Dance like your buyers

swing-dancing-feetA few years after I started my freelance business I attended a weekend-long series of Lindy Hop classes. I had already been dancing Lindy for a few years by then, and was looking forward to learning advanced techniques from a team of out-of-town instructors.

I arrived with one of my regular dance partners, who I’ll call Diane (because that happens to be her name). The first session was about to start but the high-level stuff was scheduled for later in the day. The cool instructors were kicking off the weekend with a workshop on the basics of Lindy Hop—moves Diane and I had mastered long ago.

Reviewing the fundamentals of any skill is a valuable exercise, but Diane and I were both craving something more that day. So we created our own challenge by swapping roles. Diane danced the “lead” part (what’s traditionally thought of as the male role in partner dancing) while I joined the circle as a “follower.” Diane literally doubled over with laughter the first time I did a hip swivel while waving my hand in the air. I looked—and felt—pretty silly.

Yet as it turned out, I learned a lot more from that hour or two of role reversal than from the rest of the weekend.

I haven’t been able to remember what the advanced classes were about for many years, but I never forgot how it felt to dance like a follower. It made me aware of things I was doing as a leader that could confuse or distract my partner. I also learned a few things skilled leaders do to help followers have more fun. Diane, in turn, discovered one of the biggest challenges leaders face—having to perform one dance move while deciding what the next one will be. We were both better dancers when we left that “basic” workshop.

This experience also illustrates one of the writer’s roles in the creative process. Whether you’re writing your own copy or preparing a brief for a hired scribe, part of the job is to get into the heads of the people you want to reach, whether they’re potential customers, voters, donors, or whatever. The more you know what it’s like to be in their shoes, the more likely you are to write in a voice that speaks to what they really want and need.

You don’t have to do hip swivels and wave your hand in the air to learn what it’s like to be your buyers (unless you’re selling dancing shoes, in which case I highly recommend it). The key is to do something, however small, to get a window into their world. Interview the type of people you want to reach—or think you want to reach—to find out where your strengths overlap their needs. Read what they read, watch what they watch, visit the websites and social media groups they like.

You may find that all your assumptions about your readers are correct. If so, great! But it’s more likely you’ll discover at least a few insights that will change the way you do business, making the marketing dance with your best potential buyers far more effective—and profitable.

  Do you need a contract with your writer?

contractNo matter how well you know and like your writer, some kind of written agreement is always a good idea. It makes expectations clear and protects everyone involved.

Some designers create separate contracts for each job, while others ask for a broader agreement spelling out the terms of the working relationship. Many use both, defining the relationship in one general contract, then detailing the specifics of each job in separate agreements on an as-needed basis. It’s a good idea to consult an attorney when creating the template for your standard contract or letter of agreement.

At a minimum, your agreement with your writer should include:

  • A list of deliverables the writer is being engaged to prepare for any specific job.
  • The project schedule, including all key deadlines.
  • Terms of the writer’s compensation, including any payments that will be made in advance or upon reaching certain stages (for example, upon submission of the first draft).
  • How many rounds of revisions are covered by the compensation (typically 2–3), and how additional compensation will be handled if the project exceeds this scope.
  • What information, if any, the writer is expected to keep confidential.
  • Who owns the work. Most jobs are “work for hire,” in which the client retains all rights to the finished product. Another item that should be stated explicitly is whether or not the writer may use the finished product as a sample of their work for his or her own self-promotion.
  • Length of the agreement.
  • How disputes are to be resolved. For example, some contracts state that disputes should be handled in arbitration rather than via a lawsuit.

Your contract might also include:

  • Details on communication with clients. Can the writer contact clients directly? Do they need to go through you or some other representative of your business? Is it okay to have direct communication as long as you are CCed on any messages?
  • A non-compete clause, specifying a reasonable amount of time during which your writer may not work with a direct competitor. This period is usually stated in terms of the end of your working relationship, such as a period of 6 months after you stop working together.

  Who pays the writer?

who-pays-the-writerSome designers prefer to work with writers as subcontractors so they can provide a single-source solution to their clients. Others simply introduce the client and the writer to one another, then step aside to allow them to make a separate financial arrangement.

My design clients tend to use these two payment models about equally. While each has its merits, you’ll probably find that your business model will make one approach more logical than the other.

Here are a few questions to consider:

Do you want to be the one-stop manager of a virtual team?

If your design business positions itself as a “one-stop shop” or serves clients who value your ability to make things as easy for them as possible, give serious consideration to working with the writer as a subcontractor. You’ll be taking on a bit more responsibility, but you’ll also have more creative control.

Do you want to mark up the writer’s rate?

Your introduction provides a service to both of the other parties. The writer gets a gig that probably wouldn’t have come his or her way without you. The client doesn’t have to go hunting for a writer or pay someone internal to create the copy. Both of these conveniences have a value, and there’s nothing wrong with adding 10–15% to the writer’s cost to compensate you for your efforts. It’s a lot easier to do that if you’re managing the whole relationship.

Are you willing to take on extra paperwork and responsibility?

Subcontracting your writing talent makes you the one who’s ultimately accountable to the client for both deadlines and the quality of the writer’s work. It also makes you a middleman for the writer’s paycheck, and experienced writers typically expect to get a portion of their fee in advance. If you’re managing the relationship you’ll want to make sure that the writer’s up-front cost is built into the advance you receive from the client.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to what you want most: creative control or freedom from responsibility. Subcontracting gives you more control along with more obligations, while a separate arrangement provides less of each.

  Which comes first, writing or design?

chicken-egg-gsWhile it’s not quite as confusing as the chicken/egg conundrum, the question of “who’s on first?” is always in play when writers and designers work together. The correct answer, as with many creative endeavors, is “it depends.”

Here’s a quick rundown of common options with pros and cons for each:

Design first

In the design-first model, the designer creates the look and feel of the project first, leaving space or Greek text for the copy. This is especially common when a group or series is involved, such as a recurring newsletter, family of brochures, or other template-based pieces.

  • Pros: Great creative freedom for designer, writer has a clear idea of the visual tone and structure.
  • Cons: May require a specific word count for each section (especially in print pieces), requires more revision work if the writer comes up with a great idea that doesn’t fit the existing layout or template.

Writing first

This scenario gives the writer more options for shaping the style and tone of the project. It works especially well if you have a design-savvy writer who can give you stuff to play with like pull quotes, bullet points, sidebars, and the like. It’s also a good option if you or your client don’t have a clear visual direction yet.

  • Pros: Gives the writer more options for tailoring the content to the target audience, can make the designer’s job more fun.
  • Cons: May require the design team to give the writer more briefing, requires a more experienced writer for best results.

Tandem creativity

Is your project blazing hot? One advantage you have over the proverbial poultry is that writing and design can happen simultaneously.

  • Pros: Can allow the creative team to work faster and meet tighter deadlines.
  • Cons: Can turn into a major train wreck if the writer and designer have different visions for the project. Make sure everyone is on the same page before you risk it.

Playing to everyone’s strengths

A hybrid workflow that combines the best of both worlds begins with the designer creating a rough layout, wireframe, or grayscreen prototype. The writer still gets some idea of the desired structure up front, while the design team retains the flexibility to respond to new ideas from the writer when the full design is developed.

This model allows everyone to do what they do best without sacrificing the ability to incorporate cool ideas from the rest of the team. It’s also a stronger starting point in cases where the writer and designer will be working simultaneously by making it easier to establish a shared vision at the outset.

Again, there’s no answer that’s necessarily right or wrong for your workflow. If you hope to build a long-term relationship with a writing partner, consider trying out different options on different projects to see what works best for you.

  When should you get a writer involved?

rough-draft-dueYou’ve landed the big project. The client is savvy enough to know you’ll want a good writer on the team and has built the cost into your budget. They’re ready to get the project moving—when do you call the writer?

The simple answer is it’s best to get your writer on board as soon as possible. Ideally, you’ll be in the type of situation I’ve just described, where you or your client know a writer’s help will be needed before you start the project. Even if you’re not, starting the writer as close to the beginning as possible makes everyone’s job easier.

If you’re bringing a writer in to work on a client project, try to include him or her in the initial strategy sessions, either in person or remotely. This eliminates the need for you or your client to “bring the writer up to speed” later on. How much of a role the writer takes in these sessions will depend on your comfort level (for more on this, see: Should your writer have access to the client?), but the earlier the writer has direct exposure to the concept you want to convey, the better. The next best thing is to record any briefing sessions for the writer to review later.

Involving the writer early on reduces the chance something you or your client take for granted will slip through a crack in the creative brief, only to resurface after the first draft is submitted. The last thing you want to say at that point is “we forgot to mention…” You’ll also get the benefit of the writer’s expertise in the initial stages of the creative process, when it’s easier to make changes or incorporate new ideas. A good writer will be eager to participate in this phase, knowing that it will make the finished product stronger.

In short, calling the writer on day one saves everyone from pain—you, your client, and your writer. Not only will it save you time and frustration, you’re also likely to get better results.

  Should your writer have access to the client?

serious-businessmanDesigners and writers collaborate in different ways, but one of the most common scenarios is for a client to approach a solo designer or design firm first, and for the writer to join the team as a subcontractor. Stated more simply, you—the designer—are working for the client and the writer is working for you.

This arrangement effectively makes you something of a creative director or project manager. That’s great if you want to be the key decision maker on the creative team, but it can also make you a bottleneck when the writer needs information that can only be provided by the client. Sooner or later you’ll find yourself asking if your writer should be able to talk to the client directly.

The simple answer is yes, for three reasons:

It’s more efficient for everyone

Allowing your writer to work directly with the client not only saves time, it eliminates much of the potential for misunderstanding. Telling the writer everything the client told you is a lot like playing a grown-up version of the game “telephone,” with the critical difference that mistakes can lead to costly revisions. You’re also likely to forget something the writer should know, which wastes more time playing “catch-up” later.

The writing will be more on target

Direct communication gives your writer a better sense of the client’s voice and tone. This makes it much easier for the writer to craft a message that fits the client, product, or service. A recording of a talk between you and the client is the next best thing, but this takes the writer out of the conversation and may require you to deal with more follow-up questions.

Stuff comes up

Unexpected questions, missing information, and even events outside the project (“XYZ company just released a similar product!”) can stall the creative process. If your writer can go directly to the client, he or she can respond to situations like this far more quickly, especially if you’re not available at the time.

But how do you maintain control?

Naturally, the better you know and trust your writer, the more comfortable you’re going to be with granting him or her this kind of access. But what if you’re working with someone new, or simply want to maintain control of the conversation without placing too many restrictions on the writer?

First, you can allow the writer to communicate directly as long as you’re involved in some way. If you’re on the call or in the meeting you’ll have the opportunity to focus or re-direct the conversation if it gets off track, while the writer will still be able to make suggestions or ask open-ended questions. It’s also reasonable to ask the writer to CC you on any email communication with the client. You’ll still be in the loop, but with more flexibility than you’d have if you were the writer’s only point of contact.

Second, be sure to make your expectations clear with the writer up front. If client contact can only happen at certain times or under certain conditions, it’s best for everyone to be on the same page (including the client, when possible).

Finally, be aware that the more control you require in the relationship, the more maintaining that supervision is going to eat up your own time. The best-case scenario is for you to build a relationship of trust with your writer. As that trust grows, you’ll become more comfortable with giving the writer the freedom to work directly with the client—leaving you with more time to focus on your end of the project. If you don’t start feeling this way after a few projects, it may be a sign that you need to find a different writer who’s a better fit for your client or your working style.

  Should your writer be a specialist?

Expert-iconWhen I studied journalism in college, I spent less time than you might expect learning the craft of writing itself. That’s not to say the training wasn’t rigorous. Professors in the department were known for handing out automatic “F” grades if a person’s name was misspelled. One was even nicknamed “Conan the Grammarian.” And there was zero tolerance for late homework to drive home the lesson that deadlines matter.

What I always found most interesting, however, was the amount of time I was required to spend outside the journalism department.

Two significant segments of the program were elective-driven. The first was designed to give students a general background in a variety of disciplines, such as political science, economics, psychology, sociology, and history. We also had to complete one or two concentrated areas of specialization, which could be just about anything we chose.

Our advisors and instructors regularly reinforced the message implied by this structure: writing skills aren’t enough. Successful writers typically come to the table with something more, and when it comes to finding work, there are better opportunities for those who choose to go narrow rather than wide.

From a client’s perspective this means you may need to do a bit of homework to find the writer who best fits your project. Writers are a diverse lot whose backgrounds and interests shape the topics they know well and the type of work they seek out. Some are generalists who crave variety and take on a wide range of projects. Others are focused on a specific vertical market, type of work, or area of expertise.

So which type of writer is best for you?

The Generalist

Generalists are typically people who begin their careers with an interest in writing. They often have degrees in journalism, English, or marketing. Generalists are great if you have a lot of production work, a project that crosses multiple disciplines, or want the kind of fresh perspective that an untrained outsider can bring to your business.

A good generalist has the ability to grasp new concepts quickly and identify where your expertise overlaps the needs and desires of your audience. Even if your product or service relies on complex expertise, a generalist can be a great asset to your team if your target market doesn’t share the same background.

In many cases a generalist will have lower rates, though this may not mean they’ll be the least expensive option. And while there are plenty of exceptions, a fair number of generalists are still in the early stages of their writing careers, taking on whatever types of work they can find to fill the pipeline.

There are many diamonds in the rough to be found among generalists, especially those who come to you by referral. If your product or service requires specialized knowledge, however, it may require more time, effort, and cost to work with one.

The Specialist

Many specialist writers are former generalists who have chosen to focus on one or more areas of expertise. This can be the result of personal interest or chance. I’ve done both: I specialize in technology because I find it compelling, and in finance because I happened to pick up a lot of financial gigs early in my career.

Another type of specialist is the expert who has branched out into writing. One of the most successful copywriters I know is a former chemical engineer. He’s built a thriving career writing technical white papers and taking a scientific approach to marketing.

Like any high-quality product, a specialist is going to cost a little more—but it’s often worth it.

To begin with, a specialist is often a better value because you don’t have as much training to do. This is particularly valuable if you work in a field like healthcare, technology, or finance where critical concepts can’t always be explained in one or two phone calls. If you’re also marketing to expert readers, you may need a specialist out of the gate.

A good specialist stays up to date on current trends in your industry, and may bring expert insights that can enhance your project. The longer a specialist has focused on your field, the greater this perspective is likely to be.

The Best of Both Worlds

A great specialist gives you the best of the generalist’s skill set too: bringing a solid foundation in expert knowledge to the table without loosing touch with humanity. A writer like this is worth paying a little extra for, because you’ll make your investment back in saved time and superior response from your buyers.

Whichever option you choose, your writer should be able to communicate in language that generates response from your target audience—which may or may not be your preferred strain of gobbledygook.

  9 Marketing Lessons from 1812

erie-jibOr: “All I really need to know about marketing I learned from Commodore Perry.”

(with apologies to Robert Fulghum)

All I really need to know about how to write and motivate readers to take action I learned by participating in the 200th anniversary re-creation of the Battle of Lake Erie in 2013. (Need a quick history refresher? Check out the 90-Second Know-it-All’s humorous recap of the event.)

These are the things I learned:

  • Use prevailing winds to your advantage by knowing what your customer really needs and wants.
  • Make sure everyone is willing to follow the battle plan before you set sail.
  • Positioning is everything.
  • Great victories sometimes require risk-taking. If choppy waters make you seasick, keep your eyes on the horizon.
  • Don’t give up the ship—though it might be prudent to change ships if the one you’re on is sinking.
  • You can’t change course quickly without good sailors, even if your navy has more ships than anyone else.
  • The biggest competitor can be outmaneuvered by an energetic young upstart.
  • And then remember the Aubrey/Maturin books and their timeless lesson — Lose not a minute!

And it is still true, no matter how many years you’ve been sailing, when you go out on the lake, it is best for all the ships in the line to stick together.

Wednesday, September 10 marked the 201st anniversary of the battle.

  Convincing your client to hire a writer

client-thinking-flippedMany design projects hit a wall when the time comes for the client to deliver the copy. They discover they don’t have the time to do the writing after all, or worse—provide substandard copy guaranteed to undermine your carefully-crafted design.

Whatever the cause, this scenario is all too common: you know your client needs to get a writer involved, but they’re holding back, claiming they don’t have the time, the budget, or whatever. When this happens, convincing them that a writer will be worth the investment can make or break your project. Here are a few strategies that speak to your client’s deepest needs:

Stress the business case

Most clients are concerned about minimizing costs, but what they ultimately care about most is their customers. Draw on what you know about their best buyers when reviewing their current copy strategy and stress how a professional writer’s skills can boost customer response to your project. Convincing them of the potential for better results is the easiest way to help them justify the cost of adding a writer to your team.

Position the writer’s expertise as a solution

The primary skill a writer brings to any project is the ability to communicate clearly to your target audience. In addition, many writers also specialize in specific markets or types of work. When going to bat for your writer, look for skill gaps he or she can bridge in your current creative team. For some clients, it will be enough to take on a professional with basic spelling and grammar skills. Others might be more inclined to hire a specialist if it means working with someone who already “gets” their business—saving them the time of bringing someone new up to speed.

Watch the deadline

Adding a writer saves time for everyone else, especially if writing isn’t a core skill for other members of your team. The closer you get to the client’s deadline, the more compelling this approach can be, though it’s still best to get the writer involved as early as possible.

Speak from experience

Many of the reasons your client will benefit from a professional writer are the same as they are for you. If you have past experience working with a writer, give your client specific details about the advantages you’ve enjoyed. Any hard numbers you can provide about time and cost savings, increased response rates, higher sales, and other bottom-line metrics are particularly effective. Writers know how powerful numbers like these can be in their own marketing efforts, so they may be able to provide them for similar projects they’ve worked on in the past.

Don’t have experience partnering with a writer? Check out the post “Designer + Writer = Creative Dream Team” to learn more about the benefits collaboration can offer—both to you and your client.

If all else fails, try a test

If you’re still stuck, encourage the client to hire your writer for a low-cost experiment. Choose a key sample piece of the copy and have the writer create or re-work it. Some clients respond best by seeing the difference or testing the results, and this kind of low-risk trial can be an effective way to bring them around.