even the ones that don’t wind up as clients. It’s always worth the time and effort of research and writing the letter.

How do you research your prospects?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Prospecting

One of the fun parts of freelancing, for me, is prospecting for clients. Because I write about a wide variety of things,  I often refer to myself as either a Renaissance Writer or the Anti-Niche. But I’m interested in most things, except for math and anchovies, and even anchovies have a place in a Caesar salad. And there are plenty of people who are excited by math, so I don’t need to be. I honor their excitement.

Curiosity & Interest. I think the world is an interesting place. Most people are interesting, too, if you give them a chance.  People who are passionate about their work and their lives are always interesting.

Those are the people who often need help communicating to a wider audience.

Remember the phrase “prospecting for gold?” I enjoy prospecting for clients.

No cold calling. I do not cold call. I know, I know, so many of those books that tell you how to make a zillion dollars in six months as a freelancer talk about cold calls. As someone who finds the phone the biggest obstacle to actual creative work, who charges for phone time, and who is rude to telemarketers and cold callers, I do not cold call.

No showing up without an appointment. I also don’t just show up in person, barging into someone’s office or knocking on their home office door, demanding they drop everything they’re trying to keep going and talk to me because I want it.

This twist on door-to-door salesmanship is prevalent on the Cape. In fact, in the so-called “career building workshops” they force you to take when you’re on unemployment (I was on unemployment when my job at the library was eliminated several years back), they encourage you to do just that.

I know, with the small business with whom I work, that is a quick way to get on the list of “No Way in Hell.” Small businesses are working as hard as they can to stay afloat. They might need your services. But if you barge in when they’re in the middle of something else, you are not a savior; you are an obstacle.

For local prospects, I find the most effective way to work with them is to meet them at Chamber events or other local networking events. I don’t march around going, “I’m a freelance writer. Hire me!”

Instead, I ask them about their business. What do they do? Why do they love it? What kind of direct mail campaigns do they use? What’s the website like? How’s their social media presence? If they admit they’re lacking in something, I might toss a general idea or two their way. I make sure that we exchange cards, but I don’t try to sell them in the moment. 

The business day following the event, I send them a quick email, reminding them of our conversation, and letting them know I’d be happy to talk to them in more detail about what we discussed, or if they have any other copywriting or marketing needs in the future.

Then, I put them on my postcard list. 2-4 times a year, I send post cards out via regular mail. Spring and fall always, on seasonally-appropriate card stock. It lists my most popular services, suggests I am happy to help create, consult, or handle overflow when their marketing team is overwhelmed. It has my email address and suggests contacting me for further discussion and/or a quote.

If I get an email requesting a phone consult, I let them know I charge for that. I do NOT put my phone number on the postcards. Phone calls, even preliminary ones, are only by appointment.

I write a lot of holiday cards. I write about this often. I believe they are important. I believe it is important to MAKE time for the cards. It lets people know that they matter enough so that you MADE the time to jot a few words and chose an image you thought they’d enjoy.

I use both postcards and regular cards. I send them out separately from the direct mail postcards. There is no pitch in the cards. It is ONLY a wish that they enjoy the holidays.

But what about prospects I want to reach that aren’t local? You’ve heard my anecdotes about the challenges of local businesses in the area where I live at the moment. I won’t re-hash them here.

I keep an eye on companies via social media and news reports. If a company is doing something interesting within the realm of what I call my “Areas of Specialized Knowledge” I dig a little deeper. I do some research on the programs and people involved in the company. If they are connected to something I disagree with, such as supporting candidates or legislation that restricts rights, healthcare, or supports concentration camps, I’m out. Not the place for me.

If they are genuinely trying to make the world a better place, with their product or service and beyond, I keep researching. I dig around on the website and the PR wires to find the person who heads the department I want to work with. I do a bit of research on the person.

Then, I craft an LOI about what I like about the company, what I do, how I think it would make the company’s life easier, and why my unique background makes me an unusual, but strong choice.

Off goes the letter (by email, whenever possible).

On they go to the postcard list, for the direct mail reminders. I’ll often do a follow-up two to four weeks later. Usually, I’ve heard back before then. The best companies always respond, even if it’s along the lines of they don’t need me at this time, or they handle it in-house. When a company doesn’t respond, it’s a red flag. They may not be all they’re trying to portray.

I do two versions of the postcard, as I believe I’ve mentioned before. One is for potential clients. One is for clients with whom I’ve worked.

I revisit the text before each mailing and tweak as needed.

The direct mail postcard usually gets a 25% response, which is high. People like getting mail. They also like it when it’s friendly and cheerful, instead of a negative hard sell.

Sometimes, it’s three or four years before a prospect becomes a client, but persistence, especially positive persistence, pays off.

What are some of your favorite ways to prospect clients?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Before the LOI

Recent conversations with fellow freelancers have included discussions on how to decide where to send one’s LOIs. Because I work in different arenas — the business equivalent of working across genre lines — I thought I’d share some of my experiences.

What Do I Want?

The flippant answer is, of course, the gig. But it’s more complicated than that.

It goes back to the work we did on our personal strategic plan. What do I want?

I want to tell stories that engage and enlarge audiences for business people and creatives who are passionate about their work. I want to help them spread the message.

That means I have to give a damn about what they do, and I have to trust their ethics. Plenty of writers don’t have to care, they sit down and write the gig. It’s about craft and communicating the client’s passion, and has little to do with their own. More power to them. My best work is when I also care about what I’m writing about — whether it’s forwarding a non-profit’s mission or extolling a client’s new product. I need to give a damn.

Ethics-wise, I have turned down high-paid gigs because I would be writing to promote something I believed was wrong. To accept the job, the money, and do the work, I would not be true to myself. Therefore, I am not the best person for the job, and refused the job.

If another writer chooses to write against what they believe in for the cash, that is their choice. I don’t live in their skins; they don’t live in mine. We have to make the decisions we need to make, for the various reasons we make them.

In addition, I want to be paid a fair price for the job. I want to be paid on time, as a professional in the field. This is my business, my livelihood, not my hobby. I have the right to enjoy my job. To say that people who love their jobs “don’t need” to be paid for them is ridiculous. So is saying writing isn’t a “real job.”

I want reasonable working hours and decent working conditions. I want to be treated with respect and dignity.

Who Needs My Skills & Do They Meet My Needs?

That’s where research comes in. I keep an eye out for companies and businesses that do interesting things. Sometimes it’s in the arts; sometimes it’s environmental/conservation/non-profit. Sometimes it’s a small business with a product or service. As I said, I do many different things. I’m interested in many different things.

Sometimes I meet someone at a networking event. Or I see a listing for a company and decide to do some research. If I like what I see, I write an LOI introducing myself, why I’m excited about the company, and where I think my skills might be a positive addition to their team.

I don’t bash what they’re doing or demean their current team. I’m there to help them, not get someone fired.

Research

I also dig a bit to find out what negative comments are made about the company, personnel, mission, or product. Then, I try to look at it in context. There are many reasons someone might have a bad experience. Is this something with evidence I can further research? Or a bad match and this is lashing out? It’s not always easy to find out; that’s where I trust my instincts.

I read a lot & try to keep up to date on who’s doing what where, who moves from position to position, how companies change their branding and business models. I also listen at networking events. Sometimes, a throwaway comment over a glass of wine and a crab puff can give you more information than a profile in a business mag.

Quite a bit of work goes into the LOI. It has to, or it’s not worth it for the recipient to respond. Well-researched, well-written introductions can set the stage for a positive partnership. Maybe it won’t be next week. Maybe it will be six months or a year down the line.

But long-term is as important as short-term. We could go into bad garden analogies here, but you get the idea.

How do you decide who to target? Or who not to target, when you create your LOIs?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Context and Boundaries

One of the things that has puzzled me over the last few months is that more and more LOIs, which go directly to the appropriate person at a company, are turned over to third party recruiters. Who then contact me and waste my time, trying to get me to do stuff that has nothing to do with my profession.

I am a WRITER.

Contacting me about jobs in accounting or sales or truck driving (yes, truck driving) is not appropriate.

Neither is acting like I am at your beck and call.

Neither is asking me about my current salary, which is none of your damn business. It’s also illegal in some states. The fact you’re CALLING from a state where it isn’t illegal doesn’t mean I have to answer the question. My answer is that my rate is X for Y work.

Salary and rate are different. If I committed to a single company, I have particular salary and benefit expectations. I’m happy to share those with you, even though I know there’s nothing like that on offer. If you did, you wouldn’t be contacting me with something vague that has nothing to do with writing. If I’ve sent an LOI as a freelancer, and you turn me over to a third party recruiter, these questions are ridiculous.

I don’t have my resume posted. I did that once, prompted by someone at the Career Center when my position was eliminated at the library. In four hours, I got three dozen inappropriate and sometimes threatening emails about things that had NOTHING to do with my profession (but some had plenty to do with the Oldest Profession).  I took my resume down and deleted my account. I don’t use LinkedIn (which I find useless and confining for what I do). 

I don’t know where some of these people got my information. I’ve asked, and some said, “Oh, you sent B at Company J a letter about what you do, and he passed it on and asked me to talk to you.” But the conversation has nothing to do with the letter — which was written after I researched the company, so it’s not like I’m just throwing spaghetti at the wall, people. I’ve done my homework.

If I’ve sent an LOI about copywriting needs, don’t have someone to contact me and ask if I’ll work a booth at a trade show for minimum wage. That’s not copywriting. Nor is minimum wage my rate.

I actually had a RECRUITER say to me, “Well, it’s not like writing is a REAL job.”

I ended the conversation right there.

On Monday night, my phone pinged, just before 8 PM. Right before end of day on the West Coast, so I figured it might be something someone wanted to get off the desk before walking out the door. It’s well after business hours for me here. It’s pretty clear from my LOIs and online information that I’m in the Eastern Standard Time zone.

I looked at the email. A recruiter, by the signature line. Not someone with whom I’ve interacted before. A single-line question, without context. A VAGUE question. No reference to what kind of position or company to which this question connects.

I glanced at it and put the phone aside. Something to deal with during my business day on Tuesday. I’d ask some questions and get context so I could give an appropriate answer.

Twenty-three minutes later, I got another email, calling me unprofessional for not answering the first email yet.

As tempting as it was, I did not respond with something snarky. OR with an apology (which, trust me, wasn’t going to happen).

Instead on Tuesday, I sent my response, not getting defensive or sarcastic (which meant I rewrote it a few times), asking for context: what company/position is this in regard to, where did they get my information, etc. I also added a line stating I was not available outside of regular business hours without prior arrangement, except in emergencies.

I got a response a few hours later, telling me I should be grateful I was even contacted, the company does not negotiate, and it is a privilege to work for them.

Negotiate what?

I still have no idea to which company they’re referring. So I sent a response, “Whatever this is in reference to, I’m not the right person for the assignment. Thank you for your interest.”

I got a return email berating me for my attitude and unprofessionalism.

I deleted it.

I still have no idea as to what the initial email referenced.

I doubt it’s the loss of my dream job.

But the entire exchange leaves me shaking my head.

Had the email arrived with context (company involved, a precise question instead of a vague one, why the recruiter contacted me, and how they found me), I could have answered promptly on Tuesday morning. Had there been a request to answer that night, I probably would have responded.

But the construction and the scolding? Huge red flag.

Obviously, they need a writer to craft correspondence.

I hope they find that which they seek.

I am not it.

That’s just fine with me.

What situations have you been in where you needed to ask for context and demand boundaries?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Trust Your Instincts

This will be a short post. Lots of things are up in the air right now, and we’ll see where we are when they settle.

As I’m having meetings and making new contacts, I’ve learned to trust my instincts more. When a red flag comes up, or when my gut tells me something is not right, I’m listening more and more. It’s saving me a world of pain.

Yes, it means I’m not landing some assignments. Actually, it means I’ve pulled myself from consideration on a few projects, because I knew they would be a bad choice. The potential client and I were not the right fit. Moving forward ONLY because I want the paycheck, would have been the wrong choice in the long run.

Each situation was different; some of the red flags were similar, some not. But the gut feeling of “wrong” was there. I listened. As I’m making these choices, the good meetings are even more positive. I’m redefining what I want and need from a work situation. I’m refusing to settle.

Settling doesn’t do either me or the client any good. Both parties need to want the best from and for a project. When it feels wrong, walk away.

One of the most helpful resources I’ve found lately is Liz Ryan of The Human Workplace. Follow her on Twitter. Use the resources on her site. Her commitment to dignity in the workplace and positive solutions are terrific.

On the flip side, I came across an article in a business magazine by a supposed HR expert. A reader had questions about red flags that came up in the interview experience. The HR “expert” ripped her a new one for unrealistic expectations. I found only one of the red flags in the interview process “unrealistic” (the interview didn’t start until 10 minutes later than scheduled, which sometimes happens). The rest of the flags were, to me, big reasons to worry.

The tone of the article was snarky in the wrong way, and deeply anti-worker, in my opinion. I’m not linking back to it because I didn’t keep track. But then I reminded myself it was written by an HR “expert” and appeared in a business publication. Of course it would be pro-management and anti-worker. The basic premise of the article was, “You should be grateful we deigned to give you an interview and take whatever’s offered, whether you like it or not.”

Yes, that’s the way too many businesses are run. When they whine about “not enough skilled workers” remember that if the people searching for those workers are going to treat them poorly and without dignity, the truly skilled will go elsewhere.

Trust your instincts. Learn the protocols of whatever business you want to work in. Make sure your instincts align with being treated with basic dignity and courtesy.

That will help you find the best fit possible.

Is this a pipe dream? What if you’re in desperate straits and have to take something, anything to keep a roof over your head? If that’s your current situation, and you have to take a subpar offer, do so. But don’t get stuck there. Keep searching. The minute you get something better, go. The days of 20 years with the same company and mutual loyalty are long gone. Too many companies believe that everyone is irrelevant and replaceable. While we are all replaceable, even though each individual brings something unique to the table, none of us are irrelevant.

Note: There have been some issues with the contact form on this site, with commenting, and adding the recaptcha in. The host and I are working on it. It’s frustrating, because they have me in an endless loop of repeating things that don’t work, but we’re working on it.

You can email me or connect on twitter @ink_fearless if you need to get in touch quickly while we fix things. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Ink-Dipped Advice: The New Face of An Old Problem

Content mills are back. They’ve never really left, but most freelancers who actually want to establish a real career in this professon turned their backs on these mills.

However, they’ve returned. Rebranded as agencies that provide content to help small companies grow.

Perhaps some of them actually do this. But the ones I’ve researched thus far (because it sounded like they were legitimately hiring freelance writers for a variety of interesting projects) have this in common:

They GROSSLY underpay writers.

One of them gave me a per-piece quote. The price seemed low unless it was a REALLY short piece. So I asked about word count. They wanted a word count that turned the per-word rate for the piece into .03/word.

No, thanks.

They also wanted a commitment of 5-6 articles per week, at 1.5-3K/article.

At a rate that works out to .03/word.

Oh, there’s more: they have to approve a certain number of sources per article. Which, to me, echoes a publication I quit when they told me I could only mention ad buyers in my articles.

That’s not how it works, people.

Article sources aren’t tied to the advertising budget of the publication. Sources are relevant to the veracity of the article.

Then there’s the agency supposedly “hiring” freelancers. Yet when they put out a call for an assignment, they will “submit” you (but only if you have project specific samples) and then you have to do the negotiation with the client. Why do I need someone to submit me if the rate we discussed and agreed upon for me to come and work under your company’s banner has nothing to do with any of the assignments?

“You have to work your way up to our agreed rates through a series of client-managed assignments.”

No, actually, I don’t.

I can pitch directly to clients with whom I think I’d be a good fit. Cut out the middle man. No worries about the agreed-upon rate being changed.

Many of these companies have slick websites that look and sound good until you break down the market-speak. One of these even made one of the local lists about being a one of the top local companies. Yet when you strip away Adobe Flash, it’s still a content mill.

Needless to say, run for the hills when they try to lure in the business by saying they provide content at low rates. Red flag. Right there.

Be careful. Beware. Trust your instincts. Go directly to the companies that need writers. Avoid “agencies” who want to pimp you out cheaply while they profit.

UPDATE: There’s a a problem with the reCaptcha — my host is working on it. In the meantime, freelancer Paula Hendrickson had this to add:

“I was talking about this exact thing this morning—how content mills that paid $5 per “article” seem to have been replaced by content agencies that might pay $50 per “article,” often for an undefined scope or length. They tout how much you can earn per month by writing 10 articles per week, while glossing over the fact that they’re probably keeping more than half what their clients are paying them while you’re working full time for less than minimum wage.  That doesn’t allow  you time to seek out better-paying clients on your own, which perpetuates the cycle.
They might call themselves “agencies” now. They may have realized that they can’t get decent copy at $5 a pop, and increased their rates from pathetically low to super low. But it’s still a mill system: pay providers the smallest amount of money possible, demand a high output of product, then sell their product for as much as you can milk out of it and keep the profits for yourself.”

Ink-Dipped Advice: Fred Needs a Writer: Chapter 6 — The Right Writer (and Graphic Designer) for the Job

Our story so far: Small business owner Fred needs a part-time marketing writer for his floor installation business. After advice from his friend, he put an ad on Craigslist and got a variety of responses. He asked for writing samples specific to his company; he received some, but his first choice of writer refused to do one for free. He interviewed several candidates. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and he’s not sure which one will be the right fit. He hires Brianna. At first, he’s happy, but lately, he feels like she’s not giving him the time and attention the job needs. At a Chamber of Commerce meeting, he runs into his first choice, and decides to meet and see how they’d work together.

Our final chapter: Fred discovers he’s nervous before his meeting with Jenny and Gretchen. He decides to stop at the bakery to get coffee and treats.

The meeting itself surprises him. After a few minutes, he forgets it’s a meeting. Jenny and Gretchen ask him questions about his business, about how it started and was passed down in the family. He finds himself telling anecdotes he’d long forgotten, and making notes to dig in the old albums for photographs.

He likes the way Jenny says, “There are several ways we could approach this” and then talks about the different ways. He likes that there are genuine differences.

“I like what I do,” he says. “I like my customers. Maybe it’s old-fashioned to like one’s customers, but I don’t think they’re stupid. I try to give them a floor that will look good, wear well, and help them live a good life. It’s not the most important job in the world, but then, most people don’t spend as much time thinking about floors all day as I do.”

He’s shocked that the women find this delightful. He’s shy when he brings out the ideas and the budget he put together. “It’s not much of a budget,” he admits, “but I’m not sure what things cost.”

“The point is to get the best results where you put your money,” says Jenny. “We can track the data, and interpret it, and see if it gets the results you want. If and when it doesn’t, we change direction. The most important thing is to capture your voice, your personality, your passion for your work, and spread it to the widest audience.”

They chart out an initial, six-month campaign that mixes articles, blog posts, direct mail, email blasts, and social media. They add a series of discount codes for new customers who come to them through one of the channels, so they can see who comes through which channel. They will buy a couple of ads in local publications. Jenny encourages Fred to set up another library talk (which she will promote), about sustainable floor materials. She knows of a library hosting a series of sustainability talks, and she thinks his would fit in nicely.

They make some adjustments in the budget, but it’s workable for Fred. Jenny and Gretchen’s fees are higher than anyone else he interviewed, but he likes their talent and enthusiasm.

The next day, Jenny forwards over a contract. This time, Fred reads it with care. It is what they discussed, although overnight he re-considered one or two points. They discuss the points, agree on a compromise, and sign. Fred sends a deposit. Fred tells Brianna he’s “changing direction.” He never even gets a response. At Jenny’s suggestion, he changes all his passwords.

Most of the work is done remotely, although Jenny is around to talk to the staff, pick up photographs, and she and Gretchen oversee a photo shoot with a professional photographer. Everything arrives on time, and it’s even better than Fred hoped.

“You’re paying those girls too much,” snorts Kurt. “And for what?”

“They’re professional women and delivering good quality work,” says Fred. “They’re worth it.”

Kurt mutters a few things about feminism, and Fred doesn’t pay attention. Maybe he should challenge Kurt, but it’s not worth the energy.

Jenny warned him that direct mail usually gets about a 3% rate. He is happily surprised when his gets a 7% rate. The showroom is hopping, and he has plenty to keep his staff busy. His social media response rate is about 4%, still above the average.

“We’ll learn and tweak,” Jenny promises.

Fred does another interview, this time with a regional newspaper. That generates even more business. An online publication responds to one of Jenny’s press releases, and that piece gets him more visibility. He’s asked to speak at the Elks Club, and then to present at a home sustainability conference. He’s even a featured speaker for the Chamber one month. Kurt makes fun of him, but Fred doesn’t care. The library invites him back for a panel discussion with all the sustainability speakers.

“I’m not much of a speaker,” Fred worries.

“You understand your topic, and you’re a good guy,” says Jenny. “That translates.”

He hires her to help him craft a few things she calls “talking points” and he calls “cue cards” that help keep him on track for the speeches.

Reporters start contacting him to ask him for quotes about topics on floors and sustainability. Fred starts reading more, and spending more time studying RENEWABLE ENERGY magazine and on the website for the American Council on Renewable Energy. He also talks about projects that can use flooring that’s ripped out of a site and repurposed into other objects.

The website is freshened, there’s regular interaction on social media (Jenny sends him a weekly report, summarizing any conversations she thinks he should know about; she also immediately forwards any information if someone mentions interest in the product).

Jenny encourages his desire to send clients holiday cards by mail. She suggests he segment his list between clients and prospects, with a different card and message on each type.

Fred is surprised. Clients are pleased to hear from him. Some of the prospects ask if they can set up appointments after the holidays.

“There will be times when things level off,” said Jenny. “Then we’ll come up with something fresh, and we’ll make some more gains.”

“Kurt said we’re bound to fail because people don’t need new floors very often,” said Fred. “He thinks I should install floors that will need replacing after a few years. But I don’t want to install low quality floors.”

“Stick to the quality of your product,” Jenny advises. “You’re becoming an expert source. People trust you.”

That’s the part Fred likes. He gets to meet new and interesting people, who like hearing about floors. His website and mail pieces reflect things he cares about. He can keep his workers employed steadily and even give them a raise. He can talk to Jenny and Gretchen honestly. They don’t make him feel old or out-of-touch. They can take some of his stodgier ideas and put a retro flair spin on them. He enjoys learning new things, and enjoys communicating

Fred and his business are both thriving because his message is successfully communicated to the right audience by the right people.

It’s worth the price.

It took him awhile, but he made the right choice.

What are your best freelance experiences, as the client, or the freelancer? I’d love to hear about them here.

Ink-Dipped Advice: 18th Anniversary of 9/11


image courtesy of web-36reg via pixabay.com

I will never get over the events of 9/11. Forty-two people I knew died that day.  I learn to live with it.

I also schedule as little as possible that day out of respect.

For me, life “going on” doesn’t mean that I book appointments that day like any other day. I do what I need to do to show respect for the day and the dead.

Everyone has to deal with this day in a way that works for them. This is how it works for me.

I will be back with the next chapter of Fred Needs a Writer next Wednesday.

Peace, my friends. Let’s hope we can build a better world before it’s too late.