Are you asking the wrong question first?

I cringe every time I hear this question before anything else is discussed. Maybe you do too.

“How will (insert SEO copy idea here – usually a bad one) help with the search engines?”

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like such a bad first question to ask. After all, “SEO copywriting” stands for “search engine optimization copywriting.” Good writing = higher rankings has been a common mantra since the beginning of SEO time. It makes sense that folks would be considering the search engine implications.

But it also ignores a major part of the equation.

Aggressive SEO copy techniques don’t mean a thing if your audience isn’t buying from you – or taking whatever action step you want them to take. If your online content isn’t resonating with your audience, it’s failing your company – even if it has a top ranking.

Instead of focusing on search engines, there’s another question to consider: How does this content (or SEO copy technique) serve your customers? When that piece of the puzzle is solved, then you discuss how to maximize the SEO opportunities in a way that doesn’t detract from the message.

Not the other way around.

See how this changes the discussion? When you’re asking, “How does this serve our reader,” certain spammy SEO copywriting techniques don’t make any sense. You don’t think about bolding and hyperlinking every keyword (and making sure that keyword is on the page 20 times or more.) Writing a keyphrase-slammed post sounds like a stupid idea.

Because you know that wouldn’t work for the reader. Even if you could get those pages to rank, you couldn’t make the readers buy. Or read. Or even stay on your site.

Plus, focusing on your readers first provides a good reality check for other SEO content ideas. You may think that Twitter is fun and a fantastic free marketing idea. But if your customers aren’t on Twitter – and your carefully-worded tweets aren’t getting read –  it may not be the best marketing channel for you.

So consider your target audience the next time you’re examining a SEO content technique. Ask yourself if your idea serves any purpose other than possible search engine juice. If the answer is “no,” reexamine your technique.

Your readers will thank you.

Stay true to your SEO content marketing passion: word from the trenches

Guest Author, Marjorie Steele

When we freelance copywriters/independent web ninjas first started out, any business was good business. Most of us – myself included – finally quit that hated job with one, two months’ savings in the bank and a stack of incoming bills that wouldn’t wait. Any paying gig was cause for celebration!

For those of us who have been blessed with success, however, it doesn’t stay this way for long. The list of clients and projects grows, our calendars fill up farther and farther in advance and our rate structure evolves. Many of us find ourselves working 80 hour weeks to keep up, wondering why on earth we thought being independently employed would be relaxing!

These growing pains can be a great opportunity to improve – to carve out a shorter workweek and a higher income. Finding a good assistant and outsourcing tasks like bookkeeping and taxes can be a big help, but the strategy that has been most helpful to me in building a more efficient, profitable business has been learning to say no.

Specializing in Your Strengths

When I started my web marketing gig, I cast a wide net to get more business. I offered everything, from PPC management to social media consulting. As my calendar began to fill up, I realized that some of these services were much more profitable – and enjoyable – than others.

My AdWords PPC management projects, for example, were time intensive and stressful, with a very small profit margin. Most importantly, I didn’t enjoy doing it. So I axed it from my catalog, informed my clients that I would no longer be offering this service and cringed, waiting for them to tell me that they hated me. They didn’t. They understood, and some even thanked me for the work I’d done. The sky didn’t collapse, my client base didn’t disappear and my business had more time to dedicate to my higher paying services: SEO and copywriting!

Everyone has a niche in which they really excel, whether it’s writing for a certain industry or consulting on a certain topic. When we’re working in our areas of expertise, we tend to enjoy our work more, and when we enjoy our work, we tend to be faster, more efficient and more effective – with happier clients!  When our work is at its best, we can justify charging better rates, allowing us to work less for more pay.

Matchmaking Clients with Your Business

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but at some point we all learn that not every client is a good fit for our business. Maybe the client’s business philosophy clashes with yours, causing you to feel like you’re “selling out.”  Maybe the client isn’t respectful of your time, continually asking for unbillable hours on the phone.  Or maybe the client is simply asking you to provide a service outside of your specialty.  Saying “no” to these ill-fitted opportunities will free up your time and energy for projects which are more enjoyable and financially rewarding.

Ways to Say “No” to a Client or Project (Graciously)

It’s not personal – it’s business. When you’re upfront and honest about the reason behind your decision, most clients and leads will understand. Some may even respect your honesty and provide future referrals. Being gracious and honest (read: not an emotional, stressed-out basketcase) about your decision can go a long way in strengthening your reputation.

Whenever possible, refer leads/clients to a known service provider. This is a common courtesy that allows you to let clients down without leaving them in the lurch.

  • “This really isn’t my area of expertise. Let me refer you to someone who’s better qualified to help you.”
  • “After careful consideration, I’ve decided my services aren’t the best fit for your business. Let me refer you to someone who might be a better fit for your business model.”

Negotiating Those Unbillable Hours

If your problem with the client is too many unbillable hours or that you’re simply not making enough money from their projects, the simplest thing to do is to reorganize your rate structure until you are making a decent profit.

  • “After analyzing my profit margin on project xyz, I’ve decided that in order to continue offering the same level of quality, it’s necessary for me to raise my rate from $xyz to $xyw. Please let me know if we can continue working together at this rate.”
  • “I’ve reviewed my timesheet for the past X months/weeks and have found a high number of unbillable hours spent on project X. In order for me to continue working on this project, I will need to begin marking phone conferences and X hours spent on monthly project management as billable.”

The client may decide to accept the new rates/billable hours, or they may walk away and find another service provider, leaving you room for a new, higher-paying client. Either way, you’ve done the right thing for your business.


Marjorie Steele is a poet turned copywriter turned web business ninja who specializes in small business. When not battling a hectic schedule or building links with great content, Marjorie dabbles in organic cooking and idolizes Tina Fey. Follow Marjorie’s daily Twitter rants and check out her blog at Creative Web Business.





What to do when you don’t get the gig

It happens to all of us. But people don’t talk about it.

Sometimes, you don’t get the gig – and your “hot lead” goes somewhere else.

Depending on how you’re feeling, it may be hard to face this kind of “rejection.” You may have spent hours carefully combing through a client’s site and creating a highly detailed proposal. Maybe you spent a couple hours with the client going back and forth about her specific needs. Heck, sometimes the client almost promises you the gig and says something like, “The proposal is only a formality. We love your work.”

No matter what – or how – it happened, the emotions range from mildly irritated to deeply devastated. No matter how OK you are with the decision, there’s always a little part of you that wonders what happened – or what to do next.

Here’s what to do.

  1. Take a deep breath and relax. If your cash flow is touch and go, losing a gig can put you in a panicked tailspin. If you need to, take time away from the computer and do something physical (and no, that doesn’t mean punching your prospect – it means taking a walk.) You won’t be able to do anything real until you clear your head, so get yourself back on track.
  2. Know that the decision has nothing to do with you personally. It’s business. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have a personal lesson to learn. But what it does mean is the company isn’t rejecting you as a person. Easy to read, but hard to remember when you really, really thought you had the gig. Speaking of which…
  3. Never act like you have the gig until the contract is signed and the check is cleared. Attaching yourself to an unsure outcome sets you up for a major emotional crash later.
  4. When your head is clear, contact the prospect and ask them for feedback. Do not do this within 30 seconds of learning that the job went somewhere else. No matter how “centered” you think you’re acting, you’ll come across needy and desperate. Waiting until your head clears allows you to ask intelligent questions like, “Was there something I didn’t address in the proposal that you needed to see?” That helps get the dialog ball rolling, and you’ll hopefully receive some quality feedback.
  5. When you receive the feedback, consider it carefully. Did the prospect say that your price was “too high?” Either you didn’t qualify the prospect correctly, or you didn’t showcase your value. Did they like another firm’s work better? Why do you think that is? Don’t get defensive (or blow off the comments because you don’t agree with them.) Merely consider them.
  6. Know that the decision has nothing to do with you personally. I know I said this already. It bears repeating. 🙂
  7. Consider how you should change your sales process based on the feedback. Look at your case study/marketing materials and see what could be improved. Ask yourself if following up more (or less) would help conversions. Consider different ways to showcase your value. What could you do differently?
  8. Considering how you should change your proposal process. Do you find yourself spending hours creating detailed proposals? Think of ways to streamline your proposals so they’re not such a time suck – and your prospect still gets the exact information they need. A fast road to Bummerville is thinking, “Well, that’s 20 hours of my time down the drain.”
  9. Consider if you should focus on a new target audience, too. If you consistently hear that your prices are “too high” and you’re working with mom and pop retailers, well, you probably are priced too high. Changing your target audience could change your cash flow, too.
  10. Shake it off and move on. Just like there are many men in the sea, there are many clients swimming around the Web.  Throughout your career, you will be “rejected” many times – yet, have many, many more successes. When you’ve learned what you can, set your sights on a new client. The lessons you’ve learned from “losing” the gig will make your next victory that much sweeter (and more profitable, too!).

15 headsmacking SEO copy ideas

I love “headsmacking” SEO copy opportunities. You know, ideas that are so simple, easy and obvious that they make you hit your head and say “Doh” when someone points them out.

It’s easy to have blind spots around our own SEO copy – we either look at it all the time (so we don’t see opportunities,) we wrote it (so we’re too close to it,) or both. Here are the most common headsmacking opportunities I see:

  1. Technically correct, but boring Titles. Remember, the SERP (search engine results page) is your first opportunity for conversion. If you can create “clickable” Titles that read more like headlines, you’ll see more click-through love.
  2. Having a lot of copy without a SEO plan in place. It’s great to have “a lot of quality content.” But if it’s not maximized for search and social positioning, you’re losing impact. Good news: This is easily fixable.
  3. Super-short product copy. You don’t have to write 500 words about every product, but 25 words per product page won’t work. Look beyond your print catalog (and/or the manufacture’s copy) and describe your product in different ways.
  4. Completely ignoring the Title. If your Titles are filled with “Welcome – [company name]” and “Product – [company name]” you are really missing the boat. Fixing your Titles alone can have a huge impact on your campaign.
  5. Feature-rich and benefit-free pages. Are you telling your target audience why they should buy from you? If not, why not? Learn the difference between features and benefits and watch your conversions soar.
  6. “Shallow” content. Google’s Farmer update taught (some) sites a lesson: Good content is rewarded, bad content doesn’t help.
  7. Writing for the masses rather than the target audience. Your customer persona should dictate how you write your Web SEO content: What benefits you stress, the tone and feel – even the words you use. General copy gets so-so results. Highly targeted copy helps your prospect feel like you understand her exact needs. It’s well worth it.
  8. Resting on your content laurels. Do your product/services pages have a 15% conversion rate. Well done. Now, how can you make it even better? Testing your copy allows you to see when “good” isn’t “good enough” – and what you can do differently.
  9. Forgetting that “brand identity” and “ecommerce” copy can live together in harmony. Just say no to copywriting silos! If you have brand copy, why not (intelligently) cross promote your products. When you’re writing your product copy, test if linking to a brand page can actually help increase conversion (such as a page discussing a company’s “green” benefits.)
  10. Ignoring your analytics. Reviewing your analytics can provide many headsmacking moments, and clearly show what content is working, what’s not, and how people interact with your content. Learn to love your analytics. You’ll make way more money if you do.
  11. Figuring that people will “just call.” Many sites shy away from having a lot of content because they want to encourage people to call them. Guess what – people want to interact with your site (and your business) their way, so forcing them to call can cause conversions to drop. Allow folks to find your information online and get their questions answered.
  12. Hiding all content behind a firewall to increase lead generation. I frequently see this with B2B companies. Remember, the search engines can’t fill out your lead generation form. And many people won’t want to give up their email address without knowing exactly what they’ll get. Consider making some information (such as a short summary) public and crawlable. It will help you with the search engines, and highlight your content’s value.
  13. Not understanding how to repurpose content. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. Have a great white paper? Use it as a basis for a blog post. Have a great blog post? Pull out some tasty sentences and use them as tweets. Here’s a great post by Lee Odden with other content repurposing ideas.
  14. Forcing folks to sign up for your blog via RSS – with no other alternative. It’s easy to forget that not everyone knows what a RSS feed is, nor do they ever want to learn. Consider sending your blog posts as an email newsletter instead. Besides, sending an newsletter allows you to control the message and add other informational/promotional tidbits – something you can’t do with a RSS feed.
  15. Not having a set SEO content marketing schedule. I know it’s fun to send out tweets when you think of something brilliant – or blog when the Muse visits. The problem is, you can’t do much with a scattershot content plan. If you figure out what to do when, you’ll see a much better response.  (Sneak preview – I’ll be discussing content marketing schedules next week.)

What about you? What headsmacking opportunity would you add to the list?

Are you charging enough for your time?

Last week, I wrote a blog post called, “Content mills are (almost) dead. Now what?” At the end of the post, I included this blurb:

“As a call to action to my fellow copywriting peeps, and I say this with the utmost love and compassion: If you are a writer working for $5 per 1,000 word article, stop it. You’re worth more. You really are. And I bet you would feel much better about your writing if you were compensated appropriately.”

There were a couple folks who provided another perspective to this comment.  Yuwanda Black said:

“I’ve seen SEO writing rates slowly creep up in the last few years, so it’s getting better, but there’s still a long way to go — and in the meantime, it pits some writers against others (eg, if you charge “x” you’re not a real writer and you’re bringing the rate down for all of us). It’s the nastiness I get tired of.”

And another comment hit dead-on with a number of new copywriters:

“So as I continue to churn out articles at sites such as Textbroker and yes, Associated Content I also am trying to learn other things that are important to make all of this work. This includes article marketing, proper grammar and punctuation and SEO and slowly building a portfolio. I mean let’s be honest, someone like myself who is just a blogger at heart who has no real skills to speak at the moment, is not going to get hired by a company that has clients that are their bread and butter.”

First – and this is an important point – having a higher per-page (or hourly) rate does not mean that you’re a “real writer.” Heck, if you’re getting paid as a writer, congratulations! You’ve already arrived! You’re already a “real writer.”

The challenge that more experienced writers have with Demand Media is that their rates are much, much lower than standard rates. No matter how good of a writer you are, the company still favors mass article generation rather than quantity writing. Realistically, if you’re only getting paid $5 per article, you’re probably not going to spend much time on it.

At the same time, if “fast writing for lower pay” works for your business model – fantastic. There’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to justify your rates to anyone except your clients…and your family.

And that’s where the second point comes into play.

See the thing is, one of the hardest things to determine is “How much should I charge?” To Lew’s point above, he’s a brand-new copywriter searching for opportunities. He needs a portfolio. Writing clips are crucial. So he’s looking at writing for clients like Associated Content as more of an educational process. That’s a good attitude.

At the same time, it’s very easy for creatives to sell themselves short. After all, there’s no magical bell that rings when you’ve “arrived” at a new level of Web SEO copywriting prowess. Clients rarely say things like, “You’re charging too little. Please, let me pay you more money.” Unless you are in a training environment, a mentor relationship, or part of a master mind group, no-one pulls you aside and gives you “Here’s what you should charge” advice.

Which means some writers (and other business creatives) get stuck working for peanuts forever. They compute their hourly rate and realize that working at McDonald’s would earn them more money (and provide benefits, too!). So they get frustrated, feel like their business owns them… and give up.

If this strikes a chord, consider if you’re selling yourself short. For instance:

  • If you haven’t raised your rates for awhile, tell your next prospect that your rates are 10% higher…and see what happens.
  • If you’re a brand-new copywriter, approach a local small business and see if you can work on their Website. You may not get paid much, but you will have a fantastic case study and a testimonial – which will help you gain higher-paying gigs.
  • If you’re feeling funky about raising your rates (for instance, you’re afraid that every client will leave you and your business will fail) talk to a trusted friend or a business mentor and get a reality check. Fear-based rate setting will do nothing but keep you struggling and slaving away. Besides, sometimes we need someone to tell us, yes, we’re that good. 🙂 (BTW – the LinkedIn SEO Copywriting Group is a fantastic, friendly place to get some guidance.)
  • If you’re not sure if your skills are “good enough,” work with a writing mentor/coach and have him/her help. Yes, it costs more money – but you’ll have someone who can help you determine what your strengths and challenges are and work with you one-on-one.
  • If you know that you need to make more money per page – and your current client can’t pay it – consider referring them to another copywriter and looking for a new client. There’s nothing wrong with “breaking up” with a client if you can’t afford to keep them. Just make sure that you help time find another fantastic writer.
  • If you haven’t talked to your accountant/business mentor yet about your business plans enlist their help. They can help you set annual income goals, plus talk to you about the tax ramifications. Once you know how much you have to make to meet your personal income goals, it’s just a case of finding the right clients to make it happen.

At the end of the day, you can have a very successful SEO copywriting (or other creative) business. But first, you have to determine that you’re good enough to charge X rate, you’re smart enough, and dammit – people like you.

And only then will you be charging enough for your time. 🙂

Boost your conversion rates with this one simple technique

Ready to write your Web copy (Sure!).

Want to boost your conversion rates (heck yeah!).

This proven technique doesn’t cost any money, require you to download an app, or even require that you hire a consultant. It just requires two skills that can completely transform your writing.

The secret?

  • Ask smart questions
  • Shut up and listen to the answers.

Simple, yes. Sometimes, really hard to do. But when you ask good questions – and shut up and listen to the answers – amazing things happen.

You’ll start to “see” your target customer much more clearly. And that clarity will help you write some kick-ass copy.

Good online copywriting – the kind of writing that gets people to pull out their wallets – means telling a story. It means conversing with your target customer like they were your best friend. It means knowing as much as you can know about your audience so everything you write meshes with what they need to read.

That means creating a very targeted tone and feel, highly-specific benefit-oriented messaging and a writing layout that helps your reader take action.

The thing is, you can’t dial-in kick-ass, top-converting copy and expect it to perform. You have to ask a lot of questions and weave those answers into your writing.  In fact, I would run screaming from any writer who said, “Yeah, I can write that,” and proceeded to do so without a client interview. That kind of copy (and you see it everywhere) is flat, lifeless and dull.

Who wants that? Not you – not your client – and not your company.

If you’re working fast and furious, the client interview seems like an easy step to skip – especially if you work in-house (after all, you work for the company – why should you ask questions about the market?). The answers you receive, however, will help your writing sing. You’ll be able to position your client better in the marketplace, focus on the benefits that are really important and overcome objections more easily.

In short, asking questions will make your job easier. Plus, your new and improved copy will see a new and improved conversion rate bump. It’s an easy win/win that you shouldn’t ignore.

Here are some questions to ask:

What to ask your client:

  1. Who is your main online competition. Please provide their URLs. (It’s always smart to check out the competition.)
  2. What (services/products) do you offer that your competition doesn’t?
  3. What’s your Unique Selling Proposition?
  4. Why do your customers say that they buy from you? (Ask for testimonials.)
  5. What are common questions that your customer service department receives?
  6. Who is your target audience?
  7. Do you have multiple target audiences?
  8. What are specific characteristics of your target audience(s). For instance, are they male or female? How old are they? Where do they live? What do they do for a living?
  9. (For technically-based clients.) Do you have visitors coming to your site tasked to gather information who aren’t the main decision makers – but are crucial to the conversion process? For instance, an assistant may look for vendors for his boss to vet.
  10. What online and offline marketing initiatives have worked in the past? What has not worked?

(Note: As I mentioned, these questions still apply for in-house folks. Even if you think you “know” the answers, it’s worth having a meeting with all involved team members and discuss the responses. It’s very possible that some team members view the answers very differently. If people aren’t on the same marketing page, settle the issues before you start writing.)

If you’re planning your editorial calendar, why not do something totally radical and ask your customers what they’d like to read about. For instance:

  1. What topics are interesting to you?
  2. Do you prefer reading articles? Blog posts? White papers?  All of the above?
  3. What was your favorite (article/blog post) that you read this month? This year? Why did you love it?
  4. What’s one thing about the content that you absolutely love?
  5. What’s one content-related task that we could improve upon?
  6. Is there anything new that you’d like to see in the future?

The more questions you ask – the better your writing. Better writing = higher conversion rates. It doesn’t get easier than that.

What questions would you add to the list?

How to explain SEO copywriting to clients

Do your clients think that “SEO copy” is a bad word?

Unfortunately, I’m not surprised.  An article called, A 3-Step SEO Copywriter Confession by Kelly Watson joked, “As an SEO copywriter I often get lumped in with keyword spammers, blog content aggregators and overseas article writers.

Sound a little familiar…?

Clients – both small and large businesses – may think of SEO copywriting as “keyword spamming” and want nothing to do with it. Sure, they know they need good content. But where they get confused is what good SEO copy looks like. Maybe that’s because all they’ve seen is bad copy. Or maybe that’s because although content is crucial, it’s not necessarily valued.  After all, Yahoo! owns Associated Content – accused by some as being a “content mill” company. Some SEO companies pay low-dollar for writing and refuse to pay more for higher quality work. We love what content does for us. But we want it cheap. And cheap typically means really, really bad stuff.

And unfortunately, there’s so much “bad stuff” out there, it gets mistaken for “normal” SEO copy best practices.

For instance, Stephen Spencer in his Multichannel Merchant article, Black Hat Tactics Can Ruin Your SEO said one black hat tactic was:

SEO copy — slipping keyword-rich content (often with keyword-rich text links too) meant only for spiders into the very bottom of the page

Whenever I see SEO copy I roll my eyes and think to myself, can you get any more obvious than that?

Well, yeah, I understand what he means – he’s talking about keyphrase STUFFING, not keyword-rich content.. At the same time, the casual reader (someone who is not SEO savvy) reads this and thinks, “SEO copy is bad and obvious. I shouldn’t have it on my site.

Another example comes from the 3-Step Confession article.

Confession: I have inserted misspellings into my own writing.

I have rejected really good headlines and great lede sentences for mediocre ones that start with a keyword or phrase.

I have stifled the urge to delete redundancies. I’ve even added redundancies to get one more keyword into my writing.

Don’t get me wrong – the rest of the post is great. But adding misspellings purely for SEO purposes has never been best practices. And adding redundancies makes me think of fluffy, keyphrase-stuffed paragraphs that talk about “home business opportunities” for the next 750 words.

And if *I’m* thinking that – what are clients thinking? I know if I was a clueless client, I’d wonder, “So, I have to have misspellings on my site for search engine rankings? No way.”

Is it any wonder that clients are a little confused?

The great news is: Once the clients understand the benefits, they’re excited. They’re on board. They realize that their copy will not, in fact, suck.

You just have to explain what good SEO copywriting is first. Here’s how to do it:

  • Get a sense of your client’s knowledge levels – and be prepared to spend time addressing the basics. Don’t assume that your client understands what SEO copywriting is just because they contacted you. Or because they throw a few buzz words around. They may know that they need it – but they may be pretty fuzzy about the specifics. They may really believe that it’s all about stuffing the page as “spider food” (as Spencer mentioned.) Take some time to share with them why the writing is so important, and explain how it could impact their site. Bonus points if you create a PDF with some fast copywriting facts.
  • Show examples of your past writing. I talked to a prospect the other day who said, “I know exactly what SEO copy is. My SEO company wrote something for me and I hated it.” When I showed him that (good) SEO copy was completely different than the keyword-stuffed page he received from his SEO, he immediately mellowed out.
  • Explain your process. Take time to impress upon your client that you’ll be doing more than just shoving keywords into the copy. You’ll be learning about their business, creating benefit statements, developing a strategy and telling a compelling story. I heartily agree with Watson when she says, “SEO is the easy part. The hard part is capturing readers’ attention with writing they actually want to read.” Clients need to know that, too.
  • Ask what questions your client has – and listen to what they *don’t* ask. Unless you have a highly direct client, they may not say, “Hey, I’m afraid that I’m going to pay you a lot of money for content that sounds like hell.” But they may ask things like “How can I tell if it’s working,” or “Why should I hire you at $X/page, when I can get this for $Y/page.” Same fear. Different approach.
  • Do a rockin’ job. It sounds basic, but if you’re not returning your client’s calls/emails – you’re sending a bad message. If you’re sending so-so copy because you’re “busy,” the client won’t be happy. Show your client how fantastic (and professional) SEO copy really  is. Once your client has seen your awesome writing (and the resultant sales paired with some impressive search positions,) they’ll be a fan of SEO copywriting (and you) for life!

Client management tips from Captain Hindsight

As my faithful readers know, I love South Park (if you don’t believe me, check out this post…and this one, too!)

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.

For more tips about working with clients, check out this post about working with big brands.

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?