What is your hourly rate for copywriting?

Perhaps the most often heard question from prospective clients is “What is your hourly rate?”

That question is flawed from the outset.

Somehow it seems to assume that a copywriter—or any creative professional, for that matter—is a machine that produces a constant output at constant power in a constant operating environment from the moment it is started to the moment it is switched off.

Were it so, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with the “x hours times hourly fee” budgeting formula.

But stop to think for a moment. In reality that’s not the way even you as a client actually approach the issue.

You’re buying the total cost anyway

Whatever the hourly rate, you will still do the math and make your decision to hire or not hire me on the basis of the total price. Right?

So it doesn’t really matter what the hourly rate is. Let’s say you need copy for a brochure. If I quote 8 hours at €100, it works out at €800. To make things look prettier, I could of course quote 10 hours at €80, an hourly rate 20% lower (hooray!) with a difference in the number of hours so negligible you won’t contest it. So what’s the point? You’re still happy to pay €800 if you think the total is reasonable.

If I give you a lump-sum estimate of €800, your decision-making won’t change. You will ask yourself exactly the same question “Is this worth €800 to me?” and then push either the Continue or the Cancel button on the project.

The siren song of low hourly rates

Using hourly rates for comparing competing providers will lead you astray. If you pitch my €100 per hour against another candidate’s announced hourly rate of €80, it doesn’t really tell you anything—because providers will not offer the same number of hours for the same job. It just makes the other guy look cheaper, but won’t guarantee you a lower total cost.

In fact, opting for hourly billing means you’re creating yourself an open-ended budget, a dangerous carte blanche for your chosen provider. You run the risk of falling into the same trap as you often do with low-cost airlines. The advertised price is low, yes, but all kinds of more or less artificial extras continuously push the price up. Background research suddenly takes a few hours more than estimated here, an approval round is charged extra there. The meter keeps running even when the provider is dragging his feet.

At the point where you start to feel overcharged, two things happen:

  1. The project grinds to a halt while you discuss the fees
  2. A huge element of mistrust is inserted into the working relationship

When we know that trust is by far the hardest currency in buying and selling services, it might be that neither you nor your provider will want to work with each other any longer. This may seem far-fetched to you, but it’s more than once I’ve been hired to patch things up after just this kind of situation. In all those cases, naturally, a publication deadline was already approaching fast, so I doubt the projects stayed within the original budget. The clients ended up having to deal with more stress and paying more for it. Wouldn’t make sense to me if I were the client.

When the price is fixed it stays fixed

In contrast to hourly rates, an all-inclusive, fixed fee will not change. If I’m quick, my win—but no loss for you. If I’m slow, my loss—but the price to you still won’t exceed what was agreed in the first place. Fair play, wouldn’t you say?

Accepting project-based billing, you’re doing a favour to yourself and your provider. It is useful for both to first have a talk about the project. When the job is defined in as much detail as possible, you avoid any misunderstanding and get a customised, accurate estimate that at the same time establishes a cost ceiling. (Major revisions, the introduction of new material or a change of the brief while the work is already underway are of course legitimate reasons for reopening the budget.)

Approaching the pricing of a job like this will allow both you and the provider to work to an exact project budget right from the start. You never need to discuss why a job took 14 hours instead of the estimated 8½. When the fee is agreed on, it stays that way. An excellent way to build trust between you and the provider before you have even given the green light on the assignment.

How does your organisation purchase creative services? Am I making sense? I’d love to hear your comments from the client side!

“Location-based” defeats the purpose of the internet

When the internet started to spread around the world in earnest, it was hailed as the Great Equalizer. It no longer mattered where you were physically located, you could reach the whole world from your computer.

In recent times, there’s been a clear—alarming, in my opinion—shift toward locality. Look at this:

  • Web searches give higher prominence to results that are geographically close to your location.
  • Websites attempt to figure out your location based on the language of your operating system and where your IP address is physically located and give you a translated version of themselves.
  • Online services tailor (read: limit) their offering based on your computer’s language and location.
  • People calling themselves internet marketing experts are busy extolling the benefits of high rankings in location-based searches for businesses.
  • Google ads seem to favor those businesses that are relatively close to you.

There’s a serious flip side to this trend.

First, local businesses might not benefit from location-based services (LBS) at all. As a Mashable article says, “most local businesses can’t consider access to a small, occasionally interested local audience via LBS to truly move the needle on revenue and profit”.

Second, the idea of promoting local over national or international will harm businesses that are far away from their markets. Take myself as an example: I have no serious prospects within a 150-mile radius—in fact, they’re all in other countries. The more local searches are getting, the more it will hurt companies and individual professionals who need to be found by clients located far away from them.

Third, if I’m looking for a solution to my problem, I will want to look further than my immediate vicinity. Even more so if I’m a B2B company. For example, a Brazilian forestry company might find a Finnish solution the best, but how will that solution ever come up in searches that don’t go beyond, say, the Americas?

Fourth, the move towards local disregards the needs of the internet user. It’s something that’s being done to attract more advertisers. Online search and service companies are making money out of selling advertising space (while we enlightened marketers are busy talking about inbound marketing…). Not that there’s anything wrong with targeted advertising, it’s just that when someone else is making my decisions for me, the decisions are usually wrong.

Of course, if you operate in a densely-populated environment where even within a fairly short distance you have a sufficient potential customer base, there’s no problem. On the other hand, if you reside in a sparsely-populated location, the more the local aspect is emphasized, the less useful web searches, advertisements and online services will be.

The big players in location-based services and online search are all US companies. Should the rest of the world then just succumb to their idea that they are providing their services only for US businesses—and for the benefit of US advertisers?

I’m fully aware those companies couldn’t care less because they are getting most of their revenue from their home market. I do think, however, that there should be a way for us in other parts of the world to switch off the “local” aspect. Both in looking for content and in publishing content.

But how? Any suggestions? Please tell me in the comments.

UPDATE:

Alastaire Allday, London, UK, based copywriter, has an excellent blog post about this very phenomenon. Nothing has changed in years.

A quick note to the marketing manager

I just wanted you to read this excerpt from an email I received today:

Having employees is great if you’re a big company like Microsoft or Google or PayPal or Walmart or many other companies that need people to be at a certain place and at a certain time each day.

But if you only want things done quickly and well, and don’t want to worry about paying payroll taxes and fringe benefits and all that, and don’t want to commit to hiring someone on a long term basis, outsourcing is the way to go.

If I had employees (which I don’t anymore), it would cost me probably an average of $3000+ a month each, even if they spent most of their time doing nothing productive.

You can outsource almost anything that you can explain how to do.

How’s it with your marketing writing? Just that you know, there’s help available.

Is your company’s success hampered by fear?

In today’s business environment of diminishing profits, layoffs and economic gloom, we don’t find many inspiring success stories.

The big question: Why not?

Perhaps we should look at the issue at a macro level. I’m fairly sure the main obstacle is as simple, and at the same time as complicated, as human psychology.

A company fuelled by fear can’t perform

Most of today’s business works in an atmosphere of FEAR. Companies are not really run by the C-suite, they’re run by the shareholders. The shareholders, almost by definition, expect financial gains. They don’t have a passion for the brand or company per se, they want a quick return on their investment. Shares are being bought and sold, keeping the owner base in constant turmoil and losing sight of long-term goals. Shareholders become a faceless mass, an almost supernatural external force experienced as a threat.

Because everyone is afraid, decisions at all organisational levels are made avoiding risk and potential failure. The safe bets inevitably result in mediocrity all around.

The vicious circle of negativity

Many companies have contracted what I call the constant-growth disease. Every new activity, marketing activity in particular, must perform better than the previous one. If last month’s campaign brought in 2 million in revenue and this month’s campaign results in 1.8 million, it is not viewed as 1.8 million more money in the company’s coffers but falling short of the expectation by 10 per cent.

Accounting adds to the fear and negativity. In most companies, accounting is a repressive regime. “Look, this is the number you should have reached. You’re only 75% there this quarter. You better get your act together by the end of the year.” This is intimidation rather than inspiration, cascading down the organisation and paralysing creative innovation. Moreover, as accounting is a rearview mirror, it does a poor job of pointing the way to a brighter future.

Marketing cost-cutting is a slow suicide

When marketing and sales are not delivering the financial results they’re expected to, most companies then try to improve their situation by cutting costs.

In their effort to maximise profits by slashing the amount of money flowing out of the company, marketing often finds itself first on the slaughtering block. Far too many companies regard marketing merely as a cost centre instead of a profit generator. If marketing doesn’t perform (or was the bar set too high to begin with?), it faces budget cuts and staff reduction.

This is insane. If an athlete fails to reach his goals, he is given more training opportunities and support, not made to exercise more with less food.

The marketing, advertising and communication agencies companies hire to produce great marketing results are plagued by the same fears and negativity as their clients. Each successful campaign will set a benchmark against which all subsequent campaigns are measured. Clients want constantly better results with constantly shrinking budgets. Even though this at some point inevitably becomes impossible, the agency fears losing a big client and creates something that satisfies the client and ensures the bill gets paid. Not much passion is involved. Fear at play again.

No wonder long-term consistency is in short supply. Fear has a paralysing effect. To boldly go where no man has gone before requires persistence, money and visionary passion.

How can we find those? Air your ideas in the comments!

Should a start-up go to market design first or content first?

If you’re a start-up, almost by definition strapped for cash, you should be very careful where you spend the little marketing money you have. Design or content? Scroll down…

start-up empty wallet

A while ago a start-up started a discussion on LinkedIn about being at the point where they need to  “establish their identity”, as the topic owner put it. He went on to say that they wanted to crowdsource the design, covering their visual identity and its applications to stationery, website and presentation materials.

As expected, our writer received many answers from design professionals who—understandably—focused on the visual aspects. However, if you are in the same position, perhaps my contribution (which never got posted as I wasn’t a member of the group) from the standpoint of a copywriter who has written numerous corporate graphics manuals and edited dozens more might help you.

First of all, should you crowdsource?

Crowdsourcing is fine for ideas. For implementation, I’m not so sure. In the end, as the owner of your business, it’s you who needs to make the decisions. You know the saying “Too many cooks spoil the broth”.

Second, the topic poster’s specifics.

A) Should we order these one-by-one? Or should we have a one design contests where the winner will provide the whole package?

Identity is always an entity. You can’t build what you are piece by piece. You can’t be a little this and a little that, and make tweaks afterwards. Therefore, you should hire someone to do the whole package.

That said, a contest might not be the best possible idea. If I were starting a new business, I’d rather pick a designer who understands where I’m heading and who is a good fit in terms of personal chemistry. Unless you’re a skilled designer yourself, you won’t be able to judge whether the design you get will or will not work. Yes, I could cut my hair myself, but I’d rather have a professional do it for me.

B) What is a good creative brief? Should we shortly describe who are are, what is our business? In essence define our identity? We don’t want to waste designers time, but want to give enough freedom for creativity.

A good brief for visual design is pretty much the same as a good brief for your written marketing content or, indeed, anything you are going to make public about your business.
Yes, you should describe who you are—more specifically, your value proposition and your positioning in the marketplace. You should outline your ultimate goal. You should let your contractor know how you’ve planned to get to your goal. You should point out some of your most important competitors.

As a friend of mine who runs a reputable design agency once said: “Visual identity is your strategy in visual form.”

C) What is the price range going to be? Is 500USD to 1000USD a realistic budget for the work in hand? I know that we are not going to get Saatchi & Saatchi with this kind of money, but is it enough to get decent results? Do remember that this is a start-up, and one that doesn’t have venture funding… yet.

Regardless of the route you take, crowdsourcing or finding one trusted partner, any amount of money will get you some results. I don’t fully subscribe to the idea “you get what you pay for” because if you have amazing luck in finding your contractor, you could actually get someone who genuinely tries to make it work for you even if you’re not breaking the bank. In that sense, the planned investment range might work. Be warned, though: this rarely happens. Reputable designers will charge more. A lot more.

And now forget everything I said above

When aiming for a certain result, we as businesspeople should always weigh all our options. Sometimes it requires thinking a little outside the box. The key phrase is “alternative investment”. In plain language, “Could I get more out of this wad of money in some other way?”

For a start-up, an alternative investment could be skipping the visual identity altogether. Instead of burning $1,000 on what is essentially branding, I would rather spend that money on something that quickly converts to sales, something that a start-up needs many times more urgently than a nice outward appearance.

In the age before the internet, magnificent sales results were achieved with one single visual identity: a white sheet of paper with text in typewriter font. A totally applicable approach even in today’s networked world.

The point is to craft a message that gets devoured by the people it is intended for. We are moved by books, set in one font without embellishments and continuing for hundreds of pages. We read magazine articles. We appreciate Einstein for what he had to say, not for how dapper a suit he wore.

That’s why you should first make sure you have something to offer that your potential buyers want to buy. Then focus on conversion. How all this is visually designed is secondary. Choose wisely what you really need to invest in.

[Image courtesy of Flickr/NoHoDamon]

The customer point of view – YOU is the key

Jill Konrath talks about how to formulate your elevator speech in this blog post. The advice is good—but I think a crucial element is missing: the YOU aspect, in other words, starting from the customer point of view. Here’s the comment I wrote.

If you really want to get someone interested, you need to address the issues that are important to them. Nobody is interested in you, they want to know What’s In It For Me (WIIFM). Every one of us efficiently tunes out of anything that begins with “I” or “we” because we instinctively know what’s going to follow will be self-serving.

Therefore, turn

  1. “I work with people who are struggling to sell their products or services into large corporate accounts.”
    into
    “If you have trouble selling your product or service to big corporate buyers, you might like to get a few ideas about how to do it successfully.”
  2.  “I help small businesses win big contracts with large corporate customers.”
    into
    “It’s painful that a small seller often gets looked down upon by big corporations. But you know, you totally can win those big contracts. Want to know how?
  3. “I help technology companies who struggle launching important new products into the market and want to improve their time-to-profitability.”
    into
    “Many tech companies’ biggest problem is how to start making money from their new product launches. If you’d like to become profitable more quickly, could we talk?”

There’s always a way to start the discussion from the customer point of view.

Your turn. Are your marketing materials listing what you do—or are you solving your prospects’ problems? Shoot a comment.

Will mocking your prospects increase your sales?

I’ve been subscribing to someone’s email newsletters for a long time, the someone being a person who is widely recognised for his expertise in online marketing. An expert as he is, his newsletters are mostly teasers aimed at motivating the reader to enter deeper into the funnel, and always ending with a call-to-action to purchase a paid training programme, learning materials and what have you. No problem with that (although the constant sizzle without a whiff of the steak might in the end start getting on people’s nerves).

Today’s newsletter tried a new approach. Reverse argumentation is a trick not very often used but can—so I’ve read—produce good results if done right.

So it was no surprise that the headline said “Four reasons NOT to buy…”. No problem with that either, I was curious to know how the story would evolve.

You must have heard that to make someone buy from you, you more or less need to follow the Know–Like–Trust path. I could be overly sensitive, but when the writer suddenly suggests that one of my reasons for not buying his stuff is that I’m so short of money I can’t afford $99, or takes the superior attitude that I must be so deluged with work, miraculously without his help, that I don’t need his humble contribution to my success, I can’t but feel a bit offended.

I had already passed the Know stage. I’ve read his website, accepted good reviews and recommendations about him and begun to think “OK, he seems to know what he’s doing”. That’s why I’ve continued my subscription to his newsletter for a long time.

I had even progressed a bit in the Like department. The guy’s website and his emails seem to imply he doesn’t feel compelled to tout his own genius at every turn, and that he knows his way around words. I quite like his style.

Then I hit a snag with this email.

It’s a bit like he had put up a sign at the start of the path saying “Welcome to the Spring of Marketing Elixir—1 mile”. I’m bouncing happily along the path, liking the scenery and inhaling the wonderful scent of the forest around me. Suddenly, at about the half-mile post, I almost fall into a huge hole. I startle and take a few frightened steps back. What would be my motivation to continue my journey?

It’s been a widely recognised fact for at least about 30 years that in B2B, the seller doesn’t sell, the buyer buys.

I’m the buyer. So let me take my time to buy. There are no shortcuts. And for Pete’s sake, don’t start picking on me halfway through your funnel because I’m not buying fast enough for you. You’ll lose my trust, the final and most crucial element on my path to purchase. Even that $99 is too much if I don’t trust it delivers. As another conversion expert said:

You don’t ever make the reader feel like you’re accusing them of anything.

To come full circle back to the headline, have YOU tried mocking your prospects to increase your sales? Implying that if people don’t buy from you, they must be paupers or idiots? How did it work? How would YOU react to an email like that? Let me know in the comments.

When social media stifle discussion

What a paradox. Social media were supposed to promote and foster discussion, not stifle it, right?

In recent days I’ve more than once participated in a discussion on Twitter that attracts more and more people as it progresses. Excellent! Looks like a universally interesting topic. Lots of great contributions and mind-expanding opinion.

Then we come to a point where there are so many participants that most of Twitter’s 140-character space is taken up by the participants’ @usernames. There’s less and less space for the discussion itself. In the end, the whole conversation stalls when the remaining 30 characters are too little for any sensible comment.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this.

How could we solve this problem? Here are some attempts:

One group ricocheted off to Facebook and created a group there. The group proved popular, with more than 50 members in a couple of days. A problem soon emerged, though—some of the original discussion participants are not on Facebook and didn’t want to join just for the group.

A second group talked about setting up a Google Plus community for continuing their discussion. I’m sensing the same problem as with the Facebook group: some of the original commentators don’t have a Google account, which is required to participate in a Google Plus community. So we’re hitting the same wall again. Do we want to join yet another social media forum? Not forgetting that for those not previously familiar with it have a learning curve ahead.

A third suggestion was to create a hashtag on Twitter. It’s a workable solution, yes, but not without problems. Who’s to create the hashtag? What hashtag? Who has the energy to follow the hashtag when the discussion has been treading water with comments about a dozen characters long for some time already? How to maintain some kind of logic in which reply belongs to which comment?

A fourth solution was suggested: to create a Storify story with wide access. That would be good, because the original tweets would be in chronological order. This otherwise good idea will collapse because it requires that someone goes through the trouble of digging up all the relevant tweets from the firehose and create the story. Who wants to waste that time? And with Storify accounts being personal ones, do the participants want to contribute to someone else’s search ranking?

A fifth alternative might be that somebody starts an open blog, for example on a free blogging platform like WordPress.com or Blogger. You guessed it, problems ahead. How should the blog be set up to enable everyone to participate who is interested in the topic? Who will be the admins of the blog? How to begin a blog post in a way that gives enough background for comments?

Maybe we just have to accept that, especially on Twitter, “discussion” is not much more than a flash in the pan. A short burst that is soon forgotten.

That would be really a pity.

That’s why I’m throwing the ball to you who are more social media savvy than I am. When a Twitter discussion blows up from the original two or three participants, what is a good forum for continuing? Taking into account that:

  • The tweet chain that already exists may be pretty long and should be included somehow
  • Nobody should hit a prohibitively steep learning curve
  • Many people are averse to joining a new social platform
  • There may be some jealousy about who’s going to be the administrator of the continuation solution

I haven’t found the answer yet. Help me! Write your comments and suggestions down there. I’ll summarise them on Twitter to help everyone else with the same problem.

Successful B2B marketing begins with three simple questions

Marketing, in particular B2B marketing, is often paralysed because the questions asked are too complicated. A huge number of parameters must be fulfilled before you can start being successful.

Why make life more complicated than it needs to be?

Successful B2B marketing begins by asking yourself three questions:

  1. Whom do I want to do what when they’ve seen my message?
  2. Why would they change their status quo?
  3. How can I prove the change is worth their while?

Unraveling the answers to these questions gets you far quickly.

If you need help to make it work, I’m waiting to hear from you.

So now you have your customer magazine online. Does it work?

When content marketing is gradually getting a foothold also in the B2B world, it always makes one happy to meet a company that cares to communicate with its customers. Like, for example, one that has a customer magazine. A customer magazine is an excellent vehicle for both creating thought leadership and sharing important information.

A company publishing an online customer magazine deserves a medal not least for having understood one of the requirements of today’s online marketing: the more content you have online being found by search engines, the more likely it is that those who are interested in search terms related to your business will find their way to your website.

But. Stop for a moment and give a thought to your reader experience.

A print magazine doesn’t work online

Regrettably many companies take the easy way out. The online customer magazine is a facsimile of the print magazine—in practice the PDF file sent to the printers. Easy to do and cost-effective, yes, but a lousy reading experience on a computer screen. And there are those who don’t know the difference between hi-res and low-res and simply upload their huge print PDF that takes ages to appear on the reader’s screen. When the generally accepted online patience limit is somewhere between 3 and 10 seconds, there are precious few people who will wait a minute or two to see your marketing material.

Today’s search engines do a pretty good job of indexing the content of PDF files. Nevertheless, a print PDF almost invariably has the same column layout as the print magazine. Imagine a reader who finds your customer magazine through a search term. When she reads the first column down to the bottom, she’ll have to scroll back up to see how the story continues. It doesn’t. This is the breaking point. If your magazine has, say, four columns, the reader experience will be dismal enough for the reader to probably leave your magazine before she’s completed reading the first article.

Many content publishers seem to forget that where a print magazine has a portrait format, the computer screen is landscape. If you publish a facsimile of your print page online, your reader will see about half of it. You automatically introduce scrolling and make your reader stumble.

Clever new technology may be an obstacle to success

Some marketers have discovered applications that make online magazines that can be leafed through just like “real” magazines. I suppose you’ve seen stuff like this. Assuming someone who finds your content through a search engine is really interested in what you have to say, why make the user interface more difficult than necessary? (Load time, minuscule print, text reversed out of a dark background…)

The more easily the content is readable, the better. A leaf-through magazine looks nice and probably has a certain amount of novelty appeal for many people, but if the print is too small to be read without enlarging, what do you actually achieve? Moreover, if you enlarge the page, you instantly lose the text flow. You’ve managed to create an obstacle between your reader and your content. Why would you want your message to be difficult to reach?

Surprise, the net works with HTML

A bit of effort to make your reader’s life easier is always a good idea. You already have the content. Make it an HTML page that’s easier to read online. The native file format for the web is HTML.

True, any reasonably modern browser can probably display other file formats than HTML at least passably. But if you’re not publishing your print magazine in mirror text, why would you force your online reader and her technology make an extra effort?

One company that gets it right is Nokia Solutions and Networks (NSN). They publish their Inside newsletter in straightforward HTML format that loads fast and gives a good overview of the content on its first page. Take a look here. No fancy-schmancy technology trickery; instead, tight focus on content.

What about communication?

In the first paragraph of this post I talked about communicating with customers. Wikipedia tells us this:

Communication (from Latin “communis“, meaning to share) is the activity of conveying information through the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, signals, writing, or behaviour.

Where is your interactivity? Does your online customer magazine have a commenting system? If it’s in PDF format, no. You already guessed it, I’m suggesting a two-way blog instead of a one-way magazine.

The more hooks you provide to the reader interested in you, your company and your product to connect with you directly and get direct feedback, the more committed potential you will get.

We’re talking about content marketing, right? Something that should produce something on the bottom line?

Enabling comments and feedback you will be opening a two-way channel. A potential customer who reads your message and may even bother to comment on it will be a lot closer to being a buying customer than someone down whose throat you’re pushing a one-way message.