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Monday, November 30, 2015

Setting Up Writing Success for 2016

What's on the iPod: Running on Empty by Jackson Browne

How was your Thanksgiving? I was able to head home (great weather for it) and visit my parents. My dad is dealing with emphysema and lungs filled with asbestos, so every visit is a gift right now. You don't realize how quickly time passes until you see a parent at the tail end of their earthly journey.

I never know what song will pop up on my iPod just before I write a post. The Jackson Browne song is appropriate in many ways, but especially for freelance writers. In December, we're usually running on empty, aren't we? Empty wallets, an empty desk, empty client pipeline....

If you've not planned ahead and are needing to make money right now, it's often the worst month to do so. Not impossible, but it sure sucks trying to get clients thinking of starting new projects when many are winding down their fiscal year. Not all, but plenty of companies use December 31st as their year end.

But this post is about looking ahead, not behind. You could cruise through December and hope for the heavens to rain down projects on you. Or you could schedule things now that help you come that much closer to starting the new year with a healthy earnings stream.

Here are a few ways to get projects lined up for your new year:

Ask for post-New Year commitments. Especially those clients that have been stringing you along for a while could use a nudge. Now is the time to get on the phone (I'm afraid so -- phone calls work) and ask to get some written arrangement signed for. Sweeten the pot with a 10-15 percent discount if they sign before December 20th.

Suggest some additional projects. That client who has been sending steady work your way mentioned a while ago that he wanted a blog. So why not map out about 10 ideas (just ideas -- don't give away everything without a written commitment) and suggest that you could start writing anywhere from one per week to one per month for them. Or maybe your client could benefit from a quarterly newsletter or a website refresh. Put together a healthy-looking brain dump and pass it along. Then follow up with a phone call (in fact, it doesn't hurt to ask for a call as you send the ideas).

Get article ideas circulating. Many of the magazines I write for expended their annual freelance budgets about a month ago. However, January is so ridiculously close. Why not propose an article for either January or February? I have one I'm working on that's due Feb. 1. Nothing like knowing February already has a $2K head start.

Look farther ahead. Whether it's a conference or a particular holiday or event, hit up your clients now with ideas for that trade show or those webinars/podcasts they'll need. They don't have to act on them now, but that you're thinking ahead sure eases their burden.

Continue your usual marketing. Not everyone lets a holiday slow down their production, and you may have clients or prospects who are needing writing help now. Keep marketing and following up, and do so wisely -- look for those companies that have a heavy output of communication pieces through past Decembers, or those with ongoing content/proofing/editing needs.

Writers, how do you use the slow periods, be it December or otherwise?
What's your best marketing method for securing future work?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Guest Post Don'ts

What's on the iPod: Have Love, Will Travel by The Sonics

It's a short, slow week. I'll be traveling this holiday, as many of you may be. For me, I had decadent amounts of free time, so I was able to get some side project work done, sift through emails, and relax a bit.

A few of those emails were requests for guest posts. I get an unusual number of requests every week, and most of them are deleted. Sound harsh? Not at all -- if these emails came to your in box, you'd probably do the same.

They're from various sources, but the majority are from companies, people pitching ideas that don't come close to fitting, people telling me their terms for guest posting (and it's usually terms the content generation service they work for demand of them), or the ever-personal "Hi," with no name or obvious understanding of this blog.

So for every company, company hack, or link-seeker who's about to pitch an idea to this blog or any other blog, this post is for you.

All my freelance writing (and blogging) friends want to send you this message -- save your breath.

Here are the don'ts you need to study:

Don't ignore guidelines. Right there to the right of this post is a link to this blog's guidelines. If you're too lazy to avert your gaze, here's the link. Read it. If you see anything in the "don't" list that applies to you, don't bother.

Don't go off topic. Seriously, I do not publish articles on college education, car hiring, tourism, human resources, logistics, recruitment, staffing..... It's a writing and editing blog. If you can't get this part correct, I've no faith that the final product will be relevant or original.

Don't pretend to know me. Despite what you say, you haven't read my blog. Compliments that are non-specific -- "interesting and informative" -- are a rather transparent attempt to schmooze your way into getting your link-laden article some bandwidth. Blog readers who actually read the blog are easy to spot.

Don't be a company. Even though the guidelines here say " companies. At all", you still send your ideas and promise relevance. Oh, and most of you say "We are dedicated to providing relevant content..." You lost me at "we."

Don't expect something in return. Here's the best part -- you contacted me. So on first contact, you're telling me you'll supply that "high-quality content" (the correct hyphenation inserted by me) in exchange for "dofollow" links. I like staying on Google's good side, so don't come at me with terms I'm not complying with.

Don't bring up Copyscape. Any writer who works as a pro would never promise to pass Copyscape. That should be a given. The minute you promise to pass Copyscape, you reveal that there's a question about the originality that would require Copyscape.

Writers, what are your don'ts?
What are some of the weirdest guest post requests you've seen?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

4 Places to Find Missing Freelance Opportunities

What's on the iPod: Sugar by Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds

It's been a nice, slow week. I've been wanting to get to some personal projects, so I took full advantage of the free time.

Right now I'm revamping one of my websites. When I got to the contact page, I went blank (don't we all?). I wanted it to be more than just the usual "Here's where to connect with me" but how?

Welcome to today's post topic -- where you and I are missing freelance writing opportunities that are right in front of us. Instead, we sit with the tools (and connections) without recognizing them for what they are -- potential money-making tools.

Here are a few ways you're missing out on existing client or potential client work:

Your website. Specifically, your Contact page. My contact page used to look just like this -- links to my Twitter and LinkedIn pages, maybe an email contact form, and if I was feeling brave, a phone number. How expected. Now, I have a section that invites potential clients to tell me their dreams: what project would you like to finish? How can I help?

Also, don't forget to look your website over with a critical eye. If you can't see beyond what you think has been a great design for the last five years, ask for feedback from your support community. What type of client are you trying to attract? Does your image reflect what they'd like to see/expect to see?

Contacts who aren't clients. The first time you convert a contact into a client, you don't have to be told again to look where your relationships already exist. You have interview sources, Twitter followers, company contacts, LinkedIn forum connections, etc. If you've had meaningful interactions with them, go on. Ask how you might help them or someone they know. It's a great way to remind them of your skills beyond those they know already. (I'm reminded of a conversation with a long-time colleague where he said "I had no idea you did marketing copy!" Imagine the referral juice/project work I'd lost as a result.)

Products/services people are asking for. So you've entertained the "Gee, I wish this existed" conversations with contacts and clients. If it's within your skill set, create it. If it isn't, what would it take for you to learn it and create what's needed? Every person's wish list is your opportunity to meet a need. Listen for the cues.

Article follow-ups/spin-offs. Wouldn't it be great to go back to that editor who loved your article on the National Flood Insurance Program and see if he wants a follow-up look at the topic? Well, I did and he did. The result -- two sales from one idea. I've done it a number of times, and it's not cheating if your editor wants to revisit the same topic. Plus, you have contacts already and the review is contained in your original piece.

The same goes for spin-off topics. You can spin off your own idea into a related one for a different publication, or you could locate that unanswered question in someone else's article and pitch a story that answers that question.

Writers, in what unexpected places do you find freelance opportunities?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

4 Habits Keeping You Locked in Low-paying Freelance Work

What's on the iPod: Different Drum by The Stone Poneys w/ Linda Ronstadt

For the first time in a while, I'm glad to see a weekend behind me. Last week, my dad ended up hospitalized (he's home now). He has serious lung issues -- asbestos and emphysema -- and he was having trouble breathing. He's on oxygen, but for some reason it wasn't helping. So my mother called the ambulance.

She'd have driven him herself, but she's nursing a stress fracture in her back from a fall, not to mention two discs overlapping in her spine. My mother is tough -- she walked for four months on a broken pelvis, partly out of stubbornness, partly because she didn't want to hassle with Canadian health care (and wait for her American insurer to pay the claim when she got home).

But this, this has her leveled. She's about to turn 80. My dad is 81. I'm five hours away. Let's just say worry was my weekend.

So I concentrated on other things, such as the holiday party we attended (I diverted my attention with cooking). I was able to read (and I'm reading a best seller that, frankly, sucks) and clean the house a little.

I read some LinkedIn forums, as well. It's amazing just how many would-be writers (or more disturbing, working writers) think that any job is better than no job. Let me quote what I learned decades ago when I was in real estate training:

If you start selling low-priced houses, you'll always be selling low-priced houses.

In reality, it was more like "you'll become known as the agent who sells low-priced houses." Either way, in real estate, that makes sense. People whose homes were not the highest valued in town didn't hang out with people whose houses were worth a lot more. Referrals kept you going laterally (if not lower) on the food chain. That matters to a real estate salesperson, whose commission is directly related to the price buyers pay for the house.

It makes sense in the freelance writing world, too. We don't earn commissions, but we do earn a fee. That fee is directly related to the client's ability to pay. Yes, we've all taken low-paying stuff at the beginning, and sometimes just to get by, but know this -- chasing the low-hanging fruit nets you the same kind of client.

Here are a few habits that could be holding you back:

You take whatever comes. That's not necessarily awful in the beginning, but if you've ever continued to work with that client who won't pay nearly enough, you're holding yourself back. Take that experience you've just earned and go find a client who needs that same experience and who's willing to pay more for it. If you're needing to take the low-paying work, set an end date in your head, and look at the job as a stepping stone -- take it if the work you're doing is needed by higher-paying clients.

You divulge too quickly what you've been paid. Personally, I have never worked with any client who has asked what I've been paid by previous clients. I don't think it's anyone's business what agreement you had with another client. I myself would ask why they need to know that -- no reason ever why you have to answer those types of questions, and their answer would reveal quite a bit. But if their answer is acceptable, such as "I simply don't know how to price this and I need to understand what others are paying", then I would be inclined to answer like so: "That's confidential information protected by a written agreement."

You doubt your ability to do better. It's a risk to stick your neck out, but guess what? Anyone who has ever succeeded sat where you are right now and made the decision to go for it. Give yourself what I call the "What the hell" moment -- try, knowing you can always come back to the beginning if it doesn't work ( won't be back).

You're too focused on the present. It's easy to get tangled up in "I have to earn now" thinking. Getting a freelance writing career off the ground is rough, especially if it's your only source of income. But are you also focusing on building relationships elsewhere? Always be thinking of connections now that could be future sources of work or referrals. Social media makes it ridiculously easy to befriend people who work for (or are) your ideal clients.

Writers, how did you progress your career?
How long did it take you?
What would you do differently if you could?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Free Advice Friday: Writer Advice that Could be Hurting You

What's on the iPod: More Than a Feeling by Boston

It's been quite the week. I didn't have a ton of work, but I had a lot of busy stuff. So far, I've had two evening events/outings, and there's another tomorrow. It's not even Thanksgiving and parties are starting.

It's Friday, and time for another edition of Free Advice Friday. Actually, every day is a free-advice day. Today is no different, except in the title.

Since this post series was a direct result of something that got under my skin a bit, I wanted to return to that theme. I'd seen a few writers, who were newbies themselves not so long ago, offering to "help" their colleagues by charging them for advice. I get it, and yes, we all deserve to make money. If someone is willing to pay, who am I to say?

But this was different. This was a continual deluding of the audience into believing that these "experts" had all the answers (and the only answers, as a few of them framed it), and that their advice would be solid, actionable advice that would improve a writer's career. And in one or two cases, it was the continuation of that theme to ridiculous levels. 

Again, if you're willing to put down your hard-earned bucks, your choice. But where I take exception is in some of the methods that are being taught to some pretty green writers who wouldn't know just how bad that advice is.

You've seen what I've seen, I'd bet: promises of response rates, conversion rates, and "This will work for you, too!" pronouncements. Or my personal peeve, the overstated bullshit that under-delivers every time: "Try this one method that GUARANTEES your freelance success!" or "I changed one thing and it doubled my income!" Then you find out it's something ridiculously mundane like "I sat down and wrote!"

Are we really that gullible? I say no. We are smart writers who can sift through the schlock statements and over-promises.

Before you buy in to the idea of a one-size-fits-all solution or a quick fix for your career, remember these things:

Duplicating other people's efforts is impossible. There is no way Jane, who's a type A personality and a people person by nature, can change Ralph, who is a bit melancholic and would rather chew off his arm than call a prospective client, into a cold calling genius. Maybe Ralph will get over some of his trepidation and yes, pick up some new clients, but his nature isn't going to change, nor will he ever duplicate the response rates and conversion rates of another writer who has a completely different business model and approach. There's only so much you can mirror before you have to create your own approach.

The problem with nearly every failed attempt can be traced back to consistency. Sure, Jane can get Ralph to pick up a phone and maybe even be good at it, but if Ralph doesn't do that on a regular basis, he's just wasted his money. The same goes for your method, her method, his method, and my method. Regular attempts net better results. Think of it in sports terms -- the more times you attempt to score, the more times you actually will.

Not every answer is found in the writing profession. While many writers have built and maintain successful businesses, there are few (if any) who have all the answers. Mix up where you get your information. Try reading books or blogs by people who have careers based on what you want to know about -- marketers, sales pros, entrepreneurs, insurance brokers, accountants, you name it. Look outside writing for benchmarks: you’re looking for concepts you can apply to your business.

If everyone is running left, it's time to run right. Sure, those long sales pages may work for the three people you know, or maybe surgical instrument manufacturing is the hottest specialty out there. But for how long? And if you aren't all that enamored with it, why bother? Diversify because you want to, not because you're trying to chase the tail everyone else is clinging to. Instead, create your own way and own it.

Your business isn't like any other business. Don't make the mistake of thinking you must have your business achieving the same growth rate as another writer's business. It doesn't matter how long it takes you to grow a business -- it matters what you're growing (and how). Your specialty may require more time, or less time, than your colleague's specialty. Every business is different -- let yours be what it is and stop trying to shoehorn it into some overpaid guru's notion of what it should look like.

Writers, what hurtful advice or actions have you seen?
What advice would you have for writers who aren't sure what advice to take?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why Marketing Trends May Fail You

What I'm reading: Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff
What's on the iPod: Skinny Love by Birdy

You can tell the holiday season is approaching. Weekends are starting to book up with events (even weekdays -- we have an event tonight). Trying to fit it all in becomes a bit of a juggle, but I love it. We spent this last weekend (probably the only free weekend we'll have for a while) walking. We took advantage of a sunny, cool day and managed just over five miles in one of the state parks nearby.

Now back to work.

We talked last week about the 4 marketing mistakes that could sink our best efforts. At one point I mentioned marketing trends. To me, marketing trends can be great--until they're awful.

Let me explain. It's like any good thing. It works, so more people decide "I'll try that!" and for a while, it works for them, too. Then more people, and still more....and pretty soon that trend is tired, stale, overused and boring.

It's become cliche, which is clearly not what you want from a marketing plan.

You've seen the signs already, I'm sure -- this course/webinar/workshop is full, so get on the (imaginary) waiting list (where voila! a space just opened up!); hurry, just two seats left (for an online session that clearly has as many "seats" as one wants/can pay for); your private invitation/invitation for just a few select people (which has probably gone out to hundreds).... it's too much, too phony, and too desperate. Does it work? Sure. But think how much better it works when you apply these types of methods/messaging lightly (and honestly).

Case in point -- currently, I receive regular email marketing from two different entities. One email comes in periodically, offers some great (free) advice, and includes a link to a paid offer, which I've taken advantage of once or twice. Why I love it  -- the marketer understands how to appeal to the audience. Give value first, then offer more for a price. Nothing wrong with that, right? Plus, the messages come once a month -- infrequently enough that every time one comes in, I open it.

Conversely, the second email comes in three to five times every week. To be fair, I get two emails from this marketer on a regular, weekly basis....until I click on a link. Then suddenly the floodgates open and the emails increase in frequency. While the emails will, on occasion, offer free advice (links to recordings, blog posts, etc.), the majority of the emails are flat-out sales attempts. While that's okay, the frequency coupled with the "One last chance!" type of messaging, which does work if applied correctly, has me groaning every time I see yet another email. This company may have something of value to me, but I've stopped listening. Ironically, this marketer is also offering value first, then more for a price. However, the message is so frequent and "urgent" and "Hey, don't forget" that I've lost interest.

And before you say "But Lori, marketing is about following up on warm leads!", know that in both cases, I am the target audience -- I'm the potential customer. In Case #1, I'm eager to see what's been sent. In Case #2, I have actually said out loud, "Seriously? Enough already!"

Yes, I've purchased from both entities. No, I'm no longer interested in entity 2, despite the company having what I need. And forget adjusting message frequency -- the options are subscribe/unsubscribe. The latter is about to happen.

In my marketing courses at college, I learned how to do exactly as both of these marketers are doing. Offer something for free, collect contact info, then follow through with a paid offer later on. Warm contacts are especially great as these are people who have just expressed interest. They came to you. And those are the people you want to concentrate on for follow-up conversion.

But it's a dance. You can't grab this new person by the arm, drag them to the dance floor, then attempt to tango. You have to build trust. Why should I trust someone who has sent me one email offering something free, then hounded me to spend oodles of money on the real product? If it's that good, you won't need to hound.

The same goes for our writing services. I get writers asking quite often "How do I give them my price without chasing them away?"

You can't. You can never guarantee that the person you're contacting will buy, let alone buy at your price. You can do one thing only -- present your background and your price, and stop talking.

Had marketer #2 stopped talking, and maybe sent one reminder instead of five, there's a really good chance I'd have bought. However, the more this entity got in touch, the less confidence I had in the service. The perception was this marketing method was an example of the material I'd be purchasing, and since I didn't appreciate it, I wasn't sold.

It's okay to try a trend if you think it fits with what you're offering, how you're offering it, and to whom you're offering. But ask yourself these questions:

  • Is my message, including frequency, in line with my image?
  • Is my audience going to be receptive to the marketing/delivery method I've chosen?
  • Am I sending a message of value or of desperation?
  • Am I being honest, or am I using deceptive wording to create a sense of urgency?
Writers, what marketing methods have you seen that are turning you off?

Friday, November 06, 2015

4 Marketing Mistakes Freelancers Make

What's on the iPod: The Hook by Blues Traveler

Where did this week go? I'm not busy -- in fact, I'm not busy to the point where it's becoming a bit of a concern. I have stalled projects, which means I have plenty of time to get some smaller, one-off stuff out the door. However, it's the height of conference season in one industry I follow, so getting someone "home" to answer the email is difficult.

So instead, I wasted entirely too much time revamping one of my websites. I had one small project to finish, but after that and some marketing, I was able to fuss with site design. Too much.

Marketing went well, and I found myself on LinkedIn connecting to new people whose companies I've worked with in the past. I like to make more than one connection in a company. If the person I'm used to working with leaves (as happened in this case), I'll have a few more people and won't have to re-establish a connection.

And you know me -- I didn't go into the conversations with sales in mind. Maybe that's why they agreed to connect with me.

It's funny how marketing every day makes you aware of the marketing efforts of others. I appreciate the really good marketing -- the "soft touch" marketing where someone shows up, offers valuable info or insights, and doesn't beat you over the head with six more message in the same week --that kind of in-your-face marketing may be the trend, but it doesn't appeal to me, the customer. The message, as well as the frequency, is so critical.

So as I watched TV (actually, as I listened from another room), an ad came on. A familiar one, and one I can't stand because of the woman's gestures as she talks. However, from another room, the perspective was completely different. I finally heard the message.

I can't say I was all that impressed.

It's a big company (mega company). The commercial consists of two company execs -- John and Jane Regular, who are talking about what makes the company so great. They talk about how the company thrives thanks to its business principles, which includes treating its suppliers right. Sounds great, doesn't it?

But wait, you say. We're not suppliers, are we? We're consumers. The ad does mention that the products are great quality and there's something for everyone, but the ad misses on a huge level--

It puts the customer out there, but almost as an afterthought. 

In fact, the only real reference to the customer is when they say "trust us." Yet while they think they've told us why to trust them, they really haven't. They've told us about how important their relationships with suppliers is.

What about that one with the customer?

When you forget to appeal to the consumer on a more personal level, there's a problem. Oh sure, the music is heartfelt, and the slogan is supposed to say "Hey, you can trust this company" but I need to know more about why.

That's a great reminder for us to examine our own messages. Are we sending the right message to our intended customers?

Here are four mistakes we could be making that's missing our goals entirely:

1. Not offering value for the customer: Why should clients buy from you? What's in it for them? Every time you put together a marketing message of any kind -- every time -- ask yourself those questions, particularly the second question. If your copy or elevator pitch doesn't provide an answer, revise it until it does. Your marketing should focus on what they need, what you need.

2. Not understanding what your customer wants. Have you ever sent clips that had absolutely nothing to do with the client's business or their needs? If you've sent a white paper on technology to a consumer company that needs viral marketing, congratulations. You've proven how irrelevant your services can be.

3. Not giving potential clients contact options. If your online presence is minuscule to nonexistent, that could be a tough sell for a more tech-savvy audience. If you send marketing materials that offer just one phone number or an email, you've assumed customers have the time (or tools) to reach you in that way. I'm not saying a website and a social media account are essential, but they pretty much are. So yes, I guess I'm saying it.

4. Fishing in the wrong pond. You want to attract prospects who work in the sheet metal industry. So why are you sending marketing pieces to people who own bicycle shops? Or why are you trying to sell white papers and case studies to prospects who deal with fine art? Not saying there isn't some crossover needs, but if you don't research the prospects and you're just blanket marketing, you're wasting time and money.

Writers, what marketing messages are lost on you?
What makes you buy?

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