What We’re Writing

The Copywriter Conclave of Portland membership consists solely of working copywriters and content strategists, so I thought it would be a great idea to let you know what we’re writing. Here’s an update from some of our busy members:

Ginny Figlar of Figmeant says that she took some much-needed time off during the summer, but she wrote eye-catching content for the global IKEA catalog.

Great work, Ginny!

Mike Russell of Pivotal Writing has developed the Convert with Case Studies site with a strong argument: “your customers’ success stories shorten your sales cycle and improve your closing rate.”

Looking forward to this exciting new project, Mike!

Mahesh Raj Mohan (yours truly) of Enlighten Writing recently wrote a blog post on “navigating the stormy seas of security compliance” for Sungard Availability Services, my first commissioned work for the information security industry.

That’s just a quick update from a few of us. Check back again soon for more advice-related content and other exciting projects from our members.

Thanks for reading, as always.

Feel free to leave us a comment and tell us what you’ve been up to!

Freelancers and the Ransomware Threat

by Mahesh Raj Mohan and Mike Russell

This article is a collaboration between CC:PDX members Mahesh Raj Mohan (Enlighten Writing) and Mike Russell (Pivotal Writing). They created this article to keep clients and freelancers informed about the ransomware threat.

You may have heard the term “ransomware” lately.  Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts your computer or device so you cannot access your data or apps. There will often be a message on your screen demanding money (e.g. Bitcoins) to unlock your system.

Ransomware has become the “attack du jour” of hackers across the world. It is lucrative, catches many victims off-guard, and there are multiple methods of attack. Ransomware can be a virus or Trojan horse in an e-mail link. More worrisome, ransomware can be hidden in an online ad, as this excellent article from Malwarebytes Labs illustrates.

If you don’t have a robust firewall, ransomware can hide in a file that your system doesn’t recognize as a threat until it is downloaded onto your machine. It can cost you hours or lost productivity and income, and it can damage your relationship with your clients if their project data is on your system.

Okay, yes, ransomware is scary, but we don’t want to overdo the “fear” element here. There are steps you can take to defend your system and your clients.  Best practice  for freelancers and businesses dictates  a “layered defense” strategy where you have multiple defenses running on your machine.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss some preventive actions you can take, their level of difficulty to implement, and the cost involved.

Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware

Anti-virus and anti-spyware programs should be as common on your system as an Internet browser. We won’t advocate for particular programs, and we hope that you already have anti-virus of some kind on all of your devices (even Apple products).

Difficulty Level:  Varies by the brand. Generally easy.

Cost: Varies; there are free versions, but we recommend the “fully loaded” types.  Here is a full list for PCs.

External Hard Drive

The one sure-fire method of ransomware prevention.  You buy an external hard drive that houses a copy of your data, as well as your client project data.  You could keep all your client data on this separate hard drive

Difficulty Level: Moderate.  External hard drives are simple to connect to your primary machine so you can copy files quickly and easily.  However, it may be inconvenient if, for extra security, you turned off your Internet connection while working on your client’s project (e.g. you may need to use the Internet for research).

Cost:  Varies.  A 1-terabyte drive usually runs $40-$100 depending on the brand and whether you are buying a hard disk drive or a solid state drive.

Cloud Backups

Dropbox is the most well-known data backup solution that is not housed on your hard drive.  Dropbox has 256-bit AES encryption. Dropbox claims that you can restore data to before the malware took effect, but you’d still lose the most current version of your file(s).

Difficulty Level:  Easy.

Cost:  Dropbox Pro costs $99/year or $9.99/month.

Password Managers

Ah yes, the dreaded discussion of passwords.  Using the same passwords on multiple sites is not recommended, but coming up with dozens (if not hundreds) of passwords can be impossible to track.  Password managers like 1Password and Roboform can help to make this easier.

Difficulty Level:  Easy.  Install them on your machine, and start collecting passwords.  Every time you sign up for a new website, the passwords will be automatically saved.  You can also choose “everywhere” options that reside in the cloud and can be used on more than one machine.

Cost:  $20 and up.

For Advanced Users

If you are really worried about ransomware and want to be on the cutting edge of defense, you can try a couple of solutions.

Turn Off Adobe Flash

Flash is a vulnerable deployment vehicle for ransomware, and turning it off gives more power to consumers. Once disabled, you have the power to activate Flash for in-browser applications that use it.

Firefox

Locate the three vertical bars at the top of your browser, choose “Add-Ons,” the Plugins.  Scroll down to Shockwave Flash and choose, “Ask to Activate.”  If there is any malware hiding as a “malvertisement,” then this should help neutralize the threat.

Chrome

Go to the URL bar and type “about:plugins.” Locate “Adobe Flash Player” and choose “Disable.”

Safari

Choose “Safari” in the menu bar, then “Preferences,” and then “Security.”  Click on the Website Settings” button next to “Allow Plugins,” then select “Adobe Flash Player,” and “Block” for the option, “when visiting other websites” in the menu that appears.

Beta Testing

BleepingComputer offers some recent anti-ransomware downloads that are in the “beta testing” stage that either stop ransomware scripts from running or export encrypted files.  These options are currently free.

Script Blocking Add-Ons

You can download a free Javascript blocker (such as NoScript on Firefox) that blocks scripts (Javascript and Silverlight) that can be exploited by hackers. The installation of the add-on is seamless, but you’ll find that a lot of sites use Javascript, so you will spend time “white-listing” sites that you trust.  It can also make some websites non-responsive, so only choose this option if you are willing to deal with the hassle of a layered defense.

We hope we allowed you to harden your defenses and think about cybersecurity and your clients’ data in a strategic way. How do you protect yourself against ransomware and other cyber maladies? Please add your suggestions in the comments below.

Freelancing and the Cult of Consistency

(This article on freelancing and the cult of consistency is part of our commitment to promote the works of the Copywriter Conclave of Portland’s writers and editors. It’s a timely topic by founding member Sheila Ashdown.)

I have a confession. I, Sheila Ashdown, have committed a grave sin.

What, you might ask. Did I steal a Snickers bar? Mug a Girl Scout? Murder someone?*

No.

I’ve been—gasp—an inconsistent blogger.

**Law & Order music starts playing**

Cuff me. I’ve been bad.

Everything you read about writing—especially when it comes to blogging—shouts to the heavens about consistency. All the cool kids are publishing new content daily, or at least weekly, so they say.

And for years, I bought into it. I set myself ambitious blogging goals, which I literally never achieved one single time. I followed up these “failures” by feeling bad about myself and vowing to be and do better next time. Rinse and repeat a thousand times over.

Does this experience resonate with anyone else out there? I’m not crazy, am I?

The Trouble with Consistency

Now, I’m not calling for a blanket disavowal of consistency. I’m still going to floss my teeth every day and I hope you do too. What I’m calling for is a disavowal of the way that consistency is used to artificially force creative processes and create a false sense of urgency that results in sloppy work and psychic pain.

Problem #1: Consistency is usually defined in a painfully narrow way.

When business gurus tell us to be consistent, what they mean is to publish consistently. I’m all for showing up every day and working to achieve your writing goals, but there’s a heck of a lot more to the writing process than just hitting that publish button. And as far as I can tell, most people hit “publish” way too soon.

A while ago, I signed up to receive the daily blog feed of a Famous Business Guru (who I shall not name). He’s a bestselling author several times over, and he has a huge following. But when his blogs started rolling into my inbox, I was shocked by how dreadful they were.

Each blog was very short (a couple hundred words, max), and they were basically half-baked ideas and platitudes, delivered in cliched, uninspired language. They left me feeling like the author didn’t genuinely care about delivering a valuable piece of content; rather, he was just ticking the checkbox next to “Send out blog today” on the his to-do list.

Famous Business Guru may very well have some incredible ideas and insights. But maybe he’s a mere mortal, like the rest of us, who needs time to develop them. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather receive a well-developed, thoughtfully crafted post whenever he’s able to put one out, rather than a daily dose of “meh.”

Problem #2: Creativity is an inconsistent process.

Writing is not a linear process. We loop around between aha! moments, incubation, and active engagement with the writing.

We create in short bursts, and then we walk away for a few hours, days, or weeks to get some distance on it. Sometimes we’re not writing at all—we’re researching and taking notes instead. Or we’re out rolling in a field of clover or whatever, since, as much as we malign “laziness,” down time is an indispensable component of the creative process.

If we try to force an unruly process into a rigid timeline, we end up publishing something because it’s Wednesday, not because the piece is genuinely finished.

Problem #3: Consistency can be a mental trap. Just like “having it all” or achieving six-pack abs or flawless work-life balance, relentless consistency is a never-achievable ideal. What else in life is consistent? Everything in nature has cycles and fluctuations, and we as humans are part of nature. We’re not machines.

And so, even if you want to try for consistency—by all means, give it a whirl! Set up a reasonable publication schedule (emphasis on “reasonable”) and go for it. But I beg you to give yourself ample credit for the times you achieve it, and to please go easy on yourself when you fall short.

Otherwise, if consistency is held up as the most important metric for success, you’re going to feel like a failure next time you’re down with the flu for a week or you take a well-deserved vacation.

Let’s Redefine What It Means to Be Consistent  

Now, let me be clear—you’re not off the hook with your writing. 🙂 Giving up membership in the Cult of Consistency doesn’t mean we give ourselves a free pass for procrastination or perfectionism.

But here’s what I see: Writers who feel they “should” post daily or weekly are the ones who give up on their work. They’re demoralized by their inability to stick to a rigid and rigorous publishing schedule; this takes the joy out of writing, and they don’t want to do it anymore. That’s what happens when we set goals that are not realistic, and that are driven by outside values instead of inner values.

The solution? Ask yourself what a sustainable publication schedule looks like for you

Does it allow you ample time to research, incubate your ideas, draft, edit, roll in the clover, proofread, and then hit “publish”? Does it honor the priorities in your life and the natural rhythms and cycles of your personal creative process? Do you have a plan for how you’ll get back on track when you need to take a break?

Get clear on this, and you’ll create a writing schedule that supports your agenda, not the agenda of the leaders of the Cult of Consistency. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Let go of those outside constructs and instead self-direct a sustainable and flexible way to create and share the work you’re so passionate about.

 

*For the record, I would absolutely not do any of those things.

In Praise of Content Specialization

When I decided to become a freelance copywriter, I had no idea what I wanted to write, nor for whom. I took any project that came my way. Content specialization was far from my mind.  (In retrospect, I wish I’d made that my initial strategy, and spent more time on sites like elance.com and odesk.com.)

I wrote a brochure for a social water heater company. I wrote professor bios for an MBA program. I wrote copy for a series of postcards for Coconut Bliss.

Focus? What focus? It was 2009. I just needed gigs!

Besides, I had no idea what I’d want to specialize in. I just knew that I wanted to make it as a freelance copywriter.

Over the years, I latched onto a series of niches: professional bios, SaaS sales platforms, Digital Health. Each time, I happened to like a client I had in that niche, and thought that I might stake my claim in that space. But then a project would come from a client in a different industry, and my “specialty” would evaporate.

Follow your personal interests.

That said, I believe it’s harder to position and market yourself as a generalist. You’re clamoring against everyone else who wants to freelance as a copywriter. Before connecting with you, your prospects have little to distinguish you from other freelance copywriters. If you try to promote yourself by blogging, the world is your topic. If you blog about writing, you’ll attract an audience of writers. What if most of your work comes from marketing managers and directors?

After a series of projects for clients in related industries, I took stock of my portfolio and realized that I’d backed myself into a niche in the “online honesty” space: cybersecurity, identity and anti-fraud. I’m still carving it out. As I do, I’m coming to appreciate how helpful it is to have a solid foundation upon which to build my marketing efforts.

Is there a niche hidden in your portfolio right now?

It’s easier to visualize my target audience and define a list of companies that I want to commit to “chasing” until I either get a project or a clear “no, thank you.” To do that effectively, I also need a clear value proposition that resonates across my messaging. Having a clear specialty makes that easier, too.

My prospects also benefit. Because I’ve already learned about their industry while working for complementary -or even competing- companies, I need less ramp-up time. I bring a more-informed perspective, since I’ve had my eye on common content types in this space. That helps me elevate from “implementer” to something of a strategist.

But the aspect of specialization that has me the most excited is the long-play of lead-nurturing. (Ed Gandia lays out his lead-nurturing plan in chapter six of The Wealthy Freelancer, a must-have book on every freelance copywriter’s shelf.)

Choose a smaller target. Take better aim.

Say you’ve chosen to specialize in the sustainable food industry, and you’ve chosen 10 businesses in that space that you’d love to work for. Doesn’t matter if it’ll take 12-24 months to get that first project; you’re committed.

First step: You’re going to keep tabs on their marketing content. The marketing managers at these companies will be promoting the content on their LinkedIn and Twitter feeds, which means they will see any thoughtful comments or suggestions you post in response.

Soon, you’ll begin to see useful marketing ideas at “Acme Foods” that might be useful to “Farm to Table.” The two companies might not be competitors. By sharing a link to Acme Foods’s latest blog post with the marketing manager at Farm to Table -along with a short note about why you think the link is relevant, and how it can be applied- you’re keeping in touch in a valuable way.

This concept may take 10%-20% more effort than just keeping tabs on each company’s marketing efforts, but it allows you to accomplish two important lead-nurturing activities at the same time:

  1. Make thoughtful comments on the publisher’s pieces, and
  2. Share thoughtful comments with marketers at related companies

Your catch-up plays double duty. Over time, you’ll bubble up to the top of your prospects’ lists of go-to freelance copywriters. Because you’ve been positioning yourself as a specialist in their industry, you’ll have a stronger base upon which to enjoy the other benefits of specialization: higher fees and greater authority.

If you’re not sure how to go about picking a niche, listen to episode 80 of the High-Income Business Writing podcast. These are great tips to get you started.

  • Are you a generalist who’s resisted picking a niche? I’d love to hear about the advantages you’ve found by sticking with “l’resistance.”
  • Have you chosen a niche? What other advantages have you found?

What A Freelance Bid Letter Looks Like

Early in my career I communicated scope of work, deliverables, payment terms, and timelines as a bulleted list in an email. There’s nothing wrong with this approach…necessarily. It’s just not as professional as it could be. When my colleague Mike Russell introduced me to the bid letter, I finally realized, after years of using the list-in-an-email method, that there was a better, cleaner, more professional way to send bids: The Bid Letter! Let’s talk about what a freelance bid letter looks like.

What’s in a Bid Letter?

First, let’s define this bid letter thing. It’s not a legal document like a contract. Generally, you and the client don’t sign it the way you would a contract because the content of the bid letter should be included in your contract. The purpose of the bid letter is to clearly communicate the key logistical elements of the project, as you understand them, to the prospective client:

  • Point of Contact: to whom you’ll be sending work for review; the primary decision-maker
  • Deliverables: the work you’ll do and relevant details
  • Schedule/Timeline: when you’ll do the work
  • Payment terms: when and what you’ll get paid
  • Process: how you’ll go about completing the work
  • Project summary/understanding: brief recap of project motivations, goals

My sample bid letters below (adapted from actual bid letters I’ve sent), include these elements variously depending on specific relevance. The first one doesn’t include a timeline, for example, because the prospect just wanted to know my rates and what was included with the pieces. The second one was more fully baked, and a timeline was known in advance of the letter. They’re very simple and clear. I made these in a Word doc and saved them as PDFs.

What a Freelance Bid Letter Looks Like

Freelance bid letter exampleFreelance Bid Letter Example

When to Send the Bid Letter

The bid letter is basically a piece of communication you use to set clear project guidelines. If there are any miscommunications, the bid letter is an early opportunity to weed them out, and prevent you from wasting your precious time pursuing a path that may not be the right one.

Here’s the process of using a bid letter:

  1. Conversation with prospect about the project
  2. Create and send bid letter
  3. Make changes to bid letter per prospect feedback
  4. Roll info from bid letter into contract
  5. Send contract to prospect (consider going over, or calling out, key elements of the contract to make sure there are no surprises for the client)
  6. Get a signature
  7. Send your first invoice (find info about the magical invoice over here)
  8. Get to work

And that’s what a freelance bid letter looks like. If can look different than these, of course, but these layouts have worked great for me. I know many copywriters who use the bid letter, or the list-in-an-email method, to communicate this important information to prospects. Regardless of the method you use, don’t ever skip the step of getting clear direction and buy-in from your prospects BEFORE you start working. Ever.