Designer + Writer = Creative Dream Team

Couple-using-laptopGraphic design and copywriting frequently work hand in hand, but very few creative professionals are masters of both arts. So it’s no surprise that many designers cultivate one or more writers as creative partners and vice versa.

From a designer’s perspective, working with a writer offers significant benefits. Here are five of the biggest:

A good writer will save you time—and maybe your sanity too

Most designers don’t consider writing to be their strong point, and even those who don’t stress about it tend to be more passionate about the design side of their business. Bringing a writer into a project allows you to focus on the design work you know and love best. Someone who works with words full time will also be more efficient at getting the job done, whether they’re creating a completely new message or polishing material provided by a client.

You’ll communicate your message faster and more efficiently

Do you have a tendency to ramble when you try to describe what you do? Are your clients the same way? A good copywriter is usually a good listener who can boil down all the information you provide, putting your words into an organized flow that makes sense to someone who’s never heard it before. Allowing a writer to pinpoint your core value propositions up front also helps everything you create later come together more quickly.

You’ll enjoy your own work more

A writer who knows how to work with designers can structure content to give you extra things to play with. Instead of a “wall of words,” you’ll get copy that’s organized with effective headings, subheads, call-outs, bullets, and sections of narrative. Not only will this make your message more effective, it will be more fun for you to work with as the designer. (Need to bring your favorite writer up to speed on how a designer works? Send your scribe a link to this post.)

You’ll get better results

Writers are trained to help you get into the mindset of your buyers by looking at your message from the perspective of your customers. A good writer uses these insights to figure out where your offerings best intersect with the needs and desires of your prospects, crafting the message for maximum customer appeal. Much of this work happens before any writing begins, so it’s beneficial to get your writer involved during the strategy phase.

You’ll be able to offer more and grow your design business

Having an established relationship with a writer or two transforms your design business into a convenient one-stop shop for clients. You can confidently offer to handle copy as an integrated part of your service. Not only does this save time and hassle for your clients, it opens the door to bigger projects. And the partnership can work both ways, allowing your writer to offer design services as part of his or her business.

  2 things your writer MUST know

checklist-icnOne of the first questions designers tend to ask about partnering with a writer is “what information does my writer need?”

While there are probably as many answers to this question as there are copywriters, there are certain fundamental basics most of us would probably agree on. To me, there are two that are absolutely essential:

1. Who are we writing to?

Before your writer goes anywhere near a keyboard, he or she needs to know something about your audience. You can make this job easy by defining your readers as narrowly as possible.

One way to do this is to use demographics, or statistics relating to a specific segment of people. For example, you might say: “We’re trying to reach single women age 25-35 who have a college degree and an annual income of $50,000 or more.”

Another useful tool is psychographics, which slices up market segments based on interests, attitudes, values, or behavior. An example of this might be: “We want to attract a diverse mix of young influencers who enjoy urban living and the arts to our new apartments in the theater district.”

Many creative briefs combine both of these strategies, along with other details that help the writer shape the voice and tone of your message. Even things that don’t directly relate to your product or service can be helpful. What kind of music does your target audience prefer? What websites do they visit? What concerns keep them awake at night? What goals and aspirations do they have? The more the writer knows, the better.

Above all, resist the urge to say “we want to reach anyone we can.” The more specific you can be about your audience, the more focused and effective your writer’s message can be. I try to narrow the audience down to one to three representative profile individuals whenever possible.

2. What do we want them to do?

Every piece of marketing copy you ask your writer to prepare should have a single outcome in mind. Do you want the reader to make a purchase? Visit a website for more information? Call for a free consultation? Sign up for an event? Subscribe to your e-newsletter to get a free report?

Whatever it is, tell the writer up front. This gives the writer the information he or she needs to craft the “call to action” that drives the reader toward the end result you ultimately want.

Is that all?

These two items on their own don’t make a good creative brief. There’s plenty of other information your writer should have, such as the elements of your brand’s character, what type of copy has succeeded or failed for you in the past, what market factors are influencing your business, what the competition is doing, and much more. But without these two critical basics, the copy you get will essentially be a creative writing exercise that’s only as good as your writer’s best guess.

Don’t worry about giving your writer too much information. After all, sorting out what’s relevant to the outcome you want from details that are less likely to influence your readers is part of your writer’s job. It’s far better for the writer to have to do some research and consolidation than for him or her to make assumptions, especially if you already know the answers the writer is looking for. The last thing you want to do is say “oh, you should probably see this other information we have” after you get the first draft.

  Where can you find good writers?

Woman-with-binocularsMany designers are eager to work with writers, but struggle with the process of finding scribes who are right for them. Some have had bad experiences with freelancers who didn’t meet deadlines. Others need copy that requires specialized knowledge in fields like healthcare, finance, or technology. Even when you find a good one, successful firms and solo creatives often have enough projects going to keep multiple writers busy.

While there’s no “silver bullet” solution that will find great writers every time, some hunting grounds offer a far better chance of success than others.

Ask for referrals

Referrals are by far the best way to find a great writer. Someone who’s already worked with a particular writer can tell you firsthand what the experience was like. Ideally, they’ll be able to advise you about the writer’s ability to stay on schedule, the quality of the work, how well they responded to change requests, and the response from the target audience.

Another reason to seek referrals is writers, like many creative professionals, don’t like to spend a lot of time doing self-promotion. This is especially true of good writers who get really busy—referrals are often the only way to find them.

Start by asking your professional colleagues—creative directors, designers, marketing directors, and others who might have worked with outside writers or in-house people who’ve since gone solo. Friends and acquaintances can provide leads as well, but consider these character references rather than skill recommendations—they’re less likely to have worked with the writer directly.

You can cast a wider net by tapping into your LinkedIn network. Start with a status message, but understand that only the people on your contact list can see it. You may also want to let LinkedIn Groups for like-minded professionals know that you’re looking. Ask members to contact you privately with recommendations.

One resource that isn’t as obvious: other writers. Many established writers have a network of colleagues who they refer when they’re too busy to take on new work or when a client would be better served by a different skill set than their own.

Professional organizations and industry events

Copywriters in search of new business are often attracted to groups and functions that cater to marketing, publishing, and design. Experience levels will vary—you’ll find everything from industry luminaries to rising stars—but in general a writer who’s willing to make the investment in membership fees, conference admission, or travel expenses is likely to be a cut above average. The majority of these writers take a professional approach to their craft, treat it like a business, and are actively seeking to improve their skills. All of these traits are to your advantage.

A few good places to look:

  • The Creative Freelancer Business Conference, part of HOW Design Live, is an annual event that attracts high-caliber solo professionals.
  • The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is the world’s leading independent organization for data-driven marketers. Many writers who cater to this industry are members or attend DMA events.
  • The Specialized Information Publishers Association (SIPA), now part of the Software & Information Industry Association, is the international trade association dedicated to advancing the interests of commercial information providers. As with the DMA, many copywriters join to get access to potential clients. Writers who attend SIPA events are more likely to specialize in the needs of specific niche markets.
  • You may also find smart writers hanging out at your local AIGA meeting or other places designers congregate.

Beware low-cost websites and random searches

You can always find someone cheap on websites that cater to the lowest bidder. Writers on these sites tend to be inexperienced, and can introduce costs to your project that far outweigh their “low” fees. That’s not to say you can’t find diamonds in the rough, but understand that you’ll have to do some expert hunting. Most good writers raise their rates and move on from bargain sites once they recognize their value.

Similarly, using a Google search to find a writer is a lot like spinning a roulette wheel. A writer who’s lucky enough to be the top hit in a search engine may have won the SEO lottery that day, but that’s no guarantee they’re easy to work with, able to meet deadlines, or the right fit for your job.

Test, test, test

Whatever method you use to locate writers, it’s best to try them out on one or two small projects to see how well the relationship works if you have the opportunity to do so. It’s a bit like dating—a writer should be on best behavior when you start forming a relationship. If it’s a struggle to get a small, low-stakes job done when you’re just getting started, things aren’t likely to get better when you have something bigger on the line. Look for writers who treat even your small test jobs with professionalism.

Happy hunting!

  Currents featured on Marketing Mentor

marketing-mentorI don’t often toot my own horn here, but I’m pleased to note that Currents was recently featured by Marketing Mentor in a collection of newsletters published by creative professionals.

Each of the newsletters were chosen “because they are excellent models, each approaching email marketing from a different angle AND because the content is also very useful.”

Check out the other great samples in the collection on the newly-relaunched Marketing Mentor website.

  How do you know what to write about?

crackedpencil-icnMany creative professionals tell me they’d like to do more content marketing, but they don’t because they’re not sure where to get great subject matter. The good news is if you know your audience well enough, they’ll effectively tell you what they want to read.

Put yourself in the shoes of your best buyers and forget about yourself for a moment. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do my buyers need?
  • What do they want? (And is that what they really need?)
  • What challenges are they struggling with?
  • What keeps them awake at night?
  • What would make their lives easier?

The answers to these questions will point you in the right general direction and suggest the kind of topics your audience will find compelling.

And if you can’t answer questions like this quickly, you probably need to get to know your readers a lot better.

  Dream-powered copywriting

sailingWhile vacationing in Michigan a few years ago, I had the opportunity to go sailing for the first time. I was fortunate that our host, a lifetime sailboat enthusiast and racer, was generous enough to let me take the tiller for more than an hour while he showed me the ropes (no pun intended).

There’s an incredible sense of peace and contentment that comes over you out there. Imagine the experience: pure blue water stretching in every direction, the wind filling the sail and ruffling your hair, and all the time in the world to just relax. No wristwatch, no cell phone, no worries. (And yes, mom, I wore sunscreen.)

Got that image in your head?

Even if you’ve never been sailing, or don’t think you’d enjoy it, I’ve just given you a glimpse of a moment of perfect contentment. Your thing may be hiking, sitting on a beach, going to a movie, reading a book, riding roller coasters with your kids, making an heirloom quilt, or just having time to putter around the house. Whatever it is, it has the power to motivate you and your prospects.

Many marketing people today are hooked on the concept of “pain points,” which is the current buzzword for the fears, frustrations, and worries that encourage buyers to try a new product or service. I get notes on drafts like “more pain here” or “let’s slam down harder on the fear and greed pedal.” That’s one way to sell stuff—once—but it rarely seems to satisfy. Opening the door to your reader’s deepest desires, however, gets pulses pounding and creates repeat business.

The next time you need to create marketing copy, think about what the people you’re writing for really want. What’s going to bring them peace, contentment, happiness, and joy? Can you give it to them?

  5 Ways to Stay on Deadline

deadline-clockThe task of managing deadlines is one of the leading causes of stress for many writers. Even seasoned professionals struggle with them, especially when they start to pile up. While there’s no “silver bullet” for eliminating deadline stress altogether, I’ve learned that a few simple management tricks keep me on schedule while keeping my blood pressure low. (By the way, they work just as well for designers and other creative pros too.)

1. Track all your deadlines in one place.

Using a system that allows you to see all your deadlines at a glance gives you a complete picture of what you’ve committed to. It also minimizes nasty surprises by reducing the chance that something will fall through the cracks. Whether you choose to go high- or low-tech depends on your personal preference. What matters most is that your system be easily accessible and flexible enough to make quick adjustments easily as priorities change.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with 3×5 cards in a pocket board, digital calendar programs, and an Evernote “hot list.” My current favorite is Wunderlist, a versatile app that synchronizes across all my digital devices and allows me to add and rearrange tasks easily.

2. Practice “The Great Deadline Deception”

Here’s a secret your editor doesn’t want you to know: the “official” deadline isn’t always the real deadline. Flaky writers often assume that this gives them a little extra time, but that strategy can backfire in a big way when the deadline turns out to be the deadline.

Instead, practice the same technique on yourself by assigning deadlines that are earlier than they need to be. If the client says the project is due Friday, mark it on your schedule as being due on Wednesday, or even earlier if it’s a big project. This may not seem like a very effective method since you’re fully aware of the game you’re playing with yourself, but believe me, it really works. Less than a week after I started using this method, I forgot that I had built this buffer into my schedule. I was about to stress out over a project that was going to take an extra day until I realized that I had two extra days built in. Not only did the client never know about my anxiety, they still got their job a day early.

3. Break big deadlines into smaller ones.

Big deadlines can be overwhelming, but small ones are so easy! If you have something huge looming over you, break it down. Say you’re designing a website. Instead of one entry that says “everything for the website needs to be done by date X, create smaller deadlines based on key milestones. For example, you may decide that wireframes need to be done by date X, copy draft 1 by date Y, and so forth.

4. Work ahead.

Believe it or not, if you don’t wait until the last minute to start working toward a deadline, it will be far less stressful. Sounds simple, right? Yet strangely, most creatives struggle with this one.

The key to this strategy is to prioritize your list from step 1, then start working on your tasks in that order. The most obvious way to prioritize is by due date. Getting the most pressing item out of the way first allows you to move on to the next hottest item, and so on.

If you regularly write similar scheduled pieces, such as blog posts or newsletters, it’s also helpful to have several extras loaded ahead of time. For example, I’m currently working with a graphic design partner on a new monthly newsletter. Part of our strategy was to write the first three months of content prior to launch. Not only did this give us a comfortable buffer to work with, it also made us aware of how different our newsletter topics will be. Some, for example, will more image-heavy than others. That was valuable information for the designer to have as he created the newsletter template.

Having a few months’ worth of content in the hopper doesn’t prevent you from being current or topical. If something big happens in your industry that you need to comment on right away, you can always slide something into the content schedule and push the “evergreen” pieces back.

5. Write in batches.

Getting started is often the most difficult part of the writing process. Whenever I have a lot of similar content to create, I try to write at least two or three of them in one session.

This practice will save you time by leveraging your momentum. It also improves the connections between related pieces. This can have significant value, whether you’re writing a series of blog posts that focus on different aspects of a larger topic over time or a set of brochures that will appear together in the same display.

  5 content marketing myths debunked

content-icnI didn’t become a believer in content marketing overnight. I was dragged kicking and screaming—and many of my content marketing clients were too. Yet once we reached the “other side,” our attitudes quickly changed to “why didn’t we do this a long time ago?”

For those of you who may be grappling with similar doubts, here are five common myths that hold creatives back from using content marketing successfully, and how to get beyond them.

(Need a quick primer on content marketing? Check out the post: 5 things to know about content marketing.)

“Content marketing” is just a the same old marketing with a new name.

While some of the techniques used in content marketing may not be new, it’s a mistake to think of content marketing as a traditional sales pitch in disguise. Critically, a fair amount of the content marketing process shouldn’t try to close a sale, but to establish relationships by building your credibility, generating awareness, and creating goodwill.

If you’re doing it right it almost feels like you’re giving something away for free, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get value in return for your efforts. Think of the information you share as a “free sample” of the service you provide. If you’ve learned the needs of your audience well enough to make your content useful, they’ll be more likely to recognize your value—and to turn to you when they’re ready to buy.

Only big organizations get any benefit from content marketing.

One of the advantages of doing business in an Information Age is the power of the Internet, which allows even a one-person business to enjoy the king of global reach formerly available only to big firms with deep pockets. The key to success is creating content your audience is excited about and getting it in front of the right people.

Once your content machine is up and running, prospects can find you through Web search, subscribers will forward content they like to their colleagues and friends, and if you hit the jackpot the social media monsters will take your content viral. For even better results, find a way to get your content published by the sites and periodicals your best prospects read.

But even if none of these things happen, you can still get big paybacks just by showing up regularly in your subscribers’ inboxes. My “house” mailing list is pretty modest, but most of the people on it are high-quality prospects for my services. They run the gamut from close friends and relatives (hi, mom!), to past and current clients, to people I’ve met at industry and networking events. Some have become clients after receiving my newsletter for several years. Others have referred good clients my way because they’ve learned who I’m a good fit for by reading my stuff.

There’s so much noise out there already that it couldn’t possibly work for me.

Actually, the noise is your friend. With so many choices for information, your prospects may be confused about who to listen to.

Good content marketing overcomes information overload by providing useful insights to a highly-targeted audience. Demonstrate that you are the source who understands their needs best and your message will have greater weight with your audience. The resulting relationships establish you as a trusted curator, enabling you to shut out some of the “noise” of your competition.

I can send out content marketing whenever I feel like it.

Today’s technology makes it easy to send messages whenever you feel like it, but there are two compelling reasons not to do this.

First, if you only push content out when you feel like it, it becomes easy to let it slide whenever day-to-day stuff interferes. Pretty soon nothing’s getting done.

Second, a regular schedule makes you more credible to your readers, especially if you show up at the same time every month, every other week, or more often. At a bare minimum, you should try to touch your audience at least once a month, preferably on the same scheduled day (the second Tuesday of the month, for example). Committing to a schedule also helps you stay accountable to your marketing goals, and will encourage you to build your content plan into your schedule.

I don’t have the time to do content marketing.

Spending an hour or two a week on a content marketing plan is a small price to pay for the substantial benefits it returns over time. If even that sounds like too much, the good news is you don’t have to do everything yourself. Outside firms or talented freelancers can help you develop a content strategy and take the task of keeping it on schedule off your shoulders. Watch for more details on how to make this work in an upcoming post.

  5 things to know about content marketing

signup-iconEveryone seems to be talking about content marketing these days, yet a surprising number of creative professionals don’t actually know what it is. Is it a real marketing technique that drives new business or just the latest industry buzzword? Here’s a quick rundown of the basics.

What is content marketing, anyway?

Simply put, content marketing is the practice of providing something of value that reflects your expertise (that’s the “content” part) and making it available for free. The content can range from useful information (“Tom’s timely tips for more effective marketing”) to content that entertains, such as viral videos. It can take the form of e-mail newsletters, a postcard series, white papers, blogs, website content, conference and webinar presentations, social media interaction, or—most effectively—some combination of marketing channels.

What makes Content Marketing different from regular marketing?

Unlike advertising and other common forms of promotion, content marketing isn’t a sales pitch. It’s not even meant to close a sale. It’s a “soft” marketing technique that targets a specific audience you’d like to build a relationship with, attracting their interest by satisfying some need they have.

How will I know what to write about?

Listen to your target audience. Get to know them intimately enough that you understand their interests, challenges, needs, wants, fears, and aspirations. Read what they read, attend the events they attend, and do anything else you can to learn how they think. Look for overlaps between what they need and what you can provide, and topics for content marketing will begin to appear.

Will Content Marketing get me quick business?

Nope. Content Marketing is S-L-O-W. It works a lot like erosion—a slow, steady drip that wears away the rock of prospect resistance. Be prepared to do it for six months, a year, or even longer before you see any results that you can trace directly to your content marketing plan. That may sound like a waste of time, but it isn’t. Think of it as making an investment in the workflow that you’ll need 6–12 months from now.

Content Marketing sounds like a lot of work. Why should I bother with it?

When done right, content marketing creates a kind of “client magnet” that attracts ideal business to you with a lot less effort. Over time it helps you to stand out from competitors, builds your credibility with the prospects you want most, creates new opportunities with people your readers forward your content to, and actually reduces the amount of work you have to do to promote your business. It’s also the single best form of insurance against the dreaded “feast-or-famine” cycle. For a real-world example of why I’m a true believer, check out my earlier blog post: “I feel like I already know you.”

  Writing insights from a puppy

puppyOn Valentine’s Day weekend, my wife Toni and I drove to nearby Columbus to meet four delightful Shetland Sheepdog puppies (responsibly bred…not from a puppy mill).

Toni had been craving another canine companion in the house for some time, but didn’t think that I would approve. After all, I work from home, am closely attached to the pooch we already have, and she didn’t think I’d want to mess with training a newcomer all day. Much to her surprise, I had already made up my mind before we left home that she’d be getting something more than a box of chocolate and the new Austenland DVD this year.

That evening we drove home with a new family member, who we’ve dubbed “Tilney,” the sweetest little 3.4 pound ball of fur you’ve ever seen. (Okay, maybe I’m slightly biased.) He was just seven weeks old the next day, so everything about his world was fresh and new.

I don’t remember much of anything from the time I was seven weeks old, so I can only imagine what it must be like for Tilney to be seeing the world for the first time. Some things make him anxious, like the vacuum cleaner, while others—notably Bingley, our adult pooch—excite his eager curiosity. But in either case he’s jumping into our lives with only seven weeks of experience to use as a frame of reference. What must the world look like through his eyes?

Tilney’s arrival also means I can’t take anything for granted for a while. I’m used to sharing my office with Bingley, a dog who already knows how to sit, stay, and let me know when he needs to go outside. Adorable as he is, Tilney still has most of that learning curve ahead of him—a fact I need to remember even as his training begins.

So what does all this have to do with writing (apart from blatant nods to characters from Jane Austen novels)?

When you reach out to new prospects—whether you’re promoting your business, introducing a new product, or expanding your audience—it’s a lot like trying to communicate with a newborn puppy. Some will know you by reputation, but many more will know nothing about you. The messaging you use to introduce yourself can excite their interest, turn them away, or (less common in puppies) leave them feeling uncertain about whether or not you’re right for them.

Your approach can be different when you’re dealing with people who already know you—your existing clients, prospects you’ve already had some contact with, or even people who are likely to know about you from high-profile projects. These readers already have a frame of reference that you can draw upon to build a more sophisticated message.

When it comes to totally new readers, though, you need to think like a puppy. You can’t assume that they’ll know the jargon you’ve lived with throughout your career, be familiar with the technology you use, or understand the significance of current events on your business. This doesn’t mean you should talk down to your prospects. Simply think of them as intelligent people who don’t have as much information as you do.

Prospects who are unfamiliar with you also won’t care about behind-the-scenes pressures that affect you, especially deadlines for other clients or your pet peeves about minutiae in your field. (Hint: Many of your long-established clients don’t care about these things either.) Save that stuff for conversations with your industry peers or close friends.

The key to mastering “puppy’s mind” is to ask yourself what’s in it for the puppy. Your message should have a single goal…to encourage the reader to take the next step in your action chain. That can be clicking through to your website, placing an order, or giving you a call. Cut everything else. Focus on what will encourage your prospects to take action, and they’ll be far more likely to join the big dogs on your client list.