Category: Freelancer Tips

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Seven+ Ways to Keep Your Clients

shake.jpgOver the years, have I written my share of crotchety emails to product managers, traffic managers, legal assistants, publishers, and graphic designers?

I confess — I have.

A tiny handful have even made it past the “send” button… most, after sitting in my “draft” folder to cool, have landed in the trash can.

But rather than air out my own dirty laundry, let me share some insight from my friend and fellow marketer, Lori Allen. Lori runs Travel Writing and Travel Photography seminars for our mutual pals over at American Writers & Artists Inc.

She deals with lots of copywriters and other freelancers. So much that she once gave a
presentation at the famous AWAI boot camp, “Confessions of a Marketing Director: 17 Ways to Keep Clients Coming Back.”

Here are some of the highlights she shared…

1) Don’t complain or badger the client.

Imagine waking up from surgery only to have the doctor hovering over your bed, complaining about the mess you made in the operating room. You’d feel a bit, er, put out.

Yet, one copywriter Lori hired wrote her a letter complaining about the migraines and sleepless nights… she had “caused” because of the project she’d given him.

Guess what — she never hired him again.

Likewise, it’s not a good idea to badger clients for feedback. Sure, sometimes a response comes way too slow — I know, I’ve been there — but a gentle nudge is better than a searing cattle prod, in the long run. Believe me. I’ve been there too.

Of course, the longer and better you get to know the clients, the easier it is to be frank about what you need to get the job done. But even then, don’t mistake familiarity for a license to act like a jerk (Believe me, I’ve been… ah, you get the picture).

2) Offer to help not to destroy.

If your marketing client has a mailing control you think stinks, what should you do? Write them, of course, and tell them what idiots they are… right? Wrong.

Yet, Lori has letters from copywriters who say exactly that. Outright, they try to get new business by telling her that their layout stinks… the headline is insipid… and so on.

Is that the way your mama taught you to behave? Nope. And you shouldn’t behave that way with a client you hope to keep or win over, either.

One of the great things you learn as a seasoned writer is how to TAKE criticism… and if you’re lucky, you learn how to GIVE a critique better too. That means knowing when your critique is welcome and when it isn’t. It also means knowing how to make suggestions that get your clients looking forward hopefully… rather than feeling defensive.

3) Emphasize past successes, not failings.

How many poor chumps have you seen trying to “get the girl,” only to lapse hopelessly into awkward self-deprecation? Bottom line: you can’t go far by hiding your light under a bushel.

Talking to a new client? Then let them know what you’ve accomplished. If you’ve got great controls for one company, get samples and share them with the rest of your clients. There’s no need to be modest.

Talking to a longtime client? Don’t forget that the quality of your business relationship is built on reselling yourself to them, too. With discretion, make sure they don’t forget your greatest hits.

What if you lack experience? Don’t cringe in the shadow of your own innocence. Instead, be bold, eager, and well-informed. Be honest. And shine the light on what you’re GOING to do for them instead.

4) Know when to call instead of write.

Like I implied earlier, writing is often an isolated profession. You start to cherish working alone, and might even start using e-mail as your buffer against a disruptive world.

True, email can save you lots of time… sometimes. But here’s the real weakness of working solely by e-mail: It can make you think you control the conversation, when you really don’t.

That’s a problem.

Especially when you’ve got a complex idea to get across… an opinion that could be misread… or a sensitive question to ask.

There’s no way around it — you have to know when to pick up the call instead of write. Better yet, know when it’s best to meet in person. I know, that whole “face-to-face” thing seems like old technology. But you’ll be surprised by how much better it works, compared to, for example, brainstorming by Twitter.

5) Always include your contact information.

Okay, this isn’t about e-mail etiquette exactly. Except in the sense that it’s always right to make
your introductions. Obvious? Perhaps.

But Lori showed us an e-mail from one copywriter that would astound any self-respecting schoolmarm.

He asked her to mail something to him via the postal service… at a new mailing address he didn’t provide… while writing from an e-mail address he said he didn’t usually use. And he signed the message only “J.” And that was it.

Nice going, bonehead.

6) Understand the technical side of the business.

This isn’t so much etiquette either. But it pays, says Lori, to know enough about the print side of the direct mail business. Just so you can talk the talk when necessary. This is especially true when working with graphic designers. Nothing will help you sound more like a seasoned marketer. By the way, this is also true when you’re working with online copy. You don’t need to know HTML, but it helps to know the technical options afforded to you.

7) Get excited about the product.

Again, not an etiquette point. But essential for every communication you’ll have with a copywriting client. If there’s anything that will really make your copy work well and your clients willing to respect you, it’s a sincere understanding and appreciation of the product you’re writing to support. The enthusiasm flows from between the lines. And this will make your writing job much easier, to boot.

In the title to today’s piece, I said “+” after the “seven.” What’s that stand for? Well, naturally, the easiest way to keep a client is to write great copy that sells.

But that’s way too obvious, right?

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Make the Most of It, Starting Now…

corkpopJohann Underwald was a Swiss math whiz. When I say “whiz” I mean he was smart. Very smart. Some called him “the next Albert Einstein.”

But one day, back in October 1999, Underwald and friends decided to go bungee jumping. Big deal, right? After all, despite all the hype, bungee jumping is a surprisingly low-casualty sport.

Unless that is you happen to be Underwald.

They scheduled their jump into a beautiful 250-foot gorge. But in what could only be remembered later as a head-smackingly stupid and hugely humbling development, it turned out that Underwald the highly respected math-whiz had erroneously measured out a cord of 300 feet.

Whoops.

Sometimes, it’s all too easy for your best intentions to… er… fall flat on their face.  Not because you weren’t excited enough from the outset. But because when it came to the execution, you failed to follow through on the details.

I’m sure you know what I mean, especially this time of year.

You start out your New Year with big ambitions, busting through the swinging saloon doors of the universe full of hope and promise. What happens next? Just a few months in, you let the unexpected get in the way. Out the window goes the diet. Up in flames goes the promise to quit smoking. The samba lessons, training for the marathon, learning to speak Mandarin? Forget about it. Come March or even February, you’ve slipped back into the same revolving groove. Before you know it, it’s December 31st all over again and you’re singing the same old song from years prior.

Which is why, this year, I want to suggest you get started in another way.

You may, indeed, have already made your resolutions. But before you let yourself slip completely under the surface in the wellspring of your good intentions, let’s step back for just a moment and take measure first.

Specifically, let’s spend a moment — at long last — examining a few of those bad habits that have torpedoed your resolutions in years prior. Even more specifically, since this is after all supposed to be a blog about copywriting, let’s take a closer look at the obstacles that could overwhelm you during your year of writing ahead… sound good?

So, one of the burdens we face when we set out on a new venture is the baggage we sometimes insist on dragging behind us. With that in mind, let’s start by asking… what’s your baggage?

I can’t even count for you, at this point, how many newbie copywriters I’ve worked with. But I can tell you that one of the most common early copywriting career burdens — and it’s even a hinderance for a few less-successful industry veterans — is pride in our own cleverness.

I think you know what I’m talking about. Instead of writing copy that persuades, they’d rather whip out their best puns, humor, and headline word play. Okay, yes. We all do it from time to time. But how often have you indulged, in the hopes that your own cleverness would make you and/or your client look smart? Fun as it might have been, did that preening act make your sales copy more effective… or less? Since not everybody is clever in the same way, most likely the answer is less.

So let’s say, this year, before you decide to do anything, decide to step away from all that. Instead, let’s make 2010 the “year of the customer.” Benefits, core emotional drivers, targeted offers they just can’t resist.

What else might be holding you back, year after year?

Let’s talk about procrastination. Nasty stuff, that. And an albatross ’round the neck of far too many. Think about it. Are you the type that feels “busy” when you log in to answer your email, first thing in the AM? Does your checklist start with the little things and save the big things for later? Do you ever find yourself, during the day, feeling sick or even kicking yourself because time has almost run out and you “haven’t gotten a thing done?”

If yes, most likely you’re frittering away the minutes at the expense of the hours, days, weeks, months, and — yes — limited years of your life. And there’s no time better to break that habit than immediately.

Of course, this applies to many more things than just your copywriting career. But let’s try a suggestion from copywriting great Gene Schwartz that might show you how to break that procrastination cycle.

It starts when you get yourself an egg timer. Got one? Good. Now, every morning, do NOTHING until you’ve put in at least 33 minutes working on the biggest and most important project on your docket. And by important, I mean the one that’s closest to putting income on your bottom line and earning you respect in the industry.

In other words, all the small, urgent stuff… the quick phone calls, the emails, the must-have daily meetings… gets pushed to the back of the list  It’s end of the day stuff. And that same time, you want to move your biggest projects — the ones you dread getting started on the most — right up to the front.

Now, with the help of your timer, you’re ready to start carving away huge self-satisfying chunks of that project. Try setting the timer six times in a row at the 33 minute mark. Take a five-minute break after the third session or even between sessions if you have to. And make it a rule from now on that this is how you’ll start every morning.

All told, that’s only 3.3 hours of work per morning. Even if you’re getting started at the leisurely hour of nine, you’d be done in plenty of time for lunch. Yet you’ll be amazed at how much better, more relaxed, and valuable you’ll feel having accomplished something bigger than just the routine stuff that used to waste so much of your first-thing energy. What’s more, you’ll now have the entire afternoon to come back to all of that stuff.

This process, by the way and with or without the timer, is called “inverting your agenda.”

You’ve probably heard the old story. If you want to fill a jar with sand, pebbles, and big stones… put in the big stones first, the pebbles next, then dump in the sand to fill spaces in between. Any other order, and you’ll never fit it all in.

On a related note, let’s talk laziness. Sloth.

Procrastination is often the busy work that looks frantic but gets you nowhere. But to stumble through life complacent is like committing that same kind of crime, times ten. Think about it. When you finally earn your tombstone, how would you feel if nobody had a clue what to carve upon it?

“He napped,” it could read.

At your funeral, what if your eulogy was dead air? What if nobody could remember anything important you’d ever done? What if you were to suddenly realize on your deathbed that you had just been “there” all your life, present but not accountable for much of anything except wasting oxygen?

There’s a joke “motivational poster” I’ve seen making the rounds online. It’s a picture of an empty toilet paper holder of the simple spring-action type. Balanced on top of the empty holder is a roll of already-started paper. Underneath, the de-motivational caption reads “Because somebody else will do it.”

Don’t let that be you, the one that rides up the mountain on somebody else’s back.

Look, even I know that if I’m going to sell you on an idea there’s no easier way for me to do that than… well… for me to make it sound easy to you, too. Yet, there’s no way around it — good results demand good effort. You’ve simply got to log the hours, do the work, make it happen. Or don’t bother.

It’s that simple.

Ask yourself, if you’re trying to start your career… have you really gotten on the mailing lists of prospective clients? Do you really read as many frequently seen direct response letters as you can? Have you really made the effort to get your first writing gig, even if that means starting locally, getting paid a little less in exchange for the experience and portfolio samples, or — yep — maybe even working on “spec?”

(“Spec” means “speculative,” where you’ll only get paid if your new client uses your stuff. Some don’t recommend it. But given that an uncertain payoff at the start seems to be a common thread even among the top copywriters I know, I say don’t knock it — as a last resort, it could be your best way in.)

If you’re already working at this career path, but you’re wondering why you still haven’t gotten yourself all that far, then you’ve got a new round of self-reflective questions to ask. For instance, sure you can produce copy… but is it the best copy you can produce? That is, are you really building a relentless succession of persuasive sales points… or are you  just writing something to fill space?

How deeply did you dig when you did the research? How hard have your really tried to understand the customer? Does that include time talking to customer service, reading product-related forum posts, or walking the floor at product-related conferences?

Likewise, how well do you really know the product you’re selling? How many of the past sales-letter controls have you read? “All of them” is the only right answer. How much time have you spent interviewing the product creator, staff members, and anybody else close to the core interest of whatever you’ve been hired to write about? Your notes can and often should exceed the length of your final sales piece at least once and as much as three times over.

Bottom line: The greats in any field, this one included, aren’t the natural-born geniuses. They’re the guys (and gals) that put in the hours, more so than anybody else. That’s it. That’s the ultimate success secret. And it’s not just the total amount of hours but the way in which those hours are budgeted.

You have got to get a sense of where in your time schedule you’re going to draw the biggest payoff. In writing copy for hire, the best service you offer — and therefore the one he’s paying you for most — is your ability to take a lot of unique and potentially complex value, and boil that down to the most essential, most persuasive promise that will appeal to the target customer.

You are, in effect, a translator.

And before you can translate anything, everybody knows you have to understand it first. So what’s the first thing you should do this year? I suggest budgeting about double the time you normally do to study the angles on everything you write about and everybody you’re writing to. Commit to knowing it as fully as it can be known, even before you write your first headline.

Because that’s how you find the unique selling angles nobody else has found before.

Do it right and this will take you less and less time with each project, especially if you win over clients for repeat business. With the added bonus being that, the more work you do for the same client, the more loyal that client becomes to your copywriting business — simply because you’re the one that knows the products and customer base the best.

This list, of course, could go on forever.

But if you just pay attention to these few obstacles now, you’ll be able to put together a much stronger “to do in 2010” plan than you’ve written out at the start of any year prior.

Because I think this is so important to your success, let me just bundle up some of these ideas in another way…

During the year, I teach at a few writing seminars. And I almost always come away surprised by two things. First, I’m impressed by the caliber of many of the students. You meet some sharp people at these events, including people who’ve done amazing things in other phases of their lives. Or who at least have great insights into the world and how it works.

Yet, here’s the second shocker I come across, and all too frequently: You just wouldn’t believe how many of these smart, otherwise-accomplished people then tell me “I’ve ordered that course on copywriting… but I haven’t had a chance to get started.” And then, in the same breath, ask me for recommendations on other courses or resources they can buy and — most likely — still not use!

I call it the exercise bicycle phenomenon.

I’ll bet you know how that goes. Full of ambition, you bust out and get yourself an exercise bike. You’ll be the Lance Armstrong of the indoor Tour de France, you tell yourself. A champion in your own private world. You’ll even put the bike in your bedroom, so as to remind you that it’s there for you to hop onto first thing every morning. The first day, you put the world’s fastest hamster to shame with your wheel spinning. The next morning, you huff through another few miles. Just a month or so later, though, you’re only using the thing as a towel rack. Sigh.

I see the same thing happen over and over again to these people I’m telling you about. They buy the course. They buy the books. They go to the seminars. They talk up their ambitions to everybody who listen. And then, almost without even noticing it themselves… they quit. They just stop getting started. End of story. Double sigh.

When I come across somebody in that boat, I tell them the same thing. I’ll repeat it for you here:  Studying this stuff is great. But getting started is what really matters. Do it any way you can. Make this year that year you’ll remember as the beginning of everything grand.

Easier said than done?

Well, of course. Isn’t everything worthwhile slave to that maxim?

But yet again, I’m going to throw a line to my old friend Michael Masterson, copywriting mentor extraordinaire, who has given lots of generous advice on how to transform long-term goals into d0-it-today specific and immediate steps.

It’s a simple but powerful philosophy Michael espouses. In short, work backward from where you want to be 20 years or even 10 years from now, and break it down by year… by month… by week. Tomorrow. Today.

The smaller and more specific the steps you identify, the better. At least until you’ve broken it all down into the manageable, checklist kinds of details. And then make it a habit to carefully review that specific list each morning and again each evening. Michael actually carries index cards in his pocket, pulls them out, and checks things off while puffing a cigar.

It’s the connection between long-term goals and short-term action that’s key, however. No throwaway events on that daily checklist, in other words. All are there because they’re clearly building to what’s bigger. In this way, Michael has cranked out nearly a dozen books, added millions to his personal fortune, attained high level status in martial arts training, and quite a bit more.

It works, if you’re willing. And it’s not new. Aristotle would have called it — and did — “habits of virtue.” It worked for him. It’s worked for Michael and millions of others. Surely it could work for me and you.

 

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Getting the Most Out of Sales Letter Layout

We all know the rule. Great design can’t do diddly to help bad sales copy.  Great sales copy can often succeed despite bad design. But when great copy and great design work together? Watch out. So how can you make sure you’re getting the best work from the person who will layout your lovingly crafted sales letter?

It can be tricky, yes. But not impossible. 

Let me just rattle off a few quick insights from a few years of plying this trade… 

  •  For one, always, always… always… ask that your designer reads the copy. I’m blown away by how many don’t. And it shows. Boy does it show.
  •  Fancy design isn’t always good design. Your first aim is readability. Your second is to make sure the copy isn’t obscured by the design. Good design makes the copy feel easy to read.
  •  If you throw a designed piece of copy onto a table with other pieces of finished direct mail designs… and it disappears into the pile… you’ve got a problem.
  • No screened images behind text. No screened images behind text. Did I mention? Please avoid screened images behind text.
  • When in doubt, cut graphics before cutting copy. Really. By the time the designer gets a piece, the copy should be airtight. Or close to it. Graphics are less important than the written message. That’s just the way it goes.
  • Designers need to understand the motivations of the target market just as much as the marketers and copywriters. There’s no way to be a good designer when you’re working in a vacuum.

 I could add more. But that’s good enough for now… don’t you think?

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Anger in the Age of E-Mail

angryIt’s natural to get angry. And certainly, some pretty hot-tempered, “hair-trigger” individuals have still managed to do some very great things. But I raise this point for a reason.

See, you’d be surprised… shocked… unpleasantly stunned… by how one hot-tempered moment can undo years of building your career credentials. Yet, especially in the world of email, misunderstandings and flare-ups happen more than ever.

As a copywriter, I’d venture the likelihood is even higher, since the role actually requires that we constantly subject ourselves to critiques and directly measurable marketing results.

I once had a feud that lasted six months with a marketing manager who just wouldn’t get around to mailing my promo (when she did, finally, it became the control for two years).

Was it worth it?

Not a minute of it. The long emails I never sent. The ranting to co-workers on the telephone. All a waste of time, in retrospect. Not to mention what they must have thought of me after the call.

What do you do if you get into a hairy, hostile situation professionally? Some suggestions from the Wall Street Journal

Delay your reaction. Count to 10. Wait 24 hours. Save the long, angry email as a “draft” and reevaluate hours or even days later.

Go elsewhere. Withdraw to another room, another office, another venue. For a few minutes or a few hours. See if you’re still as hot under the collar when you return.

Vent discretely. To a friend. A journal. Or just open a Word doc on your computer and start typing, “The trouble with so-and-so is…” Don’t stop until you’ve run out of steam. Then delete the document.

Agree then ask. “Yeah, you might be right… and if that’s true, tell me what you would do in the same situation.”

See the result. Net-net, what’s the outcome you’re after? Abandon revenge and make this outcome your target instead.

All easier said than done. And sure, I have my own hard time keeping my temper reigned in sometimes. But I can tell you this. Whenever I fail to respond coolly, I always regret it afterward.

Don’t you?

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Why I’m a Fool For Cupertino

apple.pngIt’s shameless, really, the way I dote. To some of my friends, it’s even downright embarrassing. Yes, I confess, I’m crazy for Cupertino — particularly the stuff that comes out of you-know-which-company.

The iPad and iPods, Macbooks, Minis, the Time Machine, the iMacs, the iSight and more — you name the Apple product, and it has passed through the halls of our home and/or extended family. Many of us are shareholders too.

Twice, I’ve even been contacted to write copy for Apple product launches (I would have loved to, but didn’t have the time in my schedule to work on what they needed done).

Why such devotion? If you’re in the same boat as I am, you “know” already. If not, you might think I’m a fool. Especially if you’re as skeptical as I usually am about the whole idea of “brand” marketing.

But here’s the thing, and I think it’s all worth noting for the sake of yours and my own marketing careers… Apple, like any other brand with clout, didn’t buy their following. They earned it. And they continue to do so.

Before you groan and roll eyes skyward, listen.

Less than 12 hours ago, my wife and I ordered a copy of an episode of the U.S. version of “The Office” from the iTunes store. It wasn’t the first time, but I accidentally clicked the link for the HD version instead of the Standard Version.

No big deal, except that it costs $1 more and has twice the file size. So I shot a note to Apple. In that short span, I got this reply:

Hi John,

I understand that the HD version of The Office episode, “Body Language” was purchased accidentally. I know you must be eager to have this taken care of. I am so sorry for any inconvenience this has caused. My name is John from the iTunes Store and I will do my best to help you.

John, I deeply apologize,but I was unable to locate your account based on the information that you supplied, Please reply back with the account name and the order number of the purchase.

Here is how to review your iTunes Store account’s purchase history, just follow the steps in this article:

Seeing your iTunes Store purchase history and order numbers
http://support.apple.com/kb/HT2727

Once I receive your email. I will do my best to credit you for the video.

Thank you so much for your understanding. I look forward to your reply.

Have a great day, John.

Sincerely,

John
iTunes Store Customer Support

Remember, this is over an issue worth $1. I’m tempted to just let them keep it, as long as they promise to more clearly mark the links — which, by the way, I’ll bet you they will.

The company definitely makes mistakes sometimes. And no, they won’t last forever. Who can forget, after all, their big lapse in quality, innovation, hipness, and share price back in the days of John Sculley as CEO.

But here’s what I think you want to notice… Apple does well right now not just because they hire the best copywriters, but because they make sure they offer the products and service that are an easy sell.

Much as I’m not a Windows fan, I acknowledge they did the same in their early days. They appear to be doing so again, with Windows 7. Or starting to, anyway. Google, too, earns their brand recognition with a great product and not just a great marketing team.

The list could probably go on.

From a professional copywriter’s perspective, the lesson here is simple. You want to write the best copy you can to make the best effort to sell, of course. But write it when you can for the companies that serve the customers they’re selling to.

Doing that alone could radically increase the success of your career.

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What Copywriters Should Know About Copyrights

justice.pngIt’s embarrassing the number of I’ve times had to explain: “copywriting” and “copyrights” have next to nothing to do with each other.

Not embarrassing for me, mind you, but for the guy who asks me how to protect the draft of his novel about high school from plagiarists.

However, I’m not giving the whole story here, because the two terms — ‘copyright’ and ‘copywrite’ — actually DO have a little something in common.

Let me explain by way of a note sent to me some time ago by copywriter Brad Grindrod…

“When I’m writing a promotion, I’ve got a ton of material I’ve gathered to support the claims in my letter. But I’m just not sure if or how I can legally use it.”

First, some kudos for Brad.

Gathering a ton of research, in my opinion, is the right place to start. And not just for writing promo copy.

Magazine articles, novels, screenplays…

All benefit from deep research.

Divinity, said Nabakov, is in the details. But here’s the quandary:

What if someone else came up with those details first?

THE TRUTH ABOUT BORROWED WISDOM

Let’s start with terminology:

What, exactly, IS copyright infringement?

Matt Turner, an old college buddy and senior lawyer for a major publishing company, lays it on the line:

“In the context of the written word, copyright infringement is literally stealing (i.e. ‘copying’) someone else’s words without permission,” says Matt, “However, ideas themselves aren’t copyrightable.”

This, obviously, is a controversial point.

In the shortest terms, it’s DIRECT and EXACT representing of someone else’s work as your own that puts you most at risk.

Clear So Far?

After you’ve got the simple concept clear in your mind… enter the nuances, stage right.

For instance, JOURNALISTIC and COMMERCIAL speech do NOT have the same freedoms.

Matt explains:

“In commercial speech, the law is not as favorable to the writer… advertising copy is commercial speech, since it’s aim is to sell.”

So what’s that mean?

It does NOT mean that you’re barred from citing great stats or famous quotes.

In fact, quite the opposite.

A good citation or borrowed anecdote — provided you don’t violate “fair use” laws (another can of works, addressed in today’s “Missing Link”) — can actually INCREASE your credibility and legitimacy rather than threat it.

The big difference between journalism and promo-writing, says Matt, is the use of images and photos. INCLUDING, by the way, those photos for which you can buy the rights:

“You can’t use someone’s photo to sell something without his permission. On the other hand, you CAN use the same photo in a new story or editorial. Because it’s news, not the key element of a sales pitch.”

Okay, that seems pretty clear, yes? So what about data and stats?

“Pure data has little or no copyright protection, either. You can’t and shouldn’t just steal a chart outright. However, if the information you’re using is something publicly observable that someone took the time to gather… and you find your own way to represent it… you should be fine.”

What about the “essence” or outline of an idea?

Says Matt, “Ideas are NEVER legally safe. It’s only the actual expression of the idea that’s protected.”

Phew… it sounds like an intellectual free-for-all! But don’t lick your chops just yet, you unscrupulous mongrel:

“Stealing someone’s work can cost you plenty,” warns Matt. “Especially if it can be shown you cut into their business by taking their words.”

Lengthwise, I’m overdue to wrap this article up. Yet I feel we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Maybe I can summarize:

Yes Brad, there IS a copyright clause.

You’ll stumble across it any time you sit down to research or write.

But worry not.

Even in promo copy, you can STILL use data to punch up your points… you CAN use quotes that fortify credibility… you can EVEN make vigorous adaptations of one or two borrowed ideas along the way.

HOWEVER, keep this in mind too…

Stealing material outright is different. How can you tell the difference between good research and going too far? Simple. If you feel like you’re cheating, you probably are.

Let the tingle in your spine be your guide.

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What’s the Secret to Selling Bad Products?

chaplinCopywriters are hired guns. We usually don’t create the products we sell, just get hired to sell them. So how, pray tell, are you supposed to write copy that sells a product that… well… stinks?

Here’s the simple answer: You don’t.

And no, not just because making a strong tease for an unworthy product presents a serious moral challenge — though, that’s reason enough to turn down the job right there. But also because, frankly, bad products are  just… well… harder to sell.

Here’s how marketing great Roy Williams put it once in his famed “Monday Morning Memo” ezine…

“Give me a business that delights its customers and I can write ads that will take them to the stars. But force me to write ads for a business that does only an average job with their customers and I’ll have to work like a madman to keep that business from sliding backwards.”

Yes, you might say. It sounds so obvious. But pressed, couldn’t you or I come up with plenty of examples of businesses that managed to excel with mediocre products?

Yes, it’s possible.

And not always for reasons easy to explain. Perhaps customers at the start of a certain market just had fewer options. But where, these days, are you going to find businesses with no competitors?

Choice has exploded across all kinds of product lines.

For that reason, it means that taking on copywriting assignments for inadequate products or services is a situation you should find yourself in less and less. If at all. Since, fortunately, a multitude of choice for the customer also often means more choice for you when you’re talking about which products to write copy for and which clients to take on.

What to do if a good client brings you something mediocre to sell?

You have a choice. Either work with the client to make the bad product better (I’m doing that right now with a newsletter that’s decent, but needs to “bump it up” another 10% before it meets customer needs)… or bag the project altogether… and let your client know why, albeit with diplomacy.

If that’s a problem for the client, then you have the more difficult but ultimately career-enhancing choice of moving on to somebody else who’s got a more thorough and thoughtful core strategy for servicing customers.

It’s that simple.

Sure, all that said, sometimes you still might find yourself uncomfortably committed to a bad campaign. It happens. Never berate the client. But don’t be a pushover or a sucker either.

Again, this is either where you’re going to suggest possible ways to sell even better, in a consultant’s even tones and with the understanding that re-working the product might involve re-working your deal… or offer to take a kill fee and maybe even to share your research with the next copywriter who comes along.

The bottom line is that half-finished products and ideas CAN be sold without compromising your own integrity, but only if you’re willing to work with the client to make them whole. This is especially true in the information industry, where products can often be improved on the fly.

Just realize, even then… it can take a lot of work to get them there.

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Why You Might Want Fewer Clients

gears1Shelly Lazarus has picked up a few things in her 35 or so years with ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. So says an article that appeared awhile back in the Economist.

 For one thing, she’s overseen a complete integration of the business. In the very earliest stages of a campaign, TV and radio creative teams sit down with print, billboard, P.R., and Internet marketing pros. That way they can integrate every piece of the message, all at once.

 Sound like a good idea? Sure. But it wasn’t always so. And still isn’t for some companies.

Especially for web marketers, who often get confined too… or sequester themselves to… some part of the project that’s implemented far away from everybody else. And that’s a mistake. It’s the message, not the medium.

 For Ogilvy, the web and interactive campaigns crank out more than half the agencies annual business now, up from only 15% back in 1996. And overall, campaigns are more complex and integrated than ever.

 Lazarus also operates Ogilvy with the idea that it’s better to keep an old client than it is to have to chase down a new one. In agency life, that’s pretty obvious — wooing new clients can take months or years. And can be very expensive.

 But you can learn from this as a freelancer too. It might seem, early on, like piling up as many clients as possible is a shortcut to career security. But the truth is often the opposite. You’re much better off picking up just a few clients and servicing them very, very well.

You’ll understand the products better, you’ll write for them stronger, and you’ll have more controls to show the next time you need to persuade a new client to take on your services.

Here’s one last thing interesting in the Economist piece…

You might or might not know that David Ogilvy himself had huge respect — and experience — in direct response marketing. It turns out Shelly Lazurus, the current top dog, has experience in direct-marketing too. And so does her most likely replacement for when she retires, Brian Fetherestonaugh — he heads up Ogilvy’s direct-marketing division.

 More than just a coincidence? Probably.

 “The ground rules of direct marketing have not really changed,” says Lazarus, “nor have the principles of good advertising.” And that, dear reader, is what we’ve been saying all along.

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Advice to a Young Writer

“If I had to give young writers advice,
I would say don’t listen to writers
talking about writing or themselves.”

– Lillian Hellman

Via an old friend, a young writer sent me an email: How, he wanted to know, should he get started?

He’s a good-hearted guy, a poet, and does some work in the non-profit, fundraising field.

From what I could tell, he’s not really sure if copywriting is the field for him. Or moving ahead with trying to publish his poems. Or some other kind of writing.

Is there a future for him, he wonders, in fund-raising? And how about the money thing? Is every writer destined to starve?

(He didn’t ask that, but I know he’s thinking it.)

Ah… to be young and full of questions. I remember it like it was yesterday. Because, let’s face it, it WAS yesterday… wasn’t it?

Well, anyway, I sent him an answer.

Maybe more of an answer than he wanted.

In fact, I think I scared him. Because I haven’t heard from him since. Just the same, it’s what I would tell any writer… and hey, you’re writers… so how about it? Care to take a gander at what I said? Sure you do.

So here you go…

ADVICE TO A YOUNG WRITER

Dear “Al,”

I think I was telling your girlfriend, I used to be a living-room novelist. That is, I’d sit around in my apartment living room… usually in a t-shirt and boxers on Saturday mornings… with a beer and a hangover, trying to kick start various pieces I was working on.

Either that, or I’d spent a lot of time scribbling furiously in a journal. I piled up a lot of pages. But here’s the thing…

It’s hard to make time for writing if all you’re doing with your writing is making time.

You don’t want to squeeze off shots into the air. You need a target. 25 poems and a publishing deadline. 3 short stories sold by the end of the year. A publisher breathing down your neck for a manuscript.

Imagine someone will take a limb if you don’t meet the goal. Better, ask someone to take one if you don’t. That’s a metaphor, of course, about making it real.

Point being, if you’re not on the line for your writing, you’ll probably never make it happen. Blunt but true.

Fear to write? That goes away fast when you’re more afraid of what will happen to your paycheck — and your reputation — for not turning in the stuff you’ve promised to turn in.

Fear of not being persuasive? I’m not kidding, one of my writing mentors used to take me over to the window and say, “Imagine you were standing out there in the park, trying to sell a watch to that guy on the bench… and I had a deer rifle trained on your head… if he didn’t buy, you didn’t survive. What would you say to him then? Because that’s how you need to make it happen on paper.”

For me, I ultimately moved away from fiction not because I didn’t love it, but because I wasn’t doing it. I wasn’t working at it the way I knew I would need to if I really wanted to make it happen. And the rent check was due.

To get my foot in the door at the publishing company where I started, I took a $15-per-day internship as an editorial writer (this was in 1991).

I was still in grad school at the time, working during the day… going to classes at night… playing guitar with a friend in a bar after classes until closing… then getting up to do it all over again the next day.

The bar and guitar part, I could have done without. But I had to work and wiggle my way into place for the rest of it.

I was terrible at the start.

That is, my writing was technically pretty good, but I didn’t know how to write sales copy. So a lot of my earlier stuff got thrown away. Either by me or the guy who first started training me.

After about four months, I had a promo in the mail. After about six months, I had my first winning (by a narrow margin) promo, after my first year I was finally starting to get the hang of it. But I had to work at it. And the deadlines are what kept me going, when all else failed.

That’s not to say this kind of writing is for you, by the way. It might be. But you have to know first what it involves.

For instance, there are generally two types of advertising. What most agencies do is called “Brand Advertising” or “Awareness Advertising.”

They put a message out there, hope it gets noticed, and then hope it leads customers back to the product (well, the good ones hope that… the bad ad professionals just want to win awards and impress clients with how cool and witty they can be).

This can be a lucrative field if you can (a) stick out the abusive apprentice phase in which the agency tries to chew you up and spit you out, for very meager pay and (b) you don’t mind working on ads that may or may not ever sell anything.

What I do is called “direct response” or “direct mail” advertising. Basically, junk mail. Though these days, most of what we do is really happening online.

This is considered the ugly duckling of the ad world. Where copywriters from the big agencies are drinking martinis at the bar and wearing black turtleneck sweaters, direct-response copywriters are in the corner drinking beer and, probably, hovering over the free happy-hour slices of pizza.

The benefit of that second kind of advertising, however, is that every single “piece” or sales letter that gets mailed has an individual reply device, coded with the date of the mailing and, usually, the name of the copywriter who wrote it.

The same is true of sales letters online, only they’re tracked via clicks. When a customer makes an order from a letter you wrote, everybody knows it. And they pay you a royalty on it. Those royalties are part of what you negotiate when you take on the job.

I happen to work in the newsletter publishing business. But there are lots of other businesses that depend on direct-response copy. Fund raising is one of them. Business-driving brochures and websites for non-profits is another. These both tend to be less lucrative than what I’m doing, but can be pretty profitable nonetheless.

How would I suggest you get started?

You mentioned just going after the jobs without the portfolio. I think that’s best, with a twist. Rather than try to fake your way in, blind, something you can always do is go after the freelance jobs with the intention of building a portfolio. And you can say that to a prospective client too.

“Look,” you tell them, “I have experience in the non-profit field, but I’m looking to branch out. Since I’m just getting started, I can see why you’d want some kind of guarantee of getting quality copy, so how about this? Let’s settle on a base fee that’s half the normal rate. I’ll write the project and we’ll go through the draft phases. If you end up liking what we produce, you can pay me the rest of the fee. And if not, then we can cancel the project and you don’t have to pay me anything more. Does that sound fair? That way, I get to build my portfolio and you get the copy…”

Forget the school and forget building a portfolio with no clear purpose in mind, unless you’ve got a lot of time to spare. Training is good. But getting right in there and getting started is better.

That said, you do need some kind of education in the techniques. And there are piles of online courses. They cost money and you can’t be sure if what you’re getting is worthwhile.

Though, I do recommend one that some friends of mine started, called the American Writers & Artists Inc. It’s mostly about copywriting but they have other courses. You can Google it. I teach some of their writing seminars from time to time. At the very least, looking over their site will start giving you some ideas about available writer’s markets.

You can also go to a library or bookstore and look for books by Bob Bly on this and other kinds of writing careers (not “Robert Bly,” the poet, but “Bob Bly” the copywriter). If you end up going the copywriter route, let me know and I’ll send you a list of some more books that might help.

If it’s article writing you want to do, you might get a copy of “Writer’s Market 2007.” Just be aware that it’s pretty tough to make a living only writing magazine articles. Most magazine writers can be found in the kitchen washing dishes… next to the poets 😉

As for leaving your job… you could do that, but I recommend you don’t. Not until you’ve at least taken a look at some of the resources I mention above to decide if they’re really for you.

And if they are, still dig into them first and make sure you like what they have to offer. Get a couple of clients or other repeating gigs, and THEN you can plunge in head first.

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From “Just Learning” to “Bigtime Earning”

 LOTS of people study copywriting. Only a few of those actually make the leap and DO it. What makes the difference between them?

 Getting that FIRST client. When the “big time earning” copywriters look back, it often feels like it was no big deal.

 But looking forward, I understand it can be daunting. That’s why I’ll let you in on a little secret — there’s a shortcut. And following it can land you light years ahead of the competition.

 Here’s another secret. It’s not hard to learn this shortcut either. How’s it work?

Click here to find out. 


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