Writing, marketing, communications, Web design, social media—these are some of the topics featured regularly on this blog. We’ll try to keep it light and useful. Feel free to comment on any posts or offer suggestions as you wish.
If you are new to freelance copywriting or are thinking of starting your own freelance business, experts tell you to find and develop your niche. “Write what you know,” say the experts. Sound advice—except when it’s not!
Perhaps you possess technical expertise in engineering, software development, medical research, or some other applied field. If so, you will likely be in high demand for technical writing projects, white papers, and case studies. Your main challenge will be attracting and retaining clients. In that case, polish your LinkedIn profile, network, and stop reading this post. But if you lack that kind of technical expertise, read on!
How My Horizon Expanded Unexpectedly
Looking back, I realize that my career continually involved moving beyond a narrow area of expertise. After several years of teaching religious studies at the college level, I moved into academic administration and was compelled to develop a completely new set of skills. Institutional budgeting, resource allocation, strategic planning, organizational management, personnel management, student and faculty recruitment, fundraising, and marketing exploded my previously constricted view of higher education. The world and my life suddenly became more complicated and intensely more interesting.
Upon retiring from academia, I started my own copywriting and consulting business. Although I was a decent writer (grammatically correct, and all that), attracting clients proved difficult. Businesses and colleges had no use for what I offered. No one believed that a former humanities professor and academic administrator possessed the skills or knowledge relevant to promoting their activities. I therefore returned to academia as a graduate dean for a few more years. This time, however, I paid much more attention to community networking while gaining marketing expertise so necessary for promoting my programs.
After retiring a second time, I took a different approach to my writing business. I reached out to professionals whom I had come to know and asked how I might help them cope with the challenges facing their organization. What I offered was not my knowledge, but a willingness to listen. Responses were positive, although those contacted did not quickly become clients.
Leaving My Niche Behind
After several months (none of this happens quickly!) of working on small, short-term gigs, I emailed a professional whom I had met once at a business luncheon two years previously and asked how I might help him. Three months later, he responded and wondered whether I could revise some of the content on his organization’s website. After checking out the site, I told him how I might help by rewriting a few pages with two principles in mind:
- Emphasize the benefits of his business to potential clients instead of his professional qualifications or the business’s features.
- Keep it simple by losing the technical jargon.
I revised a couple of web pages for a very modest fee, and we met to assess results. Since he had a liberal arts education and experience as adjunct professor and author, we hit it off personally. I proposed writing a few blog posts (he had no such page) to increase visibility and traffic to his site. He agreed, and we proceeded to collaborate.
Although I had supervised several graduate programs, I had no direct knowledge of my client’s business sector. To create blog posts that would interest his prospective clients, however, I soon learned how to find reliable information about a wide variety of relevant topics. After light technical editing by my client, the posts were published regularly. After a few months, the number and complexity of projects began to grow.
What have I just described? Clearly, I left my niche (whatever that was) behind. But a more accurate way of saying that is to note that by focusing on my client and his needs, I allowed him to lead me beyond my niche, my comfort zone. I am now becoming intimately acquainted with his organization’s sector (and others) in very challenging times—an immensely interesting new “niche.”
Of course, my prior experience proved useful. Over the years, I learned much about what it takes for organizations to succeed (or fail). I know something about human resource practices and marketing. But I realize now that such experience and knowledge has become my deep background—not something directly applicable to what I’m doing now. What has now become important for this client and others is that I can learn, I can do thorough research, and I can communicate in clear, simple prose. After learning about their particular challenges, I offer those skills to clients now.
Lessons for Growing Your Business beyond Your Niche
- While your résumé, LinkedIn profile, and well-designed website are important, be sure to reach out to those whom you have met, regardless of field, who might benefit from your services.
- Unless your expertise is concentrated in a technical area, focus on the benefits of your communications skills for potential clients.
- Do not presume that you know what prospective clients need or want. Ask them!
- Avoid telling potential clients that you lack experience in their business or activity. Assure them of your ability to adapt and apply your skills to help them meet the challenges that they have identified.
- Before meeting with potential clients, conduct careful research about their organization and sector. Be prepared to suggest (gently!) one or two ways that your approach might help them.
- When meeting with clients for the first time and subsequently, remember: the focus should be about them and their needs, not about you.
- Don’t be trapped by your niche. Let go of your fear. Open yourself to the new. Good things lie beyond the boundaries of your niche!
You found your calling, but have you found your place? In our last blog post, Want to Grow Your Home Business? Rescue a Pet! we explored how our furry companions spark creativity, increase productivity, and make us healthier overall.
So what do we mean by find your place? In 2016, we almost put off a long-awaited trip to Scotland. A trip wouldn’t have been prudent after a tough year financially. But one of us couldn’t stop looking at Pinterest and pondering our dream vacation.
When the airfare dropped one morning, we took the plunge and have never looked back.
Despite the harrowing driving experience, this turned out to be the best money we ever invested our business. Yes, that’s right. The trip seemed to unlock some hidden potential. Business soared.
You’re probably wondering how spending a few thousand on a trip could lead to business prosperity. Sure we could have used that money to buy more Google ads, hire a social media guru, or have our website redesigned (all worthy ventures), but none of those things would help define us.
We decided to read a wee bit about Scottish history in advance so we didn’t act like typical tourists decked in our finest non-clannish plaids. Most important, we rented a car so we could take in the countryside at our own pace. We hiked, wide-eyed, in majestic forests, among towering Douglas firs with boundless carpets of moss underfoot.
Clearly we enjoyed ourselves, but inevitably our trip came to an end!
One might argue that we acquired some great memories, used up a portion of our savings, and now it was over, right?
Yes and no.
We took a piece of Scotland home with us (in addition to a few luxurious cashmere scarves). We developed a feeling of contentedness. The locals’ down-to-earth perseverance infected our psyches.
For a few days back at home, we talked of nothing else. We wandered around in a depressed daze as we returned to familiar, grayed-out American shopping centers.
We had to survive in our new reality, and run our small business. How were we ever going to manage that? We had already investigated moving to Scotland, but our business was in the States.
In order to persist, we opened our eyes to our own backyard, so to speak.
As it turns out, we live within a mile of a nature center, two reservoirs, and a mountain—all of which have extensive trail systems.
How could we have lived here for ten years, and not taken advantage of these natural wonders? Because we hadn’t been awakened to them. Scotland did that for us.
It became our proverbial place.
If you want to understand how our daily hikes helped business to skyrocket, check out this article from Business Insider, “12 Science-Backed Reasons You Should Spend More Time Outside.”
Being outdoors does so much for our bodies, and minds. A 20-minute dose of nature improves short-term memory, sharpens focus, and sparks creativity. It also boosts your immune system, which means we spent less time sniffling and more time networking.
Nature even combats fatigue. Normally most of us guzzle coffee and gulp sugary snacks to slog through the drudgery. Maybe all we need is to surround ourselves with nature and inhale the fresh air.
Not only did the trip re-order the mitochondria in our brains, but it also provided us with an array of stories. Tales about Scottish locals bumping into Prince Charles in the Highlands near Balmoral Castle and our own near-death driving experiences captivate an audience at dinner parties.
While many of us realize that successful businesses are built on the ability to tell stories, we may borrow them from others.
But they are much more powerful when they are our stories.
At Barnett Writer, we encourage you to go find your place, and live to tell your own tales. It’ll help define you as a person, and that will define your business.
You’re in luck! This article will NOT discuss yet one more time how you can harness the power of social media to promote your home-based business to the ends of the earth.
But there’s more to success than hum-drum affiliate marketing, right?
At Barnett Writer, we’ve discovered a few practices that improve our effectiveness because they make us healthier and more content. And yes, well-being really does translate to greater productivity, improved client relations, and the overall determination necessary to get the job done. One way is to adopt a pet, preferably a dog or a cat.
So how can our furry, four-legged friends make us more creative? As it turns out, research shows, in several ways.
Our business partner, Aslan (for a profile of Aslan, visit our ”About” page), prefers a mid-morning play session each day. Often, he’ll place his paw on my shoulder to let me know he’s bored (uh . . . I mean that he thinks it’s time to discuss business strategy).
Sounds more like a distraction than a contribution, right?
Just the opposite. In fact, these breaks may actually boost our mental acuity.
An article in Psychology Today cites the benefits of taking breaks in the workplace. Fatigue sets in rapidly as we try to plow through our daily workloads. Predictably, this leads to brain drain.
To combat brain drain, most of us reach for something sweet or caffeine-infused. This causes our bodies to yo-yo. According to experts, we need to detach our minds from work completely for a few minutes at intervals throughout the day.
No one knows exactly how many breaks equals work nirvana, but a Health.com study shows that workers who take breaks early in the day excel throughout the day. Delaying a break to get more done actually creates a situation where we achieve less.
Remember, your brain is a muscle. Would you lift weights or run a marathon for eight hours without taking breaks, and staying hydrated?
So how exactly does rescuing a pet specifically help home-based businesses?
We of the increasingly self-employed variety don’t usually have colleagues with whom we can solve a problem or relate in a positive way. And it’s pretty obvious that we’re driven personalities or we wouldn’t be running the show.
That often adds up to grinding away at our computer screens for hours on end. Sometimes, we do this for six to seven days a week. After all, we don’t have a team of people to help us. We don’t clock out for lunch, plan leisure weekends, or take PTO (personal time off).
So rescuing a pet is a win-win. Fido gets to sniff out the neighborhood leaf piles while you increase oxygen to the brain by literally getting out of your chair.
You’ve probably heard of sitting disease. Yes, one more thing that’s going to kill us. Let’s face it: without your furry best friend, you’d be far less likely to take as many breaks as you need to recharge your batteries.
Aslan is not only helping me combat sitting disease, he’s literally making me healthier. According to recent studies, (https://mom.me/pets/19946-cats-purring-proven-help-human-health-numerous-ways/), when cats purr, people breathe easier. And their owners are 40% less likely to experience a heart attack. Our rescued companions even help us heal from infection and injury with their purr.
Two weeks ago, I came down with a terrible cold. I think Aslan could tell it was going to be a struggle for me to type out a few emails, let alone write a blog post. So he took matters into his own paws and hummed a deep tune while curled up against my chest. Guess what? I felt better!
Miraculously healed? No. But I was comforted knowing this furry guy “got it” more than my former coworkers who would hold their hands up to their faces as I walked by their cubes.
Harvard Medical School revealed that dogs have a similar effect on their owner’s overall health. Since dogs calm our nerves, they probably contribute to lower blood pressure. There’s a direct correlation between owning a dog, and having a decreased risk of heart disease.
That’s great news because, as business owners, we know that we have to be calm under pressure. Some days things don’t go so well, and even our greatest plans fail. But a rescued pet is always eager to listen.
Your pet will also help establish and maintain a daily routine. Ever try to sleep in while a hungry cat or dog sounds the alarm for breakfast? If you try to ignore that, a lick on the face or a paw to the nose will provide sufficient incentive to start the day.
Schedule maintenance continues throughout the day. Your dog needs to be walked 2-4 times a day, and is usually fed twice. Cats need to have litter pans raked and would prefer to be fed at least 3 times a day. Add time to romp and cuddle, and you will come to appreciate quiet time to work. Productivity will zoom!
To sum up, rescue a pet to
- Improve your emotional health,
- Calm your nerves,
- Stay on schedule, and
- Get more done!
For a list of pet rescue resources, visit: https://bestfriends.org/resources/for-shelters-and-rescuers/help-save-pets.
Small businesses should work to save the open Internet (a.k.a., “net neutrality”). Why? The reason is simple: under current FCC rules, Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot slow down, impede, or block, or charge higher fees for distributing data from any source. This means that content uploaded by small business and individuals enjoys the same access to distribution as that from large companies. When the Internet is regulated as a public utility (under current practice), visitors can access information from all websites like this.
Early indications from the Trump administration hint that such neutrality might be in danger. The mega-ISPs—Cox, Charter (also owner of Time Warner), Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon—would like to charge businesses a fee to have access to high speed distribution of content on the Internet. Such a fee would be in addition to their fees for connection to the Internet. Failure to pay could mean that a business would encounter a delay in displaying content or even failure to have content transmitted at all. Small businesses could suffer lost revenue compared to large corporations who would be able to pay the additional fee.
As previously mentioned in my post on long-form marketing, businesses and organizations are increasingly using video and other longer content pieces to tell their story. What happens if their sites take longer to load than those of larger, wealthier competitors?
If you run a small business that sells a product or a service, you could be forced to pay “protection money” to compete. After all, you can’t afford to have potential clients fall off your site simply out of frustration. And we humans get frustrated quickly: remember how often other drivers (not you, of course!) jump around slowed or stopped traffic to get ahead or into a faster lane. On the Internet, people will jump off your site in just a few seconds. In fact, most viewers spend less than 15 seconds on your website. If they can’t see your site or crucial information (such as a video) quickly, they will go to a competitor’s site.
All of a sudden, that protection money begins to sound like a deal, if not a good one for you.
Imagine being told by a company like Comcast that in order to allow your users to continue to browse your site at high speeds, you will need to pay a hefty fee for data prioritization. You would almost assuredly not be able to make those payments. On the other hand, your multi-million dollar competitors, whether they be Walmart or another big box store, have almost infinite funds to make sure their website speeds are consistent. This, in effect, could put a small shop out of business because of how important internet traffic is to its bottom line.
Kevin Green, “How Changes to Net Neutrality Laws Could Affect Small Businesses,” 2/22/2017.
With the appointment of Ajit Pai as the new FCC Chairman, threats to an open Internet have already surfaced.
From left: FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, FCC chairman Ajit Pai, FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly.
The camel’s nose under the tent could be an emerging practice known as zero-rating. Large providers of streaming content—T-Mobile (with its “Binge On” program), Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Comcast—have begun offering consumers video content that would not count toward their data use quotas, that would be “zero-rated.” This creates a situation where an ISP such as Comcast could discriminate against another content-providing ISP such as Verizon. A precedent is then established to create rival toll roads whereby content providers would have to pay to get their content distributed universally. The situation is quite complicated. The best explanation that I’ve seen is by Jeff Dunn, “Trump’s new FCC boss has already set the stage for a less-open internet,” in Business Insider, 2/9/2017.
The previous FCC was investigating the effects of zero-rating on businesses. When Chairman Pai took over, he stopped the investigation, stating that the practice benefited consumers without undue harm to business. In fact, the FCC under his leadership appears to be poised to reduce or reverse regulations so as to allow ISPs to begin to charge content providers differently for premium speed access. That has not yet occurred, but it seems very possible.
What to do? If your livelihood depends on your small business’s access to an open Internet, contact the FCC commissioners. Also contact your local Congressional representatives. For an excellent summary of the historical, technological, economic, and cultural issues regarding the threats to the open Internet, see Quincy Larson’s recent post, “The Future of the Open Internet—and Our Way of Life—Is in Your Hands.” See also Thom Hartmann’s piece on how big ISPs plan to see your information with Congress’s (i.e., Republicans’) approval. Don’t be caught unaware of what’s happening!
The first clue that the blizzard has arrived is silence. The usual white noise of distant traffic, barking dogs, sanitation trucks, airplanes is gone—replaced by a white blanket of total quiet. Even the snowplows are banished from the street. Nothing. Everything. Just. Stops. Except, perhaps, for the wind.
Like birthdays, blizzards provide opportunities for reflection. Unlike birthdays, blizzards are random, usually identified by a specific year. People remember blizzards, sometimes fondly. And somehow, the snow remembered from past years always gets deeper, the temperature colder. So, while the wind blows and the snow swirls outside today, here are a few of my blizzard tales. Continue reading “BLIZZARD!!”
Why Not-for-Profit Members Are Important
Keeping the doors open for your not-for-profit organization is challenging. Money is hard to come by. Federal and state funding is likely to decline sharply during the next few years. The National Council of Non-Profits recently reported that government support, donor retention, and corporate funding have already dropped. Private foundations and individuals focus on new, splashy ventures that are often outside your mission. Covering day-to-day expenses keeps directors and board members awake at night. At a time when relying on members’ support is more important than ever, the crowded schedules of families and distractions of electronic screens means fewer members, both current and new. After all, what’s in it for them? Why should they join your group? If you’re involved in running a museum, an advocacy group, or a community organization, you need to show them why.
In Marketing Without Words? Not Quite!, I argued that social media marketing using lots of images still requires some words to convey precise meaning. But that’s not the whole story. Recent trends show that long-form marketing—long posts of 2,000+ words, case studies, white papers, video(!)—often gets better results in online search rankings and conversions. The primary issue, then, is which long-form strategy is appropriate for your organization and how you should implement it.
Continue reading “Marketing with Lots of Words? Sometimes!”
Words are dying. With everyone spending so much more time absorbing information via smart phones, tablets, or computers, digital marketing focuses more than ever on images. Capturing initial attention and providing essential, emotionally relevant information quickly are two good reasons for this shift. As Mike Hill at Moonshine has pointed out,
Visual and audio technologies liberate us to absorb more information, faster and better, than reading words.
The reason for this is hardwired into us – reading and writing are not skills we’re born with, unlike seeing and hearing.
That visual imagery results in more effective communication and retention of information appears to be confirmed by neuroscience. In explaining the “pictorial superiority effect, or PSE,” John Medina in Brain Rules (video available!) urges us to scrap our text-based PowerPoint slides in favor of image-based presentations. Continue reading “Marketing Without Words? Not Quite!”
Sorry, I’m not hiring. But I am looking to improve the process used by nearly all businesses and organizations that do hire. Let’s face it: looking for a job today amounts to an inhumane, impersonal, tedious slog. If you can join your parents’ or Uncle Joe’s firm, stop reading and go consult a family therapist. The rest of us are condemned to networking and responding to poorly written job descriptions. Be aware, however, that poorly crafted job postings harm employers and prospective employees.
We’ve all seen them: job postings so long, detailed, technical, and jargon-laden that a single human being could not possibly fulfill all of the required expectations. Why are we subjected to such abuse? Continue reading “Help Wanted for Job Descriptions!”
As a college administrator for several years, I endured too many boring meetings and presentations. You have, too, regardless of your profession. You know the drill: while presenters read from text-heavy or chart-laden slides, people tune out, nod off. Often, they discuss poorly written and argued reports. (I’ll even admit that my own reports too frequently fell into that category!) What to do?
Grow a cerebral spine! Our teachers once urged us to listen or read actively. In today’s jargon, they were telling us to think critically. But we’ve forgotten (or never really knew) what that means. Let’s learn something useful from students in the Middle Ages! Continue reading “Battle Boredom, Improve Decisions!”