Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fair Markups or Price Gouging—When is it Okay to Charge More?

If you’ve done your homework in establishing rates, chances are you have a basic minimum rate below which you know it isn’t worth your time to take a project on. But do you have a maximum rate? When do you raise your rates beyond that—if you do?

In this blog post, I’m not discussing raising your rates in general. I’m talking about specific instances when it’s fair to charge one client more than another for the same amount of work. Here are a few instances where you may think about charging more—and my thoughts on how appropriate each one is.

When you’re working with a difficult person. If after every email exchange with this person you feel the need for a glass of wine—even at ten in the morning—you’re officially dealing with A Difficult Person. These people are, in my experience, thankfully rare. But they do exist, and if you haven’t encountered one yet, don’t worry—yours will come.

So should you charge extra for bad behavior? A lot of people do—although they won’t tell the client that. I think it’s fair. A difficult person adds to your stress levels. You’re likely to get bigger demands, more revision requests, and more general hassle from difficult people. And sometimes you really don’t want to work with the person unless it’s for a lot of cash—so you quote the fantastic, ridiculously high price that would make their behavior tolerable.

When the client wants more than copywriting. I always charge more when the client wants anything more than straight copywriting—whether that’s including images, writing with HTML text, or including embedded links. Even what sounds like a small amount of added work can add up to a lot of time over the course of a large project. Usually the amount I charge per page for this type of added work is small—but it also adds up over time, and makes the extra effort worth it.

When you’re working in a client’s CMS. Uploading anything onto a client’s website is worth an extra mention. You never know what you’re dealing with if you’re using a custom CMS—you don’t know if you’ll have a difficult time getting the formatting just right or navigating to the right place to post, and not all CMS systems are easy to use. If your client wants you to navigate an unfamiliar CMS as part of your project, always get on the phone and have them walk you through using it before giving a quote—so you’ll understand better the work involved.

When the client can afford it. This one’s a bit more problematic. Some might call this price gouging…and when the tables are turned, I have to admit I’d feel that way. But it’s not always a simple answer. Some clients are used to working with freelancers who charge a certain price, and might not take you seriously if your price comes in well below theirs. In some industries and situations, a lower price can spell out “amateur.”

When you’re charging for your colleague’s graphic design, too. I’ve talked to people on the client end before who resent this situation—when the client asks for another service, such as graphic design, for example, and the writer brings in a graphic designer and then charges a mark-up on their price. I think it’s fair to charge a mark-up, however, if it reflects a certain amount of project management you’ll have to do. If you present yourself as the head of the team or company providing the service to the company, you’ll be held responsible for the team members’ work—at least to some extent--and that should be taken into account in pricing.

When do you mark up your prices—and where’s the line for you when it comes to fairness?

Monday, February 27, 2012

When a Client Wants More Than Copywriting

Sometimes a client needs more than your words. Sometimes they need graphic design, keyword research, SEO, media placement, or one of a wide range of other services that often go hand-in-hand with copywriting. If you offer these services, great—work them into your existing project.

But what if you don’t offer the extra service the client wants? You have several options, each with its own pluses and drawbacks. Here’s an overview of your possible responses:

“No, I don’t offer that service.” Sometimes the easiest thing to do is just say no and move on. This is the best track, I think, if you genuinely don’t know anyone who provides the service well enough to recommend them. Recommendations reflect on you, too, and you don’t want to recommend just anyone.

That said, by brushing off the client’s question, you do miss an opportunity—not just to make things easier for your client, but also to make a friend and even yourself some extra money.

“Sure, my company can handle that!” You also have the option of handling it all “in-house.” Don’t have an in-house graphic design department or SEO? No problem…bring one in! It works like this: you negotiate separately—and sign a contract separately—with the service provider you bring in. Then you offer your client a marked-up price, and the contract they sign with you covers the service provider as well.

The bit about the mark-up sounds good—but it’s not free money. You’ll have to earn it by doing some project management. You may act as a liaison between the client and the service provider, and you may be held responsible if the service provider doesn’t deliver on time. This type of arrangement usually comes with added responsibility as well as added revenue, which is why many feel it’s fair to charge a mark-up.

“I don’t offer that myself, but I can recommend someone who can…” This is an in-between option. Instead of brushing off the client’s request, recommend a service provider you know—or give the client a list to choose from, if you know several.

Under this arrangement, the client contracts directly with the service provider—you won’t be asked to manage the project. You won’t get any revenue, either—unless you and the service provider have a separate referral-fee agreement. This arrangement is usually easy to manage for you—no added extra work. It helps a fellow provider who may be inspired to return the favor someday. And it makes things easier for the client, who would likely rather use someone you recommend than find someone on their own.

How do you handle client requests for added services?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Content vs. Copy

I think the word “content” when applied to writing is a bit misleading. The way it’s used, it implies a commodity—like writers are just sitting on content warehouses and can just offer bulk rates on their inventories and still make a profit. No matter how much the web tries to commoditize writing, content-writing is still a service—content is not a product. But that’s another blog post. What I’m mainly concerned with today is content vs. copy—and the difference between these two projects.

There’s a distinct difference between what people refer to as “content” and copy. I’ve heard the word “content” used in a variety of ways to refer to writing, particularly writing online. And while some may define it differently than others, to me there’s a very clear divide between what’s called content and what’s actually sales copy. I quote and charge differently for these two types of writing, and I approach copy and content projects quite differently.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dealing With Requests for Free Copy

Like a lot of freelancers, I do have a friends-and-family discount. Very few people in my life get completely free copywriting and editing help, no questions asked—but there are a handful of people I do that for. Close family. Close friends. My boyfriend. People like that. People who’d do anything for me, and people I’d do anything for—including write for free, anytime.

There are other people who fall into a gray area. A casual friend who mentions he’s setting up a website and starts to get excited about getting me involved—I get excited too, until it becomes clear to me he expects my help to be free. Random people like my landlord or my dentist—people I have a friendly relationship with, but not exactly a “do-anything-for-each-other” relationship.

The truth is, I can’t give free help to everyone who asks. Nor do I believe I should. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and if I’m doing something for free, it’s for someone or something very important to me. Still, a lot of the time, the people asking for help are friends, in a sense—people I have a good relationship with. So how do you say no without ruffling feathers?

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Conversation on Getting Started

I was having lunch with a friend recently. I asked him how his job was going—not good, apparently. After telling me a few hair-raising stories about his boss and coworkers, my friend told me something I’ve been hearing a lot of lately—“really, I want to be doing what you’re doing.” And then it came—the “how can I get started?” question.

I get that question a lot. From friends and strangers alike. It’s a question I’ve gotten a bit frustrated with in the past, as I feel like the answer is huge—and I can’t just give someone the magical formula for starting a freelance writing business. Because the truth is, everyone’s start-up story is different, and mine can’t really be replicated. I got my start on Elance, and they’ve changed their payment structure to the point where I no longer felt like it was viable to keep going. I’m not sure what it’s like over there these days—it’s been a long time since I used the site—but last time I checked, it was a much less hospitable place for newbies than it used to be.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Twitter: How Has it Helped You?

I have to admit—I haven’t quite gotten the hang of microblogging. I’ve made some stabs at Twitter in the past, but generally lost interest when I felt like I didn’t have any particularly interesting 160-character thoughts to share that day. But as part of my New Years resolutions (yes, it’s February and I’m still talking about those), I’m trying to get better about social media—and making a stronger effort with Twitter is one way I’m doing that.

Anyway, I just read a really interesting article over at Freelance Switch about the types of content people like to see on Twitter. The info comes from a study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science entitled “Who Gives a Tweet: Evaluating Microblogging Content Value.” A team of researchers collected anonymous feedback from Twitter users about the types of posts they liked. I recommend going over to their site to read the whole thing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reasons People Criticize Your Writing—That Have Nothing to Do With Your Writing

I have a lot of friends who don’t write for a living, but who still write a lot in the context of their jobs. And I frequently hear them complain that the feedback they get from coworkers, bosses, and stakeholders in their writing is excessively critical and demoralizing. It’s a frustration I can definitely relate to. And as someone who does this as my day job, I’ve had to develop a very thick skin.

The thing is, sometimes the criticism is warranted. Sometimes there is definite room for improvement. But you always have to take into account that you might be dealing with an alternative agenda, especially when the criticism is excessively negative or looks irrational. It may not be about you at all—but about one of these things instead.

They want to prove their own expertise. Some people think of themselves as great writers—and yet for some reason, they’ve had to bring in a professional writer to do the project. These people often can’t help attacking your work with a red pen—more to prove to others and themselves that they are, indeed, writers themselves than to really help you improve the copy. If they’re getting very insistent about a grammatical rule that you broke mindfully for the sake of tone, for instance, you’re probably dealing with someone like this.

They’re not sold on this project. It’s possible that the person you’re dealing with isn’t sold on the prospect of hiring you—even after you’ve been hired. Maybe they resent the money spent—and maybe they wanted to hire someone else but were overruled. Sometimes, people in this situation may take it out on you. It’s never happened to me, but I’ve heard of instances where a client has been excessively critical of a project in an effort to justify withholding payment—probably the worst case scenario.

They don’t know what they want. They may have told you they wanted edgy and fun in your phone interview about the project—but when they get the copy, what they really wanted was conservative and safe (edgy projects are particularly susceptible to issues like this in my experience—I’ve written about it before). It’s possible that the person you’re dealing with wasn’t as sure as he or she sounded when they talked about tone or message—and expected you to read their mind.

They have a lot of misconceptions about writing. Some people have grammatical or craft-related misconceptions that they believe whole-heartedly. It’s sometimes difficult to persuade these people that your way is right—and it can take a lot of tact. But I always try to do it.

Excessive criticism can be difficult to deal with—and it’s hard not to take it to heart. But when it happens, take a step back and think about it objectively. If your copy followed the parameters your client laid out in your discussion, it may be that there’s an underlying reason for it that has little to do with the work you produced.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Defending Your Prices

I used to avoid any potential job where the client stated prices up front that were too low. I would just not apply to the job, or I’d let the project go without any objection. There was plenty of work out there that paid well, and I didn’t want to waste my time.

It occurred to me at one point, though, that negotiation wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—and some of these lower prices represent what the client ideally wants to pay, not what he or she is ultimately willing to pay. I started defending my prices in situations like this—more as an experiment than anything else. Sometimes, it didn’t work—the budget was truly inflexible. Other times, however, it actually did work—and I got some projects I never would have landed if I hadn’t bothered. Here are a few pointers for defending your prices.

Talk about what the money buys you. One of the things I emphasize—particularly when talking to the five-dollar-an-article crowd—is that there are certain things you can’t get when you’re paying that little for writing. You don’t get research, for one thing. What you’re usually getting is work recycled (or sometimes directly cut-and-pasted) from other articles already on the web. You don’t get someone assessing your market and the type of information your audience is hungry for. You don’t get research into topics that aren’t already well-covered. You definitely don’t get interviews. Breaking down exactly what work and expertise the client gets—and explaining why they won’t get that with the low-budget option—can be enormously eye-opening.

Talk in terms of money saved, not money spent. If someone’s trying to find a student or newbie to do their ten-page brochure for $50, it’s not necessarily money wasted—there are a lot of talented newbies and students out there. But the likelihood is higher than if you pick someone with a track record of experience in this area. And if you’re putting money behind the campaign—mailing costs, printing costs, graphic design, etc.—then the message is definitely something you don’t want to skimp on.

Talk about results. I like to talk about successful past campaigns. I talk about clients who’ve dramatically decreased time spent in sales, boosted revenue, or raised their click-through rates or web traffic as a direct result of my work. It helps to occasionally check in with clients to get the results of finished projects—and a few testimonials with specific figures definitely don’t hurt.

This won’t work all the time. But it does work enough that it’s worthwhile to do. How do you defend your prices?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Do You Do Craigslist?

Just saw a post over at Avid Writer on Craigslist. I've had good and bad experiences on Craigslist. I've posted ads there--particularly for resume writing--and I've also applied to Craigslist job ads. But I spend a lot less time over there these days than I used to. Craigslist is crawling with ads promising exposure in place of pay, telling you "this would be a great job for a student or work-at-home mom" (why? Because students and work-at-home moms don't need money?), and generally trying to get more for less. But it can work in your favor too--and I've actually landed a few good clients this way. Here are some thoughts on using it.

Don't expect a lot of money. Craigslist tends to attract people looking for cheap solutions. I've found that if I'm advertising resume writing services, for example, a lot of the time I'll get passed over for someone who'll do a resume for $50 or something like that. Occasionally, you can find better--but it's not common.

Expect a lot of competition. Speaking of the competition. Craigslist is free, and it attracts a lot of people. This can be bad--but bear in mind that a lot of higher-profile professionals don't use Craigslist. However, a lot of people who use Craigslist to find work are beginners in copywriting (I used to hang out there more when I was first getting started than now, because I just didn't really know where else to go) if you can present yourself as a real professional when responding to a Craigslist ad, you'll stand out. That means following the response instructions exactly as well as having a strong cover letter and some great samples to show.

Be prepared to defend your pricing. A lot of Craigslist buyers are really expecting cheap work. That doesn't mean you can't respond to them--but be prepared to defend your pricing when you quote. I sometimes respond to low-budget ads with a letter that discusses my pricing, why I charge what I do, and why it's better for the client--just to see if I can win them over. I actually have landed the occasional client this way.

Generally, I don't make Craigslist a big part of my marketing strategy. Occasionally I'll wander over there, but it's pretty rare. Still, every so often I'll get a good client. I landed a huge project this summer that's just ending now--through Craigslist. And I have picked up the odd resume writing job through there, which has definitely helped boost my earnings. It can be worth it--but it helps to know what to expect.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Things I Could Do Better

I'm a weird beast--I actually love New Years Resolutions. I loved them even in the days when I used to forget all about them within the first two months of a new year. I loved making lists--I'm a bit of a list junkie. In 2011, one thing I did differently with my life was actually stick to my resolutions--and I made discernible progress in some things. I really liked that. I think I'll try to make it a habit.

So I have a lot of resolutions for my creative stuff--novels, acting, and so on. But I also have a few for my business. Some of these are tentative--if I get to them or can afford them, great; if not, maybe next year. Some are a bit more important.

Get better about client appreciation. I'm sorry to say it, but this isn't my strong point. I am not much for Christmas cards. Or any types of cards. Or anything that makes me go to the post office. But I have several regular clients, and I realize that client appreciation is a good thing. I deeply appreciate these clients and love working with them. I just think I should be better about telling them that every so often.

I think maybe this year I'll get in the habit of sending a "thank you" postcard to one client per month. That can't be too hard, right?

Get a nifty blog redesign. This has been a goal of mine for years. I would love to get CatalystBlogger off blogger and onto its own URL, with some really professional graphics. Maybe even graphics that match my copywriting website. So this year I plan to do some research and talk to some people and get some quotes. We'll see where it leads.

Get a little better about marketing. This has been something I've struggled with every year. I only market when I need to. And usually that's fine. But this year I kinda want to move to a better neighborhood in New York, and doing that means making more money...and making more money will probably entail putting more effort into the "business" side of business. I know marketing doesn't have to be that time-consuming. So my goal is to read some marketing e-books--Lori Widmer has one I've got my eye on--and put together an easy strategy I can do regularly. The key is not to be too ambitious--I need things I can fit quickly into a regular routine.

Meet more freelancers in person. The thing about freelancing is it can be isolating. I don't have coworkers. Really, while I had the blog running consistently, this was my coworking community--and where I came to talk about the biz and commiserate with people who really got it. But in New York, there are so many freelancers to get to know--and I'd love to make some in-person freelancing friends. Not necessarily to generate more work--although that couldn't hurt. Just to get myself out there and meet new people.

So what are your goals for this year?

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Coming Back From the Dead

So, if you've been a regular reader of this blog in the past, you've probably noticed that I kinda skipped the whole year of 2011.

It's something I could be kicking myself for now. After all, isn't this the cardinal sin of blogging? If just not posting regularly is bad, think of how bad it is to evaporate for 12 months or word of explanation, no goodbyes, no nothing. And before I disappeared, this blog was doing pretty well. It was popular, it had garnered some industry attention, and it had a readership. And then I quit. Which is actually pretty out of character for me. I'm one of those annoying, type-A overachiever people. I work hard. I study hard. I cut my hair so I wouldn't have to let it down.

I don't know what it was that made me want to disappear. Some of it was that I was busy. Extremely busy. But really, if you want to do something, you find the time. I think there were other factors, though. I was looking into using Twitter to expand my business. I was working on my novel, and my super-talented literary marketing friend kept telling me I needed to get myself out there and start a personal / noveling blog. My acting teacher said I needed my own YouTube channel, I was starting to think about a "strategy" for LinkedIn...and then all of a sudden it just got to be too much. Too much exposure. Too much out there. I started to feel like I wanted to be a hermit for a while.

I guess what I started to feel was that the online world was getting too demanding. Not my readership here, but just the general constant demand to expose more, to share more, to be "social" in a way that sometimes felt more self-promotional than social to me. I just had this emotional reaction to that. And unfortunately, CatalystBlogger was one of the casualties of that--for a while.

I also felt like I'd run out of things to say. I think a lot of bloggers go through this, and I'd gone through it in the past--but never to this extent. I felt like I'd said what I needed to. I was done. I just couldn't think of anything else insightful to write about. This happened for a week...then a month...then two months. And after a few months of this, I started wanting to go back...but once you stop for a while, it's hard to get started again. You start to feel guilty about all that time, and you start avoiding thinking about it, and then all of a sudden it's been a year.

...and you realize you miss it.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that I just read a post about pretty much the same things I'd been feeling--over at Men With Pens. And even Bob Bly apparently took a hiatus recently. It's good to find out I'm not alone--that even really high-profile bloggers sometimes spazz out and quit for a while. And I love what James says about using this as a time to remake the blog, to get back to what made her passionate about blogging in the first place. Before I quit, I was thinking seriously (had been for years, really) about getting a pro wordpress design...maybe I'll actually do that this year. Maybe that year-and-some-change break I took was just the springboard I need.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Barter System: What do You Trade For?

I love the barter system. And I've gotten a lot of valuable things from it. In the past few years, I got a swanky overhaul on my freelance writing website by bartering for freelance work. I also got a great deal on a really expensive acting class through bartering--I now write the occasional press release for the company for free. Throughout the years, I've bartered for business advice, restaurant meals, and even (once) health care.

Freelance writers can definitely get discounts and freebies for business favors. There's a bit of a trick to it, though. Here are a few tips for bartering.

Pick the right people. Not everyone is a candidate for a trade. I usually try it with companies I know a). have worked with freelance writers in the past, or b). are seeking to work with them. For example, with the website overhaul, I knew this company was used to working with freelancers in a lot of ways--and I didn't have to sell them on the concept of working with a freelancer. This wasn't a new and strange proposition for them.

I usually wouldn't offer just for any dentist's office, restaurant, car repair place, or anywhere else that I didn't know already worked with freelancers. For some businesses, even if I could help them, it's just too alien a concept for them and requires too much up-front sales. Although for some people, it may be worth it.

Look for someone you know wants to hire you. Some clients won't hire you because you're too expensive. In some cases, these are prime opportunities for a trade. With the company that ran the acting classes, they'd asked me for a quote in the past--and didn't wind up hiring me because I didn't fit their budget. Usually, that would be the end of it--but I saw how they could offer me something besides money to get me working for them.

Don't overcommit. I usually try to keep any for-free project fairly small--or to spread it out over a relatively long stretch of time. That's because I need to be sure I've set aside enough time for paid work to get my bills paid. That said, I also treat all my barter projects with the same professionalism I'd give to a paying project. I meet my deadlines, I do the research work, and I don't worry about how much the client paid (or didn't). If I agree to a deal, I do it to the best of my ability--period. Because of this, I need to make sure I don't take on too much. A big lengthy project or a long-term, regular agreement that doesn't take more than an hour or two per week is probably not the best candidate for a trade for me.

What do you barter for?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Resumes: Do Freelancers Need Them?

I came across a post on Words On the Page about resumes. Namely: do freelancers need them? Lori expands the definition of "resume" to include websites, brochures, and other documents about your business and writing background--but I'm going to stick with the traditional definition of a resume here. And I'm going to take a middle-of-the-road tack on this. My answer is, pretty much, no. Usually not. Until someone asks for one.

I got through most of my freelance writing career without an official resume. I had an unofficial list of clients, which I would send people whenever they asked who I'd worked for. And I had a work-related resume that talked about my experience before freelance writing. I sometimes sent that along with the client list. This seemed to work fairly well, especially since I was hardly ever asked for these things. Most people were content to see the samples on my website.

If you're applying to jobs online or working with a creative temp agency rather than sending out postcards and marketing yourself in other ways, then yes, you will be asked for a resume--although not always. Some people still just want to see samples. But I think that when it comes to job postings, most people who don't have a lot of experience hiring freelancers just ask for the resume because that's what they're used to doing for all positions.

The thing is, a resume might be useful in showing a prospect what your history is, but it doesn't show him what he really wants to know--can you write? Does he like your style? Do you have experience really satisfying clients? You can show that much more effectively on your website with samples and testimonials.

The bottom line, though, is that when you're marketing yourself proactively, you generally choose what to show prospects--you may get a few who ask to see a resume, but if they see the samples on your site and your testimonials, that usually provides them with the information they really want when they ask for a resume. If the prospect is the person controlling the terms of what they see (as in job posts), you'll get asked for a resume more often--usually because that's what the person hiring is used to asking for.

I do think you should have a resume on hand for when people want one. But you'll probably not be asked for one often, and it's more important to put time and energy into your website.