Going Freelance? Project Confidence and Stop Apologizing!

confidenceLaunching a freelance career in the creative industry can challenge your confidence like nothing you’ve done before, especially at first. Don’t worry, it happens to all of us. When I started my own freelance copywriting business more than 13 years ago, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it either.

Many things may feel new and uncomfortable, but you’ll need to get over these anxieties quickly to get your new freelance career off the ground. Here are six ways to overcome the urge to pre-apologize, boost your confidence, and build your credibility.

Read more on The Creative Group Blog.

  5 building blocks of great copy

blocksTalent, originality, and flair can play a role in the creation of awesome copy that gets results, but they aren’t the core of successful writing. Five basic elements drive the motivation of readers, and whether your copy succeeds or fails will largely depend on how well you address them.

1. A well-defined audience

Who are you writing to? Don’t touch a keyboard until you know who they are (and know them well). If you’re selling to an audience of white male doctors born during the baby boom, you won’t write the same way you would for female millennials fresh out of a California art school. Resist the temptation to write for “anyone who will pay money for this” and make your audience as specific and targeted as you can.

2. A problem

Most sales happen when your buyers have a need or desire they want to satisfy. These run the gamut from the necessary (“we need to produce this year’s annual report”) to the strategic (“we want to refresh our branding to attract more young professionals”) to the impulsive (“we could sell temporary tattoos on FamousSocialMediaSite.com!”).

If you’ve learned your audience well enough (see #1 above), you’ll probably have some good ideas already about the challenges they’re dealing with. This is one of the best ways to identify what your buyers have a legitimate need for, which is usually more effective than trying to create a “problem.” Another good approach is to use your outsider’s perspective to spot challenges your buyers may not yet be aware of. For instance, many small businesses fail to recognize how inconsistent branding hurts sales, especially against competitors with more design savvy.

The best problems are those that need to be dealt with right away. For example, if you have expertise in responsive design, your copy might highlight statistics about how much web surfing has shifted to mobile devices, and how that trend is expected to grow rapidly in the next year or so.

3. A solution that suggests your strengths

The art called “positioning” by marketing gurus basically boils down to this message: what you offer will satisfy your buyers’ needs, fulfill their desires, or solve their problems.

Whether this message is handled in a “hard” or “soft” manner depends on where and how you’re communicating. A traditional space ad in a magazine typically takes a direct approach: “XYZ Webcraft is the best solution for mobile-friendly websites!” In a white paper or social media post, however, you’ll want to pitch a more suggestive message: “The challenges of mobile devices are best met by a designer with expertise in responsive design, user experience, and web analytics.” (Well golly, the author of this article clearly has those qualities and knows what she’s talking about — maybe I should call her.)

4. A single message

Great writing doesn’t try to multitask. Your readers already have many other distractions competing for their attention — which you aren’t likely to have for long — so trying to squeeze two or more pitches into a piece will only make both of them less effective.

But what if you have more one than message or audience? The answer is simple: create a unique piece for each one. I recently did an assignment for an organization that has five different types of prospects. They wisely chose to create five variations of the campaign, each targeted to the specific needs and desires of the segments they had carefully researched ahead of time. They could have spent a lot less up front trying to create a one-size-fits-all promotion, but they knew that approach would ultimately cost them a lot more because it wouldn’t be successful.

5. A call to action

Every great piece of copy wraps up with a clear statement of what you want the reader to do next. In many cases, the call to action is also mentioned early and repeated throughout the piece.

Just because the call to action is the last item in this list and the final part of your message doesn’t mean it’s the last thing you should think about. Knowing exactly what you want your readers to do before you start writing allows you to focus your entire message toward your desired outcome.

For best results, make your call to action as specific as possible, whether it’s calling to schedule a free consultation, downloading a free report, signing up for a newsletter, or clicking here to buy now.

  The language of green

blusunThis Wednesday, April 22, marks the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. It’s a special day for me since I spend a lot of my time writing about alternative energy and other so-called “green” topics.

The term “green marketing” has achieved buzzword status in recent years, but for many people its meaning isn’t clear. Many folks have a vague impression of something clean and organic-looking, featuring stock photos of the earth from space, a child’s hands planting a sapling, possibly with a drop of water or a solar panel thrown in for good measure. (The typeface? Papyrus of course.)

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find the green market isn’t just one demographic. People who value sustainability run the gamut from post-hippie entrepreneurs to the United States Military. You’ll find them in national parks, evangelical churches, architectural firms, coffee houses, government agencies, construction sites, and a growing number of mega-corporation boardrooms.

As a result, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to writing Green copy. Some of your customers may want a Greener world for the same reasons you do, but these kindred spirits may not be enough to keep you in business. Is their core motivation a love for the environment, self-reliance, healthy living, breaking free from foreign oil (or as some Middle Eastern countries are starting to consider, from an economy dominated by domestic oil)? Are your readers willing to pay more for a “Green” product? Research suggests about 4 out of 5 of them won’t be.

The days when a green focus made a company different are long gone. Today, everyone from small startups to major corporations is trying to talk the talk whether or not they’re sustainably sincere. That means you’ll need to do the same legwork every other smart company does to learn who your best customers really are. Where do they get their news? What causes do they support? What do they do in their spare time? And most importantly, what does Green mean to them?

  How to keep a content plan on schedule

final_deadlineOne morning last fall I woke to the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I had never had a kidney stone before and hope never to have another. Suffice to say I was incapacitated for several days.

Yet while I was out of commission, my blog posted right on schedule. The following week my email newsletter went out on time, even as I was scrambling to catch up on client work. I won’t say I wasn’t stressed, but I wasn’t worried about letting my content slide because I had “more important” things to do. I didn’t have to think about it at all because my marketing machine can run without me for a while if it needs to.

A consistent schedule is critical to any content marketing plan, whether you send just one newsletter a month to a small email list or blitz the world with a multi-channel campaign. And since your content plan works its most powerful magic over time, it needs to keep running even when you go on vacation, get the flu, or land that huge project from DreamClient, Inc.

That may sound like a tall order, but it’s not. With a little effort, you can set up a content plan that runs like clockwork even if you get sidetracked. Here are five tips to help you make it happen:

Release perfection

The biggest obstacle to regular self-promotion that afflicts creative professionals — and many other business owners — is the feeling that every newsletter, blog, or post on FamousSocialMediaSite.com must exemplify the pinnacle of their creative brilliance every time. This mindset invariably stalls the plan every time.

So take a page from the Frozen playbook and “let it go.” Pursue excellence by trying to make each piece you create a little better than the last within the time you allot for marketing, but leave it at that. You’ll publish a brilliant thing that grabs attention once in a while — usually when you’re not trying to — and that’s enough. Potential clients will be far more impressed when they see that you can stick to your timetable reliably month after month.

Create a content schedule

The question “what should I write about this time?” is a lot easier to answer if you’ve created a plan in advance. One of your first content development tasks should be simply to brainstorm the topics you want to cover for a certain period — about 2-3 months’ worth seems to work best for me. This saves you a lot of time because you always know the next thing you need to write about. When the topic list starts to run low, do another brainstorming session. It’s also a good idea to jot down topics whenever they occur to you. I use Evernote to capture ideas.

Your schedule doesn’t need to be anything fancy. I use a spreadsheet with four columns: publication date, format (newsletter, blog, etc.), topic, and deadline. If more than one person is working on your plan, add columns to indicate who’s responsible and the current status of each piece.

Work ahead

An incredible sense of peace and calm descends upon you when your content plan is scheduled well in advance. Try to have at least one month’s worth of material scheduled and ready to go at any time. When I help clients start a new content plan, I actually encourage them to launch with three months of material scheduled. The same strategy helped me keep my cool during the aforementioned kidney stone incident.

Having a stockpile of content doesn’t prevent you from responding quickly to current events. You can always drop a time-sensitive piece into the mix and re-schedule “evergreen” items you’ve already written for a later date.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Content generation consumes time and resources, so don’t use it only in one place. Last year I created my eBook The Writer-Designer Dream Team largely by collating a series of blog posts and adding a bit of new material. For several months, in fact, my content schedule bore a striking resemblance to the eBook outline, since I knew ahead of time that I would be using the material for both projects.

Get help

Still feeling overwhelmed? There’s no shame in bringing someone else in to help you out. A good designer can create the right look and feel for your marketing. A good writer can help you craft the right voice or run with a topic list. If you’re short on cash, you might even be able to work out a barter deal. Last year a designer friend and I swapped copywriting for web design, and both of us walked away happy.

  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.

  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.