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.

  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.

 

  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…

  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.

  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 Voice of a Brand

smile-150Part of a graphic designer’s job is to establish a consistent “look” for a brand — everything from the logo and typefaces to an approved book of colors and styles. When done right, a brand can be recognized wherever any one of its visual elements appears.

A good copywriter complements the look of a brand with a distinctive style of writing, known as the “voice.” You’ll frequently see guidelines for the voice defined in the same branding guide the design team uses.

Getting the voice right is a key part of the branding process, because it works hand-in-hand with your design. A good voice will:

  • Convey the tone and spirit of the brand,
  • Use language that appeals to your buyers,
  • Encourage connection between what you offer and what your buyers need or want, and
  • Distinguish your product or service from competitors.

Creative firms frequently use words like these to describe their voice:

  • Creative
  • Friendly
  • Artistic
  • “Fun, but professional”
  •  Hip / on trend
  • Conversational
  • Jargon-free
  • Bold
  • Environmentally responsible
  • Service-oriented

Your brand’s voice might also include guidelines on grammar. For creative people, this usually means which rules of formal English the writer is encouraged to break. It’s not uncommon for designers to use contractions, to start sentences with “but” or “and”, or to use other casual forms of language better suited for the local coffeehouse than a high school English essay. This approach might not work for a doctor’s office or a law firm, but hey, you’re an artist, right?

Five tips for creating an authentic voice

  1. Know what you want. Figure out who you really want to work for and define your ideal client as specifically as possible. Make sure the profile you develop is someone you like, whether it’s based on a real person or a fictional composite of traits you’re looking for. Your voice should “speak” to this person the way you would speak to a friend.
  2. Know your prospects cold. Learn the lingo of your best buyers so you can write in a way they respect and understand. Not sure how technical to get? Err on the side of everyday speech.
  3. Let your true personality show. Don’t try to fake a tone or style that comes unnaturally to you. Even if you manage to pull it off, the people who respond probably won’t be the best fit for your business. Being yourself will help you attract clients you’ll enjoy working for.
  4. Be professional. Being authentic doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk. So while you’re being yourself, strive to be the best possible version of yourself. You can suffer for your art, but your clients won’t.
  5. Be consistent. Once you find your unique style, use it everywhere you promote your business. Give your voice the same fidelity you would give your logo or other visual elements.You can be a bit more casual on some social networking sites to help followers feel closer to your inner circle, but don’t go wild with it.

Ultimately, your goal is to present a consistent voice and message no matter where your buyers see you. If your voice speaks to what they really need wherever they find you, you’ll be the first person they call when they’re ready to hire.