It’s Most Difficult at the Beginning

I am back to square one, maybe even square negative five, regarding my fitness level. Similarly, but much less drastically, I’m at a low point in client numbers. Fitness and business have always swung along the same pendulum in my life, likely because they both depend solely on my own motivation and willingness to do the work. At this particular moment in time, I’m working on the basics for good health and for a prosperous business. You know, paying attention to what and how much I eat, making a point of doing some form of exercise everyday, making marketing calls, sending out queries, referring back to my business plan.

And it’s freaking hard.

Easing myself into things, as I do, I started counting calories two weeks ago, and have kept it up. Now it’s time to add in exercise, and that is tougher. I’m trying to follow a fun, slightly silly workout plan, that uses the language of RPG (roll playing games). It’s called The Hero’s Journey, and it looks pretty simple. Except, on the first day, I am supposed to do 100 reps of four bodyweight exercises. I’m going to try, but don’t have much faith that I’ll be able to do it. The first set of 25 almost killed me.

Similarly, I started sending out marketing emails a week or two ago, but I know that to see real results, I’m going to have to do much more. Like make 10 calls a day, every day, for a month or two, and continue to send out several emails per day. That’s just how it works. For someone like me, who feels weird and awkward on the phone, and who struggles with any kind of social interaction, this stuff is hard. Probably not as hard as getting back in shape, but still not exactly as easy as writing a blog post.

The important thing to remember at times like this is that it’s only hard for a little while. It won’t take long before I’m looking forward to working out, or before the marketing has done what it always does and I only need to send out 2-3 queries each week to stay busy. Everything in life is that way. When I first built my flower garden, it took a lot of work to break up the grass and fluff up the dirt. But the next spring was easier, and every one after has been too. Any BIG THING is that way. You have to approach it a bit at a time and know that it will get easier.

A friend learned to play guitar as a teenager. Then she got a job, raised some children, and didn’t play. Recently she picked it back up and says the same thing about her practice sessions. They are tough, but she knows they will get easier.

Have you ever started over with something? How did it go for you?

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“I’ll Take a Look at It on Spec”

The majority of my writing clients are regular clients, and most of them are people I’ve met. I work with several local business owners, and a few folks I met or found online. In any case, my invoices go to pretty much the same group of people month after month. Sometimes there will be additions, and sometimes clients will drop off. Now and then, I like to look for new work — either because I’m ready to boost my income, or I want to learn about a new industry, or I have a good story idea.

Recently, I decided to look for publications within a particular industry. I had some ideas for stories and wanted to see what the market was like. I identified a couple, called

It's nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

It’s nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

one, and learned they preferred to receive queries. I read several past publications then pitched three articles. The editor liked one of them and emailed me to say that she would “take a look at it on spec.”

If we were talking about a publication I’d dreamed of seeing my name in for years, maybe I’d feel differently, but my first reaction (in my mind only) was “I don’t work on spec.” But then I thought about the fact that this editor doesn’t know me. She would be taking a risk by assigning an article to an unknown. I offered to send clips in my introductory letter, but maybe she doesn’t have time for that. Even if she does have time to look at my clips, she has no assurances that I will turn in clean copy; there’s always the chance that my clips were cleaned up by some other editor.

However, I would be taking a risk by spending the time to write a good article on spec. It would, of course, be tailored to fit the tone and voice of this particular publication. There would be several interviews involved. It would take time and effort to do it right — time and effort that I could be spending on doing work for clients who know (and regularly pay) me, or looking for clients willing to take the risk of getting to know me. There are definitely two sides to this spec coin!

Ideally, I could offer this editor some kind of compromise, but I’m having trouble coming up with one. The publication is lovely, and one of the best in this particular niche. The pay is what I’d call average to low in the wider lens of magazine writing, but high for the industry. I’m opposed to working on spec — on principal, and because this is what I do for a living. It’s not a hobby. Getting paid matters. There’s the possibility of pitching the same story to several publications in case the editor doesn’t want it, but that doesn’t feel quite right either.

Have you dealt with this situation? What was your response? 

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There Is No Perfect Job

Yesterday, I wrote about my personal narrative – the story I tell myself and others. Contemplating work and life choices led me to think about Jon Morrow’s recent post How To Be Smart in a World of Dumb Bloggers. I’ve been pondering what my so-called ideal day would look like (there are actually several versions of it) and whether or not the activities I do on a daily basis are going to get me any closer to any of those versions of an ideal day.

Jon’s post is about getting smarter in order to become a popular blogger. He shares his own daily routine, including the deliberate steps he takes to get smarter. Those steps cover everything from reading nonfiction books daily to finding friends who stretch his mind. He is talking about the day to day activities required if your dream is to be a popular (or successful, or money-making, whatever you want to call it) blogger.

Jon does a great job of explaining the work that is involved in being a great blogger – great posts don’t just flow from a fountain of inspiration. There’s research, writing, rewriting, learning, and thinking involved. There are a whole lot of experts and studies that offer inspiration for people who are looking for something different, an alternative to a gray cubicle. You can find all kinds of advice on starting and running a small business. While that kind of inspiration abounds, posts like Jon’s are a different sort of inspiration.

Even the most perfect job involves, well, work. Some part of the day to day stuff will probably always feel like a grind. Calling it an “ideal day” is a

A literal grind! (image from Creative Commons on flickr.)

A literal grind! (image from Creative Commons on flickr.)

little misleading – wouldn’t most of us think of a vacation day as the ultimate ideal day?

When I am writing, I can get lost. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post, a research article, marketing copy, or fiction – if I’m playing with words, I am having fun. (Unfortunately my dogs or the phone or some other minor interruption usually limits the time I’m lost in the fun part of my work.) But, sending out emails marketing my services? Ugh! That, for me, is a grind. A slog. The part of this job I’d like to skip. (And, I don’t mind the minor daily interruptions during this part of my work!)

My writing accountability partner is the opposite. She LOVES marketing. If you also have a passion for marketing then it might be wise to read these king kong marketing reviews before jumping headfirst into a job in this industry. She also likes doing interviews, creating outlines, and so on. The writing? She can’t stand it. She gets all tangled up in figuring out where in the outline bits of information fit best, and in writing active versus passive sentences.

There’s always going to be a part of the job that isn’t fun. What part of your job do you love? What part could you do without?

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Marketing Seeds

Since I started freelancing, I have liked the idea of marketing as “sowing seeds.” One the most lucrative clients I’ve had called me almost exactly one year after I originally contacted him. The same has been true for many of my clients – I contact them, either by phone or email, chat for a few minutes and explain what I do, then hear from them months later. It happened again last week, and I wanted to share the story here, in case anyone reading this feels discouraged or as if their marketing efforts are not paying off.

I am an avid gardener. (Note the use of the word “avid” rather than “accomplished” or “successful.”) Every spring, I spend more money than I should on seeds and plants. Last

The clerk gave me coneflower seeds that day.

The clerk gave me coneflower seeds that day.

spring, I read about a hydroponics store in Chattanooga, and then found out they were having a plant sale. Going to commercial hydroponics stores can help the avid plant lover with choosing the best way to grow their own plants without access to soil. Anyway, I went, bought some seeds, asked a thousand questions and chatted with the clerk. We had a discussion about some professional and commercial hydroponic grow equipment like what’s found on In the course of the conversation, I mentioned being a writer and ended up leaving a couple of cards. “Here are a couple; one for you and one to give away,” is my standard line when giving out my business cards.

The hydroponics store never called, even though I sent a few follow up emails, with high hopes of writing for them. It would be fascinating to research articles that would appeal to customers who grow things without dirt. But, then, last week my phone rang.

The person who contacted me was a prospective customer who is part owner of an aquaponics farm – they maintain fish, filter the water to collect the fish waste, which they use for fertilizer to grow delicious produce in large commercial greenhouses. They need some help marketing. He had gotten my card from the clerk at the hydroponics store, who told him in the course of their conversation, “I’ve been looking for someone to give this card to for awhile.”

I don’t know yet if this farm will become a client. But here are some things that I do know:

  • Writing about farming, food, and agriculture in general is an increasingly interesting niche for me.
  • Pleasant conversation combined with handing out business cards works.
  • It’s an amazing feeling when prospects call me instead of the other way around.

There is one step left in this marketing loop: a thank you note to the clerk at the hydroponics store. Partly, I want to keep my business in his mind, and also I’m genuinely grateful for his referral.

Have you ever gotten results from this sort of “marketing”? It has always been both the slowest way to find business, but also the most profitable way. I’d love to hear what works best for you, or what you find most comfortable when it comes to telling people about your business.

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5 Social Media Lies That Scare Business Owners

I am a copywriter. I have a degree in English, with a concentration in writing. Running a business has given me an education in marketing and sales. Personal inclination has given me some expertise in social media. (Yeah, I’m addicted. So what? There are worse things.)

So, while I may want to write articles all day, I often end up answering client questions about social media and marketing, and whether it’s all useful or if it’s just hype. I don’t mind

“You mean that’s not TRUE?!”

answering those questions, and sometimes it’s fun to help a new client get things set up. Usually though, people believe one of the following lies they have been told and (continue) to avoid using social media platforms at all.

1. Social media will take up a lot all of my time. This is probably the biggest fear that busy people have. Social media will take up exactly as much time as you let it. Sure, you could spend hours upon hours exploring, looking at photos, watching videos, and reading articles. Lots of people do. But you could also spend hours in front of the television. Or, you can turn the TV off.

The easiest way to make sure social media doesn’t become a time suck (the most common description I hear from people who don’t use it) is to set yourself some limits. Decide that you can dedicate exactly 15 minutes to Facebook in the morning, or give yourself 20 minutes to respond to comments on all of the social channels you use. You have control and will not be magically hypnotized and forced to spend days staring at your screen.

2. There is no practical business use for social media.If you still think this, you are well behind the curve. There are tons of practical business uses for social media, from networking with colleagues, peers, and mentors to providing outstanding customer service and learning more about what your customers want and need. It’s true that not many sales happen on social media platforms, but all sorts of other business stuff does. You can tell people about sales, find out what people are looking for, describe new products, speak individually to the people who make running your business possible, and you can educate people.

Most business owners will tell you about something their customers just don’t understand. Social media gives you the opportunity to help them understand. You can explain your relationship with your suppliers, why your return policy is what it is, where your products come from, how you are different from the guy down the street, what they should expect after making a purchase, or whatever else it is people just don’t get which is exactly why business needs digital transformation in order to keep that communication between the business owner and their clients as well as being able to continue to advertise on social media.

3. I will have no privacy at all if I use social media.You get to decide what you share or don’t share on social media. Facebook is probably the most frequently cited platform when people have privacy concerns. You can put whatever you like as your Facebook cover photo but make sure you use the right facebook cover photo size. You should be concerned about privacy. You should educate yourself about the terms of service of any platform you use. But you should also always remember that you have control. Facebook has a number of ways you can (and should) separate your personal profile from your business page.

Not one single social media platform that you might want to use for business requires you to list the high school you attended. You should guard your home address and phone number carefully. Most certainly be careful with information regarding your children, especially images of them. Authenticity and transparency are great, but so is common sense. If you are using social media for business, then talk about your business. You have control regarding what you share.

4. There are ways to automate social media so I can “set it and forget it”. There are automation tools. By and large, they don’t work. It is much better to choose one or two platforms that you can easily manage than to start accounts on five sites and then automate them. Probably the most commonly used automation tool is linking your different accounts together so that you can type in one status update and it will appear on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter – probably others, too, but I don’t know because I don’t use those tools.

Why is this such a bad idea? Are your conversations with your colleagues and peers the same as with your customers? What about your friends? There probably is some overlap, but it is likely your peers know much more about your business than your customers do, and your friends probably don’t want to hear about your business. Your audience is important, and varies depending on which social media platform you are using.

5. Social media will help me make thousands of dollars more each year. Social media can do lots of things, but it is not a magic money maker. Like any other marketing tool, it requires strategy and work. Sales don’t usually take place on social media sites, although many of your friends, fans, likers, or whatnot will visit your primary web site where sales can take place. (You have a primary web site, right?)

There are stories about business owners making connections that lead to huge sales because they are active on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or whatever, but there are also stories about business owners making connections that lead to huge sales on the golf course. Neither social media nor golf is required to run a successful business. You can make connections anywhere.

Since I spend a considerable amount of time online, it surprises me that there are still lots of people out there who believe these lies. None of this is new stuff, but for a business owner trying to figure out how to get started, or why things are working as expected, it is important stuff.

If you would like to learn more about social media and how it can work in your industry, for your business, you might enjoy Take a look. Enjoy some blog posts. Sign up to receive email.

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How To Decide If Your Business Needs a Newsletter

It’s a pretty good idea to come up with your own marketing plan based on the abundance of advice you can find online, then outsource it to third parties, for example a printing service who can produce communications for you, this way you save money. People pay me to write newsletters for their businesses, and I’m mostly in favor of them. But there are some situations where they just don’t work. In this post, I’m going to tell you about three of my past clients. Reading about their experiences with newsletters, and in one instance, social media, may help you make some decisions about your own marketing efforts.

Blueberry or Apple? Sometimes decisions are hard!

Case Study #1 – The Plumber

I live in a small community, on a mountain. There are somewhere around 7,000 residents, and three plumbers. One of those plumbers decided to hire me to improve his company’s web site copy and to write a monthly newsletter.

What kind of content would you like to receive from your plumber? In retrospect (this was one of my first clients) I think that a quarterly newsletter, sent at the beginning of each season, would have been better than a monthly newsletter. It should have included lots of tips on maintaining your home during the upcoming season, a funny story or customer highlight, a coupon of some sort, and maybe a note about the plumber’s family, or even a small community news section. There is no need for anything to go out more regularly than each quarter, as generally if someone wants a plumber they will visit their website. The newsletter simply acts as a way of keeping this plumber’s name in their mind.

Instead, I did what the owner asked and sent out a rather bland, monthly newsletter with sort of generic content that was more or less an ad being delivered to customers via email. I will readily accept the blame for the fact that this newsletter didn’t produce the desired results because hindsight is 20/20. If the same, or a similar, client were to approach me today, my advice would be much different and also much more adamant.

Producing a newsletter that is almost like a community bulletin board is hard work. For any contractor, whether it’s a plumber or HVAC contractor, telling people how to fix things you get paid to fix feels like a risk. Writing in a very personal way to your customers can feel unprofessional. But those are the ways to make a newsletter work for a company that customers only need to call every few years. It may very well be that your time and money would be better spent on ad space and building an online presence. You can learn more about the advantages of an online presence for contractors on this page. Obviously, it goes without saying that there is not a one size fits all marketing strategy.

*Note: Every business with a physical location should be findable online. There are still people who keep phone books, but most of us are searching for phone numbers online. Make sure we can find you!

Case Study #2 – The Hair Salon

Another of my very early customers was a hair salon. The owner of the salon had tried a newsletter and gotten very poor results – along the lines of a 7% open rate. That means only 7% of the people she sent the newsletter to even opened it. Since this was still early in my copy writing career, I wanted to see if a newsletter could be effective for a salon, so I talked the owner into trading three haircuts for three newsletters.

You may be wondering what kind of open rate you should expect. It varies by industry. For the beauty industry the average is around 15%, which I think is absolutely dismal and reflects the fact that there is some bad email marketing going on in that business sector. The average open rate for my clients is around 30% across a range of industries.

For a hair care/beauty related establishment, email marketing can work wonders. By the end of our three months, the salon’s open rate had moved to 27%, and with each issue the owner reported a bump in the number of appointments for the following week. So, what did we change?

We took the stories from general to specific. Instead of talking about trends across the nation, we talked about things that were becoming popular locally. We offered customer spotlights, and included photos of customers. The salon owner kept track of questions customers asked each week and we developed articles based on those questions. We tested subject lines to find out which ones motivated people to open emails. The owner offered exclusive deals to newsletter subscribers.

The salon owner and I talked on the phone about once a week, and exchanged emails a couple of times a week. Generating ideas, finding images or taking photographs, thinking up deals and promotions, and even proofreading the rough draft of each issue took up a significant portion of her time. In this instance, it was worth the effort because it paid off in at least a few appointments more each month. Depending on your resources, time, and situation, you may decide email marketing is not worth the effort. This case study illustrates that poor results from email marketing can be remedied.

Case Study #3 The Truck Repair Business

Of the three case studies presented in this post, this is the one that I hesitate to share. I’m going to be very vague about the details, in an attempt to protect the identity of the company. I met with the CEO who had started his business in the 70s out of a trailer and worked his ass off to turn it into a nationally recognized company with representatives all over the country. There is absolutely no denying his business acumen, and I was flattered he agreed to talk with me.

He had been approached by an agency who had pitched him a digital marketing package. They would handle his company’s Twitter account, blog, and Facebook page – none of which existed at that point. He did have a website, although it wasn’t great. It was quite bland and not the most informative. It was a shame, especially when there are free keyword research tools available which can help someone boost their ranking online. Anyhow, he asked me for a proposal, and my price was a fraction of what the agency was going to charge. He accepted my proposal, and I set about trying to learn how his industry works, and what his needs were. Even though I really believed a newsletter would be an excellent tool for his company, he was unconvinced, because he really hated receiving newsletters from other companies. I began with social media.

He was desperately seeking a salesperson for a particular region at that point, so I offered to try write an ad he could post on a couple of major sites. I mentioned it on his newly-built Facebook page.

As soon as he saw it, he called and scolded me and asked me to immediately take down the post mentioning the job opening. He told me “We are not the kind of company that looks for help in a place like Facebook.” I cannot adequately convey the amount of scorn that went into his voice when he said the word “Facebook.”

I am not now, nor have I ever been a big fan of Facebook for business purposes. It’s hard to deny the power of social media when it comes to filling employment vacancies, though. Maybe he didn’t want his competitors to know he had a vacancy. Maybe he had some other reason, I don’t know.

What I do know is that if you feel annoyed every time you open your email because you have too many messages, if you can’t stand Facebook, if you think Twitter is the stupidest thing ever, and you have no clue what Pinterest is, but you know that anything with a name that dumb is worthless…well, digital marketing is probably not a good place for you to spend your marketing time or budget – no matter what people are telling you.

When you run a small business, you must be comfortable with your marketing activities. It’s okay if you distrust the internet. There is no rule that says that you have to market online. People need to be able to find your company using a search engine, but you don’t have to use email marketing, or any other digital tool, to be successful. Just because something is working for someone else does not mean it will work for you.

Evaluate your customers’ needs, your resources, and your tolerance levels before you make decisions about newsletters or any other marketing tools. Even if the gurus are telling you that you must do a thing, decide for yourself, and if something doesn’t work, abandon it and find something that will work.

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