Freelance Copywriting in 2017

Back when I started copywriting for a living, I had to use a phone book to find leads. Cold-calling, 101. I was convincing people that they wanted to bring their businesses to the web: and yes Virginia, it is a conversation that I had back then, daily. I used to have to explain what SEO was, and why it was important. I am Old Man River, like the tired old guy in the pic above.

Luckily for all you young writer pups out there, this is not the case any longer. Work is now simply a screenshot or an email away from you, always.It is pretty wonderful, comparatively.

And work, that was something I once had to explain to potential clients is now more prevalent than ever. Platforms are springing up that all require some form of communication and copywriting to effectively maintain. Blogs, feeds, Press Releases, features, interviews and more await the able scribe of today.

The role and importance of a copywriter in a successful corporate environment may have a slightly different assumption (online proficiency) swaddling it today, but the copywriter has not lost any footing as the years tumble by.

So the question then becomes, how do you find work as a copywriter in today’s climate?

Find The Source

One thing that is the same-same, always, is finding the true source of the work. You need to locate the people who actively hire writers and then try to understand a bit about why they are looking for strength in their ranks.

If you have companies you admire or want to be a part of, these are actually what I consider to be the best targets. A natural passion to be a part of things is easy to see, even from a distance, and can sometimes be the extra juice that carries you into the first client meeting.

But if not a personal target, there are often professional reasons to pursue one type of copywriting more than another. As an example, I personally have a specialty in alternative finance from years of doing it, so I tend to start there. However, I have passion (and experience) in education, SEO, music stuff, and dog-related writing too…so you can see in just a matter of a few minutes, I can narrow down the places where I am aiming. I should be increasing my chances of success as well, as I am going where I am stronger.

You might be surprised at how many larger/successful businesses use freelance copywriting to bolster their efforts. The diversity offered by “proper online application” feels almost limitless. Certainly they hire for specialized pages (like SEO stuff or expertise), but many businesses will also hire for more routine blogposts/site pages. Why? Because their own staff is often overwhelmed with conflicting agendas, so newer things get pushed back – or, maybe they need the spark of a new voice to warm up their cold, tired copy. Maybe they need a professional steering the effort to keep it moving.

There are many reasons why a business might look to outside help to strengthen their efforts. Your job, immediately, is to become an unconscious option for them to consider when it is time to get busy.

I am assuming too, that the area of expertise that you are after is one where you have both work samples and satisfied clients under your belt. These things certainly make it easier to have potential clients perk up on the value of your services – expertise in both a specific niche AND a foundation of better-than-general writing (seeing it as an art form), works together incredibly well.

Target the places/niches where you have shined before, and it is ALWAYS easier to suggest why this is a trend you can replicate. Cherish every connection made; be quick, available, and to the point – you never know when the person you are dealing with becomes the one who needs help or makes a decision on future project specifics.

Keep your communications VERY brief, and right to the point. Understand that the only things folks REALLY want to know, is 1.Are you capable of the work and being self-sufficient, and 2. When will the finished product/next milestone be ready? Not to say clarifying points are not welcomed (they almost always are greatly appreciated), just that the more you understand clients are seeing only the project and associated timeline, the more your communications stay focused on the point.

Who, Exactly Do You Try To Find?

So who actually hires copywriters? Usually, in medium to larger organizations it is the marketing team…but it is not limited there by any means. In one company I worked, we did direct mail, lots of website (company-focused) material, had a bustling Intranet, HR-fodder and a wide range of consumer-focused stuff…yet the marketing department was where most of the creative originated. I soon became the gatekeeper for all corporate messaging – a position I hold in a lot of places I work. Over the years, I have been thru intense legal reviews and have developed an eye for detail that makes me pretty valuable in language control.

If a business is smaller, they won’t have a whole department for marketing, but someone in there will surely be responsible for it. These types of situations are actually easier to find work – though it is usually harder to get long-running contracts out of smaller businesses. They simply don’t have the cash flow and budgeting options you’ll find in a larger place, but they are often more harried and stretched thin, so may be more eager to find writers to help ease the strain and drive the agenda. My personal focus has been more with web developers, so I look in forums and places where multi-site owners seek-out people like me. 

I have also seen a trend in the last few years where more businesses are bringing in lower level copywriters and “media kiddies” to handle ongoing efforts. Not unusual for me now to plot out a long range direction and get the first few pages written as a guide – then the business hires someone else to take it over, more cheaply, in-house.This should alert you to the opportunity here – it is real.

For example, in smaller businesses or for the webmasters/web lords I tend to work with, I have been that answer for them in ongoing relationships…remember above, when I suggested becoming the unconscious choice for copywriting needs as they arise? I am that guy for many business owners I know, and though their needs are not always as regular as a larger company, I can be the answer time after time, which all just adds to my own small, but constant stacks.

Once you have targeted a few businesses in the niche(s) where you are experienced, look at the corporate structure of the companies. Many sites have a “Meet the Team” page where you can get a feel for the hierarchy…maybe even get the name of the person you want to reach out to. Look for Creative Directors, Marketing Managers/Directors, and Online/Web Teams. If a company is smaller, you can target the owner – dictatorships in small business are the norm, so one guy will make more of the important decisions.

It’s your job to take the time to make your first impression a solid one…don’t use an email blanket and mass-send it. A template is fine, but modify it to be a specific pitch to the place you are reaching-out to. If you are polite, eager, talented, and experienced, it is pretty hard to go unnoticed. Remember too that people talk, so every relationship is gold, even when all you see is the shaft.

Bring Your Own Party

As media diversifies across many channels, sometimes copywriting gigs today have an additional promotional or audience-generating aspect to it. Meaning, it may not be enough to be able to create something noteworthy: you may also need the skillset, time, audience and/or resources to promote it after it is published.

Personally, I find this a blessing and a curse. I am a ghost writer, so my name has not often been attached to anything I have written. I simply can’t bring an audience with me as so many other writers are able to do.  However, I am well versed in promoting content through outreach and other means, so my lack of visibility can become a strength, as I am able to more nimbly and aggressively go after the prize.

If you are in the earlier stages of your career, whether to be a ghost writer or to consciously build your own following is something important to consider. Your ability to create and maintain an audience who listens to your writing can lead you to things where you do not rely as heavily on client work. You often develop a more powerful sway on your own. I have seen this work very well for people – but personally, I have never  regretted being a ghost either.I have questioned it occasionally for sure, but over time am remaining very happy where I am going.

It is more of a personal choice these days, whereas I felt it was definitely more strategic for me in the early aughts to be the ghost, the invisible support businesses were seeking. There is a different feeling today, and the web/internet often brings its own levels of celebrity.  I have seen shrewd copywriters turn their attained celebrity into personal earning power…it’s up to you. Building a following is not like falling off a log or anything, but passionate voices emerge every day, and a strong message can find followers more easily and quickly than ever before.

The main point being though, assuming you understand how things are shared/promoted online, if you can include that as a value-add or part of the gig itself, it is super attractive to potential clients. Know too, that clients today can see how well something works more clearly than they ever could. Writing projects with no decent measure of success are a thing of the past – analytics and tracking have become adept at seeing the true efficacy of each effort, often in realtime.

Nothing sells success like previous success, or the promise of an engaged audience for every post written. If you have the people or the skills to bring this outreach/connectivity to each project, your perceived value increases greatly over run-of-the-mill copywriters.

I will warn though, see promotion (at least in budget/billing) as a totally separate thing from the copywriting part – because it is. Though tightly related, they really involve 2 different skillsets, and each should be compensated justly. I have done promotional jobs that were tied to outreach success rates – however, I tend to go for jobs that are more black-and-white based on outputs, because it is hard to predict how people will react. Just saying, you don’t want to bundle the services of writing and promotion and not get paid decently for each – they are definitely separate areas of subject matter expertise.

Get Out There

The other main difference between when I started and today, is the ease in getting something self-published. You can start a blog or a website, contribute to someone else’s or offer opinions/catch attention in ways that make my old phone book and a cold call seem archaic, indeed. So maybe the best plan, like it always has been, is to get out there and work.

This blog post is a great example – I don’t write it for people to read it necessarily, I write it because it helps me in some manner to get to my next place. But who knows who sees it, and what they think or do with it – I did my part in getting it out here. And if there are some nuggets to glean, awesome.

More to the point, is I am writing because I like to write – it helps me work for others, to write whatever I want to first. It doesn’t always have to BE something, as much as it has to be.

I came up with an acronym to keep my writers focused: AICHOK. Ass In Chair, Hands On Keys. I consider it like a soup base in cooking – generally makes the rest come easier, and brilliance is perhaps in the offing. You can’t be brilliant if you aren’t typing, and you won’t typically find work either. However, being active and passionate about whatever it is that floats your cakehole, you will often be pleasantly surprised at the results.

 

 

 

Dreamhost, Finally

So I had a long run of some very problematic website issues…vicious infiltrations on client-owned things that I managed. They followed me from host to host, and took me months of work to finally eradicate (they are clean, and have been for weeks now). It was a pretty bad nightmare, though.

The Pain

It all stemmed from one of my clients loading in a shitty plugin, after he had set up a user account with the password of “password”(I am not kidding) – and this plugin with that even brief access created a gateway that quickly leaked out into other unrelated sites co-hosted on the server. The plugin concerned me from the get-go, but it was a crucial part of the guy’s build, and I was trying to be accommodating: big mistake on my part. Rules are not all meant to be broken.

The way the poison worked, was it would create a couple of files in a WP install – files that you would not ever see in normal WP dashboard management, but only thru FTP. Then, it would infect any site on the server it could exploit – in my case, it leaked out to maybe 5-6 of them in various ways…no consistency I could ever find.

The hidden files then start creating folders of “files” that are triggered to render from “normal” web operations. Self propagating keyword-based ugliness. So an otherwise standard header request, would instead get rerouted (in a millisecond) to a bad folder, with a spammy hateful page – inadvertently hosted by ME! I could find the folders and delete them, but they would regenerate at unbelievable speeds unless I found the root of it all.

It destroyed my account, and at Web Hosting Buzz, they shut down my account repeatedly, hurting all of the sites I had that were NOT compromised, only because it was a standard response they did. I then learned Web Hosting Buzz had changed my server, so I was working on an old one for over a week–and my live one, was even more compromised than the one I kept cleaning.

That was the final straw for me- Web Hosting Buzz was sliding for months, and now they were just infuriating me.

I dealt with their helpdesk a LOT, and they cleared me multiple times – -often to only shut me down again in a couple days for exactly the same thing they said I just completely fixed. I was losing my mind, and spending DAYS on this issue that became weeks; deleting files became half of every workday, and I was exhausted.

The Fix

The way I finally found it, was by rebuilding each site from scratch that I had in this account (about 45 of them)…it was long, arduous work, but it was the only true way I could make it stop. All new user accounts and passwords, universally. Deletion of all old files/accounts.

It was easy for me to clean out the infected sites and make them whole – it just needed new WP installs, free from the vulnerabilities and exploits in Web Hosting Buzz.

I ended up moving my hosting for this account to Dreamhost, based on prior experience and some suggestions/support from some friends with many more sites than I have. The cost was reasonable, the support looked fine, the interface was actually refreshingly clean, simple and easy to manage.

When I got to the truly bad site, I saw almost immediately, that the problem came directly from ONE plugin – which I removed, kicked into the yard and went postal on for a while (at least in my head I did). I told the client that he could NEVER use that thing again – and I built him a new framework with trustworthy plugins.

So far, it has been weeks, and not a single incident on the new stuff – my nightmare seems like it is finally over.

The Advice

So to avoid this kind of crap, the simplest thing, is to limit your plugins to only trusted ones (no duh, right?). It is something I got lax on, and I paid the price for sure…had to give away a lot of time to make it right with the poor folks who suffered thru no fault of their own.

Stick to frameworks that have MANY reviews, current updates, and transparency – there were red flags all over the bad plugin I fought with here, but being Mr. Nice Guy got in my way of killing it faster. It was also very insidious, and threw me in the wrong direction a lot…it did not create only one page, it varied its assault to keep trying to stay hidden…so no rules would prevent it enough. It was like a zombie.

Know what the files are for the latest WordPress install – compare it to the files in your installs…the bad guys are getting smarter at creeping in without you seeing them. Keep it updated and secure.

Use smart passwords, and even isolate sites if you need to (VPS, firewalls, hide the login page location) – there are some pretty simple ways to prevent them from getting in, since most of what they do is automated.

And above all, know that a cheap web hosting option rarely is worth it – I learned it the hard way, but am wiser for it now.

Website Turmoil

My website is in a current state of turmoil, as I was moving hosts, so I decided to change things up a bit too.

I have not fully determined what the look will be, but it will be tighter than what I have right now, anyway.

It is good to have this thing out of Bluehost hell, and away from all the spammy/crappy things that happened to my sites there in the last couple years.

No more bitterness though- I am done there, and in a better place for it.

But the site here, is hurting a bit, so I will get around to fixing it up…been way too busy. I have to work for others, not for me.

Priorities. 🙂

 

 

Web Hosting Buzz, as a fix for Bluehost

web-hosting-buzz-logoI like, and am moving to Web Hosting Buzz for hosting sites of mine, or to answer the needs of my clients.

I have been with Bluehost and others for many years, but am eager to change, and I will tell you why.

When I first got Bluehost, in like 2008, it was much more of an issue then to have the right hosting provider for your sites. As it is now, there are many languages to achieve any specific thing…but these languages, coding and platforms used to fight a lot more back then than they do today. It polarized hosts to be one team or the other. And things like cPanel and even Linux for a while were not universal, like it is today.

So at the time, Bluehost made things I needed simple and cheap…I could get stacked Windows or Linux hosting, with an uncluttered cPanel, and not worry on it to much- so I did.

I financed it, by becoming an affiliated sales rep- I sold it, as soon as I embarked. My first sales paved my way for years-of-hosting, and it continued to pay for itself, and a little more.

I truly liked it for a while, too – it was a clean, quick host, uncluttered.

Yet over time, the things I liked about Bluehost were replaced by examples of corporate bloat. The service and support I liked on entering, were eventually melted into a 3rd world, phone-it-in kind of thing, every time. Got to where I always knew more than the support person, which sucked.

As they grew bigger, their customer support became weaker overall but it was always kind of nebulous… you might find great help or nothing- no telling which-and all of it took more time to deliver in the years progressing, every time I had to tap support for anything.

I was also experiencing some technical issues, like slow speeds, hacked sites, and down time – none of it explained to me. Ever. No central feeling here, whatsoever- every call was a new walk in the park. There was even a day when all of my sites went down for about 5 hours with only a very feeble explanation as to why.

Things were getting pretty nutty out there, but I had questions about what was happening in hosting and only one guy was constant, always, with the goods- a guy in a forum I knew named Matt Russell.

Dedicated Servers

Every time there was a burble in hosting services, Matt (who runs Web Hosting Buzz, as well as Namecheap and god knows what else) would tell us all (in the forum) what happened- while Bluehost remained mute. Remember when I mentioned where all my sites in there went down for about a half day, and I was freaked? Matt privately said to me what was happening, and after a short time, it proved exactly true. Did not fix it, or assuage my freaking out then (they had to fix the servers), but it helped knowing why, and I even emailed Bluehost to fix it…and it made me realize I was getting the shaft in my hosting…I was a number to Bluehost. Everyone is.

I wanted service that was smart and dependable- like what Matt always offered. Like what I used to get from Bluehost, but saw less and less of as time went by.

I think Bluehost SUCKS.

I started moving things over to Web Hosting Buzz, and I will actively support them as my new and improved hosting option.

Immediately, the interface is SOOOOO much faster, and uncluttered by sales pitches. I also had a support thing already (I signed up like an idiot) and they answered me within an hour, and solved it for me, immediately. They also offer a service – free – to move over cPanel accounts.

Let that sink in.

Yep – they will move all your Bluehost sites out, free.

I have a bunch in Bluehost, so I am going to take them up on it. [LATER NOTE: did, it was amazing…so nice for a host to offer this-ml]

I will round out any obligations to Bluehost without seeking refunds, but I am not impressed by what growth did to a company I liked. I no longer like Bluehost, and will stop offering it as a reliable, cheap option.It may be these things for other folks, but to me, it has been a cheapie-PIA, that always seems to get worse. I quit, as an affiliate.

My needs, though kind of demanding at times, are small. I am willing to put my money on the fact a guy like Matt only does business one way…I think his company answers my needs much better than Bluehost has been doing in the last 3 years or so. Absolutely held true so far.

Web Hosting Buzz is a reliable, trustworthy and safe host, fast and easy to work with. Cheap, too. Their support rules so far.

I felt for a long time, griping was not the thing to do – either do it, or change it. But I had prepaid for 5 years at Bluehost, so was simply letting it be.

I don’t like Bluehost anymore though, not at all, and I want professional distance. In the past couple weeks, an issue occurred where automatic updates to WP installs (which is a preset in most updated sites) had a conflict with a folder permission default, so it whitescreened the sites. I had 6 of them go – but by the 3rd one, I started doing a quick update, which turned out to fix it every time. It took me hours – and I mean hours – on the phone with BH support finding the issue, and fixing it in one site – and it was me who suggested the fix. The tech was simply doing his job, but he didn’t have enough in the toolkit to help me. I helped him instead- and that is silly.

I also had a site that was having issues, so I logged into the cPanel to see what I could see – and the files literally started to disappear on me…until the entire site was gone. We (me and 2 support techs) fished a copy off a mirrored backup, but I never saw anything like that in all the years I have hosted sites. No explanation, apology or otherwise- but I spent good hours fixing that mess which turned out to be 100% on them.

Just shaky service, overdone sales pitches, and all kinds of crap I don’t want to sidestep every time I admin my accounts.

Conversely, Web Hosting Buzz seems to be a great fit—all of the service and scale-ready technology I want, at a price point I can readily afford. Love it, so far.

In.

[NOTE: Later add: loving WHB, still, months later. -ml]

Bluehost White Screen of Death on WP: Simple Fix

I have hosted sites for over 13 years. I went to Bluehost in like 2009 I think, because I needed a simple service, offering me a cheap option for Linux.

This week, at least 5 sites I have hosted there got hit by the white screen of death.

I have fixed all but one- which had deeper issues…but all the rest, turned out to be due to a Bluehost thing.

The default permissions on a critical folder, are set to not write – so an update happening, would hit this folder and not update the files it holds. They will point out I could change the permissions here- but it is not something you do, unless very intentionally directed.

So the WordPress site, set to automatic upgrades, tried to upgrade, and did it, about 9/10ths of the way-  but one file in particular on Bluehost, does not update for sure: wp-includes/formatting.php

This makes the whole site white out, and makes it impossible to admin thru WordPress.

I found, if you take the formatting.php file from a clean version of WordPress 4.0 and overwrite the local on your whited-out site (there are no unique identifiers in this file, it is a core wp file), you are gold.

Sometimes, it may be a plugin issue- but in the sites I put back online this week, all of them were on Bluehost, got whitecreened by a WP upgrade to 4.0, and all of them needed this file update.

Happily, after the first one, which took a couple hours to find and fix, this makes it fast and easy. At least to rule it out.

But God- Bluehost can suck it: I am done with these losers. Sorry for steering anyone that way, ever. They made simple muddy, and ruined the things that made them good.