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.

  5 Reasons to Outsource Your Marketing

lab-icnIf you’re like many creative people, marketing is the last thing you want to spend time on. Paid gigs, shooting or designing personal work, editing images, doing taxes, and other business tasks usually seem a lot more urgent.

The trouble is if you don’t do marketing — especially when you’re busy — you’ll eventually have far too much time for marketing. That’s because you won’t have any work.

Luckily, you don’t have to do it all yourself. There are many great reasons to outsource marketing tasks to someone who lives and breathes in that world.

Read more at The Lab Blog.

  5 reasons you shouldn’t do your own marketing

Just because you do marketing for a living doesn’t mean you have to do your own marketing.

marketing-quandaryA lot of my bread-and-butter work is content marketing for a set of clients that might seem counter-intuitive…other marketing companies.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, many businesses I interact with—from solopreneurs to full-scale agencies—are increasingly outsourcing their own promotion. Every month I work with marketing consultants, graphic designers, and even several other writers, all of whom are handing off some portion of their self-promotion to me.

These folks aren’t abdicating their creative voice…they’re very particular about what they “say” when I ghost-write in their voices, and are quick to make changes when needed. Yet many of them tell me month after month how much the collaboration helps them sound “even more like themselves.”

Here are five great reasons why they do it, and why you might consider following their example:

  1. You’re busy. Marketing any organization right takes time, which many agencies don’t have. Rather than overloading your staff with extra tasks—especially if you’re a staff of one—it’s often more efficient and cost-effective to put an outsider on the job.
  2. Promotional writing isn’t where you want to spend your time. Many of my clients are talented designers who hate to write. Great copy helps them look and sound good. Some of the writers I work with are very skilled at their craft but don’t write marketing copy, which is very different from fiction or editorial copy.
  3. You’ll keep your marketing machine on schedule. It’s easy to run a content-focused marketing plan when there’s not much else to do. But when you’ve got deadlines for clients who pay well, the last thing you want to do is take time away from that work to do your own self-promotion. Having someone else handle your marketing schedule keeps everything humming when you get busy, and helps make sure that you stay busy by promoting your services while you focus on paying gigs.
  4. You’ll get an objective perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in your needs and motivations when you write about yourself. An outsider is more likely to think like your prospects and write stuff that takes what they want and need into account.
  5. You won’t have to be shy. Creative people are often afraid that saying great stuff about themselves will be perceived as boasting. Having someone else craft the message that tells the world how great you are short-circuits this inhibition by demonstrating that at least one other person believes the power is in you.