Compare 2 hours spent on social media with 2 hours having lunch with a client, peer or colleague.

Let me preface this by saying I am a big fan of social media as a business tool for freelancers, or for any other kind of solopreneur or business.

The smart use of social media can be a great way to connect with people in your industry and reach out to potential customers, clients or partners.

However…

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Do freelancers really have to become celebrities? Good grief, I hope not.

Thirty years ago, when I first started out as a freelance copywriter, I networked by phone and by shaking hands at various industry events.

The most productive of those events were when I was collecting an award for some work I had done. There I was, being shown in my very best light, surrounded by my very best prospects.

All I had to do was keep doing good work and appearing at those functions.

There was no email. No Internet. No social media.

My marketing strategy was simply to keep doing good work.

Nobody even knew what I looked like, or even how young or old I was. I was known and judged by my reputation alone.

In the late 1990s I switched from print to online.

By the year 2000 I needed a website for my freelance, consulting and speaking business. After all, if you are on a stage, speaking to a group of 700 prospects in the audience, you need to give them a url.

The day I started speaking was the day I was no longer judged simply by my work. From that moment, other factors came into the mix – like what kind of speaker I was, what I looked like, whether I was amusing and likeable.

By about 2002 I had to update my website. The first version was beginning to look a little old. Websites are like that. The appearance of your website is a bit like fashion in clothes. If you are wearing last year’s collection, you don’t look cool any more.

It was probably back then that I added a photo to my About page.

And, of course, since 2003, my website has gone through some additional upgrades.

But in one sense I am horribly behind the times when it comes to how I market myself.

Marketing yourself as a freelancer or consultant seems to have become less and less about the quality of the work you do, and more and more about how you present yourself as a person.

The casual headshot has given way to the professional studio shot….or the professional “casual” shot.

And I dare say many of those studio shots have had a quick wash and rinse through Photoshop.

“About” pages are becoming less to do with a person’s qualifications, experience and results, and more to do with who they are as individuals. Less about the results achieved for clients – more about someone’s love for surfing or raising puppies.

It’s like we are no longer promoting ourselves as industry professionals, but have turned to promoting ourselves as industry celebrities.

The rise of social media has simply accelerated this trend. Less about performance, and more about the cult of the personality.

If you are under 40 and good looking, so much the better.

You think I’m kidding? I’m not. A while ago I had a conversation with a publicist who specializes in getting book authors on TV shows. I asked her whether a good looking author was more likely to get invited to talk about his or her book. She said, “Absolutely, that’s about 90% of it.”

Scary. Never mind the quality of the book, let’s see if the author is cute.

Can it be that this is how we are going to have to promote ourselves as freelance professionals?

What’s next? A little Botox before taking that $5,000 “casual” photo to stamp all over your homepage?

Count me out.

If I’m lucky, the tides will turn one day, and clients will say, “Hang on, we don’t need a cute freelancer who enjoys surfing, we want a grumpy old professional who can deliver results!”

There is no single recipe for freelance success.

As a freelancer or entrepreneur, it’s only natural that you follow the career of others in your field, particularly those who have done extraordinarily well.

I do it myself.

I watch other copywriters, other web writers and other coaches who appear to be more successful than I am.

There is nothing wrong with that. It makes good business sense to track the success of others, and to learn from them.

However, there is a difference between conducting some careful business intelligence and trying to make their dream your own.

In particular, watch for those folks who offer to teach you how to follow in their footsteps and automatically become as successful as they are.

It doesn’t work that way. It really doesn’t.

The ingredients for success are different for each and every person.

There is no secret recipe that anyone can follow. The truth is, any given “success recipe” is unique.

I have built my own career in a way that is unique to me. I have done it in ways that work for me. I maximize my gifts in certain areas. I look for ways to overcome my weaknesses in other areas. My character is well suited to certain ways of promoting my business, and poorly suited to others.

Also, my values are different than those of other people. I’m not saying they are better, but that they are different.

I have a dream for my future that is unique to my own life and circumstances.

My vision for how things can unfold over the months and years to come is built from my accumulated experiences as a freelancer over the last 30 years.

If I were to analyse what I do, and then publish my own recipe for success, there is certainly no guarantee that it will work for you or for anyone else.

I’m not saying I can’t publish some guidelines and best practices based on my own experiences and success as a freelancer. I have done that, and I believe they are genuinely useful.

But If I were to tell you that you too can achieve exactly what I have achieved, in the exact same way I have achieved it, that would be less than honest. And when I see marketers make wild promises to people just starting out as freelancers, telling them they just have to follow a one-size-fits-all “success recipe”, I think that is less than honest too.

So how can you figure this out? How can you separate factual advice from subjective advice?

Well, let’s look at an example.

If I were to advise you to pay more attention to social media, that’s pretty good advice for almost all freelancers. There are a ton of studies and reports I could turn to in support of my recommendation. Social media engagement has become a best practice for freelancers.

But if I were to tell you to focus on Twitter more than on any other social media site, that’s subjective. It’s part of my success recipe, but might not be part of yours. Your character and style might be better suited to the creation of videos you can publish on YouTube.

Next time you listen to some guru tell you that success is just five proven steps away, be wary. Pause and think about whether those steps are genuine best practices, suitable for anyone, or whether some or all of them might work great for the guru, but wouldn’t work so well for you.

Bottom line – there is no single success recipe.

First, build the foundation of your recipe with proven best practices, then add your own unique mix of herbs and seasoning to make it work for you.

NOTE: As I mentioned in the article – “I’m not saying I can’t publish some guidelines and best practices based on my own experiences and success as a freelancer. I have done that, and I believe they are genuinely useful.” For more on this, check out my program, Marketing Confidence.

Next time you write an online sales page, put a pea under the mattress.

adding a real pea to a direct mail letter

adding a real pea to a direct mail letter

Before we get to the point I want to make with this article, let’s look at using a real pea to grab people’s attention.

The image above shows a mailing I wrote back in the early 1980’s. It was for a company that sold company formation services. That’s not a very exciting topic, so we scratched our heads and came up with an idea that would make the mailing stand out.

Our thinking was that most of our client’s prospects were probably fairly happy with the company formation services they already had, but there were probably one or two things about the service that niggled away at them and annoyed them – a bit like the princess trying to sleep with a pea under her mattress.

So that was our starting point.

Yes, that’s a real pea. Yes, we asked a lot from our printer and mailing house: a custom window in the envelope, a real dried pea in a bag, which had to be glued to the letter, and then each mailing had to be hand-inserted.

Expensive, but worthwhile, because we got a response rate of over 17%. (Without the pea it would probably have been closer to 1% or 2%.)

In the world of writing for the web, it’s a little harder to insert a real pea into people’s monitors. But we do need to find some ways to put a pea under the mattress. We need to find a way to make our sales copy hook our readers, and keep them engaged.

There are billions of sales pages online. Most are bad, a few are good. But almost all are simply a rewrite of what everyone else has written. Many follow a formula or a template.

So how can we put a pea under the mattress when we are trying to sell online?

First, get away from the old, offline concept that every sales page has to open with a headline, followed by 500 or 5,000 words of sales text with the occasional sub-head.

Instead of hoping the text will do all the work, why not use a video, slide show, infographic or social media to do the heavy lifting?

No, I’m not talking about those irritating squeeze pages which offer to show a video in return for your contact information. I’m talking about replacing or at least adding to traditional text-based sales pages with multimedia.

You can communicate your value proposition with a video.

You can describe the benefits of your product or service with an infographic.

You can show proof with a slide-show of images, or a second video.

You can replace the usual, barely-credible testimonials with captures of tweets or Facebook updates which praise your product or service.

Or how about communicating your guarantee with a face-to-face video clip?

What I am seeing so far is the occasional use of video and images on sales pages.

What I am suggesting is that you go further, disrupt the traditional sales format, and use multimedia to better capture and engage your readers.

It may not be the same as sticking a pea in an envelope, but it should be enough to separate your sales pages from the billions of others which all seem much the same, and are decidedly old-school and offline in their approach to making sales.

Freelance Copywriters: Stop handing in second rate work!

When I’m busy with other work, I sometimes outsource copywriting work to other freelancers.

Working with project partners, I often have to read the copy submitted to my partners by their freelance copywriters.

Here’s the shocker…

More often than not, freelance copywriters hand in garbage.

These are good, professional copywriters, all capable of producing outstanding work.

But the work they submit is rubbish.

Maybe the opening is weak. Maybe the flow just doesn’t work. Maybe there are factual errors, or spelling errors. Maybe part of the offer description from the brief is missing. Maybe the headline is just plain wrong.

Or maybe it’s not terrible, but clearly in need of some more polish, with a second or third draft required.

You think I’m joking? I’m not. I see this again and again. In fact, I see unfinished, unpolished copy more often than I see well-crafted, error-free copy.

The bottom line is – most freelance copywriters fail to hand in their best work.

This is insane, because you will be judged by what you send in to your clients. And it is immensely frustrating for your clients, because they often know what you are capable of, and don’t understand why you would send in anything less than your best.

Maybe you thinking, “Hey Nick, sometimes we send in a draft just to get feedback, before we move on to the final draft.”

That may sound like a reasonable excuse, but I think it’s just that – an excuse.

If you have questions you need to ask your client, ask them. But don’t send them a weak draft, in the hope that they’ll help you make it better. You are meant to be the expert. That’s what they are paying you for.

“But Nick, I have a lot of clients and tight deadlines. I can’t spend forever on each project.”

Well, you won’t have a lot of clients for long if you send in second-rate work.

Let me ask you a question – don’t you have in pride in your craft as a copywriter?

Do you feel good when you send in work that is less than your best? Does it feel OK to do that?

It’s complete craziness. As the saying goes, you are only as good as your last job. And if your last job was second rate, so are you.

Work for fewer clients and spend longer on each job, so you can hand in your best work every time. And as you build your reputation as a copywriter who always submits great work, you’ll be able to charge higher fees.

Fewer clients. Better quality. Higher fees.

Doesn’t that make more sense?

And believe me, with so many copywriters submitting second-rate, unfinished copy, there is a huge opportunity to brand yourself as the freelancer who always delivers his or her best work.

First, figure out what you love to do. Then figure out how to make money doing it.

writers desk in 1979
writers desk in 1979
My desk at home in 1979, including my full writer’s kit – paper, pen, manual typewriter, ashtray, coffee mug, and a small bottle of Bell's Whisky.

I pretty much stumbled into my first job as a copywriter. Up until a few days before I sat down to write my first ad, I didn’t even know that copywriters existed.

I was working as a management trainee at an ad agency in London. That meant I was being shuffled from department to department, so I could get a rounded education in the agency business. I was 22 years old.

After a stint in the media and production departments, I was passed on to the creative department. The creative director sat me down and asked me whether I was a designer or a writer. I told him I was a writer. Sure, I had done a stint at art college, but at heart I had always liked writing best.

Since the day I wrote that first ad – for a forklift truck company – I have been writing for a living. (They stopped shuffling me around, and left me in the creative department.)

I had always loved writing, and at the age of 22 I had found a way to make money doing what I loved. Lucky me.

Today, over 30 years later, I coach a lot of freelancers who seem to be trying to do this the other way around. When I ask them why they want to be a copywriter, designer, programmer or freelancer in some other way, they usually tell me they have heard it’s a good way to make money.

I think that approach makes things a lot harder for them.

I have succeeded as a copywriter and then a web writer simply because I love to write, and I’m fascinated by business.

Back in my early twenties I would work all day, and then spend many of my evenings and weekends writing ads simply as practice. I didn’t have to. I did that because I loved what I was doing. And I became better and better at writing as a result of all those extra hours.

Freelancers receive all kinds of good advice about how to make a decent living. Goal setting. Finding a niche. Marketing. Commitment. Mental toughness. Organization.

This is all good stuff.

But it won’t help you much if you don’t love what you’re doing.

And if you do love what you are doing, all those other elements will fall into place more easily.

So before you leap into your next venture, ask yourself the question, “Do I love doing this?”

If you don’t, pause for a moment and ask yourself this question:

“If I had followed the path of what I loved to do back when I was 22, what would I be doing now?”

Whatever the answer, perhaps you could start doing that now.

When you love what you do for a living, everything changes.