What to do When Clients Edit the Magic Out of Your Work

Last week I received a phone call from a principal of a marketing agency in Portland. She’d found me through the Conclave website and wanted to know what advise I had for people struggling with clients who edit all the marketing-speak out of their content–leaving it bland, ineffective, and unnecessarily safe (read: boring). It’s a really good question. So good, in fact, that I thought it would make an excellent blog post. Here are the five ways I suggested she could stop the client contact (we’ll call her “Linda”) from editing the magic out of her work:

  1. Present Your Work

  2. Present the work to Linda so she understands why you wrote what you wrote, and explain the strategy behind it. An in-person presentation would probably be best, but a videoconference could work just as well. Doing this for no reason might be difficult to explain to her, so make it an event. If you’ve been working with Linda and her employer for awhile, suggest a two- or four-hour check-in meeting to catch-up with the team, re-align on goals and messaging, discuss the big upcoming campaign, etc.

    This approach would be perfect because you could then justify getting a few other content stakeholders in the room (in addition to Linda). That way it’ll be understood by multiple people at the company what the strategic approach is and why it’s the best way to go. Now you’ve got back-up and buy-in from within the company, beyond Linda. (You’ve very thoroughly and professionally gone over her head.) It’s possible Linda is operating with a different understanding of the goal of the content. Leading to option 2…

  3. Open a Dialogue

  4. Invite Linda to tell you why she’s making the changes to your work that she’s making. This opens up a dialogue about what everyone understands to be the purpose of the content and how it should be written. If Linda is editing the hell out of everything you write, it’s likely because her understanding of what’s needed is different than yours. Such situations can lead to larger problems, and need to be reconciled as quickly as possible.

    Assuming Linda isn’t the boss of the company, it’s possible the boss could find out that his employee is spending valuable time editing your work–work he’s paying you to do. If that’s the case, why bother with you at all? He might as well find a new agency to create his content if yours is so bad it has to be heavily edited every time. This Linda problem you have? Bad for your business.

  5. Show the Client the Difference

  6. Try showing Linda the difference in results between your strategic, expert, unadulterated content and her bland, conservative, non-strategic content. Suggest that you do a test campaign: one with her edits and one where she doesn’t even touch it. Show her the analytics of both (is it’s an email campaign or social media posts, for example) afterwards.

    I can only assume that the work of the competent marketing agency will do better. These tangible results will provide serious support for why you should be allowed to do what you do best, and be deferred to when there’s a question about the content. Having those kinds of numbers on-hand can also help if her boss gets involved in the content quality discussion–proof that your approach is working, and hers isn’t.

  7. Go Over Her Head

  8. I suppose this could be akin to tattling, but seriously, this is business. You can go over Linda’s head and talk directly to her boss about your content quality concerns. If you think she’s getting in the way of you doing the job you’re being paid to do, her boss/the owner of the company needs to be made aware of it. It’s your responsibility as an honest vendor to make sure your client is getting the quality and value they expect, and that you want to deliver.

  9. Break Up With the Client

  10. If you’ve tried everything else and neither Linda nor her employer are getting it, I would recommend firing the client. No matter how much Linda edits your work, at the end of the day, your name is on it. That’s your reputation being sent out to people’s inboxes, or posted on the client’s website. If Linda is making you look bad or unskilled, it could ruin your reputation, and future opportunities with other clients (or even with that client!).

    Do your best to educate the client and bring them around to trusting you to do your job. After all, why’d they hire you in the first place if they didn’t like the work you were doing? And why have they continued to work with you if your work wasn’t working for them? Get Linda out of the way. If you can’t, cut that fish loose and move on to more fruitful opportunities. Your time and reputation are too valuable to waste, because once gone, you can’t get either back.

Have you ever had a client (or known someone who did) who was making your job harder by messing up your work? Let’s hear it.

How to Write a Case Study

I’ve written a few case studies in my day, and one thing that made it easy was having a structure around which to write. There are many ways of writing a case study, and the best way to do it is the way that best communicates the work done by the client, and highlights their capabilities. Case studies are used as sales tools, thought leadership pieces, and lend credibility to the professionalism of the client. As I said, the outline of a case study can vary, but in general, here’s how to write a case study.

The Six Parts of a Case Study

The case studies I’ve written have been very technical and quite long. The client I wrote them for sells high-end audio equipment that typically has a long sales cycle (i.e. their customers take a long time after being introduced to the product before making a decision to buy). In order to help their sales team, the client wanted case studies that showcased their varied installation and application capabilities, including the system specifications. For reference, here’s a sample case study that I wrote, and that you can use to follow along as you read these six parts.

  1. Client Introduction

  2. Tell us about the customer the installation/product/service served, especially if they have big name recognition. Who are they? What do they do? What’s unique about the business? Give the reader a brief overview.

  3. Challenge

  4. What did the customer need and why? In the case of installing audio equipment, was the customer renovating a facility? Building new buildings? Upgrading? This is where you tell the reader what the task of the vendor was–the immense problem they would soon solve.

  5. Solution/Process

  6. How did the vendor do it? Don’t over-exaggerate here, but definitely display the vendor’s skill and expertise in coming up with a solution that fit the client need, budget, and timeline. This is some impressive feat that shows off the heroic capabilities of the vendor. Don’t brag, but bring the awesome.

  7. Materials List

  8. This section might not be necessary for most case studies, but for technical hardware/software products, the audience (AV integrators, IT/facilities managers) want to know how much hardware is required (read: how much space and money it will cost) to achieve the solution. As you can see on page 3 of the case study referenced, the number of hardware pieces and their names are listed for reader convenience. So, when the audience decides to research the vendor’s capabilities, they know exactly what products/services to explore. Not to be a broken record, but this is where the sales tool-ness comes in.

  9. Conclusion/Results

  10. So, how did everything work out? Did the client love it? (Obviously nothing negative about the vendor is going to go into a case study they’re writing for their own sales use, but you know what I mean.) Tell us how it all worked out. Is attendance at the venue up? Are there any statistics that can be shared? Positive feedback from visitors to the space? Combining the challenge and the solution, what were the learnings? Anything super special or interesting?

  11. Quotes Throughout

  12. Every kind of sales and marketing piece is made stronger with relevant quotes. Include quotes throughout the case study from the customer, vendor, and the customers’ customers (also referred to as end customers–visitors to the new facility, for example). Don’t let this be optional. If you’re writing this piece, make it a requirement that you get quotes from the customer at a minimum. Vendor and end customer quotes are less important, but still cool to include if you can. Quotes are excellent supportive elements for everything mentioned above.

Also, your client for a case study could easily be the vendor performing the service (as was the case for me) or the customer who commissioned the work. Conclave member Jeff Gunderson has written quite a few technical case studies, too. Here’s an example of how he writes them.

I’ve encountered “case studies” that are more like glorified photo galleries (creative agencies are often perpetrators of this). They have beautiful, heroic images, a one-liner photo caption for each, and a concluding statement. Not a case study. A case study should be a meaty sales tool that a company can show to clients that showcases their capabilities and competence to do what they say they do. Photos should definitely be part of case studies (along with good design), but they’re more the garnish or the sauce, not the headliner, not the main attraction. Fight for the integrity of the case study if you’re ever in that position. I’ll back you up!

How do you organize your case studies? Any examples you’ve come across that you’ve liked?

How Being a Freelancer is Like Being a Survivalist: A Rant

According to Webster’s Dictionary, a survivalist is “a person who advocates or practices survivalism” or “one who has prepared to survive in the anarchy of an anticipated breakdown of society.”

Being a freelancer won’t necessarily prepare you to survive a natural disaster or societal meltdown (though I’m positive our skills are transferable), but it will enable you to take control of your income, and by extension, your life. Here’s why I think being a freelancer is like being a survivalist.

We’ve all heard the term “starving artist,” and conventional wisdom tells us that being a freelance anything is dangerous because of the financial unpredictability. That’s just really not a concern once you scratch the surface (and you get your business and process dialed). As freelancers, we have the power and privilege to steer our own careers and set earning goals that could change every month if we chose.

We, not our managers or the CEO of the company, have the power to give ourselves raises, take 20 weeks of vacation per year, work remotely from anywhere on the planet, and climb our industry ladder as quickly, or not at all, as we see fit.

Our position is unique too, in that we can change the course of our business or work focus as quickly as our personal and client needs dictate. What’s easier: turning your car around or turning it around with a trailer hitched to the back? We just have less baggage, less bureaucracy, and way more flexibility in every aspect of our business.

Make no mistake, being a freelancer isn’t always roses and rainbows. Working for yourself is hard work, and sometimes we don’t make our monthly earning goals, or land that client we really really wanted. C’est la vie. Chock it up to experience, learn from it, and become stronger every day.

We don’t do this because it’s easy.

We do it because we love it.

We do it because it’s our right livelihood.

We do it because we wouldn’t want it any other way (and/or we’re such pains in the butt we’re totally unemployable anywhere else).

We know what to do and where to go to make our dreams come true. We produce enough of our own natural resources to at least be self-sustaining. That’s why being a freelance creative is like being a survivalist. Because we have the skills to survive and thrive, regardless of our external environment.

5 Ways to Overcome the Freelance Feast or Famine Cycle

It happens to all of us on a regular cycle: business is booming and there’s barely enough time to sleep or spend time with your significant other. And then suddenly the phone stops ringing, and your inbox turns into a desert. Where’d all the clients go?

We go from a veritable feast of work to a belt-tightening famine. And we all have a theory of when our famine begins. It’s around the holidays and a month or two during the summer. Arrange the stars any way you like, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s absolutely possible to ensure that you have balanced work all year round. Here are five ways to overcome the freelance feast or famine cycle.

  1. Market Yourself…Always

  2. Just because business is great and you have so much work you have to turn clients away, doesn’t mean you should put your marketing efforts on hold. In fact, you’d do well to do the opposite. When business is booming it becomes imperative that you set time aside for your marketing efforts, and that you seriously protect that time. Based on conversations I’ve had with other freelancers, marketing is the first thing that stops when we get busy. I get it. I’ve done, and do, that same thing. But it’s a bad idea.

    If you can devote even an hour per week to your marketing (okay, 30 minutes?), you’ll be in far better shape than if you did nothing at all. Some marketing-y things you can do include: sending an e-newsletter, direct mail postcard campaign, attend networking events, make cold-calls, meet a prospect for coffee, social media outreach/thought leadership development, or a quick email to some of your best clients/prospects saying, “Hi, I hope you and your family are having a great summer!”

  3. Diversify Your Revenue Sources

  4. Okay, so your clients go into hibernation a few times per year. Then don’t rely on them for the bulk of your income during those months. What other sources of revenue can you develop in the short- and long-term that can help round out your monthly earnings during your typically leaner months? Do you have any passive income opportunities? Ideas include creating e-books; online, pre-developed training courses (check out Teachable); joining affiliate programs; lead workshops; pursue speaking/interview opportunities; and focus on getting projects through creative staffing agencies.

    Just because your clients aren’t working doesn’t mean you can’t. As a freelance professional, you create your own job, your own work. Develop a source of revenue in addition to your direct clients. Based on the suggestions I gave above, this means you’re going to have to up-level a little bit and create some original products/programs. Good for you!

  5. Network Like Your Job Depends On It (Because It Probably Does)

  6. Networking is a self-marketing strategy, and goes along with #1, but it’s important enough to deserve it’s own call-out. We’ve talked about the importance of networking a few times on this blog (here, here, and here), because we believe in it.

    Attending networking events with the intention of making new connections is a great way to continue to meet fresh faces, and expand your network of possible clients and partners. It also gets your name out there. I’m a firm believer that the energy you put out is returned to you in some way. Either from the person/place you expected it to come from, or from a completely different direction that you could never have foreseen. You have to give to get. You have to put yourself out there, introduce yourself to your community and be genuinely interested in them. It’ll all come back to you when you least expect it. You’ll see.

  7. Create a Customer/Prospect Nurturing Strategy

  8. It’s possible that your clients/prospects stop calling you because they’ve forgotten about you. How’s your follow-up? How often do you see or communicate with your clients and prospects? If your clients don’t live near you, you won’t be able to happen upon them in a coffee shop or at an event. You’ll have to work a little harder to stay in front of them.

    I’ve been re-reading The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman, and one of the examples of this he gives is of a freelance copywriter who reaches out to his network 8-12 times per year. Imagine! He intentionally contacts his clients and prospects 8-12 times per year! He does it in a variety of ways–direct mail, email, in-person, etc–and he’s busy all the time.

    I’ve been working on a nurturing strategy of my own that includes:

    • 6-10 yearly e-postcards
    • Maybe two yearly direct mail postcard campaigns
    • 3-4 networking events per month
    • As many coffee/lunch meetings as I can handle (ideally not more than three per week)

    I’ll report back on how it goes this year, and share my findings and details about every step.

    Can you commit to contacting your entire client and prospect base at least six times per year? Or at the very least, the most lucrative and promising of the bunch? That’s once every two months. You can totally do that.

  9. Continually Educate Yourself

  10. You’re not doing yourself or your clients any favors by stagnating. What you know has value. Consultants are in the business of sharing what they know, and can command enormous fees for it because they know their shit. Make time every week to keep yourself up to date on the topics that interest you, and that are of value to your clients/prospects. Topics like SEO, social media marketing/advertising, content marketing best practices, new industry technologies, or influential people and events. You have to stay current and relevant if you want to command higher fees, trust, and skills.

    Do you subscribe to any magazines? Do you regularly follow a blog or podcast? Have you taken any educational courses or trainings, or attended a conference that enhances your knowledge? Well, you should! Educate yourself regularly in whatever makes the most sense for you. Mike Russell listens to copywriter Ed Gandia’s podcast every morning, I read Inc. Magazine online and in print every week, Dylan Benito follows fantasy authors and tech innovators on Twitter. Whatever you’re into professionally (and personally), keep your education current and pass that knowledge on to your clients. It’ll pay you back in dividends. AND when business is slow, what else are you doing anyway?

These are the five ways I overcome the freelance feast or famine cycle, and some or all of these strategies could work for you too. What are some ways you keep your freelance pipeline full? Share your wisdom in the comments.

The 4 Stages of Knowing

When I was a freshman in college, my track coach taught me something to me that I’ve carried with me throughout my life: the four stages of knowing. He was applying them specifically to running and our ability to become better athletes, but the implications are much broader. Knowing what stage of knowing you’re in for any particular topic (basically, knowing what you don’t know) is an extremely powerful tool in life and business. I’ll lay out each one, and briefly expand upon them.

1) Unconscious Incompetence

You don’t know what it is and you don’t know how to do it. A completely new concept has been introduced to you and you know nothing about it. Your incompetence here doesn’t mean you’re stupid, bad, or wrong, it simply means you’re a complete amateur at whatever it is. That’s how all beginners begin!

When you first heard of “social media” you were in this stage. When my coach first instructed me in proper running form, that one new thing you learn every day. This is where we are on the subject before we learn otherwise. Embrace these beginnings. For better or worse, once we know something, we can’t un-know it.

2) Conscious Incompetence

You know what it is, but you don’t know how to do it. Continuing to use social media as an example, your conscious of it now, but you don’t know how to use it. This is the exploratory stage when you start to poke at the thing, click all the links and see what they allow you to do, read blog posts about it, and test it out yourself. It’s the learning process in action.

For my team, it meant that we looked and felt ridiculous as we began to train our bodies to move in ways they never had before. There was bruising (physical and psychological), but we stuck with it and we all improved. Once you “get it,” but aren’t necessarily skilled at doing it, you achieve…

3) Conscious Competence

You know what it is and you know how to do it! Huzzah! You are now a practitioner of that thing! Again, you’re not necessarily good at it yet, but you’re committed to learning, and your skills and abilities are improving. After a few weeks of our new training program, our bodies weren’t as sore anymore, we weren’t asking as many beginner questions, and we were actually helping each other fine-tune our new skills.

For social media or anything else you’re learning, this is where you’re regularly working at the thing, studying it, committed to mastery (or at least competence). It could be an educational course, a new dance move, the perfect cup of coffee, a new language, a yoga pose, anything you choose to dive deeper into.

4) Unconscious Competence

You know the topic so well you don’t even have to consciously think about it anymore. You could argue this level of knowing means you’re an expert, but that’s not necessarily the case.

As track athletes, my teammates and I certainly improved, and got to a point where we could be on auto-pilot while we were training, but that doesn’t mean we were experts. Semi-pro perhaps, mini experts even, but only from our perspective as athletes. Learning about the sport as an athlete is different than learning about it from the perspective of a coach, or a judge/referee, or an athletic director. Do you see where this is going? Having one complete perspective on something could make you an expert on a subject…from that singular perspective. I just assume that mastery involves knowing a subject from the inside out, and knowing how to apply it to any given situation (effectively using social media to sell products versus promote thought leadership, for example).

Living and being is a lifelong process. While we’re all absolutely capable of improving (learning more, increasing this, becoming skilled at that), mastery takes incredible amounts of time and dedication. Hopefully we’ll all be able to say we’ve mastered something in our lives, but if not, know that your unconscious competence is remarkable in itself.

Why Your Stage of Knowing Matters

So you go from:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: “I have no idea what that is or how to do it.”
  2. Conscious Incompetence: “Oh, so that’s what that is. I still don’t know how to do it.”
  3. Conscious Competence: “I totally know what this is and how to do it.”
  4. Unconscious Competence: “I can talk about this with authority and do it in my sleep.”

Knowing what stage of knowing you’re in is important because it’ll help you manage your expectations of yourself (be patient with yourself as you learn this new thing), set goals, plan your way forward, and see how far you’ve come (congrats!).

So which of the four stages of knowing are you in for your current interest? Stick with it. Your competence will improve over time.