What’s your website’s personality?

Is your website a wallflower, a braggart, a bore, a weirdo or a conversationalist?

Every website has a personality. Whether you realise it or not. And that personality plays a big part in whether your website attracts and engages new customers or whether it turns them off and sends them to your competitors.

Listen to this podcast to find out how to avoid the personality flaws that send people packing, and understand the importance of a web personality that focuses on your customers, speaks their language and keeps their attention.

Advertisements

Five things I’ve learned in my first freelance year

Just the right words was one year old yesterday. It’s probably appropriate to mark this milestone with a bit of reflection. So, here are five things off the top of my head that I’ve learned in my first year as a freelance writer.

Balloons

1 – Freelance is fun

The past year has flown by and been one of the most enjoyable of my life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been hard work. But it’s also been tons of fun. I am loving the variety that comes from working for a number of clients on a wide range of different projects. No two days are the same.  The range of writing tasks and audiences I’m communicating with means that I never get bored.

After ten years working as writer for a not-for-profit organisation I was desperate for a change, eager for a new challenge. Starting my own business was not even in the back of my mind. However, it turns out that being freelance suits me down to the ground. It can feel precarious at times, but it’s still fun. There’s something tremendously liberating about being my own boss and not being frustrated or distracted by office politics. The buck stops with me, and I’m happy with that.

Liquid

2 – Freelance is fluid

It didn’t take me long to discover that being a freelance writer almost guarantees you won’t have a regular workload. It’s more of a workflow, or work-ebb-and-flow, to be precise. Although I’d secured a couple of regular clients before taking the freelance plunge, after working on a few initial projects I’d accumulated, there was a distinct tumble-weed period. Inevitably the panic began to set in at that point, but after speaking with a few of my peers I began to realise that this fluidity of work is completely normal. Once I accepted that I felt a lot calmer, and sure enough, within a week or so things suddenly started picking up and I had plenty to be getting on with again.

The remainder of the year followed a similar pattern, with droughts giving way to periods when I’ve felt myself drowning and struggling to keep my head above water. The trick is to keep doing what you’re doing, and take the long-term view. Once you’ve accepted the cyclical pattern of work, and recognised that a dry stretch is only going to be temporary, you can stop worrying and actually use those quiet periods constructively. Do some marketing. Update your website. Or even give yourself a few days off. It’s hard to give yourself permission to take a break, but during a busy period that simply isn’t an option. If you see a lull, treat yourself to a little holiday. Whenever I’ve done that I have returned full of energy and enthusiasm, and usually to a full inbox and a plethora of new projects!

Pile of work

3 – Freelance is frantic

When it’s busy, it’s very busy. I think I’d learned within a month that as a freelance writer you end up doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do. Or the jobs that nobody else had time to do. As a result, clients tend to turn to you for help when they are perilously close to a deadline.

Several times in this past year I’ve received a brief for a job that needs turning around the same day, or within 24 hours. On those occasions, instead of muttering in my head about the lack of planning that has led to such an ‘unfair’ deadline, I’ve gladly accepted the challenge and relished the opportunity to turn things around quickly and ‘save the day’ in the process. Such tasks may involve an impromptu display of juggling other projects, priorities and clients but the adrenaline rush, job satisfaction and appreciation when you’ve come to the rescue usually compensate for this.

Fakir balancing on pole

4 – Freelance is flexible

What a shocker! I know it’s a given, and one of the main reasons for going down this route in the first place, but until you experience it for yourself, it’s hard to appreciate just how freeing it is to work in a flexible fashion. I’m not just talking about working hours, though it is great to be able to start later in the morning and work on into the evening if you want to, and I’ve personally loved being able to break up my working day with regular exercise at lunchtime.

I’ve also been impressed by how easy it is to work exactly wherever and however I want to suit my needs and preferences. Working in a quiet environment, or one where I control what noises I listen to has made me much more productive than I was battling to concentrate in a busy open plan office. I started off working from home and then after a couple of months had the opportunity to work from a friend’s house with a bigger office and found that suited me even better and helped me to keep more regular business hours.

But perhaps the best flexible factor of all has been the sheer variety of projects I’ve worked on. As a creative type I get bored easily, and ten years of writing within the same industry had drained me considerably. In the past year I have worked for eight different clients, within six different industry sectors in three different countries. I’ve worked on a huge number of projects, ranging from video scripts about pensions to websites for small businesses in Oxfordshire to employee benefits handbooks for blue chip corporations to advertising copy for a social media start-up in the United States.

Flexibility keeps me fresh and means I haven’t even considered returning to a 9 to 5 salaried post for a single minute in the last year. Not even once.

Yellow smiley faces

5 – Freelance is fulfilling

The nay-sayers, doom merchants and scaremongers would all have you believe that becoming a freelance writer is “a big risk”, that “you’re on a hiding to nothing”, and that if you’re self-employed “there’s no safety net” and “it’s all down to you.”

I say, ignore these pessimistic spoilsports and concentrate on the flip-side. Focus on the positives of freelance. If you’re a success, it’s all down to you. When you get a new client, when you complete a project and know you’ve done a great job, when you get client feedback that confirms you have – you get all the credit. Living off your wits sharpens your skills, focuses your efforts and gives you a sense of achievement and job satisfaction that is second-to-none.

Of course, not all clients may appreciate your efforts. They may frustrate you beyond belief with their ‘constructive’ criticism and ‘helpful’ edits. They might not even say anything, and just send you the next assignment without any feedback.

But when you get those appreciative emails or grateful telephone calls from delighted customers, there’s nothing like it. You know that your expertise, skills and sheer hard work have made a difference. And it feels great.

Finally…

These are just five things I’ve learned in my first year as a freelancer, that all just happened to begin with ‘F’.

I’ll be sharing a few more things, more briefly, in due course.

If you’ve learned similar or different freelance lessons, please feel free to share!

It started with a tweet …

Errol Brown, singer with Hot Chocolate

"It started with a tweet ... who'd have thought it would end so sweet?"

Today is Valentine’s Day. For me, it’s been a very good one already. It started with a nice surprise: a lovely card and some delicious Hotel Chocolat treats from the missus that I found hidden in my T shirts drawer.

Then, part-way through the morning came another surprise. An email from a young Swedish woman that confirmed the start of our new relationship. A working relationship, I hasten to add. I’m emphatically a one woman man and always will be.

This email is the culmination of a journey that started with a tweet less than two weeks ago. I’d just started to follow a few new people on Twitter as part of my attempts to expand my client base. One of these people mentioned that she was looking to hire copywriters. It was late on Friday afternoon, and I was initially hesistant, but I decided to reply to the tweet to express my interest.

When I checked my email later that evening, I had a reply from her with more information. It sounded like a really interesting opportunity, and I responded to her request to send examples of my work, and a quotation for the kind of jobs they wanted me to take on. All of this happened on the Sunday, and then by the following Tuesday I’d had an email to suggest the company would be interested in working with me in the future. That was followed by LinkedIn connection requests from my initial contact and her CEO. I was impressed by the way they’d used social media to assess my credentials and get in touch.

Today’s email confirmed they’d love to work with me and laid out more formally the types of jobs they’d like me to do, and the terms etc. I’m delighted, because they seem like an exciting company to work with, and the way they want me to work will fit in perfectly around what I’m doing for other clients. Throughout the process my contact with them has been very warm and friendly as well as thoroughly professional.

So I have now expanded my client base into Europe for the first time, and I’m excited about the prospects ahead. It just shows how more proactive use of social media can yield results, for recruiters and freelancers alike.

I’m very grateful to Twitter for enabling me to make this contact and begin this new relationship. I’m hoping that, to adapt the Hot Chocolate song that inspired my headline:

“It started with a tweet …. who’d have thought it would end so sweet?”

Have any other freelancers and copywriters out there had any similar experiences of social media providing them with new client opportunities?

Accuracy counts as mistakes cost £millions

Spelling mistake on billboard

A single mistake makes a world of difference.

Yesterday the BBC website featured a story that put a smile on the faces of all of us involved in business writing, as the headline screamed “Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in online sales“.

It’s what many of us have been saying for years, and so it’s quite gratifying to have the importance of accuracy expressed in terms that business people can understand. If you’re sloppy with your copy, it’ll hit you where it hurts. In the bank balance.

Admittedly the article itself presents a slightly less convincing case in terms of empirical evidence than the headline suggests, but that’s not the point.

Accuracy counts

The point is, accuracy counts. And we have now got your attention.

As a business writer and plain English specialist who trains business people how to write more effectively, I am passionate about accuracy, in spelling, punctuation and correct usage. I’m not a pedant, but I value the correct use of the language I love, and I recognise how powerful it can be to communicate ideas quickly and easily when it is used properly.

What angers me is when people don’t think accuracy is important. When they shrug off spelling mistakes and take a weird kind of pride in the fact that they can’t use an apostrophe correctly.

“Because, at teh end of the day, as long as people understand what your saying, whats the problem?”

That’s something such people might write, and leave uncorrected, or not even realise there’s anything wrong with it.

But there is, and it’s hugely important!

Why?

Accurate = professional

The point is of course, that if you are dealing with a business, you expect them to behave in a professional manner, and adhere to certain standards. You would expect, and no doubt often do receive a high standard of customer service from many businesses on the telephone. Indeed many companies spend tens of thousands of pounds to train their staff to perform to exacting standards, and even record and monitor calls to check performance.

But for some reason, businesses pay far less attention to the accuracy of their written communication. Always have done. In the past, they could perhaps get away with it when they sent out letters to customers – who reads letters anyway?

But now, with the prevalence of e-commerce, so many businesses rely almost entirely on written communication through their websites and emails to attract, interact with and retain their customers.

And they are starting to come unstuck.

Good.

It’s about time!

The BBC article quoted William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, who said:

“when a consumer might be wary of spam or phishing efforts, a misspelt word could be a killer issue.”

The fact is, customers are much more careful when transacting business online. They are wary of being caught by scams, identity theft, or security threats to their computers, so they tend to look for websites they can trust. Ones that look professional. If the home page of a site features spelling mistakes, consumers could be forgiven for thinking “Well, if they don’t care whether their own website is spelt correctly, how much are they going to care about looking after me?”.

And who can blame them?

We all make mistakes, but only some of us correct them

People make mistakes. We all do. It’s part of being human. No blame there. But there’s no excuse for not checking the accuracy of what’s been written and making corrections.

The entrepreneur in the article found that revenue on one of his sites doubled after a spelling mistake was corrected.

Sometimes it’s not because people can’t spell, or don’t care, but just lack of attention to detail.

Many years ago, a company I worked for came up with a new mission statement that they were keen to share with their customers and the general public. It was quite good, as mission statements go, but as soon as I saw it I realised that there was something seriously wrong with it. About halfway through it referred to offering “complimentary services”. What was meant of course was “complementary services” – services that would complement the company’s primary business offering. What they’d said though was “complimentary services”. As in free. Gratis. Not paid for.

Which was not what they meant at all. In fact, had the mission statement gone to press and been published on the website as it was intended to be, it would have at best been an embarrassing PR faux pas. At worst, the company could have ended up having to give away a lot of things for free.

I pointed out the error, and thankfully the crisis was averted. But it could have easily slipped through. And the reputation of the company would have suffered as a result.

You can’t guess in finance

Accuracy always counts in financial matters, so why not in writing? Can you imagine a senior management team presenting their annual report and accounts to their auditors with a note saying:

Some of the figures might be wrong, there’s a few decimal points in the wrong place and some of the calculations are a bit haphazard, but you get the general idea..”

Of course not! It would never wash. Which is why companies spend lots of money employing accountants and auditors – financial experts who are qualified to iron out any inaccuracies and ensure that everything is spot on.

Which brings me to my final point. As fellow writing professional Richard Hollins blogged yesterday, good copywriting is more than just spelling. We’ve established that spelling and correct punctuation is important, but let’s face it, those are just the basics. There’s far more to effective communication with customers than that. You need to engage them, enthuse them, excite them, entertain them even. And make sure you explain to them clearly why they need you and how you can help them.

Get professional help

It isn’t easy. Not everyone can do it. Which is why it’s a good idea to call in an expert to help you. Someone who spends all day, every day producing messages for a wide range of audiences that are pitched in just the right tone of voice, and use just the right words to attract, then keep their interest.

Someone who is a professional writer.

An accountant doesn’t  simply ensure that the figures are correct. They do much more than that. Clever financial things, with budgets and projections that help businesses plan for the future, manage their resources effectively, receive the maximum return on investments and make the best profits they can.

In the same way, a writer can do so much more than just ensure that your communications don’t contain mistakes. They can conjure magic with their words, transforming run-of-the-mill messaging into something compelling and persuasive. They can make your customers sit up and listen. Make them smile. Make them buy. Make them tell others how great you are. While you get on with doing what makes your business great in the first place.

Can you afford not to hire a copywriter or business writing professional?

It seems a lot of businesses think they can, and they’re not even getting the basics right.

Can you afford to lose customers?