If you’re a seasoned freelance copywriter, you’ve watched our industry change dramatically over the last few years. Gale-force winds—technological, economic, cultural—collide in a perfect storm shifting professional terrain.
With whole industries imploding and job categories disappearing, you have to wonder: Will copywriters survive?
Or will skilled commercial wordsmiths die out like the dodo bird or—my preferred professional extinction metaphor—the great white tiger?
Are you staying alive?
Some writers find the changed environment too hostile for survival. They retool for new careers or—when age and 401(k) permit—retire.
Others adapt and forge ahead. If you’re one of them, I want to share some survival tactics helping me hang tough through copywriting’s Darwinian evolution.
Survival tactics? Darwinian evolution? Innat a little over the top?
I don’t think so.
Elements upsetting copywriting’s ecosystem
Let’s take a look at currents roiling our industry:
- The Internet: With a gazillion pages of content, you’d think the Internet would keep copywriters working non-stop. But several conflicting trends push back:
- The “Free” Movement. Just ten years ago, people paid good money for organized information, reviews, training courses, expert advice, books, magazines—and the writers who created that content. Then technology turned everyone into publishers and free content flooded channels. Writing fees dropped: Digitalization, notes Malcolm Gladwell in his review of Chris Anderson’s Free, exerts “an inexorable downward pressure on the prices of all things ‘made of ideas’.”
- Quantity versus quality content. Today the sheer volume of free content is redefining writing standards. Good, bad and indifferent—a lot of written content is given a free pass, because, hey, it’s free. Swimming in a sea of gratuitous content, some clients want to pay less for it.
- Global economics. Unstable markets, slashed corporate budgets and disturbingly high unemployment rates dim copywriters’ prospects. Time was, downturns funneled more work to freelancers. Now agencies and internal marketers scrutinize costs line by line. Caving to fear and scarcity thinking, some seasoned freelancers panic, cut fees, work for content mills, or put in extra time beyond billable hours.
- Saturated workforce. If you Google “copywriter” you get over 4 million results. Go to Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn and you’ll see thousands of people identifying themselves as writers or copywriters. High unemployment is behind some of the glut: As displaced workers flood the market, reposition careers or seek temporary gigs, many hang up a copywriting shingle. Without experience, a good number end up working for pennies—accelerating copy pricing’s downward spiral. The labor surplus squeezes seasoned scriveners who depend on writing for a living.
With so many currents pushing against the professional copywriters, how can you stay afloat?
9 tactics to assure your natural selection
No one has easy answers. But the following tactical tips are helping me—and other pros I know—implement necessary change:
- Raise your fees—or at least keep them at current levels. With the market flooded and competitors working for pennies, you can’t lead with discounted pricing. Don’t try.
- Position yourself as a “value-added copywriter.” If you’re like me, copywriting is only part of your usefulness to clients. You’re a value-added copywriter, as Copywriter Underground, Tom Chandler, terms it. This means in addition to writing strong, action-driving copy, you analyze competition, develop strategy and tactics, handle communications and—well, I’m sure you can add a whole slew of your own value-added features to the list.
- Fire bad clients. Radical isn’t it? Not when you consider the negativity, time, and opportunity cost of working with the wrong clients. The issue is fit. There’s no point in working with ill-fitting clients who don’t recognize the value you deliver. Let them go and spend your talent and time positioning yourself to—and building relationships with—like-minded marketers and business owners.
- Keep learning. One of the joys of freelancing is full immersion in diverse media, industries and ideas. On any given day you could be writing a business plan for a Saudi petroleum company, web content for a New York City hospital or direct mail for a yoga studio. You stretch yourself for each project. So stretch yourself a little further. When work slows, take it on yourself to learn something new: Spanish, custom coding, web design, affiliate marketing, keyword research basics, touch-typing. That’s my current list of wanna-have skills. What’s yours? Choose one thing, pencil-in some daily time—even half an hour—and start lurking in industry-relevant blogs.
- Blog. I admit I came late—and kicking and screaming—to blogging. Who has extra time to write? For free?? I was confounded by copywriting bloggers: How did they manage to post unique, valuable content daily and still write for demanding clients? Now I see how these uber-blogger copywriters cope in a number of ways: Some actually don’t work so much for clients—instead they sell their own products. Others job out posts to cub bloggers. Or cultivate guest posters. Or they simply post less frequently. Somehow they manage. And so can you. Because blogging offers real business-building benefits. Posting on your own blog:
- Builds community and generates qualified leads.
- Establishes credibility and expertise.
- Helps you market your own products.
- Boosts SEO ranking and drives traffic to your website or social media community.
- Create community online. Join FaceBook, LinkedIn, Twitter or other social media (SM) communities and you immediately amplify your online presence. These networks let you share messages and increase traffic and linkage across your other digital platforms. They help you build trust and brand. And on a personal level, your SM community acts as your virtual water cooler—a huge boon for freelancers who often fight isolationism and—boohoo—loneliness when working from a home office.
- Unplug and network face-to-face. While digital community is crucial, you also need to connect with people offline. At New York City’s recent Trust Summit, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith noted that trust, transparency and relationship-building aren’t “new marketing.” These solid business tenets certainly don’t depend on electronic media. Face-to-face networking may mean a trip to Austin’s SXSW. Or it could be a walk downtown for the next Chamber of Commerce meeting. You need to find the balance of on- and off-line self marketing that works for you.
- Form strategic partnerships. Writing copy is labor- and time-intensive. And it’s tough to scale. Even when you command decent fees and are booked solid you may be under-earning. Like Four Hour Work Week author, Tim Ferris, you might try outsourcing peripheral, time-consuming tasks like bookkeeping and proofreading. But in many instances, the buck stops with the sole proprietor copywriter: The bulk of our work—strategic planning, research, interviews, writing, editing, revising—is not transferable to eLance. The solution lies in strategic partnerships—with other copywriters, web and blog developers, coders, graphic designers, freelance creative directors, affiliate marketers. Collaborate with like-minded partners and watch output—and creative energy—grow exponentially greater than when you work alone.
- Diversify income stream: As the economy recovers, industries will reshape. And it’s unlikely that the corporate world will be the faithful cash cow we feed and milk regularly. Income diversification is key. Think about developing a variety of revenue streams. They needn’t all be huge. Teaching, speaking/presenting, creating information products or starting an online business are just a few revenue generators that, in aggregate, provide steady income.
Want to adapt—and survive? Take action now.
“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.” ~ Benjamin Disraeli
Change is hard. Adaptation isn’t as easy as 1-2-3 or even 1-9! But your transition is doable as long as you take action–just about any action. Don’t beat yourself up because today you’re taking a baby step—and feeling a little shaky as you lurch forward. That’s all right. You are moving forward.
White Bengal tiger photo courtesy of allereb