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.

4 Reasons to Consider Creative Staffing Agencies

There are many reasons to consider creative staffing agencies. (We previously covered the pros and cons in a blog post last year.) As you may know, being a temp has a bad rap. It implies you are wet behind the ears, not ready for prime-time, not worthy of a real negotiated contract between equal partners. As copywriters and business owners, we value our autonomy and ability to negotiate top pay for years of hard-won expertise and entrepreneurial can-do spirit that any employer would love to access.  Copywriters are high achievers; temping is for lazy wage slaves who can’t wait to clock out, right?

So, why do I work a temp job? Well, after having held this job a year, I have to say the experience has been positive overall, and not only because of the steady income. Here’s why:

  1. Quick pay and benefits. Being a contractor means you can negotiate a higher hourly rate, but often there is a lag time between invoicing and actually receiving the check. Depending on your clients, you can wait anywhere from 15 to 120 days (if not more). Temping gives you a weekly paycheck. And although the benefits aren’t as good as full-time employee benefits, they are reasonable especially if you have a family to support. Many temp agencies in Portland offer health, dental, vision, and long-term disability insurance; 401(k) plans; and ongoing professional development.
  2. Job bank. Most companies prefer to advertise and list open positions with temp agencies, jobs that often aren’t listed anywhere, else even though it costs them a lot. Companies find it’s worth paying for the convenience and no-strings-attached flexibility of getting a pool of vetted candidates. This flexibility goes both ways, too. If a new assignment comes along that’s better for you, you can ask your recruiter to switch.
  3. Yet another way to network. Temp jobs introduce you to companies and people you might have never known about otherwise. And they allow you to prove your skills to strangers who wouldn’t bother to read your email or return your calls.
  4. The benefits of collaboration. Although calling all the shots as your own boss can be great, it can also be a dead end creatively. I find collaborating with other writers, graphic designers, creative directors, marketing staff, and administrators to be valuable not only for inspiration and feedback, but also improve my ability to communicate ideas and work face to face with people from different backgrounds.

Freelancing while temping through a creative staffing agency can easily create more work than you’re comfortable with! You may find yourself trading the old feast-or-famine dilemma for a feast-or-feast more problem, which is not a bad problem to have. I often need to adjust, but I have found a 60-40 temp/freelance workload that gives me the best of both worlds: I have financial stability and opportunities to expand my skill set via temping, but I also have the freedom to continue building my business and pursue the projects that I want, not that I need.

Define and Write Useful You-You Content

When you’re writing copy, remember it is about you (the businessperson) and “the other” you (the client). Useful you-you content helps grow solid professional and personal relationships that form your client base.

To create your “you-you” message, demonstrate that you’re able to fill a person’s need or desire with your specific service or product (Talk about benefits that are pertinent to clients!) Also, provide additional free useful tips that improve their lives.

 Try these helpful steps for defining and writing your message.

Brainstorm and think like your client. Write everything that comes to mind.

  • What need do you fill? (Think basics, like saving time, reducing stress, creating beauty, etc.)
  • How do you meet that need? (Think method of filling those basics, like offering professional cleaning services to save time and reduce stress.)
  • Why should he/she buy your product or service? (Think what sets your product/service apart.)
  • Why should he/she work with you? (Think professional business bio, including your background, training, etc., which supports your credibility.

Define your message with the client’s point of view in mind.

  • Review and use your brainstorming notes to write a focused message that demonstrates how your product/service meets a client’s needs.
  • Include clear directions (aka, a call to action). Use verbs—like “call, read, click”—that invite people to learn more and interact with you.

Use this client-focused message as the foundation for your consistent brand.

Remember that your clients are busy! They’re filtering content in about eight seconds. A 2015 study by Microsoft Canada showed people’s attention span dropping from 12 to eight seconds. While the report acknowledged that, “digital lifestyles affect the ability to remain focused for extended periods of time,” it highlighted helpful insight for marketers and business owners. “When consumers are looking for something to care about at every moment, rapid fire tactics like branded content, native advertising and generally useful, entertaining, and shareable content are best.”

While your message might grow and evolve, don’t confuse clients with a constantly shifting brand. If your clients need to work hard to recognize your company, they might stop interacting with you. Stick to the message that addresses their needs—and maintains your business relationship.

Good luck and happy writing!

Writers, Don’t Worry about Creative Theft

(This blog post is part of our occasional series highlighting the websites of CC:PDX‘s members. If you’d like to see the original version of this article, please click here.)

Some writers live in fear of plagiarism. They worry they’ll put heart and soul into developing a book concept, and then some thief will come along and run away with it. For some writers, this fear is so powerful, they won’t even tell you what their book is about, much less let you actually read it.

I was listening to my favorite podcast the other day (from Seanwes, hosted by creative entrepreneurs Sean McCabe and Ben Toalson). It was titled “Nailing Your Product Launch the First Time,” and they address this very topic. Sean recommends marketing your product (in our case, books) six months to a year ahead of release. Some authors would balk at this, thinking, “But if I tell people what I’m doing BEFORE the book is launched, someone could steal my idea and get the book out ahead of me!”

Yes, this would be terrible. Creative theft is real. Plagiarists are definitely out there.

But as Sean says in his podcast (and I paraphrase here): You shouldn’t worry about people stealing your work. You should worry about getting them to care at all.

I know. It’s harsh.

But the truth is, early on in your career as an author, no one cares about your book as much as you do. No matter how great your idea is, your prospective readers are overwhelmed and overstimulated; it takes consistent effort to be heard above the racket. That’s why your prospective readers need multiple marketing “touches.” It takes time to get people to even notice what you’re doing, and even more time to get them to understand it, be excited about it, and then be willing to lay down money for it. This has nothing to do with the quality of your book. It’s just the natural progression of the sales funnel:

creative theft

[Adorable illustration provided by Ryan M. Weisgerber]

So, the way this plays out in the mind of your prospective reader:

Awareness: “Oh, so-and-so published a book.”

Interest: “Huh, that actually looks kinda interesting.”

Desire: “Man, I really want to read that!”

Action: “Okay, I just bought it.” (And then, of course, they read it cover-to-cover.)

Advocacy: “Oh my God, I need to tell everyone how awesome this book is!”

This funneling can take minutes, or it can take years. Think about yourself—I’m sure you’ve made a spontaneous purchase of something the moment you discovered it; and I’m sure you’ve circled around a purchase for months or even years before you bit the bullet and did it. It has little to do with the quality of the product and more to do with the buyer’s perceptions and decision-making process.

However, if you’re so fearful of having your idea stolen that you refuse to engage in any marketing or audience-building prior to publication, you’ll find yourself in the disappointing position of having your gorgeous book ready to go on publication day—aaaand . . . your prospective readers are totally unaware of it, or are just barely aware. Maybe they’ll eventually be ready to commit to buying and reading it, but . . . just not yet. This creates a disappointing mismatch: you’re excited (and probably exhausted) because it’s FINALLY publication day, and then your announcements are met with the sound of crickets. Nothing sinks an author’s motivation quicker than feeling like nobody cares about their work.

You’re in a Catch-22, my friends. If you keep your ideas close to your chest, they won’t be stolen. But at the same time, by keeping your ideas “safe,” you rob your readers of the opportunity to enjoy them.

Also, while you likely already know this, I think it bears repeating: an idea is not a book. You, me, and ten other people could write a book about the same idea, and yet the results would be wildly different. Your book isn’t just an idea. It’s the execution—the finished product that expresses your wholly unique, un-stealable perspective and voice.

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[Check out Sean & Ben’s podcast: “Nailing Your Product Launch the First Time”]