How to work with big brands without going insane

Many smaller vendors dream of, someday, working with the “big boys.”  That allure of a big reputation builder (and what you think will be big money) is a wonderful intoxicant.

I fondly remember my first big-brand experience. An apparel client wanted to me write the copy for an ad scheduled to appear in The New York Times Magazine (I literally had one hour to write the copy…but that’s another story.) I was sitting in a restaurant called Happy Burger  (really!) when I turned the magazine’s page and saw my ad. I literally walked up to every single table and said, “See that? I wrote that!”

Fortunately, the restaurant owners didn’t kick me out. And the people I talked to were nice…if not a little amused by this small blonde chick (well, blonde back then…) bouncing around about her ad copy.

That’s the fun side people see about writing for and working with bigger brands. You can point to something and say, “I did that!” However, in my 20+ years (ouch) marketing career, I’ve realized that large brands have their own issues. Some people literally do not have the temperament to work with larger companies – the politics feel too much like a “real job.” Other people can really kick butt for big brands. Here’s how to handle the issues:

  • Is the client ready to sign? Congratulations! Now hire an attorney. In about 90% of cases, a big-brand client will want you to sign their contract. That seems OK, right? Far from it. I’ve seen contracts slip in non-compete clauses saying that you won’t work with X companies if you sign with them. I’ve seen contracts that stipulate that the client will pay 6 months after services are rendered (really!) I’ve seen contracts so confusing that they’re bad for both parties.  You may feel weird saying, “I have to have my attorney approve this,” but you must. And then you must listen to his/her advice and go back to the client and say, “My attorney is asking for these changes.” Bad things can happen if you sign a bad contract. Trust me. It’s always better to walk away.
  • Insist on one point of contact. Large companies often have multiple people “touching” the marketing/branding/copywriting. And all of those people may have a slightly different perception of what should be done and what your role is. One person needs to be your internal “boss” – not two or three or five. Otherwise, you will always be serving too many masters and never sure what your priorities are. It’s also smart to…
  • Try to work with an internal advocate. Hopefully, you have someone at your client’s company who is “on your side.” An internal advocate is crucial for calming feathers, fighting for you during any political change and doing handy things like making sure that your invoice is really in process (rather than sitting on someone’s desk.) This person may or may not be your point of contact, but is always worth their weight in gold. They will save your butt more times than you know.
  • Know that an “emergency” could crop up at any moment. I had one big-brand client that always used to send me a panicked email right before I got on a plane (and when I could do nothing about it.) It was always the same type of request: “The CEO has approved X, and we need to to have this in 24 hours” Yeah, it may frustrate you that you’re getting this dropped on you at the last moment. Heck, I remember spending many disgruntled hours in a hotel room working while my conference friends were playing. At the same time, know that the client isn’t doing this to you on purpose. They just had this dropped on them, too.  And at the end of the day, they are trying to pay you money (the most important point!). Think very carefully before biting back and saying, “I can’t help you with such short notice.” Or if you have to say that, figure out a solution for your client so you don’t leave them in the lurch. To that point…
  • Understand that having a big brand client is like being married to a hottie. How? Because you know that your competition wants them – wants them badly, in fact – and they’re  just waiting for you to mess up so they get their chance. Companies will try various ways to “woo” your client. I’ve had competitors fly my client out to “resort meetings” so they could pitch their content services (Note to company that did that – you think that I wouldn’t find out? Shame on you!) If you’re really lucky, your client not only tells you who’s “hitting” on them, but shares any insider information they learned.
  • Just like being married to a hottie, your big brand client will expect a certain level of attention. What would happen if you ignored your partner and only got back to them “when you had time?” Eventually, your hottie friend will move on to someone who will pay them the attention they think they deserve. You don’t need to respond within 10 seconds of receiving an email, but respond – preferably before the client’s end of day. If you don’t know something and need to check, send them an email saying that you’re working on it. An ignored hottie (like an ignored client) is a bad thing…and you don’t want them looking around for options, do you?
  • Be clear about your ability to use them as a client reference. I would love to tell the world about this one client I have. If I could, I’d overcome every writing objection out there, “Wow, you work with X? You must be good.” But I can’t. Why? The contract prohibits me even mentioning that we have a business relationship. I can’t even say that I visited their offices once. Know that large clients will make you sign NDAs – and those NDAs may mean that you can’t use them as a reference or clip. You can sometimes negotiate this (it’s worth a shot.) But be prepared for “no” as the answer.
  • Decide how to deal with the bullies. There are big brand clients that use their size as a weapon. They squeeze you on price, threatening that “other people will do it for much less.” They ask you for free information to “prove that you know your stuff.” They slow-pay your invoices, or act surprised when you want to get paid on time. I had a search engine (no, I won’t name them) tell me that they wouldn’t pay my invoice because they “Changed direction and couldn’t use the copy now.” Uh, what? No freaking way, dudes. Remember my first advice about “hiring an attorney.” Mine came in big handy during this time (and yes, I got paid.)
  • Be clear that things can happen that have nothing to do with you or your abilities. Sh*t happens with corporate clients. A new CEO comes in and cleans house, and suddenly your “stable” client fires you. A company gets acquired by an agency, and the agency takes over the copywriting. Your client contact is promoted or fired, and your new contact would rather work with a more familiar copywriter. It sucks and it’s defeating and it’s frightening. But it happens. It’s not you. It’s the corporate environment (and in a way, a good reminder of why you’re not working in-house!) To that point…
  • Never rely on a big brand client as stable income. Once upon a time, I worked exclusively with retail clients. In fact, I had two big ones that provided most of my income. Want to know what happened when the recession hit? Both clients immediately canceled their contracts, my internal advocates were laid off and my income was sliced. That was a very dark week. You may have a signed contract with a client – but that doesn’t mean that they won’t break it if they need to. Yes, you can tell your attorney to fight them – and sometimes, you can recoup your losses. At the same time, how much money are you willing to spend to fight a broken agreement? It’s far better (and smarter) to always be marketing and keep the pipeline full.
  • Enjoy the experience. Yes, big brands have their own “quirks” (as does every target market.) At the same time, they wouldn’t be hiring you if you weren’t that good. Congratulate yourself for getting the gig. Learn everything you can about the politics, procedures and the personalities. Learn how to price for larger markets, figuring that this is your new target audience. When you can successfully negotiate the political perils of working for a large company, everything else will seem “easy.”

Do you give it away for free?

So, what do you do when someone wants free advice?

I talked to someone the other day who had just hung out her freelance Web writing shingle. That means, she’s hustling for clients. All. The. Time.

She had a great sales-call conversation with a local business owner. They talked. They laughed. They bonded. He asked her, “What changes would you make to my site,” and she spent 45 minutes outlining how she’d change the Titles, how she’d start a blog, how she’d add keyphrases to his copy. She even showed him WordStream‘s keyword research tool and how to use it.

She was convinced she got the gig. The prospect told her that “He’d let her know” – and she left in a sales-happy daze.

Fast forward two weeks. The prospect won’t return her calls. He won’t return her emails. And when she looks at his site – surprise, surprise – some of the Web copy was changed per her suggestions.

Where did she go wrong?

She gave it away for free.

This is a problem for any professional. If you work with computers, everyone calls you for tech support. If you’re an attorney, people ask you to answer “Quick legal questions.” And if you’re a freelance SEO copywriter (or SEO professional) the question on everyone’s minds is, “How can I do better in Google?”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for educating prospects. That’s important. But there’s a fine line between educating clients on best practices and telling them how you’d “fix” their site (or whatever you get paid to do.)

This can be especially tricky during the sales process. You may really, really need this sale. Or, the person asks you face-to-face. Suddenly, not giving out free information seems like a sales (and social) faux pas. You start wondering if other people have given out freebie information and you’ll look bad if you don’t.  Heck, it doesn’t feel comfortable to say, “Uh, you have to pay me for that.”

No, it doesn’t feel comfortable. You don’t need to say those words, exactly…but you do need to say something like them. That is, if you want to make money.

Yes, you want to show off your expertise during the sales process. Yes, you want to wow the prospect. At the same time, you need to set a boundary. You need to know – clearly, deep in your heart-of-hearts know – that you are willing to talk about X for free. Maybe you provide one tip. Maybe you provide very general (but highly educational information.)

Or maybe, you don’t want to give anything away for free – even the most basic information. That’s OK, too.

When the prospect says something like, “What would you do to fix my site,” that’s when your boundary should kick in. Say what you’re comfortable saying and then steer back to the sales process. Tell them, “It looks like you have many Web writing opportunities here. I can outline them out in a report that contains (X) and costs (Y).

Or you could say, “That’s a great question. I’d have to dig deeper into your issues to really help you – let me tell you a bit more about how I consult with clients like you.”

You’re not ignoring their question or being rude. You’re simply – and nicely – informing them of your limits. At that point, they can choose to work with you (get the information they obviously want to have) or try to find someone who will give them freebie help. Either way, you win.

Consider if it’s time that you reviewed your own sales process. Have you felt “trapped” into providing “too much” information? Do you give it away for free? Are you gaining new clients – or inexplicably losing gigs? It could be that a slight change in your sales process can actually drive new business.

What about you? What kinds of information do you give away for free – or do you?

Profiling is Good, When it Comes to Your Perfect Customer

Greetings fellow SEO copywriters and content marketers! As foretold, here is the fourth of the five crucial steps you need to walk through before putting fingers to keyboard, pen to paper, voice to recorder — whatever your chosen method — and yes, it involves RESEARCH! But as you know by now, research is not a dirty word.  On the contrary,  it is your friend, confidante, and informant.

I know your fingers are itching and your mind is twitching, BUT if you take the time to do the groundwork laid out here first, you will save yourself untold fruitless hours, wasted energy, client frustration, and botched work!

So let’s do it right the first time:  Measure twice, cut once!

If you’ve been following this SEO copywriting and content marketing how-to blog series, featured each Monday, then you’ve already checked out your competition, noted the latest social buzz about your product/service, and have completed a productive and insightful “SWOT” (strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats) analysis of your content.

Now, we have two more essential research steps to go.

First, in this post, we are going to profile your perfect customer.

All of the brilliant SEO copywriting you’ve created will not accomplish The Goal — Conversions –if you fail to capture the attention, imagination, and buying impulse of your target market.  Can you define your perfect customer?

Take the example of a relatively simple product, like a digital camera.  Now, let’s take a closer look at your prospective buyers:

  • The senior citizen may want an easy-to-use digital camera with minimal features, simply to take pictures of the grandchildren
  • The college student may want an inexpensive digital camera with which  s/he can readily upload videos to YouTube

Another example, cosmetic dentistry:

  • The high-powered female executive may want cosmetic dentistry to enhance her image
  • The  “weekend warrior” hockey player may want cosmetic dentistry to repair a chipped tooth

It should be clear by these examples that, while we would like to appeal to every customer, the most effective marketing message will target one perfect one.

Why?  Because at the end of the day, your prospect wants to know:  What’s in it for me?

Ask yourself theses questions, when constructing the profile of your perfect customer:

  • Are they men?  Women?  Both?
  • How old are they?  Does your product or service appeal to different ages?
  • How much money do they make?
  • What kind of work do they do?  Are they retired?
  • What are their main concerns and pain points?
  • What books and magazines do they read?
  • What websites do they frequent?
  • How do they spend their discretionary income?
  • Is “OK and cheap” what they crave?  Or do your clients require only the best — and are willing to pay for that exclusivity?

The deeper you dig, the more defined your perfect customer, the more refined your market niche, the more targeted your copy, and the more effective your SEO and content marketing efforts!

Next Monday, we will pull it all together to address the crux of the matter: defining your unique selling proposition, See you then!

RFIs gone wild!

Ah, the RFI. If you’ve been in business for awhile, you’ve seen the multi-page “request for information” documents prospects use during the vendor-vetting process. Some companies love filling them out, figuring it’s a great chance to showcase their successes and land the client. Other companies dread the time and manpower RFIs take to complete, preferring to opt-out of the process. With questions like, “Share your philosophy about working with clients, ” and “Explain a recent problem you had with a client, and how your firm handled it,” RFIs often feel like job interviews – except everything is done on-paper rather than face-to-face.

Mind you, I’m a big fan of prospect due-diligence. Companies need to make sure that the vendor they hire will meet their needs – and sometimes, you can learn everything you need to know by reading written responses (especially if you’re hiring a SEO copywriting agency – if they can’t write compelling RFI responses, I doubt they could create good Web copy.)

But then, the other day, I received a very unique RFI – and I’m curious to see what you think…

The “typical” questions were there regarding how my firm worked with clients, and and asking about my firm’s writing process. But then, the questions started getting very…personal.  They asked me to name my top clients and their annual spend. Then wanted to know if I’ve worked with clients in certain verticals – and they wanted me to name the clients and engagement scope. And in addition, they asked for two year’s of financial statements.

Mind you, my husband didn’t see my financials until about two weeks before we were married.

Yes, there would have been a MNDA in place – so the information would have been protected. However, I didn’t know anything about the gig. Nothing. Not the scope of work. Not the budget. Nothing. This could be a $100,000 SEO copywriting makeover – or a $1,000 project. And unfortunately, the prospect was prohibited from providing any information until after they received the RFI – assuming, of course, that my firm made the cut.

How did I handle it? I took my firm out of the running. Even with a MNDA in place, I didn’t feel comfortable discussing my current clients with a prospect – not without my clients’ express signoff. And certainly, I did not feel at all comfortable sending over two years of financial documents before I could even speak to the prospect (and truth be told, I would never send over financials to a prospect.) It’s a shame, because I’m sure that I could have helped them. But the RFI process soured me on the gig.

But you tell me.  What types of RFI questions are appropriate – and what feels like “RFIs gone wild?” Am I being stubborn? Would you have provided that information in the hopes of getting the gig (keeping in mind, of course, that you wouldn’t know what the gig was before submitting your information.)

What do YOU think?