Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How to Hire a Freelance Marketing Writer

Don’t Overlook These Three Important Considerations

If you’re a business seeking to hire a freelance writer to help with your marketing, you’re in luck.  It’s a buyer’s market out there. 

You’ve got many choices.  There are senior people – including journalists – who’ve been laid off from their companies due to the recession.  There are kids fresh out of college who will work for little or nothing (internships). There are even writing “chop shops” in India and other places that will churn out “plagiarism-free” and “copyscape proof” articles for a song (at least according to a poorly written email pitch that I recently received).  There are established firms (like mine) that often will take on writing assignments for non-retainer clients.

Before hiring a freelance marketing writer, it’s important of course to ascertain that the writer has:
  • Verifiable writing samples (see here for a creative tip on how to verify work samples)
  • Expertise in your industry, the topic, and/or the type of writing assignment
  • Solid knowledge of grammar, punctuation, spelling, standard proofreaders' marks and other tools of the writing trade
  • Recent references

Today it’s easy for almost anyone to hang out a virtual shingle as a freelance writer, given cheap broadband connections, computers, web services, free WiFi connections at coffee shops and libraries, and other technology.  While you may be able to get a great deal with a “newbie” freelancer, realize that there’s often a price to pay – in your time and money – associated with being a newbie’s first client.

Here are three equally important considerations when hiring a writer – things that aren’t often asked or ascertained up front that can result in events that can make the relationship go sour later.

Confidentiality and Security:  How does the writer handle your confidential information?  How and where is it stored, and how is it protected?  If your writer works remotely via WiFi from a work-sharing space or the local Starbucks, how does he make sure that your confidential information and work product don't get lost or stolen?  Does he use thumb drives or mobile devices to store your work?  Does he seem cavalier about privacy and personal security?

How does your writer treat the client relationship – as a confidential relationship or as public information to share on Facebook, LinkedIn, his blog, or Foursquare?  (Tip:  If client confidentiality is important to you, make sure to check out the writer’s social media profile before hiring him. And then agree up front on any confidentiality requirements.)

Technology Practices:   Does your writer regularly back up his work product to off-system and off-site media?  How frequently?  Is the writer sending your work product or confidential documents using free email or FTP services – or does he have his own domain name/secure email server and secure email account?  Does he have a clear-sounding telephone line, for conducting phone interviews or participating in conference calls with you?  Does he run a second digital recorder when interviewing an important product expert or a customer? 

Business Practices and Comportment: Does the writer have established rates and policies for billing you, or does he appear to be making it up as he goes along? Does he give you a defined statement of work and an estimate before beginning work?  If the writer works from a home office, will there be a dog barking or toddler crying in the background during your calls?  When interviewing an important executive, does the writer type notes while conducting the interview to “save time” instead of focusing on the interview and content collection?  Does the writer speak clearly and understandably during calls, without trendy speech affectations like vocal fry or up talk?  Does he listen?

Does the writer understand business email etiquette? For example, are his transmittal emails written with the understanding that they may be instantly forwarded to others?  Does he understand that his emails may live in your corporate archives far into the future, and act accordingly?

How do I know that these things matter when hiring a writer?  

First, because I am seeing more and more of my larger clients specify or prohibit behaviors in their contractor agreements. Which tells me that they have experienced some of these problems and their fallout frequently enough to warrant revamping a contractual document.

Second, because I’ve been hired by clients to replace other writers who practiced bad behaviors – not because of the poor quality of their work product or their inability to meet deadlines. (In fact, I once acquired a new writing client because the incumbent’s recorder batteries had run out during an important executive interview.) 

Experienced working writers will have answers to the questions above. They know that their business is not just delivering marketing copy, but also delivering confidence and convenience for the client.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Whole Lotta Grabbin’ Going On, in Marketing

Think Twice Before Using a Trendy Word

Recently, the word “grab” has rippled through our culture and the marketing and news machines that feed it.

Marketers are telling me to “grab and go” a bottle of water with my morning coffee (Dunkin’ Donuts) or to “grab my girlfriends” and come to an evening reception to learn about incontinence and heart disease (my local hospital).

Salesmen, telemarketers and consultants who I have just met want to “grab coffee” with me.  The waitress in a sophisticated restaurant ruins my evening with “I’ll grab that drink for ya.”  I can’t even enjoy my daily business news: Headline writers have start-up companies “grabbing” millions of dollars in financing. (Headline writers appear to be in paradise: a new, hyper-trendy word with ONLY FOUR LETTERS!)

Stop all this grabbing. As a consumer, I’m begging you.

I am an adult. I don’t grab, unless it’s an emergency. I may grab to keep someone from walking into the path of a speeding car. Or to prevent my favorite piece of crystal from hitting the floor. But otherwise, I live a grab-free life. By design. 

“Grab” is yet another useful word ruined by overuse and misuse. To the extent that when I hear the word – in an advertisement, in a retail transaction, in a conversation or in a news headline – I immediately tune out.  And usually take my business or attention elsewhere.
What’s behind the “grab” mania?   Is there a bunch of overpaid market researchers somewhere in the ivory towers of Madison Avenue saying to their clients:  “Grab. It’s empowering yet playful.  It conveys control, with good old American haste, recklessness, and sense of entitlement.  It’s breezy and light for the GenXers and GenYers! It’s just perfect!” More likely it’s just sloppiness and lack of empathy.

Of course, it might just be me – a market of one – who has an antipathy to “grab.”  But it could be others in my demographic: Baby Boomers, who came of age in a more civil, less-careless era.

The real question: are you willing to risk making an uninformed bet, particularly if you’re counting on selling to me and my cohort?   Your trendy talk just may be our trash talk.

According to the AARP, 77+ million Americans will turn 65 over the next 19 years – a rate of 10,000 a dayThis group represents billions in disposable income. And they’re spending it not only on essentials – health care and nursing homes (where “grab” definitely takes on a whole new connotation) – but also on travel, fine food and drink, hobbies. In fact, when they think “health,” they think “lifestyle.” And they don’t want to be talked sideways or down to by GenXers (including GenXer marketing writers).

So, before associating “grab” (or any trendy word) with your brand image, think. 

Give it my Three-Pronged Wrong Test.  (You can do this test even if you’re a small business without a research budget: just ask a handful of your best customers.)  Ask yourself if your trendy word is:

Inappropriate:   Does the trendy word paint the wrong mental picture?  For example, the word “grab” might inadvertently create unpleasant connotations when used in hospital marketing.  Conversely, “grabbing” a bottle of water while I speed through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through creates the right connotation: fast, convenient.

Inaccurate:   When’s the last time your start-up company “grabbed” $5 million from a group of investors?  "Grabbing” $5 million may come easy to Wall Street bond traders (they just make it up, steal it or both.) But if you’re like most of my friends and clients who have founded start-up companies, you worked long and hard to obtain that money. You didn’t steal it. You likely nearly killed yourself to get the investors to give that $5 million to you instead of another start-up.  Wouldn’t a more accurate headline then be “Start-up X Wins $5 Million"?  ("Wins" = ONLY FOUR LETTERS. Q.E.D.)

Insinuating:   Does the trendy word convey too much informality or familiarity?  I am unlikely to “grab” coffee with someone I just met.  Nor do I want to “grab” a glass of wine when I am having an elegant, relaxed dinner – or have someone “grab” the wine for me.  Or “grab” another size of a designer skirt from the rack in an exclusive boutique.

Words matter –printed and spoken.  Politicians, Hollywood, and major brands agonize over the right words to persuade us.  More marketers should follow their lead, at least philosophically – and stop being so sloppy.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Three Essential Questions for Your PR Firm

How to Get Useful Answers before Signing on the Dotted Line

During the course of my career, I’ve been involved in many public relations (PR) agency searches.  I’ve counseled clients on hiring PR agencies and have run searches.  I’ve also organized and led agency presentations when I was an executive with three large PR firms. 

Here are three questions that are essential to an effective search, but that don’t get asked often enough, in my experience.  Plus, some tips on how to get useful answers.

Are these the people who will be on my account team? If not, why not?  A good agency relationship is like a marriage: trust and chemistry are important.

Therefore, before finalizing your decision, you want to make sure to meet the main team members – the people you will be working with daily, who will be on the phone with media and analysts, and who will be writing and thinking for your business or brand.  These are the people with whom you’ll be in the trenches.  You have to feel confident in them. 

You also want to understand the roles that each person will play, and what percentage of the total account time each will spend on your business.  One criticism of PR firms is that they tend to push too much work down to junior, less-experienced people. Although a lot of PR has become automated – through email, social media and PR list-building/mass-mailing services,* good PR still ultimately comes down to people, their judgment, and their empathy for others.

How to get useful answers:

Ask to meet the main two or three people who will be on your account team. Conduct a mini-interview with each team member to gauge his communications skills, how he thinks on his feet, and how he approaches people and problems. Will he be a good representative of your brand?

Ask the firm’s principals how they ensure quality control over the work in general and the work of junior people specifically – including how the firm recovers from errors or mistakes. 

For example: On 9/11/2001, an enterprising junior account executive (AE) in a Boston-area PR firm quickly retooled her product pitch to the media to capitalize on the World Trade Center disaster as it was still unfolding. Members of the media were appalled and quickly wrote about the incident. The junior AE and her firm themselves became the story – something most reputable PR firms never want to have happen. A stunning lack of judgment? Poor supervision? Both?  How can you and your firm make sure that something like this doesn’t happen to you and your brand?

Pay attention to how well the firm's principals listen to you. Poor listening skills can lead to missed communication, errors and higher costs. Will run-away talkers be congenitally incapable of keeping your confidence? If they aren’t listening to you, will they listen to the media?

Finally, consider specifying the team in your contract with the firm.  You may be able to give yourself an out should there be significant changes in the team that affect the quality or continuity of your program.

Do your people write well?  During my years in the PR business, the number-one client complaint about PR firms has been poor writing skills. Back when I started my career, journalism-quality writing skills were a requirement for not only getting a job in a PR firm but also advancing within it.  (This is why some of the best writers in PR firms today are often the founders or most senior-level executives – even in large Madison Avenue firms.) 

Good writing is a mainstay of effective PR, even in an era increasingly dominated by blogs, Tweets, Facebook posts, multimedia and other short-form content. In fact, the shorter the format, the more important the quality of the writing.

Because prose is prologue. Ideas don’t really exist and can’t be communicated until they are written down in some form – whether it’s a compelling news release that’s going out to the world over BusinessWire, or your script for a telephone pitch to a journalist.

Kurt Vonnegut summed it up pretty well in Armageddon in Retrospect: “If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do.

How to get useful answers:

Ask for and read samples written by your proposed account team or account executive, ideally in advance of the presentation meeting. Pick one sample and ask the writer to take you through the process of writing it. Then, ask him to give his copy a letter grade.  See if you agree.

Ask about the firm’s editorial system.  What processes do they have in place to ensure quality control over all copy?

You might even give your proposed AE a short writing test – live, under newsroom-type conditions.

Some PR agencies have dealt with the writing problem by creating writing services groups.  Such groups can be a useful service – particularly for heads-down writing such as bylined articles.  But you’re in big trouble – and can expect big invoices – if the person who is representing your company daily to trade press or industry analysts can’t write a coherent, powerful pitch or news release lede on his own.

How much experience do you have with a situation like mine?  If you’re like most clients, you ideally want your PR firm to have experience working in your industry, with knowledge of its competitors, customers and influencers.

But I’d argue that the more important question is whether the firm has ever worked with a company in your situation. Your situation includes your business problem or opportunity, your specific challenges (aggressive competitor, inexperienced management team, problem product), your timetable, and your budget. The PR firms will of course want to show their very best and flashiest work, even if it is irrelevant to you.

How to get useful answers:

Give the finalists in your search enough information about your situation so they can present relevant experience.  (Note: the most relevant experience may not be in your industry.)

Probe them to understand how they defined the client's problem and went about solving it. Here’s your chance to see how they think.

Consider putting the finalists under non-disclosure and giving them a briefing so they can give you a thoughtful proposal on how they would approach your situation.

Hiring a PR firm can be stressful, fun and educational all at the same time.  Most companies learn a lot during the process – including information that can make you a more-shrewd client.  Treat the PR agency search as a strategic decision and take your time to do it well – whether you’re a start-up or an established entity. Your brand is in the balance.

Note:  A special thanks to my long-time colleague, the late Joe Roy, another veteran corporate and PR agency executive, for sharing his experience and advice with me for this article.

* Considered spam by many journalists.