The Copywriter's Crucible

Surviving the Vagaries of the Freelance Life

Should copywriters offer “sales” or “discounts” every now and then?

Posted by rachelwriter on October 20, 2009

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/quinn.anya

Perhaps it’s the state of the economy, or perhaps it’s just in the blood of small business owners in general, but… I’m starting to wonder if the only thing small companies care about is getting the job done as cheaply as possible. 

Small and solo biz prospects regularly approach me with the demand for a “very reasonable price” (read: cheap), “some kind of special deal” (read: very cheap), or a “significant discount” (read: very, very cheap). You know—because they’ve shaken my hand at a networking event once before and, therefore, feel entitled to a Friend and Family Discount or something. 

This got me wondering: should freelance copywriters offer special deals or discounts to their clients?  And, if so, when and how? 

For a short while, I offered a 10% discount to new clients on their first project, but, after crunching the numbers, I realized that I was actually losing money.  And to make matters worse, some PITA (pain-in-the-ass) clients got too used to the idea of getting 10% off, so they demanded it on every subsequent project—even though I explained to them that it was a one-time offer, only.

Then I started thinking about it some more.  Other professionals who offer professional services and charge professional rates offer their clients reduced rates on occasion.

My husband, for example, who’s a corporate attorney at large law firm, told me that even lawyers—yes, the ones who charge hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars per hour for their workgive discounted rates to select clients from time to time.  (Granted, the discount may only be something like 1.5%, but it’s still a discount!)

My CPA, for another example, charges $100/hour.  Yet, even she offers $20 coupons to her clients whenever they refer a new client to her.

And then there’s my mechanic (a swell guy, really).  He once charged me all of $0.00 to find and fix a problem that had been puzzling us both for weeks.  You can bet your bottom dollar that I’ve kept going back to him for whatever service my car needs.  His kindness cemented my feet in the repeat customer club.

So, I wonder: if all of these professionals offer special discounts and rates to their clients from time to time, would it be worth my while to do the same for mine?  And if so, why?  And how?  Or, would that be setting up a bad precedent and lead to the further devaluation of a copywriter’s skills?

I’d love to hear input from both writers and non-writers.  Please share your thoughts below!

Rachel

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Posted in The Basics | 23 Comments »

How to spot a snakey client before signing the contract

Posted by rachelwriter on October 7, 2009

Photo Courtesy: Jayanth Sharma/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: Jayanth Sharma/Flickr

Not too long ago, fellow writer, blogger, and Twitter pal Randy Southerland wrote a post about how to recognize when a particular client isn’t… well… worth it.  And, by “it,” I mean the time, the effort, or even the paycheck.

I’d like to add my own two cents on this topic.

Sometimes the allure of some extra cash can be so enticing that we freelancers forget how to look out for ourselves.  Instead, we go against our better judgment and contract with a nightmare client.  You know the type: impossible to please, hypocritical, late on payment(s), disrespectful, etc.  In a word, unprofessional.

Recently, I’ve been dealing with a prospective client who first reached out to me many, many weeks ago for a rather large copywriting project.  The client requested a detailed quote for my services, which I provided, and then expressed a great deal of interest in working with me.  The client then said s/he’d be back in touch with me in a few days to sign the contract.  It all sounded very promising.

But then the client vanished.  Without a trace.  For several weeks.  And didn’t bother to respond to my follow-up phone calls and e-mails.  I all but gave up.

Several weeks after that, though, I FINALLY received a return phone call from the client.  S/he basically admitted that s/he’d deliberately ignored me because the company had decided to do the job in-house.  Until, that is, they came to their senses and realized just how badly they needed professional help. 

The client never did apologize for his/her unprofessional conduct, but because s/he basically hired me on the spot, I considered it water under the bridge; I was too seduced by the promise of adding a new client to my roster.  The client then promised to sign the contract, pay the deposit, and deliver all necessary materials by the following week so that I could get started right away.  And before hanging up, s/he reiterated how thrilled s/he was to be working with me.

I was feeling pretty good.  It was a sizeable project.  A decent paycheck.  And a wonderful creative outlet.  And, the client seemed genuinely excited about working with me. 

Of course, things didn’t exactly work out as I had expected. 

Weeks upon weeks have passed since the day the client “hired” me, and, to date, I still haven’t heard from him/her.  Not a peep.  Nuttin’.  Nada.  Despite my repeated efforts to follow up and find out what the hell is going on. 

I feel annoyed.  Frustrated.  Angry.  Yes, very, very angry.

But, most of all, I actually feel… smarter.  Enlightened.  Like I’ve learned an invaluable lesson, here.

And this is it:

As far as I’m concerned, the well of “prospects” has run dry for this “prospective” client.  I’ve learned that this client would only waste my time, effort, and energy if I signed on to work for him/her.  And that no amount of money (which I’d likely have to fight tooth and nail to receive, anyway) would be enough to compensate for the migraine I’d suffer as a result.

No Sir-ee Bob, this is not a company I’d want to work for.  Ever.  And so, I won’t.  For my own sake.  For my own sanity.  For my own scruples, for crying out loud! 

And so, if the client ever does get back to me, my response will be simple: thanks, but no thanks.  I simply cannot, and will not, work with unprofessional people. 

If there’s one thing I hope you’ll walk away with after reading this anecdote, it’s this: if a prospective client is irresponsible, disrespectful, and unprofessional before the contract is even signed, you can bet your bottom dollar that the client will be irresponsible, disrespectful, and unprofessional after the contract is signed.  The only difference is, once the contract is signed, you’re locked in. 

So don’t let the allure of dollar signs make you doubt your gut instincts: if it walks like a snake and talks like a snake, it’s a snake.  Get out now, while you still can!

–Rachel

Posted in The Basics | 8 Comments »

How to deal with business bullies (before the contract is signed)

Posted by rachelwriter on September 14, 2009

Photo Courtesy: Chesi - Fotos CC/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: Chesi - Fotos CC/Flickr

I was on the phone the other day with a potential client when he said to me, “You know, I could spend all day re-writing your contract.  How about I just send over the check for the deposit and you get started?”

Oh.  My bad!  Yeah, let’s just go right ahead and skip over all that poppycock I call a “contract.”  I don’t need to protect my rights as a small business owner.  I’ll just take your word for everything, sir.  I’ll spend hours of my time to create a quality product for you.  And, in exchange, you’ll give me… your word.  Not on paper, of course.  But by phone. 

So, sure.  Go right ahead and send along that check at your leisure.  You know, whenever it’s convenient for you.  I have full faith in your honesty, integrity, and ethicality.  In the meantime, I’ll get started on your project.  Because I know that, deep down inside, you’re a kind-hearted, puppy-eyed Good Samaritan who wants only to ensure that his vendors are treated and compensated fairly.  No, you’re not a money-hungry businessman at the helm of a multi-million dollar corporation.  You, kind sir, are the epitome of professionalism.

How silly of me for even asking you to sign your name on that rigmarole….

(Sigh.)

Don’t worry.  I didn’t accept the client’s proposal.  But, sadly, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.  Nor will it be the last.

It’s a sad fact that Big Companies in Big Cities with Big Boards and Big CEOs often look down upon us lowly, small businesses and, well, try to bully us into making concessions in their favor.  After all, we little guys don’t have the resources or the clout to stand up to the Big Guys.  (Or, at least, they think that.)  So, if we want their business, we’re at their mercy.  (Or, so they tell themselves.)

To make matters worse, in the eyes of behemoth companies, spending a few thousand dollars on a copywriter is like emptying out loose pocket change.  It’s a trivial transaction—and one that gets put on the backburner while other, bigger, more important financial obligations are met.

To a solo business owner, on the other hand, those few thousand dollars could be sustenance for a whole month.  It costs an awful lot to run a business sometimes.  Every penny counts.

And that means we’ve got to protect ourselves.  On paper.  Every time. 

Big Business trying to bully you?  Here’s how to deal:

Educate the bully.  So, Harry McHarrier doesn’t want to sign your contract because he thinks it’s hogwash?  Tell Harry that, while you understand there’s a lot of legal “stuff” in that contract, you simply cannot and will not work without a signed copy in your hands.  Remind him that his company would never perform professional services without first getting its payment terms in writing, and that your company is no different.  Explain that, as a small business owner, a transaction of even a few hundred or thousand dollars merits a signed agreement because, in the small business world, a few hundred or thousand dollars is a sizable amount of money.  If Harry is smart, he will understand—and he will agree to abide by your terms.

Ask the bully what it is about the contract, specifically, that irks him.  Something still bothering Harry?  Ask him what it is.  Does he not like the idea of you using his company’s name on your Web site’s client list?  Is he not comfortable with a certain deadline?  Maybe there’s a way you can tweak some of the wording in the contract so that both parties are satisfied.  Just don’t go stripping away your rights and protective clauses!  Those stay put.  Period.

Threaten to walk away from the bully—and the project.  Harry still won’t budge, eh?  Well, you shouldn’t budge, either.  Be forthright: tell him that if he’s that uncomfortable with your contract, you’ll be happy to part ways.  And he’ll have to find another copywriter who’s willing to work without a contract.  Which will never happen.  Unless the “writer” is a numskull (in which case Harry will really be in touble).    

Walk away.  Harry thinks you’re bluffing?  Now’s your chance to prove to him that you’re not.  Walk away.  End of story.  It’s not worth it to sit around and beg for respect from someone who clearly doesn’t respect you or your work.  Get out now.  In the end, it will be Harry’s loss—not yours.

 —Rachel

Posted in The Basics | 2 Comments »

42 commonly confused English words (a.k.a. homophones!)

Posted by rachelwriter on September 1, 2009

Photo Courtesy: ktpupp/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: ktpupp/Flickr

I was skimming through some of my pals’ Facebook statuses the other day when I read something that made me cringe.  A friend had commented on a photo of a marathon runner, and the caption read something like this: “Fast as lightening.” 

I’ll give you three seconds to spot the error.

Three.  Two.  One.

Time’s up!

Don’t see the problem? 

Let me explain:

Unless my friend meant that the marathon runner was as fast as “the descent of the uterus into the pelvic cavity occurring toward the end of pregnancy”—which is what the noun, “lightening,” actually means—(and, I’m pretty sure she didn’t), it’s clear that she fell into one of the English language’s biggest grammar traps: homophones. 

What my friend meant to say was that the runner was as fast as a bolt of lightning—a flash of intense electric light that illuminates the sky during a storm.  She probably confused the word with the present participle of the verb lighten, too, which also happens to be lightening. 

Confusing?  Obviously.  Acceptable?  No way, José.

But that’s why I’m going to impart some grammatical wisdom to you.  So take note and learn!

Below is an incomplete list of homophones, in no particular order, that I just thought of off the top of my head and that I know can often confuse people.  To help shed some light on how each word should be used, I’ve also included sentences in which each word appears correctly.  

                       

ThereThere’s a funny smell in there.                     

Their Their apartment smells funny.

They’reThey’re trying to clean the apartment to get rid of the funny smell.

 

TwoI rang the doorbell two times.              

TooI rang the doorbell two times, too.                   

ToI used to ring the doorbell two times, but I don’t anymore.

 

ItsThe cat likes its new treats.                   

It’sIt’s interesting that the dog likes the cat’s treats, too.

 

SureI’m sure the hurricane will lose strength before it makes landfall.                     

Shore – Debris from the hurricane washed up on shore.

 

PeakThe peak of the mountain is covered in snow.                                 

PeekDon’t peek!  It’s a surprise!

PiqueHere’s how to pique their interest.

 

ComplimentHe paid her such a nice compliment.            

ComplementHer shoes complement her dress very well.

 

BreakLet’s take a break from break dancing before we break something.                      

BrakeDon’t brake too suddenly or the airbags might deploy.

 

OneWhen he asked me to marry him, I knew he was the one.    

WonHe won me over with his good looks and charm.

 

MeetI’m going to meet my client for lunch.            

MeatI’m going to pick up some fresh meat from the butcher.

 

FeetMy feet have blisters on them from wearing uncomfortable shoes.                          

FeatNegotiating the terms of the treaty was a diplomatic feat.

 

ToeOuch, I stubbed my toe.                                  

TowWhen the car broke down, the mechanic had to tow it back to his garage.

 

CreekThe children caught tadpoles in the creek.             

Creak The old floorboards may creak when you walk on them.

 

ReadI prefer to read magazines instead of books.                                   

ReedThe marsh was overgrown with reeds.

 

Red  – The color of Superman’s cape is red.

Read I read twelve books last month.

 

AirThe air in Atlanta is polluted.

HeirPrince William is the rightful heir to the throne.                                   

 

HareThe hare lost the race to the tortoise.

HairUncle Joe has lost so much hair that he’s practically bald.

 

BareSwimsuit models aren’t afraid to bare their skin.

Bear I can’t bear to watch the zookeeper feed that ferocious grizzly bear!

 

WieldGangs wield a lot of power in this neighborhood.

WheeledThe server wheeled in the dessert buffet.

 

ThroughI can’t get through; the road is blocked.

ThrewHe threw a fastball.

 

But I’d like to go to the party, but I’m not sure if I can make it.

ButtHe stepped on a lit cigarette butt and burned his foot.

 

DieMost patients who suffer from the disease will die.

DyeShe wants to dye her shoes to match her handbag.

 

WineWhen consumed in moderation, wine has a number of health benefits.

WhineHe always whines when he doesn’t get his way.

 

RoadMary passed her road test and got her license.

RodeJohn rode his bicycle home from school.

Rhode (Island)Our aunt lives in Newport, Rhode Island.

 

PairI have one pair of black socks.

PearI ate a pear with lunch.

 

TailThe dog is wagging his tail.

Tale My favorite fairy tale is Cinderella.

 

TimeIt’s time for lunch.

ThymeI’m seasoning my chicken with thyme.

 

FisherSeals are fishers; they catch fish for food.

FissureThe earthquake caused a fissure in the house’s foundation.

 

WholeHe ate the whole watermelon.

HoleThe dog dug a hole in the backyard.

 

BoredHe quickly grew bored of the presenter’s dull speech.

BoardThe board of directors voted unanimously to fire the CEO.

 

BorePowerPoint presentations are such a bore.

BoarSettlers in this part of the country hunted wild boar to survive.

 

Ensure To ensure your safety, please fasten your seat belts.

InsureHe’d like to insure his children under his health plan.

 

SightShe has poor sight and needs to wear glasses.

SiteThis is the perfect site for a new mall.

 

Mite The dog had a mite in its ear.

MightI might have to leave work early if there’s an emergency.

 

EffectNausea is a common side effect when taking this medicine.

AffectDon’t let his opinions affect your decision.

 

BeShe wants to be a butterfly for Halloween.

BeeHis ankle swelled after the bee stung him.

 

SoHe has so much homework to do.

SewShe decided to sew an extra button on her shirt.

 

Aunt Aunt Matilda knitted me a scarf for Christmas.

AntThe ant crawled into our picnic basket.   

 

PoreThey pore over their study materials before every exam.

PourThey pour water over their heads to cool off after a race.

 

Tore He tore a ligament while playing basketball.

TourWe took a tour of the museum.

 

WeekI’m coming to visit you next week.

WeakHer illness made her quite weak.

 

BerryThe berry flavored ice cream is delicious.

BuryThe dog will bury its bones in the backyard.

  

WhetherThe jury must decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison.

WeatherThe weather in San Francisco is beautiful year-round.

 

And, just because they deserve a mention, I’ve included a few of the most flagrant spelling blunders that I’ve encountered (sadly) on more than one occasion.  Whatever you do, do NOT make these same mistakes!

 

CORRECT                   INCORRECT

definitely                       definately

supposedly                   supposably

hindsight                       Heinz sight

judgment                       judgement

kindergarten                kindergarden

tomorrow                      tommorrow

duct tape                       duck tape

 

 So… What spelling faux-pas and homophone mix-ups have you had the misfortune of reading?  Share below!

 —Rachel

Posted in The Basics | 10 Comments »

Why “buffing up” existing copy isn’t always possible

Posted by rachelwriter on August 17, 2009

Photo Courtesy: BrittneyBush/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: BrittneyBush/Flickr

Often, people ask me if I can simply “clean up” or “buff up” some copy they’ve already written.  You know.  Not rewrite it.  Not start it from scratch.  Just… fix it up.  Make it sparkle.  Make it shine.

Here’s the thing, though: often—and, I don’t mean this in an offensive way, guys—the copy these people give me to “buff up” flat out stinks.  As in, there’s no amount of polishing in the world that’ll make it glisten and glow.

In cases like these, there’s really no choice but to start from scratch and rewrite the thing.

And, that’s okay.  I’m cool with that.

The problem is when the client doesn’t see it that way.

Look, proofreading and spellchecking are one thing.  But going in and making sure that the copy is a.) relevant; b.) compelling; c.) concise; d.) purposeful; and e.) on-target often requires a lot more than a cursory glance for a misplaced comma. 

In fact, depending on the quality of the copy, such a task may require a complete overhaul.  Frankly, it’s up to the copywriter to decide.

Trust me: it’s not that the copywriter is trying to rip people off by taking on more work than what’s necessary.  Good copywriters have eyes and brains that are practically programmed to spot crappy copy and clean it up.  That’s what they do.  They can’t help it.  It’s their job.

So, the next time you seek out a copywriter for help “polishing” or “buffing up” your copy and the copywriter tells you it’d be best to start from scratch, please, please, puh-leeze don’t put up a stink. 

If you do, I hate to say it, but, the only thing that’s going to be left stinkin’ is your copy. 

 —Rachel

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4 things you should know (but probably don’t) about copywriters

Posted by rachelwriter on August 11, 2009

Photo Courtesy: my new wintercoat/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: my new wintercoat/Flickr

A short time ago, a client of mine referred one of her contacts to me for a Web copywriting project.  According to my client, her contact—let’s just call her “Pam”—was in desperate need of a pro to help rewrite the content for her small business’s Web site.  

You see, English was not Pam’s first language, and the copy on her site was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.  Beyond that, though, the copy was… well… pretty bad.  Bland, boring, and circuitous.  Confusing, too.  Trust me when I say that one glance at this site would have made you run in the opposite direction.  Instead of attracting and reeling in new business, Pam’s site was actually scaring new prospects away.  She needed help, and she needed it yesterday.       

After a brief e-mail exchange (during which I explained what types of services I offered), it seemed pretty clear that Pam and I were going to be a good match.  I could give her exactly what she was looking for.  She could give me some extra work.  And we’d both walk away happy.

Then came the phone conversation.

“Thanks for considering my services, Pam!  I’d be happy to help clean up your Web site’s copy for you,” I started.  “I took a look at your site, and I agree with you that there’s a lot of room for improvement.  Here are my thoughts…..”

Gently, I pointed out a few problem areas of her site.  I was tactful.  I was delicate.  And, above all, I was professional.  I then explained how I could fix those problem areas and why it was important that they be fixed right away.  I thanked her for considering my services. 

But, before I knew it, Pam had lost her cool.  Without warning, she launched a counter-offensive, lambasting me for my “rudeness” and “unprofessionalism” and accusing me of undermining the integrity of her business.  I think there may have been a jab or two in there about my lack of sensitivity to ESL citizens, too.

Ouch!  I was definitely NOT expecting that kind of response.  After all, I was only doing my job.  I was trying to help her.  I genuinely wanted to help her.  I thought she wanted me to help her, too. 

As you might have guessed, Pam and I did not end up doing business together.  In fact, by the end of our conversation, Pam concluded that she had no real need for a professional writer after all.  What she really wanted, she realized, was someone who could upload two more pages to her (already convoluted) Web site.  And, she declared, she would write her own copy. 

Poor Pam.

If only she had known what I’m about to tell you right now.  Maybe then her Web site copy would be clear, concise, and effective.  Maybe then her business could have reached new heights by attracting new clientele.  Maybe then she wouldn’t have gone off the deep end.

No use in crying over spilled milk, of course.  But, that’s why I’m about to share these four revelations with you now—so that, if you ever hire a copywriter, you won’t inadvertently ruin an otherwise promising business relationship.

 #1. Copywriters aren’t just poetic wordsmiths who write flowery sentences punctuated by big, pretty words.  (And they’re certainly not antagonists with a penchant for hurling insults at ESL citizens.  Or anyone else, for that matter.)  Copywriters are creative strategists—wordsmiths on steroids, if you will.  They’re professionals who write copy that moves people to action.  Copy that makes people buy your products and pay for your services.  They’re expert communicators who are in the know about industry truths and faux-pas, and who can apply that know-how to help your business grow.  So, if you’re looking for someone to decorate your copy with fluff, look elsewhere.

 #2. Cleaning up sloppy grammar and spelling is only part of a copywriter’s job.  If your message isn’t clear, or if your message is off-target, it’s a copywriter’s duty to fix it—or, at the very least, inform you of the problem.  After all, crystal clear communication is the copywriter’s specialty.  So, let the copywriter do her job. 

#3. Copywriters don’t claim to know more about your business than you do, but they DO know more about how to get your business’s message out.  Look, copywriters aren’t experts in your line of work, and they don’t pretend to be.  But, you’re no expert in a copywriter’s line of work, either.  So, when a copywriter tells you that something in your marketing copy just isn’t right, she’s not trying to undermine your intelligence; she’s simply trying to do her job and help you.  Trust her judgment.

#4. Copywriters are not out to demean or belittle you; they’re here to help you succeed!  I know it stings sometimes to have others critique your work.  Especially if you poured your heart and soul into it.  But, please: don’t take a copywriter’s critiques personally.  It’s just business.  Besides, in the end, you’ll be thanking the copywriter for a thicker layer of skin… and a healthy ROI.

–RR

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Why copywriters and clients are a team

Posted by rachelwriter on July 27, 2009

Photo Courtesy: oooh.oooh/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: oooh.oooh/Flickr

I think one of the biggest misconceptions that some clients have about the client-copywriter relationship is that, once they hire a copywriter, the writer becomes—by default—the client’s employee.  On a work-for-hire basis, of course.  But an employee, nonetheless. 

In the worst case scenarios, the client assumes that the copywriter is a subordinate.  An employee who should speak only when spoken to.  Who should do only as he or she is told.  And who should never question and/or challenge the opinions of the “boss.” 

(Barf!)

Here’s the reality: the relationship between clients and copywriters cannot, and should not, be confused with that of a traditional employer and employee.  On the contrary, clients and copywriters are a team—from the moment each signs the contract until the moment the final draft of copy is turned in.  And, as such, clients and copywriters must respect each other, and treat each other, like teammates. 

What do I mean by “team,” you ask?

Well, for starters, I mean that the client and the copywriter need to listen to each other.  Copywriters need to know what it is, exactly, that the clients are looking for in terms of style, substance, and overall tone.  Clients need to be open to any suggestions for improvement that the copywriters may have (after all, the copywriters are the experts!).

Working as a team also means living up to each other’s end of the bargain (a point I tried to drive home in an earlier post).  Clients: if you want the copywriter to start working, and meet your deadline, you’ve got to provide him or her with the materials s/he needs to do so in a timely manner.  Copywriters: if you want the client to respect you as a professional and treat you as such, you must provide exceptional customer service and—for heaven’s sake!—never, ever miss a deadline.

Last, but not least, teammates must know how to compromise.  A client may covet what he or she thinks is a totally awesome idea, but if a copywriter advises against it, the client should probably heed the expert’s advice.  Now, if a client really, really, REALLY wants something done a certain way, the copywriter may have to just suck it up and do it anyway (while making it very clear, of course, that s/he doesn’t support the client’s decision–but that’s another post for another day). 

Look, the point is this: clients and copywriters need to meet each other halfway—every step of the way—in order to achieve great results.  Because, in the end, clients and copywriters aren’t all that different from one another.  They’re both working for the same cause.  They both want to achieve the same results.  And they both want to get the job done the right way.  

Wait.  Isn’t there a word for that?  Oh, yeah: team.

Rachel

P.S.  Got any other examples of requisite teamwork between clients and copywriters?  Share them here!

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What information does a copywriter need from a client in order to start writing?

Posted by rachelwriter on July 20, 2009

Photo Courtesy: San Mateo County Library/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: San Mateo County Library/Flickr

Whenever a new client hires me, one of the first things I do is e-mail that client a Background Material Checklist and a Product/Service Questionnaire. 

What the heck are those, you ask?

Well, the checklist is basically a compendium of all the materials I need the client to gather for me so that I can strategize, conceptualize, and crank out custom, kick-butt copy for that client—things like the client’s current marketing copy, Web site URL, past sales literature, product specifications, and even examples of his or her competitors’ copy.  All the client has to do is review the list, compile the required materials, check ‘em off the list, and send ‘em over to me. 

Badda bing, badda boom. 

The questionnaire forces the client to brainstorm a bit.  It asks him or her to—among other things—explain what problem his or her product solves, describe what that product’s key features are, tell me who the intended audience is, and define what sets his or her product apart from the competition’s.  (Don’t worry: the responses need not be worded perfectly.  And, no, I won’t chastise anyone for any misspellings, grammatical blunders, or plain ol’ bad writing.  After all, there’s a reason they’re hiring me, right?) 

Within the last few months*, I’ve also started having clients use the questionnaire to rate how edgy and creative (versus how formal and traditional) he or she wants the copy to be: does the client want it to read like a scholarly article in a peer-reviewed academic journal, or like the script of an irreverent comedy?  This information is vital.

Anyway, I bring all of this up because experience has shown me that some clients feel like their initial phone consultation with me suffices.  Like they don’t need to provide any additional information outside of what we already discussed by phone.  Like I should have already learned (perhaps through osmosis?) everything there is to know about their product/service.  Like they shouldn’t have to spend anymore of their time on a project they’re paying me to do.

The truth is, though, it’s not my job to have to do all of the research on a client’s product or service.  My only job is to write outstanding copy—hence the title “copywriter.”  And the only way I can write that outstanding copy is if the client provides me with the background information I need to get started. 

So, in the spirit of helping clients and copywriters better understand each other, below is a sampling of the types of questions I ask my clients up front, as well as the types of materials I ask my clients to provide me before I begin writing their copy.  I’ve also included an explanation for why I need that specific information/material.

* * *

What’s needed: Product brochures, data sheets, catalog pages, and/or any other sales literature (both old and new) describing your specific product or service.

Why:  A couple of reasons.  If a client is hiring me to write a new brochure, data sheet, catalog page, or other form of sales copy, chances are good that the client doesn’t want the new stuff to read like the old stuff.  Therefore, I need the old stuff to make sure the new stuff is, well, new.  If, on the other hand, the client would like the new copy to resemble the old copy, then I need the old stuff as a template.  Either way, though, these materials give me a lot of additional information to work with—stuff the client more than likely forgot to tell me during the initial consultation.

 * * *

What’s needed: Consumer product reviews and letters of testimonial from satisfied customers. 

Why: Glowing product reviews and testimonials can have huge selling power because they give the illusion of being more “objective” than traditional advertising copy.  In fact, a consumer product review or testimonial may very well be objective—but, the subjectivity comes into play when I cherry-pick the favorable reviews and testimonials to incorporate into the copy.  Still, customers are more likely to be convinced by “real people’s” experiences than by the company’s sales copy alone.

 * * *

What’s needed: Letters of complaint from customers. 

Why: Seems oxymoronic, doesn’t it?  If I’m writing copy that’s supposed to SELL your product or service, why the heck would I want information that could drive customers away?  Simple: because a skilled copywriter can use that information strategically to downplay the negative and emphasize the positive.  If customers are complaining about a particular color of your product, and your product happens to be available in 12 other colors, let’s drive home the fact that customers can “customize” the product by choosing from an array of colors.  Without the complaint letter, we’d never know the product’s weakness and, subsequently, we might inadvertently highlight that weakness in the copy.

 * * *

What’s needed:  Specific examples of marketing copy, perhaps from another company, that the client would like to emulate. 

Why: Sometimes, it’s difficult for a client to articulate his or her preferences regarding the style, tone, and overall direction of the copy he or she would like.  In cases like these, it’s very helpful when the client comes armed with a series of examples of what he or she considers “good” and “bad” copy.  A competitor’s Web site or brochure is often a good place to start.  Does a client want his or her copy to read just like the competitor’s?  Or 180-degrees differently?  A copywriter will always appreciate having these references on hand. 

 * * *

It’s important to remember that copywriting isn’t just creative writing.  It’s smart writing.  It’s strategic writing.  It’s writing with an intent and purpose.  And, in order to make sure it’s effective, a copywriter absolutely, positively needs ample background information.

 —Rachel 

 

*P.S. — So you know, I’ve always asked for information regarding the client’s creative preferences; the only difference between now and a few months ago is that I now have clients write down their preferences instead of just telling me verbally.  Just wanted to make sure we’re clear on that.  🙂

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How to Make Real-Life Connections Through Twitter: The 1st Atlanta Chicks Tweetup

Posted by rachelwriter on July 17, 2009

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The 1st ATLChix Tweetup at the St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead

I know, I know: what the heck does Twitter have to do with copywriting, anyway?

Well, allow me to take a brief hiatus from the world of copywriting to share with you some highlights of a super-successful all-women’s networking event—brought to you by me and two of my über cool gal pals, Stephanie Frost and Stephanie A. Lloyd.

On July 16, the three of us hosted the very first Atlanta Chicks Tweetup at the stunning St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead (that’s Atlanta proper’s northernmost neighborhood, for all of you non-Atlantan readers).  The vision?  To create meaningful, real-life relationships out of virtual ones—and to bridge the divide between cyberspace and the here-and-now. 

The result?  A pretty darn kick-ass gathering of professional women from all around metro Atlanta!  And, what we hope will be many positive, lasting connections and friendships with each other. 

Out of a whopping 84 “yes” RSVPs, the total head count was seventy-three!  Wow!  (That, folks, is what I call an awesome turnout.)  And, the best part?  It was the most laid-back, relaxed atmosphere you could ever imagine.  Sure, there was a whole lotta estrogen in the air.  But there was no cattiness.  No brattiness.  No female bravado or bitchiness.  Why?  Because we had nothing to sell.  No ulterior motives.  No strings attached.  No competition to be had.

It was, plain and simple, a grand ol’ time.  Nearly 75 women—all in one place at one time—meeting, greeting, and mingling.  Oh, and exchanging business cards, of course.  After all, that’s what networking is all about!

Below are a few photos of the evening, which—by the way—ran from 6:30 p.m. to about 9:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. for some!).  Of course, for “complete coverage” (ah, that phrase is so redolent of my days in TV news….), be sure to check out Stephanie A. Lloyd’s blog, Radiant Veracity, which chronicles the event in photos and video from preparation to finale.  You can also check out CNN’s iReport, where pro-networker Taryn Pisaneschi submitted some of her video from the event.

Thank you to all of the lovely ladies who attended the first Atlanta Chicks Tweetup and helped make it such a success.  And, very special thanks to our generous sponsors, who happily donated some pretty cool gifts for our goody bags: Swoozies, Lux et Stellae LLC, City Dog Market, Jolie Spa, Charming Charlie, Sweet Riot, Amy Hoga Photography, Bang Salon, Kristi G Company, On The Go Stuff.com, and Fuego Mundo.

 

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Why hiring a professional writer can SAVE you money. And MAKE you money!

Posted by rachelwriter on July 13, 2009

Photo Courtesy: jypsygen/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: jypsygen/Flickr

Paying top dollar for a service as intangible and subjective as professional writing isn’t always easy for clients.  And, you know what?  I can understand that.  It’s far easier to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for something tangible—like, say, a shiny new outdoor grill—because you know right off the bat what you’re getting.  You already know what it looks like (brushed aluminum), what it feels like (smooth, heavy, and metallic), when it’ll be ready for use (as soon as you bring it home and unload it from your car), and what its immediate results will be (delicious, juicy steaks, kabobs, and burgers). 

Professional writing, on the other hand, is a different story.  You’re basically making a hefty down payment on a product you’ve never seen before.  And, one you’ll never really be able to see in advance, touch, or (alas!) cook with.  As a client, you’re paying top dollar for something you hope is going to meet your expectations.

But, remember that not everything you pay for is tangible.  I mean, last time I checked, you can’t just walk into your neighborhood Sears and buy a shiny new jar of legal aid, handmade baskets of financial planning, or squeezable tubes of tax preparation.  Still, when you need those services, you pay top dollar pay for them—no questions asked—regardless of the outcome.  Why?  Because you know that if you tried to meddle in an area outside of your expertise, you’d royally screw things up and probably lose a crap load of money as a result. 

Hiring a professional to write your company’s copy should be no different.  If you’re not an expert in the field, it’d behoove you NOT to give it a whirl on your own.  It’s also not in your best interest to pawn the responsibility off to another non-professional.

Here’s why:

• Businesses lose $225 billion each year as a result of their employees’ poor writing, reading, and speaking skills.  (Source: Reading Connections.)

• Employees with poor writing skills can damage a business’s professional image, slow productivity, and lead to erroneous and costly business decisions.  (Source: Journal of Education for Business, 2007.)

• Less than one-third of college-educated employees at a significant number of U.S. corporations possess adequate writing skills.  It’s estimated that this number is even greater among employees of small and medium-sized businesses.  (Source: National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2004.)

• A survey of two-hundred Fortune 1000 companies revealed that more than one-third of their employees’ letters, memos, and reports were poorly written and/or confusing.  (Source: Journal for Quality & Participation, 1995.)

• Many employees say their newly-hired college graduates lack adequate writing and communication skills, noting their inability to organize thoughts on paper and proofread.  (Source: Journal of Employment Counseling, 2005.)

So, what does this all mean for you, the business owner and potential client? 

Well, for one thing, it means the chances are good that very few people in your company know the difference between write/right, raise/raze, they’re/their/there, peek/peak, die/dye, and rein/reign.  It also means they probably can’t construct a complete, correct, and coherent sentence.

But, most important, it means that you could risk losing tens of thousands of dollars just by trusting an amateur to write your company’s copy.  Yikes!

Doesn’t it make more sense to invest $5,000 in a one-time service that will pay for itself a dozen times over, rather than paying $100 for a service you’ll later have to “correct” for $15,000? 

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: you must consider professional writing as a wise investment in your company’s future.  Yes, it’s a bit risky.  Yes, it can be pricey.  But, when the copy’s good, the results will be great.  And that, if you ask me, is far more mouth-watering than any juicy slab of grilled steak.

 —Rachel

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