Archive for October, 2008

Ask any of my employers back in the day and you would get the same story. The closer it got to Halloween, the more useless I would become.

Whether I was planning the blowout party in the old haunted studio, or sketching out my costume, or just daydreaming about fun-size Butterfingers, all real work would grind to a halt. 

My old employers would probably get some satisfaction knowing that today, as my own boss, I have pretty much cut that crap right out. Today, I will be working on a long-gestating website-and-brochure gig for a client in Virginia.

However, I will take time in the afternoon to put out the latest iteration of the Bat Signal for the trick-or-treaters. I am expecting more than a few BatMen…and at least 20 Jokers.

Anyway, I have to get back to work because my boss is a real putz. So, Happy Halloween, you little monsters. AND STAY OFF MY LAWN!

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Positive feedback, praise, kudos…in professional copywriting, these can be as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster.  I’ve said it again and again: in this business the only thanks you can expect is to get paid…and you’ll wait six weeks for that.

Still, on occasion you will write something good enough, or have a client cool enough, or BOTH, that you will get a crumb tossed your way.  On those rare occasions over the years, I made sure to collect and store these tasty morsels for future use. What sort of future use? I assumed I would figure that out…in the future.

Welcome to the future, kids…the future of shameless self-promotion! I have composed a Rave Reviews page on this site for your perusal. So give it a cursory glance and try not to hate, haters. You too may someday earn a mild, begrudging expression of a client’s gratitude. But don’t hold your breath!

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In the picture above, one critic is commenting on my writing skills; the other, my Photoshop abilities. YOU decide!  ‘Til next time, the balcony is CLOSED, punks!

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And now, a word about agency case studies: Bleh.

I see them on agency websites, and they rarely seem like a genuine demonstration of capabilities. They’re more like, “For those of you who expect this sort of thing, here’s a case study.”

Iron forging for TODAY'S generation!

Iron forging for TODAY'S generation!

Don’t get me wrong…some projects are worth celebrating. If you work for some agency with an edgy, in-your-face name like BigBrainz Design, and you’ve managed to somehow drag the tri-city’s oldest iron forge into the digital age, potential clients should know about it.

However, if your design and copy are that compelling, just point me toward it and let me look it over. A representative screen-cap and a little bit of description is all I need. Do me a favor and save the superfluous blah-blah-blah, like:

  • We felt the client’s image needed to be updated…
  • The design needed to be bold, but inviting…
  • The text needed to be engaging…
  • The interface needed to be more intuitive…

I read comments like these, and I can only imagine they are written for someone like, I don’t know, the third-generation owner of a iron forge or something. Come to think of it, that is exactly who they’re written for.  So, literary crimes of Duh like those above are a necessary evil. And looking like a dork in front of artsy agency colleagues reading your website is the price you must pay to win that career-defining iron forge gig!

Still, I’d rather just point you toward my work and let you decide. So check out this link, for a hydraulic cylinder manufacturer.  Certainly not a Webby-award contender, but I’d like to believe it’s a little more interesting than the subject matter might suggest. So, assume the industrial-park POV, think about the audience, and give it a look.

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I wouldn’t say that I am always looking for ways to improve my email marketing efforts, but I’m usually open to a good suggestion (or ten.) So thanks to Honolulu Sue, Lively Exchange Pacific correspondent, I took a look at an old feature from Entrepreneur.com called The 10 Commandments of Great Copywriting.  I’m only going to hit the ones that inspire me, so we won’t be here all morning, you big baby!

Know Your Audience: I don’t think it’s always necessary to dig into demographics, the generational cohorts, and other minutiae. I think the level of necessary detail will vary with the application. When I am cold-calling the creative director of a MarComm, Ad or Design firm, all I really need to know about him or her is that he’s busy! The best way I can “reach” him is to not waste his time.

Determine Your Value Proposition: What are my Key Differentiators? Why should this person hire me, as opposed to the other 10 writers that will pester him today? This is a hard one. I’m a quick study…I’ve won a few awards…I have experience in a WIDE range of subject matter…but so have a lot of people. I suppose if I didn’t have awards, experience and skills, then I would stand out in an altogether different way.  Recently I began to list those various areas of experience. Somewhere amidst Advertising,Manufacturing, Healthcare, Automotive, Retail, Insurance, Sporting Goods, Home Improvement, Real Estate, Government and Non-profit…something will hopefully catch the eye.

Use a Compelling Subject Line: Oh yeah. This one’s a big rut for me. For the longest time, mine was simply “Freelance Writer Seeks Opportunities.” Then I got all fancy with “Freelance COPYwriter Seeks Opportunities.” I figured it got straight to the point for today’s busy executive (know your audience!) But when I realized I would be hitting the same people every three months or so, I thought I should vary it a little.  Lately, it’s been “Experienced, Award-winning Freelance Writer.” It crams a bunch of information into a short space. I’m going to assume by this point they realize that I am seeking opportunities, as opposed to “just saying Hey.”

Avoid Weasel Words: May, might, could, strive…why do we use this wimpy language?  Well, when I was new at writing, these were safe words. I would have never felt comfortable telling a prospective client “I will write compelling, targeted copy that sets you apart from your competition.” However, somewhere between insecurity and actual confidence, there is the point when you realize you have to at least APPEAR confident. So, save yourself some time and go directly there!

Include a Customer Quote: You know, I never thought of this. And I have plenty of them. “Try Lively Exchange for compelling copy, quick turnaround and thick, creamy shakes!” This may be the official “Thing I Learned Today.” Thanks, Honolulu Sue!

For further insightful insights, check out the rest of The 10 Commandments of Great Copywriting.

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Six Degrees Update: This just occurred to me…that bit about me and Ray Charles means that, well, I once met Ray Charles. Ray was in the Blues Brothers with John Belushi… who was in Animal House with Kevin Bacon. Dag! Three degrees! I’m like a Kevin Bacon JEDI or something!

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fewer than six degrees due to personal awesomeness

Note: fewer than six degrees due to personal awesomeness

I’m sure there are plenty of writers and video guys who often bump into celebrities in the course of their work.  Typically, I’m not one of those people.  I have met a few, and I can do a pretty compelling Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. But I am lucky if I see anyone in the course of my work…let alone a celebrity.

One exception would be Ray Charles. In 1989 or 90, he “played” a worldwide franchisee meeting for Kentucky Fried Chicken.  He got $100,000 or so to go onstage and rape his own “Hit the Road, Jack” into something called “Cross the Road, Jack,” which was KFC‘s slogan at the time.  Anyway, my task was to get him from the green room to the stage area.  So there I am, completely star-struck, crammed into an elevator with Ray and his entourage. All I could do was stare at his clothes…shirt, vest and jacket…each with different shaped buttons. I didn’t understand until I saw the movie 15 years later that this was how he differentiated his outfits.  (Coincidentally, this is the trip where I partied in the hotel bar with the Yakuza! Who knew they owned KFC franchises?)

Also at that approximate time, I was producing concerts on local cable TV. In this capacity I got to meet Glen Campbell, the Bourbon Soaked Rhinestone Cowboy, as well as Latin big band superstar Tito Puente. Then there was about a 20-year dry spell, until yesterday.

A new client, the largest grocery chain in the US, is doing an internal NASCAR promotional video.  And, since I live in one of the NASCAR hotspots, South Carolina, they assumed I would be perfect for the job.

Umm, not quite. I have never watched a NASCAR race in my life. However, I had one thing going for me…I had actually heard of one of the stars of the video, Dale Jarrett.  The other guy, a hot up-and-comer named Kasey Kahne, was unknown to me.

But, as we say, a copywriter never says No! So I dug into the NASCAR site, the drivers’ sites and Wikipedia to immerse myself into the subject matter. The result was a “high-octane” script that will motivate our “pit crew” on the grocery floor to help “drive” incremental sales and “take the checkered flag!”  Yes, it was that good!

But no, I still didn’t get to meet Dale Jarrett! I hear he liked the script, though!

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Okay, for all you obsessives out there, here are my Six Degrees…

I met Fred Grandy on a Hertz bus in Kansas City. He was, of course, in Love Boat with Gavin McLeod, who was in the great anti-war film Kelly’s Heroes with Donald Sutherland, who was in Animal House with Kevin (“Thank you, sir. May I have another?”) Bacon. So there.

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An opportunity has arisen, and I am gearing up for the big sitdown meeting. I have a couple of weeks to prepare and, for once, I feel inspired to actually…you know…prepare.

Why do I say “for once”? First of all, I am exaggerating for purposes of illustration. That’s writin’, yo! Secondly, I feel I generally do a pretty good interview. It’s never fun, and no one likes to be judged by total strangers, but I do OK. There’s no magic formula, I just try to relax and let my portfolio speak for itself…and give it a nudge when it doesn’t.  Be calm, be respectful, be funny but not unserious.  Make sure I know my resume and try to be as familiar with the company as you can from reading their website.

In short, know the company, represent my experiences well, and try to be cool. The mistake I have made in the past is assuming this is enough. One thing I have neglected is the interview process.  Beyond qualifications, beyond personality …the mechanics of the interview itself.

The first big lesson is to not assume the person across the desk is a professional interviewer. If he/she immediately opens a binder and begins reading, “Describe an incidence where your quick decision-making rescued a project from failure”…this is a sure sign.  I don’t mean this a slam. This person is usually your potential supervisor, not someone from HR. He may conduct interviews once a year or so, and it’s hardly his favorite part of the job. This can make for a long, choppy and uncomfortable interview.  In this case, are you prepared to subtly take the reins to make sure your story gets told? There are times I wished I was.

The second thing I have been guilty of is pride. (Pride, Mike? YOU?) Oh yes.  Pride, as in, “I have 20 years of experience, been around the world, blah blah blah, and you’re asking me to Describe my Greatest Weakness? Please. If THIS is how they select talent, then…” well, you know the rest.

The bottom line? Scenarios like these two have made fine rationalizations for those times when I didn’t get the job.  But I still didn’t get the job. Now I see that, yes, some of the process seems like a big game. However, every rebel needs to learn this lesson: play the game even a little and you can improve your chances a lot.

So it’s back to Interviewing 101.  I’ll keep you posted as to my progress. So far, I have determined that my greatest weakness is that “I care too much!”

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In a previous post that shall remain nameless (but appears directly below) I wrote about the practice of…manipulating primary phrasesin order to maximizeyour website and make it display more prominently to the various…”finding programs.”

As a reward, this bit of blogging brilliance has received about 21 hits, as well as  veritable avalanche of:

  • Spam;
  • Spam, eggs, sausage and spam; and
  • Lobster Thermidor a Crevette with a mornay sauce served in the Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pate, brandy and with a fried egg on top and spam.

I know what you’re thinking…that the spam, eggs, sausage and spam hasn’t got MUCH spam in it.  But, quite frankly, I DON’T LIKE SPAM! Especially not 200 in the past 3 days. That’s more than in the entire history of Lively Exchange! Meanwhile, if I send out more than 5 cold-call emails, I am forced to “type the characters as they appear” on Captcha…..

Hopefully, there’s a silver lining. Maybe this episode means I will reach a whole new level of visibility in the blogging realm. But I am not holding my breath.

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PS…I would never quote Monty Python without providing a link. But the WordPress server no likey for some reason!  I’d complain, but what’s the point? I mean, look at these shoes. I’ve only had them three weeks and the soles are already worn through……… Anyway, it’s pythonline.com.

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SEO Quiz: Can you spot the key words?

“If you are selling your home, selling your house or selling your residence in the tri-county area you should contact the tri-county home/house/residence selling experts who have been selling homes, houses and residences in the tri-county for over 30 years!”

Believe it or not, I made that up. Sadly, it’s exagerrated only a little bit. Keyword-packing bugs me, mostly because it’s done by people who don’t believe they need to hire a professional copywriter. Just repeat a bunch of keywords over and over and, whammo! Optimization. (It bugs me that they say whammo!, too.)

As I ask elsewhere on this site, shouldn’t your web copy also speak to the portion of your audience who aren’t search engines? So, for an SEO article, this means writing in English, as organic as I can make it, while still keeping the keywords in mind. When the draft is finished I go back and try to graft in more keywords wherever it makes sense. When I feel like I have reached a logical limit, or maybe just a little beyond that number, I quit. What’s interesting is that this intuitive measurement is typically right in line with whatever keyword percentage-count the experts are recommending. The beauty is that you can actually go beyond that 5 or 8 or 10 per cent limit as long as it’s organic.

So here’s a recent example of that: a blog article I did for a ______ company located in _____ that promises to save you ____ on your _____ bills!  Fill in the blanks!

Answers in next month’s issue of Highlights, available in doctor’s waiting rooms nationwide.

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Hey gang…it’s been a crazy week. A video project has tripled in scope and has assumed top priority, particularly in this economic environment! So here is a hybrid repost/rewrite of a topic from the early days of Lively Exchange.

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Get ready for a mind-blowing revelation: Copywriting or video production for large corporate clients–companies with a marketing department as opposed to a marketing guy–can be rewarding and challenging at the same time.

Thanks, genius. What’s that mean?

The benefits are numerous. The corporate marketing or merchandising manager usually know pretty much exactly what they want to say about their product-they just need a creative way to express it. All of the research you need usually arrives in a compressed folder or a UPS envelope. The typical MBA knows how to delegate tasks and, if you have earned their trust, they usually stay out of your hair. Best of all, with a Fortune 1000 company you usually don’t have to wonder if that $700 check is going to clear!

I sense a “but” coming…

On the other hand, when things veer outside of those “usually’s” it can get challenging. These managers are busy people, multitasking to the extreme. This script, website or brochure may be Priority One for me, but it’s more like Priority Seven for the manager. Getting your questions answered may prove difficult at times. And yes, you will get paid, but I didn’t say when. Remember that your invoice has to be signed and coded and sent to Accounts Payable by that very same harried manager.

So, um, yeah. That first example sounds better. How do you steer things in that direction?

One thing that helps is to have an internal project liaison.  When I enter into a professional arrangement with a large corporation, I cross my fingers that such a person is waiting for me on the other end.

The project liaison is a corporate in-house gatekeeper to whom the various marketing, merchandising and training mangers turn. The liaison is a “creative resource wrangler” that serves many functions beneficial to the company and the freelancer.

From the company perspective, the internal project liaison:

  • Compiles, vets and maintains a roster of qualified creative talent
  • Matches projects to the appropriate vendors
  • Can field vendors’ general questions about company history, policies, philosophy and, equally important, politics!

From the freelance writer or producer’s perspective, the internal project liaison:

  • Helps the writer or producer prioritize competing internal projects
  • Can be a vital sounding board when the project hits its inevitable bumps
  • Is a more credible figure when it’s time to poke or prod the client for a variety of concerns, including: payment, invoicing, getting paid, remuneration, gettin yo moneyz, and so on.

It is a tremendous convenience to have a single reliable resource looking out for you in a huge corporation. And it is definitely a two-way street. The internal project liaison has many clients depending on him or her to provide them with a talented, professional creative solution. He puts his credibility on the line and chooses you. You return the favor by not only doing a great job but by keeping him in the loop at all times-during the highs and lows-so that he is absolutely up to the minute. This is professional courtesy, but it can also help prevent any he said/she said if things go rotten!

So, look for an internal project liaison to empower/count on/whine to. If one doesn’t exist, help create one. Almost every marketing assistant is looking for a way to stand out and gain more responsibility. Making headaches disappear for managers and directors is a golden opportunity to do that.

The final bit of advice is to remember that being proactive and doing what you can to keep the machinery running is helpful, but only to a point. You’re still only a freelancer. You can only suggest, nudge and influence so much.  If an internal client simply doesn’t want to play ball, the project will suffer. Hopefully, between that client’s internal reputation (as a slacker) and your strong relationship with the liaison, you won’t be penalized for it.

But don’t be too shocked if you are!

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