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Client Management Tips From Captain Hindsight

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As my faithful readers know, I love South Park.

Recently, South Park introduced a new superhero character – Captain Hindsight. The Captain’s special superpower was to be able to fly into any situation, tell everyone exactly how the situation could have been prevented (like the BP oil spill crisis) and fly away.

Now, if you’ll indulge me a moment while I slip into my special cape and transform myself into Captain Hindsight. ‘Cause I have a situation to save…

The situation first surfaced on the Facebook SEO Copywriting page. Derek Cromwell said:

“One of the worst was a very large project I had that was over 40 pages of site content for a non-profit organization. When the draft round of the content was completed the client flipped out over the “quality” despite the fact that I explained the nature of the draft. I wanted them to review the tone, to make sure I was representing them properly while also hitting their audience, market, etc based on the research I had done.

I was basically told, in summary: “This is all bad, it’s not right, everything has to be redone.

After chewing it over I explained that starting over from scratch wasn’t acceptable unless they wanted to pay for a new round of content, I explained the revision process again and the purpose of doing revisions. They went from “This is all bad” to “ok we can give you some notes”. The notes I got back were minimal – turns out they just had a corporate panic attack and we’re quite happy with the content once I beat it into them that minor edits happen, and that’s why we do revisions.”

Ouch. If you’re a business owner (or even if you work in-house), chances are you’ve “been there.” You bust your butt for a client trying to impress them. You provide them your product (or service) and expect that they’ll be thrilled. When they aren’t, it’s like having ice water dumped down your back. It’s shocking and unpleasant and makes you want to scream.

Here’s what Captain Hindsight says about this situation:

  • Proceed slowly with new clients. Working with a new client is like just starting to date someone. You know that you have shared commonalities – otherwise, you wouldn’t be working together (or dating.) But it’s not the commonalities that make or break a new relationship. It’s the differences.  Rather than providing them with all 40 pages, instead, I would have started with one. Tell the client that the first page is to set the tone and feel, agree on the content structure and for specific feedback. That eliminates any “expectation shock” where the client wanted X – and you thought they wanted Y.
  • Get highly specific notes prior to starting work. I’ve learned that interviewing new clients on the phone is the best way to tease out what they really want, versus what they say they want the writing to look like. A short 30 to 60-minute phone chat allows me to nail down the benefits, the tone and feel, and what pain points are crucial to include. Once I have my notes, I email my notes to the client and say, “Are we in agreement? Is this what you want?”  Once I have their email signoff, I’m ready to rock. But I won’t start without that signoff. Otherwise, if something changes – the client changes her mind about the benefit statements, or if they want a tone and feel revision – you have written proof that they had already agreed on a certain course of action. Otherwise, you have to defend why writing a new page would be considered “out of scope and will cost more money” – which is something a client never wants to hear.

What do you think? What tips would you add? Leave your comment below!

How to Work With Big Brands Without Going Insane

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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 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  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 partner 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.”

Don’t Give It Away for Free!

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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 how to research keyphrases.

She was convinced she got the gig. The prospect told her that “He’d let her know” — and she hung up the call 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 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?

Is SEO Copywriting the Right Career for You?

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Mouse on money

How much money can you make as an SEO writer?

There’s something about September that starts folks thinking about changing careers.

Maybe it’s because we’re used to “back to school” time and the dawn of an unknown school year. Maybe it’s because we don’t have summer’s sunny distractions.

Whatever the reason, I’ve receive five emails from folks considering SEO copywriting as a new career choice. And heck, if Yahoo can consider SEO content jobs like “bloggers” and “content managers” in their Hot Careers list, well, SEO copywriting has to be cool.

Why?  Because SEO has become nearly synonymous with web copywriting and content marketing.  If your clients are asking about search engine rankings, It is no longer enough to know direct response copywriting exclusively, no matter how fabulously well you may excel in the craft.  As the reality of search engine optimization has taken center stage in copywriting and content marketing campaigns, the demand for SEO copywriters has also grown.

Can you make money? Yes? Can you work from home and support your family with your SEO copywriting skills? Yup, I know many folks who do just that. I also know some very savvy SEO copywriters who choose the in-house life, helping lead their company’s SEO content campaigns. In short, you have a lot of options.

If you want to be a freelance SEO copywriter – or work as an in-house writer – here are some things to consider:

  • Know that good SEO content writing is more than just writing. It’s understanding what makes people think, act and buy.  Study the art of art of copywriting and learn how to write in a way that connects with a target audience and elicits an emotional response.  Not only will understanding the psychology behind what you’re writing help your writing be even better, but it also will help your client make more money.  The books Buyology by Martin Lindstrom and Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini, PH.D are excellent.
  • Know your SEO. Go to conferences, read books, articles, and blogs – in short, learn everything you can about SEO.  SEO copywriting requires the writer to be familiar with SEO principles and best practices, to understand how the search engines work, and to know how to research key phrases and write top-converting titles.  No, you don’t have to be a super-tech. But you do need to know some foundational SEO stuff.  Conferences to consider are AWAI’s Web Writer Intensive and PubCon.)
  • Understand that money will not magically drop from the heavens. I cringe when I see sites touting that you can make thousands of dollars a day as a SEO copywriter.  Can you make thousands? Yes. But not at the beginning. Start up is start up no matter what business you run. And if you’re planning to work in-house, the same rule applies – you’ll have to pay your dues before making the dough. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make a very good income. It just means that building a career takes time. For more information, check out these FAQs on becoming a SEO copywriter.
  • Work with experienced writers whenever you can. The best copywriters I know have worked with “master-level” copywriters and leveraged every training opportunity they could find. Why? Because learning how to write is more than reading a book and calling it good. It’s learning what we don’t know and honing our skills. It’s working with a writer one-on-one and having them gently say, “Um, there’s no benefit statement here.”  If you’re a freelance SEO copywriter. If you work in-house, work with the best writer there (or if you’re the only writer, beg to work with a consultant.) You’ll value your mentor relationship throughout your career. Trust me.

Photo thanks: © Paulacobleigh |


How to Start a Freelance SEO Copywriting Shop

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Ah, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “So, it’s easy to be a freelance SEO copywriter, right? All I need to do is learn SEO copywriting, find clients and start writing.”

Well yes. And no. Certainly, finding clients is important. And if they’ve paid you, clients really appreciate when you actually do the work and write the copy. But being a freelance SEO copywriter is more than writing catchy taglines and doing killer keyphrase research. If you don’t have a handle on the business side of your business (you know, the un-fun stuff like legal and accounting,) you’ll be out of commission before your first year.

If you’ve decided on a SEO copywriting career, consider lining up these five things before you launch your online writing business. Your life will be easier in the long run if you do. Trust me.

Client contracts.

Yes, I know that contracts seem so...businesslike and impersonal.  They are also incredibly important. A good client contract outlines the SEO copywriting work you’ll perform, discusses what (and when) you’ll get paid and discusses other details like how many revisions you’ll do and what happens if a change is out of scope.

A common newbie SEO copywriting mistake is figuring that you’ll deal with contracts when you’re making more money. Get over it. You need them now.

A good bookkeeping method (or a good bookkeeper.)

Creative people are really good with creative stuff. We’re not so hot when it comes to numbers and taxes and “having to get tax forms in on time.” Setting up a good bookkeeping system before you start your business (or enlisting the help of a trusted friend) can save you hours of frustration later.

I know many writers who use QuickBooks – although everyone has their personal favorite.

A solid marketing and networking plan. 

Many SEO copywriters are fantastic online writers, and can skillfully craft fantastic promotional copy for any-sized client. When it comes to promoting themselves…well…not so much. It’s true that if you’re an introverted writing type, getting yourself out there (whether online or face to face) is remarkably scary.

One way to help make it slightly less scary is to outline a very specific marketing plan. Who is your target audience and what are their exact needs? How can you start a conversation with them? Once you start a conversation, what will you talk about? Whether online, offline (yes, people still create and use print brochures) or on Twitter, it’s crucial to have a solid start-up marketing strategy.

The good thing is, once you’ve done the hard part (planning your strategy) and you have a focus, doing the networking stuff doesn’t seem quite as frightening. Really.


One of my favorite small business war stories is how I started SuccessWorks with a $1,000 gift from a friend – with no money in savings. I was also single and lived in a house with a very inexpensive mortgage, so although what I did was still incredibly risky, I had a solid handle on the situation.

No matter how confident you are that you’ll be able to gain new clients immediately, take the time to figure out the financial side of things. How much should you have in savings “just in case?” How much money do you need to make a month to pay your expenses, pay taxes and pay yourself (knowing that you may not be able to pay yourself right away.) Many a freelance online writer’s business has failed because she didn’t make enough to live on.

I love TaxMama for small business money and finance tips (and Eva Rosenberg, the owner, is an incredibly wonderful woman.)

Make yourself a “real business.”

Some new freelance SEO copywriters don’t get a separate business account and fail to file for a business license. Outside of the tax ramifications, getting a business license, filing tax forms and setting up the bank account is important for psychological reasons.

A business license proves that you have an actual business.  You’re not just someone with a hobby. You’ve taken the plunge. You’re living the dream. You’re out there.  And that’s a very exhilarating (and incredibly addictive) feeling.

Now, what “must-do” startup steps would you add?

Five Stupid Ways Clients Sabotage Their SEO Copywriting Campaigns

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Today, most companies understand that strong content is an important part of the SEO process. But why do some clients do everything they can to ensure that their SEO campaigns just won’t work? If you’re working with a SEO copywriter (or plan to hire one soon), don’t let this happen to you! Read more