I was lucky this week, in that one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Margaret Walters of Kennesaw State University asked me to come and talk to her careers in writing class.
The pic here, shows just how intense I was…we were solving most of the world’s problems. 🙂
They were very nice folks, and I was happy to be able to get out of the cave for a while, and talk.
One thing I loved, was being able to sit in the class and hear Dr. Walters tell the folks what to do, in prepping themselves for a career. I agreed with everything she said- except one thing, regarding samples…
See, when you are young, and/or just starting out you need to collect samples of your work to share. That, with testimonials is how you find new clients and keep going. The problem is, as a student, you aren’t around a ton of “professional” types of writing- so they encourage you to use academic papers until you can swap them out. That is the thing I don’t exactly agree with, but let me explain why.
In my personal experience, I did just what they suggested – I did not have many professional samples after graduation, so I made up some. I did a couple mock articles (this was long before blogging was around), had a story or two, mocked up a couple ads and thought I had a decent little pile to share. I was pretty aggressive, so I was trying to get interviews with the agencies in Atlanta that hired freelancers. I was good at it too, and got in there…landing an interview with a leading agency here.
The agent was warm, and happy to meet me- we hit it off right away. We talked for a little bit, and things were clicking well…then he asked to see my samples. I had them all in a branded folder (I had all my stationary and folders branded, to look the part), so I handed it over to him.
I will never forget it- he opened the folder, looked at my top sample, and looked right up at me with a totally new, not pleasant look on his face. He thumbed thru my samples, and looked at me again, with the same expression (tired, bored) and said: “You’ve never really done any professional work, have you.”
I think I crawled under the table- maybe the rug…he definitely was not interested in me anymore – handing back the folder and standing up…our interview was immediately over. I was saying all the things I thought would help but it did not matter at all to him. I was under qualified, and now I was creating a bad impression in the agency I wanted to get work from. The agent simply eased me out of the office, clutching my folder that would never again see the light of day. It was embarassing, and pretty awful.
Learn from My Mistake(s)
So as you young ‘uns get out there to start hammering the keys for cash, know that people want to see PROFESSIONAL work. It is a lot easier today, than it was when I got into this simply because of the online options.
If I were doing the same kind of thing today, I would go after professional writing gigs while still in school – not for pay mind you, but to get the clip published. I would do a newsletter article, a feature piece, blog posts – I would be getting posts/pages online, where a link could be shared with a prospective employer. I would donate my time and writing to organizations (on and off campus)I liked, for free, in exchange for the publishing and a testimonial.
I promise you, there are many easy places for you to offer work for free- free, sells. I always suggest to stay with something you love- I went to the Humane Society because I love dogs, so wrote some holiday newsletters for them and that started it all for me. I used the articles and testimonial to get more clients…each time, able to charge a little more, each time ensuring I could get work samples and testimonials.
The good news is, I did eventually work for that agency, too…though the agent who I interviewed with the first time was no longer there. I did a couple gigs for them, and then went my own way because I earned more without them. But I needed to work there a bit, or I would have had that albatross following me around more than I like.
So thanks again to Margaret Walters, and the class that let me come in and babble for a bit. That was a wonderfully influential class to me – so being on the other side of the desk when I can be is very special to me. If any of you guys need anything at all along the way, you have a friend in me. 🙂
P.S. I did ping one of my favorite authors, Dave Eggers, to see if he’d chime in for us- got an email from his assistant today, saying he is sequestered off writing…so we’ll get him next time! But I did an interview with another great writer I know, who self publishes young adult fiction…see my interview with SR Johannes here.
Been a while since I have talked about how to find good copywriting gigs- be they for SEO or otherwise. But of late, I have been talking with writers emerging into it all – all the splendor and the glory – so thought I would do a post to be more of a conceptual overview of finding work…how to think about and approach it.
Assumptions here for proper perspective, do include that you are not pursuing writing in a part-time or full-time position in a specific place: you are approaching it from a more standard issue freelancing POV. I may do another post later, about the benefits of going in-house…because different times of your life may find different things attracting you one way or the other. Today though, we are focusing on independent freelancing.
So let’s just dive right in, shall we?
Step One: Identify the Work, and Your Own Power To It
This one, is really dependent on where you are in your career. Much more important to you when you are just starting out- but certainly something that you will consider multiple times as you march through the perpetual madness of professional copywriting. You need to target a type of writing, and see why you have power to bring it.
If there is a specific type of writing or a niche in which you are prolific, this makes the most natural and reasonable starting point. You have to be reasonable – if your passion is model airplanes, it is going to have a smaller range of professional options than if you are into women’s fashions or marketing. But passion always drives a tough bargain, in most areas…don’t discount your own power through passion.
Maybe you have a few years experience in shipping, or customer service and can write about it – or spent some time in a restaurant (much more common). In any case, you can use most any kind of experience and flip it into a more powerful position to find writing gigs. Since I spent a number of years in restaurants, we’ll use that one here as our example du jour.
Let’s say, you worked in a restaurant for 8 years- both back and front of the house. Then you went to school and started writing. Or maybe you got a degree in English, or had a knack for writing and the degree never quite panned out, so you went to restaurant work, and just stayed there. In either case you are emerging with no true experience (but talent and training) as a writer, and lots of relevant industry experience in restaurants and hospitality work.
To find reasonable work then, you are not going to focus on the weak point, being your lack of pro writing experience…you are going to build more on your strengths as a knowledgeable industry insider and ability to weave the power of professional writing under it. You offer perspective the audience will see immediately, but your voice is better trained to communicate than most. So build up the portfolio while also getting more entrenched in your niche.
Staying reasonable, means knowing the potential of your reach. The well established, leading voices in the industry are not going to listen to you (as a rookie), unless you have something truly remarkable to share. That is really, really rare- and not something you plan for or can build upon. So maybe consider it a long term goal for reaching the top dogs- and never any harm in thinking like that, but do properly count the eggs you are putting into that basket. You should not expect to jump into a field and be at the top of it simply because you have industry experiences.
Yet the restaurant industry has so many diverse parts to it and it offers a very rich and thriving community both online and offline. Sticking to the example: if you have the restaurant experience and drive/skill to write about, find the places where people are publishing about restaurant issues. Right? Simple stuff.
It might be wine service, pairing foods and beverages, managing liquor costs, handling drunk clientele, hiring wait staff, doing fun promotions, menu planning, scheduling – there are a wide range of options for you to explore, and use as search queries. It would start with your own expertise or desires, and be loose enough to follow the paths illuminated by your queries. Refine, rinse and repeat.
By the time you go through this kind of free-thinking research a couple times, you will tend to find a direction coming out in your notes if it was still murky to you. And of course, you should be writing daily – if you want to get paid for it, you’d better start doing it.
Step Two: Identify the Places and Faces Publishing Work, and Buzzing
Knowing we are looking to write about our restaurant experience, we find the publications, websites, forums, online groups and anything else where they are talking about the things that interest us and allow the expertise to shine. Keep track of it- use something online, even as simple as a text file or spread sheet, where you can keep URLs, links and other notes of the community research.
In addition to finding the specific places where restaurant experts are discussing pertinent issues, we will find certain folks who are sparking discussions in certain parts of the topics- idea leaders, typically with passionate followers. Plug in to the ones that make sense here- start becoming more active within the community in which you hope to become a writer. Follow them. Key idea here, is to go out softly…and carefully, and truly add to the discussions. Become a part of the groups where you feel comfortable and can add value.
While you are gently but affirmatively participating within your communities, you are going to be able to see and follow (through links and referrals) different folks within them. Here are the seeds of networking- and getting your work out there. If someone has a great share, go see what they do in their own world- chances are good, you will find more things you like. Not always of course, but it can open up more diverse and active thinking in your subject matter.
The important thing is to not go after the top folks and push your pieces on them and ask for review – they get that a lot, and don’t pay any attention to folks who present their work that way, believe me. I have seen it- and it is sad, because the writer always has an earnest heart: just no experience. I did the same thing to Joyce Carol Oates once- she sent me a very nice postcard, and I learned not to do that again. You can nip it sooner than I did, haha.
Better is to study them- see how they interact, how they communicate and work- and why they are leaders. Emulate them, don’t inundate them. Don’t force your art on someone. Put your work out there for sure: but let them find it, not be backed into evaluating it on-the-spot. The top folks will see anything in their niche, so you simply need to make it good enough to be better than most all of it, and the rest often handles itself. They will tend to come to you, if you write right.
While you are studying the top, and long term planning the reach of it, you need to keep busy. Plus, you need to be building up that portfolio, so when the top dogs do turn to look at you there is something there for them to see. We’ll assume you have a bunch of written stuff, and are looking to get it placed. We’ll also assume you have a little site with some samples or ways to get work in front of clients, and booked – because a freelancer needs that.
The type of work you are submitting and trying to get published matters a good bit here. Online work is much different than offline stuff and the folks who process it are typically different in the marketing department, depending on the size of the business. Let’s say you want to start blogging about restaurant work, but get paid to do it.
The target now, narrows further and you find the blogs and forums and websites chattering away about it all. You may even already be involved in some of them as your gentle community-joining outreach continues, but now, you begin to seek out the places where a LOT of work and a LOT of writers seem to be cycling.
As an example, I went to Google and typed in “Restaurant industry” and got a few good ideas in the first page alone. The NRA is an association of restaurant professionals – thru its site, you could find paths to more, similar minded sites and writers for sure. Or, aim at the NRA – they are a huge organization, and there are many places they will be needing fresh content and ideas. It may not be a place a rookie finds an easy in, but it likely depends on where you are trying to get in there. FohBoh was up there too, and had a ton of featured blogposts about all kinds of industry topics.
Let’s say that is not turning up what you want- add “blogs” to your query to refine the results, and boom – lots more to look at, and evaluate. You now find individual blogs in addition to more organizations – so the rest should be a matter of trial and error to find great, active places to target.
Step Three: Join In the Conversations
OK- now you have a variety of industry-related places where people like you get things published. By people like you, I refer to someone with the experience and training necessary to be considered – just because you WANT to write, is not enough reason for them to ALLOW you to write for them. Not for the better targets, anyway. You are better than that; you are above the rabble.
But start paying attention to your thought leaders, and watch how they are presenting ideas. See which of them have sparks that ignite deeper discussions. Join in when appropriate, and comment- but again, be wise here and add depth and meaning to the discussions. If you have nothing to add, just read.
In many places, the commentors actually have wonderful insights, and get their own traction from being a part of it all. I can speak to that from personal experience- I have both followed folks and had folks come to me, due to comments somewhere. Very, very powerful thing if you are not abusive with it. I think most of the folks I respect today, I found thru a comment somewhere. Or rather, a bunch of comments that helped illustrate deeper things they believed.
If you have a site, which as we said for an aspiring freelancer is not really an option, you can link to it in your comments. If you are adding value, people will follow the links, and look at your site. This makes a very subtle way to bring prospective clients to you- organically, as it should be. You are not actively trying to get the clients, per se, rather, you are simply being involved, honestly, in the discussions in the industry. If you have a strong voice and solid opinions you will be noticed much in the same way you are noticing others.
Granted, a passive approach like that may not be getting you work though, at least not right away, and this is in fact the goal. So you again, just count the eggs you put here, in this one basket. It is one strategy and pretty passive, but not the only effort you are gonna do.
Dig a little deeper on the sites where you are finding the best conversations and activity. Find out more about them and their editorial policies. Many times, there is a page or some content dedicated to explaining how they handle outside submissions, sometimes there is simply a contact form- sometimes there is only an organizational chart and you have to do a little sleuthing to figure it out.
You can often reach out to the successful leaders in the niche too, and ask them for any tips. If you are not an oaf, this can be very effective, depending on the people leading your niche. Simple rules of etiquette include to respect people’s time, and be to the point. They don’t have to give you any help, so don’t act like they owe you and you will find most people respond very favorably to being asked how they did something well.
Rinse and Repeat
The idea now, is to be landing some exposure on one or more of the sites you found, so your own voice can start to ring out more. Your activity and comments should have seeded the clouds well, and if not, then a more direct approach in the content of the site (not the comments) helps it to rain.
I would not look at this task as one where you are seeking the paid part of writing as your only goal. More, this is the means to find exposure, and bring new and interested people to your work, which is actually showcased better on your own site. You simply want to be heard, and put forth your ability to write/blog well about related topics. Your site holds the page(s) with the pitch so you don’t need to worry about having it in your work, which should be standing on its own merits.
This kind of interaction then, will simply continue for you- you will be putting out pieces showing your experience and insight, and have a site of your own to present work options to new clients.
I am not going to sugar coat it: these earliest times are financially tough. But you are building up your portfolio, increasing your trust and visibility in a niche so be reasonable. If you want to get paid to blog about restaurant issues, you have to prove you can do it before anyone will offer you compensation for the efforts.
However it is not all bleak, either. If you are entering a niche for which you have a true passion, your ability to write about it is a natural extension of your passion. Putting a saddle on that, is not always easy but if you persevere, and keep on writing it can work out for you for sure. I see it happen all the time.
Writing is about communicating, so if you want to do it for a living you have to get involved in it and build up experiences. The first ones may not pay much if anything, but they have a purpose because no client likes to be the first one you have. Showing them (not telling them) how you have worked in the past, helps you show your value and helps you hammer the keys for cash more often.
Fear is a natural thing. It often keeps you safe. However, unnecessary fear can be stifling – which is sad, because it is unnecessary. And in today’s very interesting SEO landscape, fear is making decisions for many people every day.
It is not their fault – fear is coming from above. FUD – fear uncertainty and doubt – are tools used by leaders to manipulate the masses. I can think of few such fine examples of FUD as the effect of one blog post last week, from Matt Cutts, head of Google’s anti-spam crusaders.
Mr. Cutts says if you are using guest posts as an SEO strategy, stop it. Which is what he should say, given his position. He says:
“So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy. In general I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well. Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a linkbuilding strategy.”
Is he saying it doesn’t work? Or are we filling in that blank for him, using all the fear uncertainty and doubt caused by the implications of his statement?
And if we are doing the latter, how many times has it been the case over the last few years of incredible changes from Google?
Don’t Get all FUD’d Up Over Nothing/Everything
This reminds me a lot of the meaningless question of whether you wear a white or black hat, whether you are a good witch or a bad one. Which is another distinction that has little to no bearing on whether or not you are actually being successful online.
It also reminds me of witch hunts, of pure panic, and of babies in pure crytsalline bathwater sailing over white picket fences. Nothing good.
Personally, Matt’s edict does little to nothing to anything I will do for any one of my clients- I will still use guest posts as often as I ever have in the strategy of promoting a site. I am not blasting guest posts out of a firehose – that is not a strategy my clients have ever had in place. So the edict from on high does not affect me, that way.
What I do see happening though, is it will be increasingly more difficult for guest posts to be accepted. FUD will make webmasters scared that accepting a guest post is gonna anchor them down – or worse. That is, if they care, and are listening to what Google is dictating these days. Many webmasters don’t pay any attention at all to the statements from the ‘Plex – they are too busy, or don’t depend on organic to support them.
And bulk work will be a thing of the past.
Mostly is, and has been anyway: but this FUD should twist the knife just enough to stop the twitching.
What Is Really Happening?
Google just can’t keep up.
The web is growing so quickly, it seems sometimes like they are much stronger at the ‘Plex than they really are. Maybe a lot more than sometimes.
The whole thing with disavow and that nonsense, is you are helping Google sort out what they alone, caused. So each time you do this, you are kneeling to Google and helping them to clean up a mess that they continue to earn from…while they simultaneously make it increasingly harder for you to do likewise.
And so, just stop it.
But don’t take my word for it- 2 of my favorite bloggers ever have chimed in, and say it really well. Rae Hoffman, in a Rant from Bitchland, has a brilliant take on Google Propaganda – and my good buddy Aaron Wall had a blisteringly complete article on disavow and what it truly means. As long as you are on SEOBook, stop over and read Peter DaVanzo’s great post too, on properly measuring business benefits. (I swear, I wrote this before reading those!)
The Algorithm Is Fallible: Google Gets Lots of Things Completely Wrong
But case in point? Let’s say you are a business owner, pretty ignorant of anything of this nature, but are looking for some good web writing to add to your efforts. You want to follow best practices, so want to find a professional to help you (you are a business owner, not a copywriter, right?). You go to Google, type in “Web writing services” and look what Google says is the most important site on the web for that phrase – Fiverr, where you can be assured your $5 is buying only the finest web writing:
So before you go flying off into Webmaster Tools, and start maniacally disconnecting your site from everything on the web, maybe you should ask yourself: isn’t there something more productive you can be doing? Like writing a great guest post to increase visibility in your industry?
In SEO, one of the awesome things that happens is you connect to users who come in with many different queries. As your site grows and matures, it becomes a good answer for more of these kind of things, and you see that incoming searches start connecting things in ways you may not have intended, but might be very valuable. The long tail is, and always was a pretty fat place to be, if you saw it the right way.
However, in the past year or so, it has become increasingly more difficult to get an accurate read on the long tail activity coming in from Google. A big part of it, is the (not provided) keyphrases inching up in the percentage it holds – to now, where I see it over 75% on some of the sites I track. In one site, 35% of my incoming organic leads were behind (not provided). This means, I can see what they did once in my site, but I have no true read on how they entered, or why. Makes it harder to replicate.
Or does it?
Many SEOs are talking about the Hummingbird update, or the latest roll-out dates for the critter updates. But the way people are searching and the way we are collecting the data is changing completely: which is bound to affect the way lots of people build and promote websites.
One thing that we are mid-thigh in, is a switch from the desktop to the handheld device. This is not anyone’s doing – it is a general move, as handheld get better, and more capable. But with this added mobility, and different presentation it might suggest, the queries people enter in are going to be smaller, and shorter. This is very significant to SEOs – for with less words to determine true meaning, Google is doing the thinking, and the connections for the user – they have to.
Hints of it were here years ago, as Google Suggest started offering to complete your idea for you. And as more data was collected, the ability to display things using a less direct keyword correlation grew. The long tail started to vanish, both from the analytic data we received and from the incoming queries themselves, as a larger and growing subsection of visits originate in a handheld.
So strategies in SEO of the past, to mine your analytics to see what people wanted, is going to be different than it was, because there is less data offered to sift.
What does this mean to you then, as you look to try to get ahead? Do you aim higher, and attempt to get into the bigger, more competitive areas?
I don’t think the answers should be necessarily clear yet, though your direction should be.
Contextual Depth FTW
The direction to take your content development is no different than it was for the last however many years you have been doing this. The unsupported page barfing was slowed by Panda, and the tiny site propped by links stalled by Penguin. So depth is not being measured in the old, blocky kind of ways – mechanical (algorithmic) things are not going to be as effective, certainly not long-term, more than not.
I was taught early on, write for the eyeballs, tweak it to the engines. I don’t see that has changed at all.
I was very adept at taking an analytics profile and mining it to find content ideas-and though it is a bit harder in most sites because of the increased obfuscation of data from the ‘Plex, it still works. However, I am much less likely to go there now for inspiration like I did before – -I am much more prone to go to outside sites, and develop ideas based on what I see in the interactions of potential audiences. As the data became harder to track in my own site, I allowed the source of it to go elsewhere to give me the same direction.
Contextual depth is going to include long tail combinations. It doesn’t matter what they tell you – they are there when a page is created the right way. So even if you can’t base the creation/edits on actual incoming keyphrase data, the contextual depth of something does not have anything to do with Google, so who cares what they are telling you? Or not?
I think the tail is still there, but it is different than it was, seen from any angle: searchers type in less, engines do more and offer less, and our own sites are trimmed more than they may have been in the past…at least created more intentionally aware of NOT stringing out thin stuff. It’s complicated, but it has some very basic principles behind it…bedrock ideas that have not changed no matter what is happening out there in La-La land.
The direction in the future, is people will be typing less to find things and Google will be filling in the blanks for them the best they can. How you become the landing pad for these queries, is the same as it ever was in many ways: you simply write for audience connection, search stability and visibility, and increased contextual depth. This is still a safe formula- it simply won’t return such a rich spread sheet to you when it is all said and done.
The recent updates to Google make it silly. All of it.
But then again, it was silly before the last update – and pretty giggly before that, too.
You can call it inbound marketing, and try to distance your brand from SEO- the very thing that made it bankable. Stranger things keep happening.
But the end of the day sees it the same way – just old, same old: SE fricking O.
Search engine optimization.
It means, you make your site visible, and able to grab all it can before it gets blinked out in the next iteration of relevancy.
It means, you trust in conversions, not anything else, because lies prevail.
It means you define it as YOU define it: not shift, sway or paddle on public opinion…you lead opinions or do your best to ignore their effect.
It means, you optimize what they see, in terms of connecting potential search phrases to existing web content.
Or at least it did, when it mattered.
Not sure what it means, when the results you see, are shit, and where you click is not necessarily where you go.
I can’t teach you to be the lone kernel of corn in every pile of turds. But evidently Google can…it appears to be how they consider SEO.