Relevance still beats SEO

Analytics reveals the power of relevance!I recently started using Yoast SEO, one of the leading search engine optimization plug-ins for WordPress. I have to confess it’s making me a better writer. But it’s also validated something I’ve told clients for years: relevance matters more than anything else.

Many of you know that I think SEO has its limits. Still, clients and prospects keep asking about it. So lately I’ve been diving in and learning more about the art.

The proof is in the numbers

A month or two after I had a few super-optimized blogs posted, I did what every good marketing pro should do: I checked my analytics data. I was eager to see how the new posts were performing. To my surprise, my best-performing story since the beginning of the 2016 was something I wrote two and a half years ago.

In fact, nine out of ten of my top-viewed blogs in the last four months were pieces I had written before I started worrying about SEO. Some of them were written this year, but several dated back to the early days of my current website. Many were pieces I haven’t promoted or linked to in a while. And the SEO-optimized one? It ranked tenth on the list.

Relevance trumps everything

When I looked back over the top performers, I started to smile. They didn’t read like they were written for robots. There were no obvious focus keywords, no “optimized” subheads, and no dehumanized corporate-speak.

What they all had in common was relevance. Every one of them dealt with stuff my readers (mostly designers, writers, freelancers and other marketing professionals) care deeply about. How to get better clients with less effort. Why it’s okay for you to outsource your own marketing. Five ways to stick to deadlines. And a personal favorite: 13 Traits of a Great Ghostwriter.

The top performers were also pieces I really enjoyed writing. They cover topics my readers and I are passionate about, use personal stories, and they speak in my most authentic voice. I firmly believe relevance, not SEO, is the secret of their success — especially the older ones that have been on my site for 2–3 years. And the numbers back me up.

Now I’m not suggesting you throw SEO out the window. In fact, the content you’re reading now makes every indicator in Yoast SEO light up green.

But I will continue to plant my flag in the sand and champion the cause of writing for humans instead of search engines. SEO can lead people to your content, but it can’t make them read it, like it, or pass it on to their friends. The most important part of the process is still knowing your reader. All the hits in the world won’t do you any good if visitors don’t find content they care about when they arrive.

  International Freelancing

international freelancingThanks to the Internet, international freelancing is easier than at any time in history. Here are a few tips to help your business reach across borders.

A world of opportunity

I never set out to become an international freelancer, but over the years I’ve attracted clients from many corners of the globe without ever leaving my office in Cincinnati. I’m currently serving clients in Canada, Spain, Italy, and Dubai. I work with partners in Great Britain, Eastern Europe, and India. Last month I even had a Skype call with a prospect in Sydney, Australia.

International freelancing can be exciting, challenging, and highly satisfying all at the same time. It offers new opportunities. It expands your horizons. It makes you feel like a connected global citizen. While it’s not without a few risks, it’s easier than you might think. And just about any creative pro can do it with a few simple tools.

You don’t have to know the language

Knowing more than one language is an advantage in international freelancing, but it isn’t necessary. Many clients come to me because they want copy written by a native English speaker. They know local partners will help them look and sound more natural while avoiding cross-cultural embarrassments.

Make sure you know who the client’s target market is, and how they prefer to communicate. For example, some of my international clients want American English (“the trunk is organized around the spare tire”), while others prefer British usage (“the boot is organised around the spare tyre”).

Managing communication

Inexpensive ways to communicate have been one of the biggest revolutions for international freelancing. While I still get the occasional long-distance phone call, most of my international clients are savvy about Skype, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts and similar services.

When scheduling meetings, pay close attention to time zones. I’ve found the World Clock on my phone and iPad to be invaluable, especially when there are people in three or more places on a call. Be particularly respectful when someone has to dial in early or late in their workday. You’ll also want to take extra care in spring and fall when some countries have time changes. Not every country switches to Daylight Savings Time on the same weekend, and some don’t have a time change at all.

Finally, make an effort to be aware of cultural practices and holidays that may affect when international clients are available. In the Middle East, for example, the work week typically runs Sunday through Thursday.

Getting paid for international freelancing

There are numerous ways money moves between countries. I find the easiest way to handle international payments is via services like PayPal, Freshbooks, or Wave. You’ll pay a fee for these transfers, but they handle currency conversions for you and give you access to the funds quickly. If you have merchant services set up, they’ll also give your clients the convenience of paying with a credit card.

Checks in foreign currencies are a hassle, and you’ll pay a fee for the conversion that’s typically higher than what PayPal or a merchant service firm will charge. Direct bank transfers are another option, though some clients don’t want to go to the trouble. Once I even waited in line for a payment at a Western Union office, but I prefer to avoid that.

Make it clear up front what currency you’ll be working in. I quote most jobs in US dollars regardless of the client’s country of origin. Be particularly clear if multiple countries use a currency with similar names. For instance, despite occasional parity, US dollars and Canadian dollars usually have a very different value.

  How to write what you DON’T know

Question“Write what you know” is one of the most common bits of advice given to new writers, but it isn’t always the most useful. True, an inexpert writer can quickly lose an audience by saying something that strikes readers as ignorant or inaccurate. But what if you want — or need — to write about something you know nothing about?

There’s no question that personal contact or observation of something gives you an advantage when writing about it. That’s why many clients look for writers who specialize in a particular field or market. There are also some fields — such as science, finance and medicine — where a certain amount of technical expertise is practically a prerequisite — even if you’re writing for a lay audience.

Still, there are plenty of times when a professional writer has to start from scratch…

  • Sometimes the client can’t get (or doesn’t want to pay the higher fees of) an expert writer.
  • There are some things that no one living has directly witnessed, such as what was said between two generals after a historic battle.
  • You might be asked to write about a new product or other invention that is initially known and understood only by its creator.
  • Writing a story requires you to create characters who don’t exist, whether they live in a science fiction/fantasy world or are much like the folks next door.
  • And most common of all: you want to connect with and generate response from people who aren’t like you.

Here are three strategies that will help you sound like an expert quickly enough that you can still make your deadline.

1. Learn fast

If it’s possible to actually get the experience you need quickly, do it! For example, if you’re writing about a product, try using it. I was recently asked to join the creative team for a local pizza chain that had just opened a new store near my home. Guess what I had for dinner that night? Many clients are happy to help you learn more by providing samples, demonstrating a prototype, letting you shadow a professional for a day or two, and other “discovery” experiences vital to the pre-writing process.

If you’re working for a client, ask your contact plenty of questions. They may know useful information that didn’t end up in the creative brief, and may be able to explain concepts that don’t initially make sense to you. Many clients are also willing to put you in touch with subject matter expert or “SME” (pronounced just like the name of Captain Hook’s sidekick) to help you get up to speed on specialized information.

If that’s not enough, hit the web, the library or your own network of contacts to get additional insights. This will help you get the facts you need, as well as insights into how they’re interpreted. This kind of research is also critical when no one living has direct experience with something, such as how canals were built in ancient Egypt.

Pro tip: Make friends with a good reference librarian. You’ll be glad you did when you have to deal with tricky stuff that can’t be resolved with just a Google search.

2. Channel your passion

While it’s not impossible to write what you don’t know, doing it well does require extra work up front. A strong personal interest in the subject is a big asset when it’s time to buckle down.

I use this as my personal litmus test whenever I’m asked to write about something new. If I’m intrigued by a topic, I’m more likely to take it on so that I can learn more about it. If not, I try to recommend a colleague who’s a better fit for the project.

Passion can be a two-edged sword. As you make discoveries, be careful not to get carried away to the point you try to include every little detail you discover. Word count limits can be a big help here.

3. Get a reality check

Once you have a draft in hand, try to run it by someone who is closer to the topic than you are. For example, if you’re writing specialized copy, try to get feedback from a SME or other expert.

This type of review is especially important when you’re “writing the other” — using the voice of someone who’s a different gender, ethnicity, culture and so on than yourself. Have one or more people who match the characteristics of your intended voice review the copy, and pay close attention to their feedback. This simple step can easily mean the difference between connecting with your audience or unintentionally turning them away.

  5 crisis management tips for freelancers

emergencyA few years ago, my wife Toni was working at a school that didn’t allow teachers to have mobile phones turned on during the workday. As a result, I was the one who got the call informing us that her father had died suddenly and unexpectedly.

I was juggling multiple projects at the time, one of which was on a tight deadline, but there was no question about what to do. I dropped everything immediately and made the half-hour drive to her school to break the news to her in person. The next day we were on the road to her hometown to support her family and attend the funeral.

Unforeseen crises like personal illness, accidents, natural disasters, and the deaths of friends and loved ones are a fact of life for any business owner, not just solopreneurs. And since our business model means we don’t get paid when we’re not working, even joyful events like births, marriages, holidays, and vacations can have a disruptive effect on our businesses.

Thankfully there are steps you can take to minimize the impact on your bottom line — before, during, and after a crisis:

1.    Build time for the unexpected into your schedule

Many freelancers and other business owners base time estimates on their peak productivity levels. For most of us, however, reality intervenes in some large or small way practically every day. Keeping a small amount of time each week unscheduled gives you the flexibility to put out minor fires before they turn into bigger problems.

2.    Schedule marketing in advance

Having a few weeks or months of material loaded into your marketing machine requires some prep work, but you’ll be glad you did it. My father-in-law’s death wasn’t the only time I’ve had to take an unscheduled leave of absence from my company, but my automated self-promotion pieces still published on schedule while I was away. Precautions like these help prevent your pipeline from drying up when you return to the office.

3.    Communicate when crisis strikes

Notify everyone who will be impacted by your absence as soon as possible, and be frank about what’s happening. Failing that, try to have a colleague, family member, or friend contact anyone you’re currently working with. It’s much better for you to give them as much time as possible to react to your situation than it is to disappear for a few days with no explanation until after the fact.

4.    Maintain a savings cushion

You’ve already heard this one if you saw Jim Krause’s presentation at HOW Design Live last year. Sock away 10% of your earnings to keep your business afloat — not just when crisis strikes, but to cover the occasional “famine” cycle. Six months’ expenses in the bank will help you sleep much easier at night.

5.    Remember: your real life comes first

It’s tempting to bend over backwards so your business goes on rolling in an emergency, but keep your priorities straight. I did a project launch call remotely a few days before the funeral, but only after I had confirmed I wouldn’t be needed for a short while that day. The rest of the time, I gave my full attention to my family’s needs.

All of my clients were very supportive and understanding during this time, and were quick to revise their timetables. Even my contacts at a company I had just started working with the previous week were sympathetic and accommodating. Good clients understand that this stuff happens to everyone — and could just as easily happen to them — so don’t be afraid to be straightforward about your situation.

  Is your copy trying to say too much?

blah-blah-goldfishLast year, a study by Microsoft concluded that the average human being now has a shorter attention span than a goldfish. Specifically, our ability to focus has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to just eight seconds.

At the same time, you have more stuff competing for your attention than ever before — especially on that smartphone in your pocket or purse.

A lot of marketing copy fails because it ignores these two realities, but yours doesn’t have to.

There’s a natural tendency among people who make great stuff or provide awesome services to tell you everything — and I do mean everything — about whatever it is they’re selling. This typically happens for two reasons:

  1. They’re passionate about their stuff (or at least about making money from it), and
  2. They don’t know their customers.

Either way, overly-wordy marketing tends to fall flat when it comes to selling stuff, not because buyers are fickle, but because they’re busy, distracted, and being bombarded by thousands of other sales messages every day. Your goal when reaching out to new customers isn’t to overload them with information, but to encourage action. Here’s how:

Know the prospect

While your copy doesn’t have to be short and “edgy” all the time, you have to grab the reader’s interest quickly and motivate them to take action in a clear, uncluttered way. The more you know about what they want and need, the easier you’ll be able to do that.

Do your customers want to cut costs? Are they status-conscious? Do you sell something they typically buy on impulse or are they likely to be comparing multiple sellers? A little research now can save you a lot of cost and anxiety, both today and tomorrow. And the longer you ramble on, the more in tune with your audience you’ll need to be.

Know what you want them to do

The goal of any marketing piece isn’t to check off a box on your to-do list, but to encourage a single, specific action from a potential buyer. This might include:

  • Visiting a website
  • Downloading a free report
  • Requesting a brochure
  • Signing up for a mailing list
  • Forwarding your message to a friend
  • Voting for a particular issue or candidate
  • Entering a contest
  • Attending an event
  • Connecting on social media
  • Visiting a brick-and-mortar store
  • Making a donation
  • Placing an order

Once you know what action you want the prospect to take, the marketing becomes much easier. Don’t write a word until you know what it is.

Make the “buying journey” effortless

Good marketing copy does just enough to whet the appetite. The goal isn’t to provide all the answers, but to encourage action by demonstrating that you can satisfy the reader’s needs or desires.

If a lot of information is important to the buying decision, provide it in two or more stages, using the first contact to qualify prospects. That way, when they request more details, you’re giving them something they’ve asked for rather than bombarding them with something that isn’t relevant to their needs.

At the same time, look for ways to make it easy for the buyer to move through the process. Don’t make them click twice if one click will move them closer to a sale. Do your job right and they’ll come to you — asking for all the stuff you wanted to tell them up front.

 

  Give your email a power nap

Automator napEmail makes a lot of things easier for the modern freelancer, but it can also be a powerful distraction. Just like a ringing telephone, the “you’ve got mail” sound exerts a powerful Pavlovian influence, suggesting that your latest message is urgent — even if it’s not.

Recent updates to the Macintosh operating system are helping me to ignore email more easily by displaying quick preview windows when new messages come it. I can tell at a glance whether it’s an important client message that needs immediate attention or the latest “last chance” offer from LinkedIn (hmm…third one this month).

Even so there are times when I need to hunker down and write without distractions, which means turning the email monster off entirely. But there’s always that little voice asking “what if something really important come in?”

My current solution is an email “power nap,” assisted by a simple Automator workflow. My custom Mail Nap application sits on my desktop, ready to spring into action at a double-click. This handy little app shuts my email down, then reopens my mail application exactly one hour later. If I’m done with my deadline, I can check mail in peace. If not, I can make sure there are no emergencies and fire up the nap application again for another hour of focused productivity.

I’ve been testing this little helper for about three weeks now, and so far it’s working pretty well. I’m getting more done during “nap time” without stressing about missing anything major. After all, I’m only offline for an hour.

Want to try it for yourself? Here’s the basic Automator workflow I’m using (sorry PC users—this only works on Macs, but you can probably find something similar if you poke around a bit). You can customize it for a different mail application or a different amount of time, but the basic ideas are all here. When you’ve finished setting it up, just save it as an application to your desktop or wherever else you like.

nap_workflow

  Contractions ain’t all bad

apostrophe-keyEvery now and then I run across a company that doesn’t want to use contractions. Their style guides are packed with warnings that writers can’t, shouldn’t, and mustn’t use them.

Personally I think that’s a crazy way to approach marketing copy. For all their sassy disrespect of formal grammar, contractions are a living part of languages as diverse as English, French, German, Polish, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Latin, and even Uyghur.

They’re also a lot better at selling stuff.

Don’t know much about contractions…

To a writer who isn’t having a baby, a contraction is one or more words that have been shortened by dropping some of their sounds, with the gap typically signaled by an apostrophe. Many, like “let’s,” are mashups of multiple words (in this case, “let us”), while others are words with amputated letters, such as the implied “and” of “nuts ‘n’ bolts.”

Common examples include “don’t” (do not), “I’m” (I am), and the ubiquitous “o’clock” (short for “of the clock,” which nobody’s used for a generation or six). Lesser specimens include informal language hacks like “ain’t” — which depending on the context can mean “am not,” “are not,” “is not,” “has not,” or “have not” — and archaic gems like “’tis” (it is) and “’twas” (it was) which still play a role in keeping the holiday season jolly. There are even “consecutive” contractions — the true black sheep of this already-disreputable word form — such as “wouldn’t’ve” for “would not have.”

So what’s the deal?

The reasons why short-sighted companies ask for contraction-free copy typically fall into one of three categories:

  1. Childhood trauma—Past criticism from overzealous writing instructors (i.e. “That is not proper English!”), whether in school or on the job, causes some marketing people to hunker down in fear of retribution from…well, they’re not really sure who now that Miss Grundy is retired, but there must have been a reason, right?
  2. Contractions are “too casual”—There’s a common perception that contractions are okay for daily speech but for not for anything that appears in print.
  3. Noble (but misguided) diversity initiatives—A desire to make copy more accessible to readers of English as a second language who, by this logic, don’t encounter contractions in anything else they read. How’s that again?

The trouble with hard and fast rules like these is they deprive language of some of the color that makes great marketing work. For example, listen to how stilted these classic slogans sound with their contractions removed:

  • I am loving it. (McDonald’s)
  • Because you are worth it. (L’oréal)
  • It is finger licking good. (KFC)

In each of these examples, adding just a few missing characters deletes a different and more vital type of character. It’s as if all the personality was suddenly sucked right out of ’em.

Not feelin’ the love? Here’s why you should.

Contractions highlight one of the main differences between marketing copy and formal English. They’re based on the way we actually speak instead of the way we’re traditionally taught to write. While they may not be at home in a PhD dissertation, it’s a whole ‘nother story when you’re trying to make a sale. Consumers are more responsive to language that sounds natural, like the recommendation you get from a good friend on the other side of a coffeehouse table. Ban contractions from your copy and it’s easy for you to come off sounding stiff, dull, and even arrogant.

That’s not to say that contractions are right for every audience or situation. “Isn’t” is welcome many places where “ain’t” would be turned away for not wearing a jacket and tie. But copywriters get more leeway to use casual vernacular. What ultimately matters in the marketing arena isn’t what’s “correct,” but what makes the sale.

So if it ain’t broke…

  Proofing tip: talk to me, baby

Digital smileExperienced writers and editors know that proofreading your own work is risky business, no matter how good you are at doing it for others. That’s because your brain knows what you want to say even if it isn’t on the page or the screen, and will “helpfully” fill in the blanks for you. You’ll skim right past typos, punctuation problems, and even missing words.

While there’s nothing better than having another human read your copy, solo professionals sometimes don’t have the time or budget for that luxury. So I’ve enlisted a digital assistant to provide the next best thing.

My first line of defense against my own mistakes is to have my computer read my draft back to me. Simply listening to your own work being read out loud by another voice — even a virtual one — will help you spot many mistakes you might miss if you were just re-reading.

There are a number of ways you can get your machine to perform text-to-speech tricks. My personal favorite is Tom Bender’s Tex-Edit Plus, an elegant text editing program for the Mac with an intuitive Sound menu built right in. I particularly like how Tex-Edit highlights the sentence it’s currently reading, making it easy to pinpoint the location of any mistakes you hear. The cost is also very reasonable — a $15 shareware fee that you can pay at any time without having to put up with ads or crippled features.

Choose a computer voice that sounds as close to natural human speech as possible. The best voices are based on recordings of real people. On the Mac, my favorites are “Alex” and “Vicki.” I’m also a fan of the high-quality voices produced by Cepstral, which are made for Mac OS, Windows, and Linux. Their “David” is typically my first choice for proofreading.

When choosing a voice, you’ll want to be aware of what language, region, or use it’s designed for. Most writers can get by with a general-use voice, but specialized voices are available for fields like education and healthcare.

You might also try to match your voice to the audience you’re writing for. “Alex” and “Vicki,” for example, are both intended to represent 35-year-old adults, while Cepstral’s “Robin” simulates a child. When I write for a European audience I’ll often proof the copy using a voice called “Serena,” one of the Mac’s system standards for UK English. Some voices like Cepstral’s “Dallas,” have a bit of personality that can be useful if it matches your target readers.

I sometimes skip text-to-speech proofing when I’m in a hurry, but I usually regret it. It takes very little time, costs next to nothing, and can save you a lot of revisions — not to mention embarrassment.

  Does digital marketing really work?

dm-crystalDigital marketing — from content optimized for mobile devices to social media to predictive analytics — continues to spark passionate debates between skeptics and true believers. The key question, often asked by those who’ve been in the industry since before the Dotcom bust, is “Yeah, that’s kind of cool, but does is sell?

According to a new report released in July by Adobe, the answer appears to be “Yes, if…”.

The critical part is the “if.”

The report, titled “Four Advantages of a Planned Approach to Digital Maturity,” summarizes the results of Adobe’s 2015 Digital Marketing Survey, conducted in February of this year.

Some of the results will come as no surprise, notably that most organizations aren’t taking full advantage of the latest tech. Only about one in five companies surveyed (19%) have achieved what the report calls “digital maturity.” Such companies make specific, ongoing plans for digital marketing and back them up with investments in structures, people, processes, and technology. Nothing earth-shattering here.

Where the data starts to get exciting is when the report begins comparing this “mature” group to the rest of the pack. In particular, near the end of page 6, the authors rather casually drop this little bombshell:

In fact, when multiple departments are involved in testing, average conversion was shown to increase by 14%.

This isn’t one of the statistics that gets displayed in bold type, but it deserves to be. It’s the point where you start asking “whoa, how are they doing that?” (which is exactly what the authors intended).

I encourage you to check out the results for yourself, but here’s a quick rundown of how the report claims these organizations are creating digital marketing that gets results:

  • Investing in people, processes and tools
  • Keeping the customer first by adapting to their needs and behavior
  • Integrating mobile devices into every strategy they create
  • Using analytics to refine strategy and create a competitive edge
  • Looking ahead, not just reacting to industry leaders

This isn’t the first time strategies like these have shown up as recommendations for the digital marketing landscape, but they highlight realities that are slowly becoming clear to a small but growing number of organizations.

They also contrast sharply with what isn’t working…occasional instead of ongoing digital efforts, throwing stuff online without a plan, pursuing inconsistent strategies, spending time without investing resources, failing to measure results, and many other half-hearted practices that remain all too common.

Underlying all of the data is a reminder that digital marketing isn’t an instant-win game. It’s an ongoing process that increases in value over time. This remains a daunting thought for those who are just getting started, but the results are well worth the investment. Check out the report for yourself, especially if you’re a digital skeptic. The numbers don’t lie.

  Tapping your inner idea well

Idea bulbNothing stalls the writing process faster than not knowing what to write about. The next time you’re feeling stuck, try one of these strategies to help your reluctant muse get inspired. You can focus these exercises on a specific project you’re working on, or just use them as warm-ups to get your creative juices flowing.

Change one thing

Pick a common image, object, or idea and ask yourself what it would be like if one thing were different. This exercise can lead you to some interesting places:

  • What if cars ran on coffee instead of gasoline?
  • What if you could only use the Internet for 15 minutes a day?
  • What if politicians were elected for their ability to eat ice cream?

Combine two things

Take two things that don’t normally go together and see what happens when you create a mashup of the two.

“Your chocolate is in my peanut butter!”

“Your peanut butter is in my chocolate!”

You get the idea.

Get out of the office

Change your surroundings completely. Go to a coffeehouse. Go to a park. Go someplace you’ve never been before. Go someplace you wouldn’t ordinarily go. New ideas and perspectives pop up in the most unexpected places.

Get out of your head

Try to imagine how someone completely different than yourself would think about the project you’re working on. Writers call this exercise “writing the other.” For example, how would someone of another gender, ethnic background, nationality, or social class approach your creative challenge? What’s important to them? More importantly, what’s not important to them? What stuff do you obsess over that they would ignore or deemphasize?

Don’t imagine this “other” person is a straw man or a fool, especially if they’re likely to hold opinions different than your own. Think of them as a person you respect whose experience of life isn’t the same as yours.

Of course, one of the best “others” you can choose is your target audience.

Work in private

With all due respect to the advocates of brainstorming meetings, research suggests that humans do their best creative work alone. This is especially important if you’re an introvert, which is the case for many writers, designers, and other creative types. If you work in a “bullpen” environment or a home office with family or other distractions, find a place where you can be alone with your ideas — preferably a place with a door that closes.

Don’t be a hoarder

Don’t sit on ideas or keep them floating around in your head for fear that the well will run dry. Get them out and on paper (or pixels) even if you don’t intend to use them right away. Working through the stuff that’s kicking around in your brain frees you up to develop new ideas or build on the material you’ve already written.