Tuesday, March 5, 2013

How About A Little Tea and Empathy

My father had a saying he loved to tout, especially when I was acting especially spoiled, "I complained because I had no shoes, until I met a man with no feet." And such was my first lesson in empathy.

Empathy as defined by Webster means, "The ability to understand how someone feels by imagining what it is like to be them." An important emotion in life, but especially important in copywriting.

I think the one biggest mistake beginning copywriters make (and I know because I was once one and did this all the time) is to begin writing based on what the copywriter thinks, believes, and would do. Usually you miss the mark and your copy doesn't "read" true to the actual person or "target" you are aiming to convince. Rarely are you the "target." After all, copywriting is the art of persuasion and as the best salesperson knows, the more you know about your customer, the more you can put yourself in their shoes and know and understand them, the better your chances of persuading them to buy or use your product.

This involves a little research, no, a lot of research actually. It involves sitting back, before the writing begins, and asking questions like "How old is my target?" "What is their lifestyle like?" "What's important to them?" "Where does my target go after work?" "Where does he/she shop, have dinner?" "What is the biggest issue my target faces when it comes to my product?"  "What's keeping them from using or taking advantage of my product?" 'How can I convince them it is easier/more affordable/more convenient?"  "When my target asks the question 'What's in it for me?,' how do I respond?" And these are just the beginning of the process.

Empathy in copywriting means figuring out how educated your target is and writing in a way they will understand or be the most familiar with. Studies show, we will pick a product, even if we've never used it, based on some familiarity with it, such as the color scheme, the shape of the packaging, etc. When I wrote the brochures and other advertising materials for a public hospital, the writing was completely different than when I wrote sales sheets for a software firm. You have to "talk" in a language your target will understand and believe.

Over the years, copywriting has taught me to be a more empathetic person in general. After years of studying various customers, clients. targets, people in general, I'm a little more mindful of why some people act the way they do, even when I don't like it.  I think my father would be proud.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

It's All About Perspective

My mother played Mah-Jongg every Wednesday. She was the only Episcopalian at a table of Jews. But, two of the women she played with weren't ordinary Jewish women. One was the mother of the speech writer for President Clinton. The other had a daughter who was a writer for US News & World Report. And then there was my mother, who had a daughter who wrote without a byline, without a title. My mother couldn't brag about my latest writing endeavor. She couldn't bring "proof" of my writing to the table. 

I didn't realize that my mother didn't really think of me as a "real" writer until one day this realization hit me square in the face. We were sitting in her sunny breakfast room. It was a glass enclosure overlooking a beautifully maintained back yard full of the evidence of my mother's green thumb. The flowers were blooming and the birds were singing, nothing to indicate I was getting ready to learn a very important lesson in copywriting.

I can still see my mother, although it's been a scene played out over twenty years ago. She sat in "her chair," her petite legs crossed, her hand flitting like a hummingbird to her mouth to take a drag off her skinny, black cigarette. I was rambling on about my latest brochure job, like a school girl just home from class, rattling on about her classmates. My mother's eyes were beginning to gloss over from the boredom of it all, when suddenly she looked at me and said, "I don't know why you want to write things that just get thrown away." I went speechless. I was dumbfounded, but in a light-bulb going off over my head kind of way. I realized in that moment that my mother didn't understand me at all. She didn't see me as a writer, but as a poor girl writing away at stuff no one ever read and that ultimately ended up in the garbage can, forgotten. My approval rating had sunk to its lowest, and after all, isn't that the basis of any good mother-daughter relationship, that we gain their approval?
I left dejected...

Not too long after this conversation with my mother, I joined a local advertising agency as the only staff writer. I began sitting in meetings with harried account executives and bored graphic artists, laboring over concepts, tone, unique selling positions, new paradigms, Pantone color selection, whether to include die cuts, varnish, or other bells and whistles. Everything hung in the balance. It was all so important. The pressure to please the client, to produce award-winning pieces. was ever present. That is until I would finally sit down, alone in my office, stare out the window, ready to write copy that would be judged and picked apart by the Creative Director, the Account Executive and the Client, which in some cases was a committee of folks, and the immortal words of my mother would coming rushing back to me, "It's just going to be thrown away."

We're not rewriting the Bible here. As a copywriter, my job is as much selling as writing. My goal then becomes to figure out who's going to be reading this and write something they want to read, before they throw it away. I take pride in my work. No, I'm not writing speeches for a president and I'm not writing breaking news that millions will read. But, to my client and to me, I'm writing something that will influence someone, whether it's causing them to buy another brand of furniture or donate to a local nonprofit. My mother's reality check gave me perspective that has enhanced my writing. It's the perfect perspective to write from. It relieves the pressure, while at the same time challenges me.

My mother passed away eight years ago. One of the items I inherited from her was a small pine chest. It was a chest that held our childhood papers. Each one of us had a folder my mother had put our drawings and important papers in. It took me over a year to finally open this chest. I made piles for each sibling. My pile was like the others, past report cards, certificates for this and that, drawings, etc. But, when I got to the last drawer I found something else. Amidst the schoolwork was a slim magazine, folded open to a particular page. I recognized it immediately. It was one of my first articles, written for a horse-themed magazine. After all these years, I felt a glimmer of the approval I had always been seeking. I knew in that instant that my mother was wrong. Not everything I wrote was thrown away.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

So You Want To Be A Writer

Today, I was asked how you get to be a writer. My answer was it's complicated. But, as I described my own journey into writing, I realized maybe it's not that complicated.

There's the straightforward way - go to college, major in English or Journalism, get a job at a newspaper, magazine or advertising agency. But, I've never done anything straightforward in my life, so there's the other way. In fact, there's a lot of other ways. If this sounds like the old "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Zen meditation, it should, because being a writer and making money from writing is all about tapping into something deeper than just writing. Or is it? "Stop it!," you're yelling about now. Let me explain.

There are those who are born writing. As soon as they could pick up that big, fat crayon, they were scribbling some word or another in a string they called a story. Encouraged by their parents, or maybe in spite of them, these natural born writers kept writing and writing until they were hired to write.

And then there's the rest of us. We are readers who have a knack for writing, we are regular people, who can tell a good story, we are preachers, who have something important to impart. We pick up the pen or tap at the computer because we have something to say, something to get off our chest, or something to sell.

I started out as the reader, who without knowing it, had a knack for writing. I went to college at the age of 30. I made an A on every paper I ever wrote. I got lucky and had a great English teacher. So great, I enrolled in every one of her classes. She taught me how to re-write, the most valuable tool in a writer's arsenal. Because of her, I had the courage to apply for a freelance position with a newspaper. I got lucky again; this time I got an editor who was a retired New York Times writer. Because of her, I gained knowledge about style and usage and syntax. When the door to copywriting opened, I was ready.

My first copywriting job was writing medical brochures for private practice doctors. The owner of the company taught me one of the most important words in copywriting -- you. For me, you was the patient and the copy was there to overcome whatever issue that patient was facing. It was my job to make the dental patient feel less afraid, the pregnant patient feel more comfortable, the plastic surgery patient to feel more confident. All in 43 lines or less. At last, I had found my writing niche.

Being a writer is about believing you are a writer and doing what writers do. They write, they look for clients, they write, they talk to other writers, they write, they read books about writing, they write some more. How you get there is up to you.

Once you believe you are a writer, the doors will begin to open. That's when you must believe even harder, because it's time to prove it to someone else. If writing comes easily, if you can see yourself writing, then you have become a writer.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Letter to a Young Copywriter

Here's what I know for sure when it comes to having a successful freelance copywriting career:
  1. Always be grateful. It's not easy getting clients. Always be thankful for every job and act like it. Send thank you notes. Say thank you at the end of all communications. Say little silent thank yous all day for being able to do what you love and have someone pay you for it.
  2. Respect the deadline. Your deadline is just one of many for your client. Concept and copywriting are at the beginning of the project and a missed deadline could start a tumble effect on every other deadline. Don't do this to your client. You will never work for them again. See number 1.
  3. The ego has left the building. Remember, like my dear old sainted mother used to ask me, "Why do you write stuff people are only going to throw away?" We're writing advertising here, not the Bible. Be flexible to all copy changes. You may be the expert writer here, but they are the ones with the check book. Write your best the first time, be flexible, and don't worry about it. It all ends up in the trash.
  4. Bill the relationship. If you want to have steady work the way to do it is to establish a relationship with each and every client. When it comes to estimating the cost of the job, steer clear of the the one big payday mentality. Study each project carefully. How long will this reasonably take you? How much per hour do you have to make to keep from resenting the job? Make it clear what will cost extra (additions or excessive copy changes, extra non-writing services, extra meetings, etc.) Itemize everything on the quote. Bill to keep the client.
  5. Don't sell yourself short. Having said what I said in number 4, never underestimate what you do. Everyone may think they or their sister can write the web site or ad, but concept, headlines, and body copy that get results are harder to write than they appear. This is not journalism. This is not literature. This is persuasive writing in its purest form. You are not just a writer; you are a salesperson. You have to know your customer (a hint: it's not you and it's not your client), you have to know where they dine, where they shop, what they read, where they go and hang out, how they speak to one another. You have to know what you are selling them and the best way for them to receive the information. Never underestimate how valuable you, the copywriter, are.
  6. Go back to number 1.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Target Practice

I'm back in the game. I've got business cards in hand; I'm LinkedIn: I'm Freelanced; I'm on Craig's List, Facebook, and Twitter. It's a whole new world of trying to get clients. I've gone back to the client list of ten years ago, only to find many of my past clients are either out of business or are freelancing themselves, getting the overflow work I used to get. One is back, giving me work almost weekly. But, one agency does not a freelance career make and so I continue to search for ways to drum up business.

In the past, I used direct mail with a lot of success. I had a letter, posing as an ad, that I mailed to prospective clients (PC). It contained a self-addressed, stamped postcard that the PC could check the best time for me to contact them and the nature of the project. When I saw a gray postcard in my mailbox, I knew I had an invitation to call. In my experience, it's better to be invited than crash a party. Nine times out of ten, if I got in the door, I came out with work or a pretty good promise of work, which usually materialized in a few days.

Fast forward to now. Different ballgame. Everybody's online. Is snail mail still a good way to go? All my recent research says save the money it takes to purchase postcards and postage and stick with promoting yourself online. Create a website or "portfolio" site to showcase samples of your work. Then it becomes about promoting the web site, by increasing your presence online with twitter feeds, facebook postings, blogging. This is where tag words become important to increase your chances of moving up the search engine ladder.

But, what do smart advertisers do? When everyone leans left, they lean right. Has all this Internet insistence replaced good, old-fashioned target marketing. Is the Internet just a bigger, broader audience, that's harder to hit and easier to get lost in? Isn't it still better to narrow the scope and aim for something specific, bettering your chances of actually connecting with results?

Maybe the answer is in both scenarios. While launching myself into cyberspace, I can reinforce my search by developing a mailing list for local and regional PC's. Maybe a piece of paper mail will be something unique to those young creative directors.

Ironic how something old might become new again and I'm not just talking about mail here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Old Dog, New Tricks

In 1990, I took my first freelance writing job. It was a feature article for a regional newspaper. With my new certificate in hand, touting I had completed the Writer's Digest correspondence course, "How to Write Magazine Articles," I wrote. This was the days of the IBM computer complete with MS-DOS and an external modem that sounded like the background soundtrack of a B science fiction movie. This was the age of AOL and email in it's infancy. The editor of the paper and I continued to send copy back and forth by snail mail and editing over the phone for the next three years.

I learned the fine art of copywriting in 1991, when I joined a stable of freelance writers at a medical marketing firm. I learned the importance of the word, "you," and how to answer the question, "What's in it for me." I learned how to write short, without losing meaning and how to tell the difference between benefits and features.

I turned that gig into a three year stint at a full-service advertising agency, complete with client meetings, brainstorming sessions, strategy meetings, and full-page, copy-heavy print ads and collateral materials. It was the days of creative vs admin, we pitched and they either caught the ball or threw it back. Not quite Mad Men, but pretty close.

Now, twenty-some years later, after scaling back to take care of family stuff, I'm trying to get back in the game. Only things have changed. Not just a little, but a lot. The suit-clad creative director, who gave way to the pony-tailed creative director of my hay days, is now the tech-savvy, younger-than-my-own-son creative director. Now, it's not enough to know about the client's USP, I have to know about SEO. The words aren't just in print, they're in cyberspace and I better learn how to navigate it.

This blog is my journey into the brave, new world of freelance copywriting. If you're newly unemployed, if you're wondering if you're too old to compete, if you want to start over, this is the blog for you. I hope to bring my experienced outlook, my time-won patience, and all the lessons I have learned, along with a new playbook, to the game of building my freelance business again. Along the way, I'll offer resources I come across, challenges I face, and tips I hope will pay off for all of us.