Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Understanding Copywriting Rates

"How do you bill?" is a more complex question than you might think when you're soliciting the aid of a freelance copywriter -- or any freelance creative worker, for that matter. Different independent contractors have different ways of estimating and billing for their work, and just because you've always seen it done one way in the past doesn't mean that this new person you're working with is doing it wrong or trying to pull a fast one on you. But these different approaches can make the billing side of things seem unnecessarily and annoyingly murky for business owners and marketing agencies who need to purchase content. Let's look at a few basic ways copywriters rate and bill their work.

Per-Word Rate

A great many large agencies offer writers a per-word rate for their content, and some writers insist on such a rate themselves. On the surface, it seems fair enough. Putting fingers to the keyboard is work, so each completed word can be seen as a unit of work performed. It certainly takes a lot of the mystery out of how the writer came to his final payday. The downside for the client, however, is that more writing isn't necessarily better writing -- in fact, as I mentioned in a previous article, wordiness is more likely to make a piece of content less effective. The per-word rate actually encourages padding the text (at least up to a pre-agreed maximum word count), so you might end up with an impressive-looking wall of verbiage that's actually pretty weak stuff.

Hourly Rate

Billing by the hour is an extremely common approach taken by all kinds of independent contractors. Like the per-word rate, the hourly rate fixes what you're paying to a concrete, measurable variable -- the amount of time spent writing, editing and/or researching. Assuming your writer is using a verifiable program for logging those hours, you can rest assured that you're paying for X amount of labor. But there's a wild card in this deck as well, namely speed. Some writers agonized methodically over each and every word, while others blaze through the draft like lighting. To complicate things further, both writers may come up with equally fine results. So does the faster writer deserve to be penalized for his efficiency? Is the slower writer really working harder, or is he just being lazy (and racking up a bigger bill for you)?

Per-Project Rate

This is the method I generally use. That doesn't make it "better" or "worse," but I've found that it serves both my clients and me fairly well. In this approach, the writer either offers a fixed menu of rates for various kinds of projects, or he eyeballs the project's scope, thinks about how much time and effort he's likely to put into it, and then quotes a flat estimate. Additional charges may apply if the project grows way beyond its original parameters. Clients like this method because they always know exactly what they're going to pay before the project even starts. I like it because it makes it easier for me to figure out whether I'm meeting my own monthly budget and financial goals. There will be some times when the work turns out to be harder than expected (meaning you get extra work out of your writer for the same money), and other times when it turns out to be easier (meaning that your writer enjoys a better payday for the time spent). In the long run, I find that it evens out.

So what kind of billing system should you look for in a copywriter? Ultimately, that's entirely up to you. But I would urge you to look at the writer's experience, integrity and demonstrated skill first and foremost. If you're getting good marketing content, you're getting a bargain!

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Call to Action: Your Marketing Content's "Curtain Line"

The first act had gone fine. The audience hadn't exactly leaped to their feet in an ovation, but they were still there when the intermission lights came up, and most of them appeared to be awake. So far, so good, I thought from the catwalk where many playwrights (or was it just me?) prefer to hide during a production of one of their plays.

My playwriting teacher knew where to find me, of course. "They like the play. The only thing you need is a new curtain line."

"New curtain line?"

"Yes. The closing line of the act isn't really strong enough. You need to put something else there that will really resonate with the audience on the way out, something that will draw them back for Act Two."

"Uh...okay." I wouldn't have minded having this conversation before opening night of the production, but sometimes you really can't tell what works and what doesn't until you try it out. So after the show I went home, thought up a new line for the leading character to end the first act with, and the next night the whole scene -- in fact, the whole show -- worked better. 

Copywriting has its own version of the "curtain line." It's known as the call to action. 

The call to action is that last compelling statement in which you force the readers to react to what they've just absorbed in a specific way. Maybe it's time for them to pick up the phone and place their order. Maybe it’s time for them to fill out the request form for more details. Maybe it's time for them to whip out their credit card and make that payment. The point is...it's time. You've delivered a compelling message to them; now it's time for them to respond appropriately.

A good piece of copywriting has a shape to it, just as a well-written act in a play does. An effective act grabs the audience from the beginning, ratchets that interest level higher and higher, then leaves them in the most powerful, congruent emotional state possible -- the precise emotional state you want them to experience. Marketing copy should build in the same manner, ending with such an emotional punch that the reader feels compelled to take the next step.

So when you write that marketing piece, save the best for last. Rally the troops -- your readers -- with a rousing call to action. Challenge them to act on that feeling you just planted in them. Turn those prospects into customers and those customers into repeat customers. Get what you want the easy way -- by asking for it.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Why "Writing to Impress" Usually Backfires

You sit down to write your next blog article, new web page or updated brochure with a single goal: to dazzle your prospects and customers. But how exactly do you do that? You might be surprised to learn that "writing to impress" can do your content more harm than good. Here are a few examples of how this kind of overachievement can actually sabotage your goals.

Technobabble - If you've ever sat through a science-fiction show where the writers resorted to incomprehensible technical lingo at a key moment, you may have felt both irritated and excluded. The same holds true for marketing content that aims above the level of its intended target market. Companies in complex fields such as the technical, medical or legal arenas often feel compelled to display their expertise in this way -- without realizing that they're alienating their audience instead of impressing it. Technobabble only works when your ideal reader, listener or viewer is as fluent in that language as you are. If you need to reach the general public, you must boil your message down to general terms.

Formal-speak - Many business experts fall into the trap of using overly-formal language in their marketing content, especially consultants who feel the need to impress people. The approach usually means lots of passive verbs, indirect sentence structure and "five-dollar words." The end result is dulled emotional impact -- pretty much the opposite of what you want when you're selling your products, services and/or brand. Lack of directness pushes people away, while the longer a word is, the less power it usually holds. Clear, direct language will make your point much more quickly and effectively, while helping to establish you as a friendly peer instead of an unapproachable oracle.

Purple prose -  If you've ever seen an over-the-top amateur movie or book review, you've probably been hit over the head with phrases like "Buckets of tears were gushing out of my eyes like waterfalls from the very first scene" or "I was collapsing with laughter at every moment." This kind of hot-and-heavy hyperbole (a) is pretty hard to take seriously and (b) exhausts your audience's emotional batteries from from the beginning. If everything is spectacular and amazing and life-changing, then nothing stands out and contrasts become impossible. You've lost your ability to create emotional highs and lows in your content -- and with it, your ability to engage the audience in a meaningful way.

"Writing to impress" usually doesn't -- but writing to establish a strong, credible, instant connection with your ideal respondent definitely does. Honing your approach and technique takes some doing, but you can always engage a professional marketing copywriter who already knows his stuff. Either way, make sure your content makes the right impression!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Copywriting for Your Video: The Secret's in the Script

Video is the way to go. You’ll hear that from an increasing number of web developers and social media consultants these days. Uploading your marketing or informational videos to your website, YouTube and other channels can boost your online presence and create excitement about your company. And these days it’s easier than ever. I was in video production back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and creating even a short clip required a roomful of expensive editing facilities. Today you just point your iPhone in front of your face, talk/record, and post the result. Voila! Instant marketing — for better and for worse.

Video hasn’t killed the copywriting star. Why? Because more often than not, the effectiveness of a marketing video hinges on the words coming out of the presenter’s mouth. Some business owners with the gift of gab might have a magical ability to say all the perfect things in the right order in exactly X number of seconds. The rest of you, however, will find yourselves uhh-ing and umm-ing your way through multiple frustrating takes — including, in the worst case scenario, the final one. Posting such a video can do more harm than good.

So what’s the answer? Most video producers will tell you that it’s a script — a prepared marketing statement spoken directly to the camera and/or recorded as voice-over narrative. Video scriptwriters typically handle this task by creating a two-column document, with a list of shots on one side and the corresponding spoken text on the other. This not only keeps you from sounding like a doofus when you address your audience, but it also gives the director and editor a clear written blueprint for the entire video, saving time (and therefore money) in post-production.

Do you want to appear on camera or not? The great advantage of the voice-over narrative is that it allows you to record the whole thing at your leisure without having a camera pointed at your face; the editor will simply insert the completed audio wherever it needs to go in the finished product. And since you’re not on camera while you’re delivering your spiel, you don’t have to memorize anything. This is a big deal, believe me, unless you have a TelePrompter or cue cards standing by (and even then, your eyes may betray the fact that you’re reading). 

In some cases it may be worth it to hire a professional actor to serve as the face of your company, at least on video. On the other hand, if you are already known as that face, you’ll need to find a way to deliver the text yourself. A skilled copywriter will often help an on-camera novice by scripting a series of shorter speeches taken as multiple shots, as opposed to long monologues. Believe me, I’ve seen a LOT of time and money wasted because some poor non-actor was forced to nail a demanding speech in a single take.

So while it’s fantastic that video technology is cheaper and easier to work with than ever before, remember that to some extent, you still get what you pay for. And paying for a professionally-written script can make all the difference between a glorified home video and a genuinely effective marketing presentation.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How to Create Great Marketing Content Today (That Won't Embarrass Your Brand Tomorrow)

I'm something of a connoisseur where really bad movies are concerned. Everything from cheap drive-in fodder and Z-grade science-fiction films to those bizarre educational shorts we used to watch in school holds a strange interest for me. Apart from the unintentional entertainment that occurs when sheer awfulness propels a film into a realm of its own, there's also the fascination of the what-were-they-thinking factor. Usually, of course, they were thinking to make a couple of bucks in a kind of artistic hit and run. A producer would scrape a few reels of something resembling a story together and throw it into some theaters for a couple of weeks, with the idea that it would make its money and then disappear forever.

Except that in many cases, that didn't happen. Mystery Science Theater 3000 and home video restorations have brought tons of this odd old material to light again over the years, giving it a second life and giving its creators (or their heirs) something to cringe over for decades to come. Here in the Information Age, nothing is truly temporary -- and if you're generating marketing and branding content for your company, you need to keep that in mind.

No matter how beautifully you upgrade your corporate brochure from its humble, quick-and-dirty "just something to show" beginnings, those horrible old originals are still out there, waiting to be uncovered the next time a client unloads an old storage box or cleans behind a counter. As for web content -- a quick trip through the Wayback Machine and similar archive databases will reveal all the previous version of your online presence in all their awful glory.

If you can't hide from your past, content-wise, then what can you do? That's easy -- get it right the first time. Instead of just cobbling something some text together now with the idea of improving on it later, spend the extra time and effort making the best possible creating decisions in the here and now. For instance, ask yourself:

"Is this how I want to present my brand to my target audience?" It's such an elementary question, one that anyone should always ask when creating marketing content -- but if you're in a hurry to get your brand up and running, you could be skipping over important facets of your messaging or not aiming at your target audience as precisely as you should. Why rush to release content that won't do your business any good?

"How does this content stack up against my hottest competitor's?" I've sad before that if your marketing content is as good as everyone else's, then it's better than no one else's. That may be true, but at least it's not laughable by comparison either. Make sure your print and Internet marketing efforts don't place you at a critical disadvantage from the very beginning, no matter how quickly you plan to upgrade it. You don't want to give yourself the extra burden of overcoming a bad first impression.

"Is it trendy, or is it timeless?" How evergreen are your copywriting (and design) choices? How gracefully are they likely to age? Is your text brimming over with today's slang, buzzwords and business-speak? If so, you're dramatically shortening the potential lifespan of that content's usefulness to you.

Your marketing content doesn't have to be perfect right out of the gate, and over time you will inevitably need to modify it. But get whatever professional copywriting help you may need to start out strong. You'll be less embarrassed if and when your first attempts bob up into view again -- and you'll have marketing that actually works, both now and in the future!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Practice Makes Perfect: Developing Your Writing Technique

A few months ago I attended an MSP Training session. MSP, which stands for Member Success Program, is a basic training course in the fine art of networking for BNI (Business Networking International) members. As a ten-year veteran of that organization, I've taken the course several times before, but we're supposed to re-take it regularly to keep our skills sharp. The agenda includes how to give an effective self-introduction, how to listen for possible referral opportunities, the difference between a genuine referral and a lukewarm "lead," and so on. This sort of training is especially useful for those of us who weren't born with a natural gift for self-promotion or confident interaction with a roomful of strangers. But I've found that the most important thing I can do to become a better networker is to network. A lot.

I guess this is true of just about any activity, particularly the ones that don't come naturally to us. Sure, you might accidentally pick up a basketball one day and discover that hitting 3-pointers is child's play for you and dumb luck for all your friends. More likely, though, you'll have to practice hour after hour, shot after shot, until you get the muscle memory down pat. That's technique, and anyone can develop some degree of it, no matter how much actual talent they have for the given task. In fact, technique can continue to serve you even when natural ability can't or won't. There are countless stories of singers, actors, athletes, musicians, you name it, who perform competently or better in the face of illness, injury or personal stress. They may be so distressed or distracted that afterward they can't even remember what they did. But's that okay, because their technique remembered for them.

Writing is another activity that benefits from constant practice and repetition. If you feel the ned to communicate your company's mission or your own expertise through writing, you don't need a journalism or marketing communications degree -- you just need to do the following things:

1) Read a lot 
2) Write a lot

If you plan to write your company's marketing content, immerse yourself in marketing content from your competitors, from unrelated industries, from your junk mail inbox, from everywhere you happen to find it. Soon you'll be able to recognize the good stuff from the bad stuff, and eventually you'll start to recognize the mediocre stuff as well. At the same time, practice whatever form of writing you intend to pursue. It's perfectly fine to mimic the masters to get a feel for what they're doing -- many great composers got their start by transcribing each other's work verbatim. After a while you'll be able to know whether a given word or phrase will work before you ever set it down, with no need to wait for "inspiration." And that's the beginning of technique, because once you can do that, you can write whatever you want, whenever you want.

Can you still have a professional copywriter go over your work and edit as needed? Of course! But if you really want to refine your own writing, I recommend that you study the copywriter's revision of your draft with a surgeon's eye. What exactly did he change, and what exactly is that change doing to make the content better? It's like getting a bonus tutoring session for the cost of an editing job, so take advantage of it. And whatever you do -- keep practicing!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

This Is Your (Target Audience's) Brain on Copywriting

Do you recall the old TV ad that showed a frying egg with a voiceover proclaiming, "This is your brain on drugs?" As dumb as the analogy may seem, that ad was remembered, quoted and even parodied for years. Why? Because it used certain psychological hooks for engraving itself on the minds of viewers. Let's face it, marketing is largely the art of psychological manipulation. So let's look at how your marketing content can employ specific techniques to place your target audience "under the influence."

The Bizarreness Effect

The Bizarreness Effect holds that creating bizarre images out of otherwise-mundane ones can help lodge those images in the memory. Let's go back to our opening example -- an image of an egg in a frying pan, paired to the idea of a brain on drugs. These two incompatible, less-than-memorable notions form an unforgettable metaphor when you put them together.

Appealing to Both Sides of the Brain

You probably know that the left side of the brain is considered the more rational of the two hemispheres. It's one that responds to facts, reasons and logic -- but it's not the one that makes your target customer buy. That impulse comes from the right side of the brain, which is commonly associated with creativity, emotion and intuitive thought. Ideally, your marketing content appeals to both hemispheres. Your feature statements pile on fact after fact in support of your products or services, while your benefit statements hit readers where they live emotionally by helping them envision how their lives will be improved by those products or services.

Repetition, Rhythm and Rhyme

Just as the major search engines take notice of repeated, relevant keywords in your marketing content, the brains of your target audience will respond to repetition. The more you repeat a statement, the more convincing it becomes--simply because it's being constantly reinforced in the brain. Rhythm and rhyme can then make that statement more memorable, just as they tend to make song lyrics stick in your head. Think about all the great catchphrases you've heard over the years. Still thinking about them? Exactly.

Reticular Activation

If familiarity breeds recognition, then specificity breeds familiarity. If you try to appeal to everybody in the world, in every possible scenario, your message is probably so generic that it has no strong psychological effect on any individual. But if you paint a specific "How many times has this happened to you?" kind of picture, your ideal customer may think, "Wow, I'm having that exact problem right now. These people are talking to me!" That reaction is coming from a bundle of neural fibers called the reticular network, which acts as a kind of high-level "lookout" that waits for stimuli it recognizes as something we need to pay attention to right now, as opposed to the mass of more generic information the brain doesn't have time to bother with. Target your message as precisely as possible, and you'll be targeting that reticular network.

Persuasive copywriting is as much about psychology as it is about sheer writing skill. An experienced marketing copywriter can help you apply both for maximum effect. Contact me today and let's talk about how we can influence your target market!