Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How's Your Marketing Health?

For many, the transition from Christmas into the New Year represents a drastic course correction, especially in terms of health and wellness. If you've ever glutted yourself in December with the notion of transforming your eating habits come January, then you know what I'm talking about. Or maybe you'll resolve to take up a rigorous exercise regimen after a year spent lounging around in tattered underwear watching TV. Why? Because you suddenly realize that your physical health matters to you.

But what about your marketing health?

Your business or organization runs on revenue, just as we fuel ourselves with food. That revenue comes from customers who were drawn to your products and services by -- you guessed it -- marketing. That means your marketing "body" needs to achieve and maintain tip-top condition. How would you rate the health of that body's following parts?

Heart - We romanticize the heart as the seat of emotion -- but in marketing, feelings, drives and compulsions mean a lot. Not only must your marketing "heart" contain your company's mission and values, but it must also use emotion to convey those convictions to your target market.

Brain - The brain plans, conceives, evaluates and initiates everything you do; it's your master planner. Your marketing "brain" has the same job. It consists of your detailed short-range and long-range marketing plans, as well as the key personnel who write those plans, update them as needed, and occasionally throw them out entirely in favor of a new direction. Do you have these key personnel? Is your marketing plan still valid?

Eyes and ears - Your eyes and ears bring you the wide world in all its detail (with or without some help from your optometrist and audiologist). Your marketing body must see and hear clearly, too. To do this, it needs to position its "eyes" and "ears" along the huge array of media channels available to it -- from Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn/et cetera to client reviews and comments posted throughout the Net.

Tongue - To engage in normal speech with others, you need a tongue that is capable of forming words properly and stating ideas effectively. Your marketing "tongue" is your copywriter or copywriting team. These professionals can receive instructions from your marketing "brain" and translate them into the most effective message for your specific goals.

Fingers and toes - When you want to grab something, you reach out and pick it up with your fingers. Your marketing body does much the same. Its "fingers" are the advertisements, Tweets, blog posts, emails, and business calls sent out to reach prospects and clients. (They call them "touches" for a reason!) And what about the toes? Toes help you maintain your balance when standing, walking, or running. Your marketing body's "toes" are your marketing metrics -- those critical numbers that, when properly assessed and interpreted, can help you adjust your marketing efforts and keep your business upright.

Digestive system - When you eat, you don't just put food in your mouth; you chew it, swallow it, and (hopefully) digest it. Well, your marketing body can't be content simply to bring new prospects to your business. It must process those prospects by converting them into satisfied paying customers, just as your digestive system must process the food you eat before it can do you any good. Think of your conversion tools and strategies -- a well-designed website, easy-to-use points of sale, opportunities for buyer/browser feedback, big data collection and interpretation, and followup communications -- as the "guts" of your marketing body.

So while you're making those New Year's resolutions to lose weight, build muscle, increase your flexibility, or engage in smarter wellness practices, give some additional thought to your marketing wellness. Then resolve to enjoy optimal business health in the coming year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Freelancing on the Move: How to Write from Anywhere

One of the great advantages of being a freelance writer is the fact that you can write for any client, anywhere. This opens up fascinating possibilities for people who need to earn a living but don't necessarily want to spend every moment of their lives cooped up in the same office -- or even the same city. I've heard of folks writing entire book manuscripts and other large projects while roaming the country in an RV, for instance. After all, how hard could it be? All you need is email, a Web connection, and a laptop. Right?

Well, sort of. That’s a good start, but there are other considerations to think about, too. I would expand that list to include:

  • Internet/email connectivity
  • Voice connectivity
  • A writing machine
  • A solid client base
  • Peace and quiet

The technological challenges are fairly easy to overcome. Most major cell phone services have an option that enables you to use your cell phone or smart device as a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot, so you can work and communicate online as long as you’re in a place that gets decent coverage. Some RV parks offer wireless connectivity as part of their service. If your “day job” boss has sent you on an assignment that includes a hotel stay, you can simply use that facility’s Internet. Then of course there are all those free hot spots in coffee houses, restaurants and libraries across the U.S. I wouldn’t want to share sensitive information over public airwaves, but for everyday writing tasks they’re safe enough.

You choice of writing device will have an impact on how easily you can do a day’s work. For me, a proper writing machine has to have a proper keyboard, so that rules out touchscreen solutions such as tablets. I’ve found Chromebooks perfectly adequate for writing on the road, at least in most situations -- especially since you can save documents to an external thumb drive or hard drive, solving the question of limited storage. If you plan on doing a large percentage of your writing offline, however, you may want to spring for a more fully functional traditional laptop.

A solid client base is always desirable for any freelancer, but it becomes an even bigger deal when you spend long periods of time away from your home base. That’s because you’re losing opportunities to network and have face-to-face meetings with local clients and prospects. Sure, you’ll meet people on your travels, but it’s harder to turn those encounters into long-term business relationships. My advice would be to develop a deep pool of strong hometown client/colleague connections before hitting the road.

Don’t discount peace and quiet as a critical factor in your success as a mobile writer. You can’t write if you can’t hear yourself think, and that isn’t always easy when you have little no control over your surroundings. The friendly hustle and bustle of a coffee shop might boost your mood and energize your imagination -- until a screaming 2-year-old sits appears at the next table. RV parks and campgrounds can be notoriously rambunctious. Even the most sophisticated executive suite may have paper-thin walls, which is pretty much like inviting all the neighbors over to party while you try to meet that writing deadline. But don't lose hope; earplugs and iPods are among the traveling writer’s best friends. You might also get good results from synchronizing your writing schedule with quieter times of day or night.

Give these issues some thought before your next great adventure -- and then have fun writing from (and for) Anywhere, U.S.A.!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Want to Understand Your Business? Write About It!

Not too long ago I sat down with a business owner to discuss the creation of a print marketing piece. This person had owned and operated a fairly lucrative enterprise for several years, but he had never really moved beyond the word-of-mouth stage of marketing. Now that it was time to expand, I asked a few of the questions I routinely throw out in an intake interview. What was his company's stated mission? How does that mission set it apart from its competitors? What was the target market's most painful problem, and which promised solution would get them the most excited?

And every time I asked one of these questions, the client would pause, smile, and say, "Let me think about it. That's actually something I've never asked myself."

This little scene demonstrates a couple of things. First, it points out how valuable it can be to have a third party look at your business from the perspective of the general public. Second, it indicates that writing about your business can be an effective method for discovering what it's really all about. My client knew how to run a successful business. He had an instinctive feel for what the public wanted from him and how to deliver it. But he'd never put all that down in writing -- and writing sometimes makes all the difference between working instinctively and working consciously.

If you ask a business coach to help you improve your career performance or clarify your company's direction, you'll probably be told to write down your objectives, goals, challenges, deadlines, milestones and so on. Why? Because all those thoughts floating around in your head may give you the idea that you have a plan when all you truly have is a bunch of thoughts -- none of which may actually come to a conclusion or link together in a constructive way. When you put your ideas down on paper (or screen, or papyrus, or the nearest big rock), you're forced to condense, codify, and make some sort of sense out of them. Your half-baked notions become fully-realized statements. Your hopes and dreams become concrete goals with set timelines.

The same principal holds true for your marketing efforts. When you sit down to write a website or brochure, you may find yourself faced with questions you always figured you sorta-kinda had the answers to. Suddenly you have to explain to your audience precisely how you can give them the exact solution to the specific problem they're having. And to answer all those questions for your audience, you first have to answer them for yourself. What do your ideal customers want? How do you soothe their pain? What makes your company a better choice for that task than your competitors? Addressing these questions and nailing down the answers once and for all is a powerful thing, not just for your marketing but also for your ability to steer your business into the future you want for it. So when in doubt -- write it out!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why You Should Outsource Your Rebuttal Posts

As modern marketing options continue to evolve, people seem to be engaging professional copywriters for all sorts of things that didn't even exist a few years ago. These days a freelance marketing writer may be asked to supply content for Facebook business pages, Twitter accounts, LinkedIn profiles, Craigslist ads -- the list goes on and on. But one of the most interesting jobs I had was writing rebuttal posts for a local business who'd been slammed by a disgruntled customer on an online forum.

If I recall correctly, my client leased and maintained washing machines, and one recipient had gone ballistic over a messy mechanical failure. The customer had been poisoning the Internet with a series of lengthy negative "reviews," which were mainly just angry rambles peppered with name-calling and serious (and according to my client, untrue) accusations. "We need to respond to this guy with some rebuttals to shut down his argument once and for all," he said. "But we just don't trust ourselves to do it right." So they turned to a pro. Smart move! 

Let's say your business faces the same predicament. Somebody who wants to dirty your good name is running a smear campaign, accusing you of terrible products, non-existent customer service, sluggish delivery and so on. Maybe they're even going so far as to call you a crook. You know you're in the right, so why not jump onto your keyboard and fight back? I'll tell you why not:

1. Emotion never wins an argument. When two parties are engaged in a dispute, which one comes across as the more credible -- the eye-rolling, foam-spewing screamer, or the calm, level-voiced debater? The answer is obvious. But if you're in a fresh lather of your own over what this person is trying to do to your company or organization, chances are that your response will not exactly show you at your best. You want to rebut the charges, not create a fight scene worthy of a Godzilla movie. A cool-headed third party can make sure your rebuttal sounds factual, logical, and authoritative. The original poster looks like a total crackpot by contrast. You've won.

2. Faulty writing opens you up to more ridicule. Even if you can keep your temper under control when you compose your rebuttal, are your actual writing skills up to the task? Part of crafting an authoritative, intelligent response is writing text that reads correctly and fluently, with no errors in spelling, grammar or English usage. Remember, your assailant is looking for any excuse to put you down and make you look bad in front of your target market. Don't hand him a loaded gun by posting a rebuttal riddled with mistakes.

How did the Great Washing Machine War turn out, you ask? Actually, I wasn't following the online debate as it played out, but my client told me that the rebuttals I'd written for his company were just what they wanted and needed to clear their good name in the public eye. So if you're entangled in an online fight of your own, don't get mad, and don't get even -- get a freelance copywriter to rebut your enemy into submission!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Why Rehashing Old Blog Topics Makes Smart Marketing Sense

A couple of months ago I inadvertently destroyed my blog database, sending hundreds of articles into the ether, or wherever they go in such situations. I've been going back and forth over whether to re-post the original articles from my archives or just keep plowing forward with fresh new content. But just how fresh and new would the content really be? Without plowing through all the old posts I've written over the years, how can I know whether or not I'm simply repeating myself? 

Then reality hit me: Of course I'm going to repeat myself. I do it all the time. So do the vast majority of bloggers. And that's okay -- in fact, it's smart.

Wait, what?

Yes, I'm serious. Coming at the same topics over and over again is actually an intelligent marketing strategy, for several reasons:

1. The same old subjects will develop new twists and turns. For instance, say you posted something about gas prices back when the late 90s, when blogging was a brand-new thing. How relevant would that information be for this week's readers? That's an extreme example, but you get what I mean. Times change, and so do the critical issues of a given topic. So of course you'll revisit that topic again and again -- you have to, if you want to keep feeding fresh, helpful information to your readers. 

2. There's always "one more thing." Columbo knew it, and so did Steve Jobs. There's no way you can possibly exhaust every enticing angle of a particular subject. Take, I don't know, any specific medical condition. You'll find that there's far, far more ground to cover than the usual tiresome roll call of symptoms, causes, treatments, et cetera. What about all the success stories of different patients who have fought their condition? What about the many different coping methods for maintaining a high quality of life? What about alternative health practices versus traditional medical protocols? You could beat the subject to death -- to the great benefit of your target audience who may suffer from the condition. And we're talking about just one ailment here!

3. New readers may not read old posts. If you're blogging regularly and promoting your brand online, you may be gaining new readers all the time. But how many of those readers will have the time or desire to click through every single article you've ever written, no matter how relevant those blasts from the past might be to them? You're better off re-introducing the subject matter in an all-new post so the next generation of your adoring throng can experience it from the most current possible perspective. 

Heck, for all I know I've written this very article before. But you know what? It feels fresh and new to me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

4 Things I've Learned About Freelancing

I took my first freelance writing job in 1997. A few things have changed since then -- blogging became a thing; the Internet exploded into a global shopping mall/news feed/soap box; and social media took media, well, social. But for all that, I'm not so sure that the art of freelancing itself has changed all that much, aside from the fact that there are a zillion more opportunities to practice it. So this post is aimed primarily at writers who have just started freelancing or are debating whether to bother. Without further ado, here are four insights I've gained in my years as a freelance marketing copywriter in Austin (and, thanks to the Web, everywhere else):

1. Uncertainty is a certainty. If you absolutely must have an exact dollar amount dropped into your bank account every week or month, you're better off with a 9-to-5 writing job. Freelancing isn't a feast-or-famine existence; it's a feast-and-famine existence. Your income will blow hot and cold, with good months following bad months in what almost seems a perverse rotation. The only way I've found to flatten the curve a little is to build up a large, varied clientele. The more eggs you have in your basket, the more easily you can ensure tomorrow morning's breakfast.

2. Clients come and go. When I began my writing career I made the classic mistake every freelancer makes at some point (and then never again). I had two big clients that accounted for my entire monthly nut, so I figured that I was all set for the indefinite future. Well, you can guess what happened -- the indefinite future became definite. One client decided to do all its copywriting in house, and the other got absorbed by another firm and more or less vanished in a puff of smoke. the lesson: always add new clients to your list, no matter how heavily booked you may think you are, because they will come and go. Businesses restructure; business owners change careers or retire. (Or even die. Yes, that's happened to me.)

3. You can't do it in a vacuum. Freelancing appeals to us solitary types because we're able to think and work largely unmolested by the outside world. But if you think you can spend the rest of your writing career staring serenely at your wall, think again. Whether you write marketing content for businesses or you submit articles on spec to publications, you need to get out there, talk to people, listen to people, and generally soak in what's going on and how your colleagues feel about it. For me, the most efficient way of doing that is to frequent weekly or monthly networking organizations. You may also have luck finding topic-based get-togethers on Meetup.com or similar sites. Even casual social gatherings can provide you with valuable insights and information.

4. It works if you work it. Okay, that isn't always true; there are plenty of hardworking souls for whatever reason found that freelancing simply didn't work for them. But I can at least state with confidence that it doesn't work if you don't work it. Now, if you're just coming off a brutal career in which long hours were the norm, you may well want to give yourself some slack time (if you can afford it) before plunging into your new life. But if you're attracted to freelancing because "it beats working for a living," then you'll soon find that your definition of "working" needs an adjustment. Freelancers can decide when they want to work, but not whether they want to work. That rent won't pay itself. For better or worse, you're your own boss now -- so lead wisely.

One final tip: No matter how much planning and weighing of options you do, you'll never really know whether freelancing agrees with you unless you give it a whirl, at least as a side job. Who knows -- you might find yourself sharing your own insights on the subject one of these days!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Let's Try This Again: Revising Your Marketing Content

If you don't get a thrill out of creating marketing content for your business, you may feel that the only thing less pleasant than writing the stuff is writing it again. Even experienced professional writers sometimes cringe at the thought of going over their masterwork with a red pen. And of course there's nothing fun about acknowledging weaknesses in that draft you toiled over for hours. But revision doesn't have to be a horrible experience. Here are some things to keep in mind the next time you have to repair a draft:

Little things mean a lot. You'd be amazed at how effective even the most minimal fixes can be. This is especially true for the kind of short-form writing found in so much marketing content. The fewer words you put into your work, the more weight and power each individual word must sustain. On the one hand, this means you're tasked with selecting the most effective words possible from beginning to end, which can seem an intimidating chore. On the other hand, it also means that swapping out even a single word here and there can completely transform the piece into something great. Just the other day I received what looked like an imposing list of revision requests on a print marketing piece; once I got started, however, it became obvious that just a few changes here and there would satisfy the client's concerns completely. So take heart -- that "big rewrite" may not be as big as you think.

There's no "right" way to write (or rewrite). One of my writing teachers was fond of saying that there's no such thing as good writing or bad writing -- there are only stronger or weaker choices. There may be an infinite number of ways you can express a given point in your marketing content, and many of them could easily hit a home run for you. If you want to give yourself the world's worst case of writer's block, keep telling yourself, "I've got to get this content right." There is no "right." Your only objective is to make your point clearly, in a way that impacts the emotions of your specific audience so that they'll do what you want them to do. If your revision (or even your first draft) achieves that, then congratulations -- you're done!

More isn't necessarily better. "One more thing" syndrome is an easy trap to fall into, especially if you're writing about a complicated product or service. What about those 47 additional features you forgot to mention? What about this specification or that disclaimer? Well, all those tidbits may be legitimate concerns for an owner's manual for a major business proposal -- but for your basic web page, press release, sales letter or blog article they can lead to a massive case of overkill. Your reader doesn't want to read every single detail you can dream up, nor do you want to add all that extra labor to your revision. In fact, the most successful revisions frequently involve cutting, not expanding. Cutting is as easy as hitting the Delete or Cut buttons on your keyboard, though it may not seem so painless when your favorite turns of phrase go on the chopping block. It certainly beats churning out more text!

So if you have to revise your marketing content, don't fret. Take my little reassurances to heart, relax, breathe deeply, and take a good look at just what needs to be done. If you feel too close to the material to be objective, get a second opinion from a pro. That's what we're here for!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

4 Remedies for Rejuvenating Your Writing Mind

This post may seem to be focused addressing professional writers. But if you're tasked with writing content for your business's website, blog, newsletter or press releases, then you're writing content for professional use. And if you're tasked with doing enough of it, enough of the time, you'll start to feel the pressure sooner or later, no matter how many years of experience you have. What do you do when the blank screen suggests absolutely nothing to you? How do you get literary blood out that overworked turnip between your ears? It's a question we all have to contend with. Here are four suggestions that I've found helpful:

1. Stop thinking. Zoning out is more productive than you might realize. It may take the form of mild daydreaming about your writing project, or it could be more of a Zen-like state in which you simply think of nothing at all. These practices are highly beneficial to a locked-up, stressed-out creative mind. They not only gives the gray matter a rest, but they also silence the merciless self-critic behind so many cases of writer's block. There's a reason Ray Bradbury kept a sign above his typewriter that read, "DON'T THINK."

2. Go for a walk. Many of the great creative minds in history could just as well be dubbed "creative feet," favoring lengthy walks as they chewed over the morning's work or the evening session to come. It makes a kind of sense if you think about it. Light exercise stimulates cardiovascular performance, pushing oxygenated blood through your brain and improving your mental efficiency. Walking can strike you as either highly inspiring or about as interesting as watching paint dry -- and believe it or not, either of these reactions can give your creativity a boost. You might become charged with ideas from observing the local flora and fauna, or you might find your surroundings so deadly dull that you have nothing to thing about EXCEPT your writing. Walking can also relieve muscular tension, another potential distraction.

3. Sleep. "Sleeping on it" is more than just an expression -- it's also a legitimate way to solve nagging questions and issues on any kind of project that requires creative problem solving. Many times my head has hit the pillow in a state of utter confusion, only to wake up with a sense of absolute clarity, the answer to my problem suddenly resembling child's play. Whether your subconscious mind pulled an all-nighter while your slept or your conscious mind just was just too pooped to see the obvious, plenty of sleep can solve plenty of writing worries.

4. Write anyway. If that writing project is due tomorrow and your brilliance engine just won't engage for love or money, sometimes all you can do is grit your teeth and write the stupid thing. If you have the technique, you'll still manage to turn out respectable, professional-level work. If you're still learning your craft, the result might be rough around the edges -- but hey, that's what revisions are for. Feel your client out on this issue -- some regard the deadline as holy writ, while others will want you to take that extra day if it'll make a significant difference in the quality of the draft. 

One final suggestion: Sometimes the best thing you can do for a creative project is add a second point of view. If you feel that it's time to get another writer on board, you know who to call! I'll be sure to come running -- unless I'm busy daydreaming, walking, sleeping or writing.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lead the Way with Your Own Marketing Style

As you may know, I came to marketing copywriting via dramatic writing. But as an undergraduate drama major I dipped my toe into all aspects of the art form, from acting and directing to makeup design. I remember taking a costume history course in which the instructor talked about the difference between style and fashion. Style, she explained, was the bold new look that no one else had adopted yet, while fashion was what happened once a style was taken up by everybody. You could be stylish and set the trend, or you could be fashionable and ride the trend. Imitators might gain smiles of approval, but they weren't likely to create open mouths or raised eyebrows.

I've had marketing content meetings in which the client said something along the lines of, "I see my competitors doing this or that, so I'm thinking I need to do something similar." No. You need to do something different. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's a lousy way to set yourself apart from the crowd. I've said it before and I'll say it again: When your marketing content is as good as everybody else's, that just means that it's no better than anybody else's. What's the point in having a unique value proposition if you blanket that UVP in generic content?

Following the crowd too closely not only causes you to blend in to an unnoticeable degree; in some cases it can actually set you back. A couple of reasons why:

You may end up promoting your competitor. Let's say it's the 1980s, and you're running a fast-food chain called Burgers R Us. Wendy's has just taken the country by storm with its ads featuring Clara Peller as a cranky old lady yelling, "Where's the beef?" Well, hey, you sell beef too, and surely you can find an old lady to help you catch some rays off the Wendy's halo. So what happens? Your target viewers say, "Hey, these spots remind me of the old lady in Wendy's ads. Remember her? Wasn't she funny? Hmm, now that I think of it, I could go for some Wendy's right now." Oops.

Your competitor may have it all wrong. Some of the biggest and brightest companies have made enormous marketing screw-ups over the years. (Remember New Coke? Neither do I.) By riding their coattails, you could end up on the fast track to disaster. The only difference is that your Fortune 500 competitor may have enough long-term brand value, and deep enough pockets, to outlive a catastrophic lapse in judgement. Do you?

So what does it all come down to? Originality. Instead of reacting to the current big thing, be the next big thing. Instead of aping someone else's unique ideas, initiate your own. If you need to engage that creativity by outsourcing a freelance copywriter, designer or other marketing professional, then make that investment. Emphasize your uniqueness -- and set the style instead of following the fashion.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Shy People Need to Market Themselves Too

In my many years as a freelance marketing copywriter in Austin, Texas, I've encountered hundreds of remarkably talented, skilled entrepreneurs running some enormously innovative businesses. But until they actually contacted me to discuss their marketing needs, I'd never heard of them. I have no doubt that I will have many more such surprises in the future. And each time I will ask the same question: "How is it you've gone undiscovered for so long? Where have you been?"

I'll tell you where they've been -- they've been hiding. Not because they couldn't afford to market their businesses, or because they didn't want to achieve fame and fortune. They've been hiding because they are either shy or introverted by nature, or because they find self-promotion distasteful.

"Introvert" isn't a dirty word, by the way, although the extroverts of this world sometimes pronounce it as if it were. Introversion isn't exactly the same thing as shyness, even if it produces similar results. According to Psychology Today, introverted people feel emotionally drained when surrounded by large groups of people; shy individuals like being around people, but are afraid to interact with them. Both situations can bar the way to effective self-promotion -- but they certainly don't have to.

Here are some common objections I hear from people who allow introversion or shyness to interfere with their self-promotion efforts:

"I don't want to brag." Yes, you do! If you have a business to take pride in, and skills and experience to back up your claims, then you definitely want to brag. Think about the leading personalities in your field -- or in any field, for that matter. Do they come across as shrinking violets where their enterprises are concerned? Would you actually choose a business on the basis of how modestly it described itself, or would be more likely to go with one that trumpeted its achievements and abilities for all to hear?

"I can't mix with people." Did you know that Dr. Ivan Misner, the founder of Business Networking International (BNI), classifies himself as an introvert? He even claims to have trouble initiating conversations with strangers, a hallmark of shyness. Here's the leader of the world's largest business networking organization, asking people to escort him from person to person at events so he can introduce himself without awkwardness. If he can do it, so can the introverted/shy business owners of the world. You can even find consultants who will train you in public speaking and networking techniques so you feel more confident working the room.

"I don't have any great claims to make." Some business owners think that they must have a 20-year track record in their field, an international client list, and a personal endorsement from Oprah before they can market themselves or their business with any authenticity. But if that were true, no business would ever take that first step out of total anonymity. You have to start somewhere, after all -- and I guarantee that you have strengths and unique points to promote. You might need a little help pinpointing them or leveraging them in your marketing content, but believe me, they're there.

Don't let a desire to run and hide turn your business invisible. Get your message out there, loud and proud!