The Copywriter's Crucible

Surviving the Vagaries of the Freelance Life

BIG CHANGES are coming! Read more for the scoop.

Posted by rachelwriter on February 1, 2010

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/giarose

In life, change is good.  It keeps us challenged.  It keeps us satisfied.  It injects a healthy dose excitement into the everyday grind.  And it helps us to grow and learn.

I’ve experienced a great deal of change over the last few years.

First, I waved goodbye to my home state of New York and headed south—way south—to Birmingham, Ala.  (How’s that for a change?)  Then, I took a leap of faith, quit my career as an on-air TV news talent, and flocked 150 miles east to Atlanta, Ga., where I embarked on an exciting adventure as a freelance copywriter.  I adopted a dog, married my fiancé of four years, and finally (finally!) felt like I had a place to call “home.”

It’s all been wonderful.  And I wouldn’t change a thing.  But now, the time for change has come again.

Something Shiny, New, and GREEN in 2010

I’m proud to say that I’ve accepted a full-time position as the Public Relations and Communications Manager at the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute.  GREENGUARD is an Atlanta-based, national nonprofit organization that works to improve the quality of the air we breathe inside our homes, offices, and classrooms.  You may be surprised to know that indoor air is two to five times more polluted than the air outside.  How come?  Because most of the products we use on a daily basis—from our furniture and flooring to our laundry detergents, air fresheners, and tile cleaners—contain dangerous levels of chemicals called Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, that seep into the air we breathe.  VOCs can cause or exacerbate a host of ailments, including asthma, nausea, headaches—even cancer!

This is serious stuff—but it’s something that most of us don’t even think about.  Or, for that matter, know about.  So, I’ve decided to make it my job to spread the word.

You may or may not know that I’m a firm believer in sustainability and in keeping our planet clean and healthy.  In fact, I’m the type of gal who gets angry at people who don’t recycle and annoyed at those who cruise around in gas-guzzling combat vehicles.  I’m also pretty big on maintaining a healthy lifestyle.  And, as an asthmatic, I consider clean air—both indoors and outdoors—extremely important.  So, for me, the transition to GREENGUARD seems pretty, well, organic.

Okay, but what about your copywriting biz?

Fortunately, the folks at GREENGUARD have given me the “green” light (get it? :)) to continue my freelance writing operation on the side.  I’ll still welcome new projects and new clients, but because my availability will be limited, I will accept only the projects that fit safely into my nighttime and weekend schedule—and, of course, only those that do not pose a conflict of interest with GREENGUARD’s brand.  I will no longer be available to work on any freelance projects during normal business hours, Monday through Friday.  And I may not be able to update this blog as frequently as I do now.

That said… I’ll still be here, people!  And I’ll still be able to provide you with outstanding copy for your business’s needs.  All you have to do is call or e-mail for a free consultation.  (I may have to get back to you after hours or on the weekends, but I promise not to leave you hanging!)

Oh, and if you happen to be an editor or reporter—*WARNING: shameless self-cross-promotion to follow*—please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at GREENGUARD for help with stories in the green space!  We’ve got lots of incredibly interesting, useful, and newsworthy information to share with a variety of audiences, and I’d be happy to help in any way I can.

So that, dear friends, prospects, and clients, is what’s changing in my life.  What’s changing in yours?

–Rachel

Posted in marketing, Public Relations, The Basics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

How one writing error can instantly damage your business’s reputation

Posted by rachelwriter on January 27, 2010

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/Greg-ography

Embarrassing, but true: a few days ago, I spotted at least one glaring grammatical error on each of the Web sites of two well-known business schools here in Georgia.

The first was a subject-verb disagreement: “Each are….” instead of “Each is….”

The second was an embarrassing typo-turned-malapropism: “Perquisite” instead of “Prerequisite.”

And, I’m not talking about a hastily-scribed blog post, either.  I’m talking about the universities’ primary marketing copy.  The meat of the schools’ Web content.  The stuff that’s supposed to make prospective students salivate at the mere thought of enrolling.

Now, I don’t know about other people, but I wasn’t salivating much after stumbling upon these errors.  Blushing in embarrassment, perhaps.  Wide-eyed and flabbergasted, maybe.  But definitely not salivating.

Because, to me, these errors not only represented a flagrant carelessness concerning the schools’ brands and academic reputations, but they also suggested a rather low-quality education and academic environments that celebrate mediocrity over excellence.

Not true?  Perhaps.  But by now, that’s irrelevant.  Sloppy copy on the schools’ most important marketing tool—their Web sites—overshadowed everything else I read and, unfortunately, created a perception that these schools are not quality academic institutions.

Anyway, the lesson, folks, is this: perception is everything.  If your marketing copy isn’t crystal clear and error-free, you’re sending a message to your prospects that you’re careless, unprofessional, and inexperienced.  Oh, yeah—and totally not worth the money.

Is that really the reputation you want to create for yourself and your business?  Just some food for thought.

–Rachel

Posted in grammar, marketing, The Basics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

How UPS effectively used social media to squash a rumor

Posted by rachelwriter on January 14, 2010

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/yung grasshopper

Yet another reason why it’s SO important for brands to be on social media to monitor what’s being said about them….

Today, I noticed that a Facebook connection had posted the following to her status:

“UPS is shipping anything under 50 lbs to Haiti FOR FREE! PLEASE FORWARD TO ALL or PASTE on your FB!!!! THANKS”

I’ll admit, at first, I was tempted to copy and paste her message to my own Facebook status and share it with the rest of my social media contacts.  But then, my inner journalist stopped me dead in my tracks: Oh yeah?  Says who?!?  (After all, I didn’t want any part in spreading rumors.)  Surely, if UPS was offering such an outrageous deal, it would be all OVER the company’s Web site–not to mention the mainstream media.  But, after a quick inspection, I saw that it was not.

What I did find, however, was a UPS blog post–yes! UPS has a blog! :)–in which the company cleared things up once and for all.  Turns out, what had been circulating on the ‘net about free shipping to Haiti was, indeed, a rumor.  But the company didn’t just use social media to squash the rumor; it also used it as a vehicle to promote the company’s benevolence and good Samaritanism during a time of need:

“At UPS, we’re committed to delivering aid and supporting relief efforts around the world. Through The UPS Foundation, we’re giving $1 million (USD) in cash and in-kind aid to help the people of Haiti.”

The blog then goes on to offer resources to those who wish to donate to disaster relief efforts.

What a terrific showcasing of the value of brands using social media to communicate their messages to their consumers.  Had UPS not been monitoring Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere, they’d have stepped right into a global public relations nightmare!  (Imagine: millions of charitable folks, worldwide, lining up outside UPS with their care packages, expecting free shipment to Haiti… only to find out it was a big fat lie.  Definitely. Not.  Good.)

By being active and vigilant on the Internet, UPS was able to effectively monitor its brand, set the record straight about its response to the earthquake in Haiti, and squash a potentially devastating rumor long before it had the chance wreak havoc. 

If that’s not a reason for your company to jump on the social media bandwagon, then I don’t know what is!

–Rachel

Posted in marketing, Public Relations, social media | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

5 Embarrassing Malapropisms and Spelling Screw-Ups

Posted by rachelwriter on January 13, 2010

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/zen

As a language lover, there are few things that I consider more painful than witnessing someone unintentionally misapply a word or phrase.  Sure, it’s cute when a toddler refers to the library as a lie-berry or insists on seeing the polo bears (instead of polar bears) at the Zoo.   

But as literate grown-ups, there’s simply no excuse for making such egregious errors in our speech and writing.

Here are six gaffes that make me cringe:

1. “Supposively”

    “Supposably”

The word is SUPPOSEDLY, people.  Yes, -EDLY.  You may want to repeat that once or twice and jot it down for future reference.

2. “Must of”

     “Should of”

     “Could of”

     “Would of””

No, no, no, and no.  It’s HAVE, people.  You must HAVE.  Should HAVE.  Could HAVE.  Would HAVE.

3. “Irregardless”

Um, I’m pretty sure you mean REGARDLESS or IRRESPECTIVE, ‘cause what you just said is not a real word.

 4. “For all intensive purposes.”

Surprise!  It’s actually “for all INTENTS AND purposes”!

5. “Pacifically”

If you’re referring to something in particular (yes, even if it’s on the West Coast), then what you mean is SPECIFICALLY. 

What other language blunders can you think of that rub you the wrong way? 

–Rachel

Posted in grammar | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

How the Internet and social media have drastically affected marketing and PR

Posted by rachelwriter on January 11, 2010

Image Courtesy: Flickr/Matt Hamm

I must tell you that I’m enraptured by The New Rules of Marketing & PR by David Meerman Scott.  

As a communications professional in a rapidly-changing and increasingly technological industry, I’m always looking for new insights, tips, trends, and techniques to stay informed and competitive.  And this book (which I’m about halfway through) is already proving to be a great resource—particularly since copywriting goes-in-hand with marketing and PR

Scott examines how and why traditional methods of marketing and public relations (i.e., sending jargon-filled press releases solely to journalists to score media impressions in magazines and TV programs, or paying big bucks for one-way, mass-market advertisements) are practically obsolete in today’s market.  The reason, of course, is the pervasive influence of the Internet and social media—blogs, microblogs, vlogs, podcasts, etc.—on the creation and dissemination of information. 

You see, no longer do target audiences rely exclusively on news hubs like CNN or The New York Times to get the latest buzz.  Rather, they find it—and share it—virally via social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.  They’ll also get it from the blogosphere.  Or by plugging key words and phrases into an online search engine and sifting through the hits.  Or all of the above.  (Did you know, by the way, that blog posts and Twitter comments are indexed by search engines?  Delicious food for thought!) 

And the great irony is this: information often makes its way onto the social media scene long before it gets exposure on the “big time” news media outlets.  In fact, the reporter who’s covering a story on the nightly news or in the morning paper often gets tipped off from social media! 

Take my friend Stephanie Frost, for example.  She recently posted a homemade video to her blog about the importance of good customer service, and within a few days, it was picked up by The Huffington Post and ABC’s World News Tonight!  Did Stephanie send out press releases to the reporters and producers to get their attention and beg for coverage?  Nope.  Did she pay a creative agency to design some kind of flashy banner ad to get people to click on her blog?  Nuh-uh.  Did she cold-call her media contact list to cajole them into giving her a mention?  No way.  All she did was create meaningful, useful, relevant content and post it to her blog, and the rest is history.  Best part is, she scored the publicity without having spent a dime on PR or marketing!  That’s right; rather than seeking out the news media, the news media sought her. 

As a former journalist, I can attest to this phenomenon, too.  Rarely did I pick up a press release from the mountain of releases I’d receive on a daily basis and cover the “story” it pitched.  Rather, I’d research my own ideas for stories, gather my own information with the help of the Internet, and—based on the value of the content I’d find online— I’d handpick the thought leaders and industry experts to whom I’d grant coverage.  If all I found was a library of buzzwords and hard sales pitches, I wouldn’t give that company or organization the time of day.  If, however, I found informative, meaningful, value-based content that sought to educate me rather than sell me, chances were good that I’d reach out to that company or organization.

Anyway, back to that marvelous new book I’m reading….

I’ve been poring over it with a highlighter and pen in hand (I’m the kind of person who likes to make notes in the margins of my books—go ahead, call me a nerd), and, for the sake of furthering this discussion, I’d like to share a few excerpts that I find particularly important.  (Mr. Scott, if you happen to stumble upon this blog, I hope that’s okay with you. ;)) 

Here are those excerpts:

1. “New marketing on the Web…is centered on interaction, information, education, and choice….” (p. 7)

2. “Public relations work has changed.  PR is no longer just an esoteric discipline where great efforts are spent by companies to communicate exclusively to a handful of reporters who then tell the company’s story, generating a clip for the PR people to show to their bosses.  Now, great PR includes programs to reach buyers directly.  The Web allows access to information about your products, and smart companies understand and use this phenomenal resource to great advantage.”  (p. 11)

3. “Marketing on the Web is not about generic banner ads designed to trick people with neon color or wacky movement.  It is about understanding the keywords and phrases that our buyers are using and then deploying micro-campaigns to drive buyers to pages replete with the content that they seek.”  (p. 20) 

4. “Great content brands an organization as a trusted resource and calls people to action—to buy, subscribe, apply, or donate.  And great content means that interested people return again and again.  As a result, the organization succeeds, achieving goals such as adding revenue, building traffic, gaining donations, or generating sales leads.” (p. 21) 

 5. “Instead of writing press releases only when we have ‘big news’—releases that reach only a handful of journalists—we should be writing releases that highlight our expert ideas and stories, and we should be distributing them so that our buyers can find them on the news search engines and vertical content sites.” (P. 24) 

6. “PR is not about your boss seeing your company on TV.  It’s about your buyers seeing your company on the Web.” (p. 25) 

7. “…You will be much more successful if you forget about trying to get the huge article.  Big yields come from cultivating many small relationships rather than a focus on trying to get that one mega-success.”  (p. 30)

8. “What works is a focus on your buyers and their problems.  What fails is an egocentric display of your products and services.” (p. 35)

9. “Instead of just directly selling something, a great site, blog, or podcast series tells the world that you are smart, that you understand the market very well, and that you might be a person or organization that would be valuable to do business with.  Web content directly contributes to an organization’s online reputation by showing thought leadership in the marketplace.”  (p. 38-39)

10. “The Internet is like a massive focus group with uninhibited customers offering up their thoughts for free! … Just having a presence on the blogs, forums, and chat rooms that your customers frequent shows that you care about the people who spend money with your organization.”  (p. 81)

So… what do YOU think about these “new rules” of PR and marketing?  Do you agree?  Disagree?  Why or why not?  Obviously, I 100% agree with them.  But I would still love to hear from you!  Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. 

–Rachel

Posted in marketing, Public Relations, The Basics | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Why strategic communication is both a science and an art

Posted by rachelwriter on January 6, 2010

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/Unitopia

I have a motto for strategic communication.  I describe it as “part science, part art; part brain, part heart.”

What I mean is that purposeful and meaningful communication—whether it’s in the form of marketing, advertising, or public relations—must be at once quantitative and qualitative; objective and subjective; proven and experimental; logical and emotional.

Say, what, you ask?

We all know there are certain time-tested “rules” of effective communication (know your target audience; avoid jargon and clichés; use fewer words; use shorter words; use proper grammar; etc.).  There are also ways to measure communicative efforts (micro-conversion rates; conversion rates; ROI; number of PR hits; etc.).  As you might have guessed, this is the science/brain part of strategic communications.

But there’s a spate of other factors that also influence the efficacy of your campaign—factors that are more intuitive and affecting than tried-and-true methodologies; factors that are measurable only anecdotally.  I’m talking about the humanization of communication.  The cultivation of real and trusting relationships with your target audience.  The engagement and interaction with not only your prospects, but also your current customers.  The sharing of relevant ideas and helpful information with like-minded groups and individuals.  The sincere display of interest in the lives of those whom your product or service benefits.  The positioning of your company as more than just a cold, corporate brand—but as a group of real-life, empathetic human beings who are just like everyone else.

You see, communication is all about building and maintaining relationships.  (The word “relations” in “public relations,” for example, underscores my point.)  And this is where art and heart come into play.

Social media (note, by the way, the term “social”) tools like Twitter are the perfect avenue for this, in my opinion: there’s simply no better or more immediate forum for engaging and interacting with your prospects and current clients than online.  And, even better?  You can take those online relationships and turn them into real-life connections.

Sure, the science and the brain behind strategic communication are critical.  But following your heart—that is, being genuine, human, and approachable—is an art that should never, ever be omitted from your strategic communications plan.

—Rachel

Posted in marketing, Public Relations, The Basics | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

How media/public relations, marketing, and copywriting share a common thread

Posted by rachelwriter on January 5, 2010

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/chefranden

I’ve been fortunate enough over the last few weeks to have met and spent some time with a few very talented and experienced professionals in the Media/Communications/Public Relations and Sales/Marketing/Advertising industries. We’ve had some wonderfully insightful and thought-provoking conversations.

Our discussions got me to thinking:

While copywriting may seem, on the surface, to be a horse of a different color, it actually plays an integral role in both Media/Public Relations and Marketing. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that an effective PR and/or Marketing pro needs to have, at minimum, a solid understanding of the mechanics of good copywriting.

Why? Because PR and Marketing are rooted in creating and implementing strategic messages that sway the opinions of a target audience and elicit a desired action. And that’s precisely what copywriting is all about.

What’s more, many PR and Marketing tactics are carried out through written communication. Press releases. Media pitches. Brochures. Web site content. E-mail blasts. Scripts.

You get the idea.

So, while each profession demands unique skill sets (media savvy in PR, for example), each also shares a common thread: in order to be successful, professionals in Public Relations, Marketing, and Copywriting must be able to articulate a message clearly and persuasively and, consequently, achieve measurable results.

No matter one’s level of media or business savvy, a PR and Marketing professional without exceptional communication skills—that is, without the ability to write cogent, compelling copy— is pretty much doomed.

—Rachel

Posted in marketing, Public Relations, The Basics | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Why bad grammar is *sometimes* okay

Posted by rachelwriter on December 23, 2009

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/Ed.ward

I was at a popular department store last night picking up a few odds and ends when a holiday advertisement caught my eye.  It read: “More Trendy.  Less Spendy.”

My first reaction, as a grammarian, was to cringe. 

More trendy?  An abomination!  It should say trendier!  And spendy?  That’s not even a word! 

It took a while for my boiling blood to cool, but when it did, I was able to see things in a new light.  I reminded myself that copywriting isn’t simply about knowing and applying all the rules of grammar.  It’s also about knowing how and when to break those rules.  Not arbitrarily, but strategically. 

Don’t think for a second that the copywriter behind that department store’s advertisement really confused the comparative form of “trendy” for “more trendy.”  Or that s/he really thought “spendy” is a synonym for “expensive.”

No, the copywriter knew precisely what s/he was doing when writing that slogan.  After all, the store’s brand is very spunky and down-to-earth; keeping the advertisement pithy and punchy and not better-than-thou was right in line with the company’s image.  It was a catchy, memorable blurb that told consumers exactly what they wanted to hear: that they were getting caviar fashion on a tuna fish budget.  And in no more than four “words.”

So, while my inner wordsmith nearly suffered a heart attack last night, the creative copywriter in me—the one who understands that rules are sometimes meant to be broken—was empathetic.  After all, in advertising, you do what you gotta do!

My only hope is that children learning to read and write don’t go around saying their clothes are “more trendy” and “less spendy” than those of their peers.  Oh, the horror!  :)

Happy Holidays! 

–Rachel

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How NOT to look like an idiot when writing

Posted by rachelwriter on December 1, 2009

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/TexasT's

I wonder if I’m the only person in the world who’s bookmarked Dictionary.com, Thesaurus.com, and MerriamWebster.com on my browser for daily consultation.

The thing is, I don’t even post a Facebook status or a Tweet without first checking and double-checking my spelling.  Why?  Because the fact is, what and how you write—including how you spell—is, for many, an indication of your smarts.  Seriously.  It doesn’t matter if you’re the shrewdest, most well-educated person in the Western Hemisphere: if your writing sucks, people will assume that you’re a bumbling idiot. 

But not everyone realizes this.   In fact, what spawned this post was yet another hair-raising spelling error that I read while procrastinating on Facebook.   Two of my connections wrote something in their statuses about how—and I say type this with my skin crawling, mind you—“siked” they were for an upcoming event. 

Siked!?  Oh, come ON!  I mean, were they really trying to express their identity as a small stream, gulley, or ditch (which is what the noun, “sike,” means in Great Britain and Scotland)?  Of course not!  (And, even if that had been their intent, it would have been a big, fat error, anyway—for a noun can never be an adjective.) 

No, what they meant to say they is that they were psyched about an upcoming event.  You know, mentally prepared for it.  Psychologically ready for it.  Had the authors taken a mere fifteen seconds to consult a dictionary, they would have spared themselves the embarrassment of posting such an egregious spelling mistake.

Now, I don’t mean to dis my fellow Facebookers.  I know they’re plenty smarter than their Facebook status spelling blunders sometimes make them appear.  But the truth is, even the smartest of us have to consult a dictionary every now and again.  (Heck, I do it on a daily—sometimes even hourly—basis, even if it’s just to confirm the spelling of a word I think I know how to spell already.)  After all, isn’t it better to err on the side of caution?  (And, yes, I mean “err,” not “air”!)

So.  My advice to you?  Go ahead, right now, and plug www.dictionary.com and www.merriamwebster.com into your browser and bookmark them.  Then, before publishing anything—even if it’s just an e-mail, a Facebook status, a Tweet, or a blog post—do yourself (and your readers) a favor: log onto one or both of these sites and double-check your spelling!  It only takes a few seconds, and it can mean the difference between looking like a blithering fool or someone who knows (and cares) about what they’re writing.

 –Rachel

Posted in The Basics | 3 Comments »

Some words to live by

Posted by rachelwriter on November 16, 2009

Control Your Brand

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/kristiewells

I’m still alive, everyone.  I’m alive and I’m still here.  My apologies for having taken so long to write another post.  I’ve been busy (which is a good thing!), but still no excuse for neglecting my blog.

I thought I’d share a little something with you today that I learned at a women’s business development and networking event a few weeks ago.  The guest speaker at this event—the lovely and über dynamic Kat Cole, VP of Hooters Restaurants—urged a group of about 35 business owners to run their businesses and their professional lives according to the following mantra:

“If not me, who?  If not now, when?”

It’s a fantastically simple yet powerful message that applies to all business owners–not just women.  And since this blog is about copywriting, here’s how it applies to the business owner who’s on the fence about hiring a professional writer.

“If not me, who?”     If YOU don’t step up to the plate and market your business with professional copywriting, know that your COMPETITION will.  And if your competition’s marketing copy is kick-ass and yours, well, isn’t… you might as well kiss your prospects (and, frankly, your business) goodbye.  Because the fact is, people aren’t going to spend their money with a company whose message is vague, off-target, irrelevant to their immediate needs and desires, or poorly written.  They’re going to spend it with a company whose sales literature (whether it’s a Web site, a magazine ad, or a TV commercial) resonates with them and convinces them that there’s no better product/service around.  So, think about it: if not you, who?

“If not now, when?”     Just don’t have the time to think about your business’s marketing copy right now?  Just don’t have the cash to spend on quality copywriting right now?   Well, that’s a shame, because the longer YOU wait, the more business you’re probably losing to your COMPETITION.  Remember: a prospect’s first impression of your business usually comes from something that’s been written about your company.  If you don’t take the time, now, to ensure that their first impression of your business is positive and—more important—consequential, you’re going to have a hard time catching up.  So, when it comes to marketing your business, think and act in the present, not in the future.  The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll start seeing results.

–Rachel

Posted in The Basics | Leave a Comment »

 
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