A shout-out to LinkedIn — and my colleagues

Free, organic marketing — that takes time. But it has at least one advantage: if you build and nurture a good LinkedIn network, the leads that come from it are very well qualified.

social networks unite the world

Last week I completely forgot the 10th anniversary of my business.

But LinkedIn remembered. They noted it in my colleagues’ newsfeed.

So throughout the week I was pinged with a few a dozen “Congratulations!” messages from friends from around the world. Many of these folks I’ve talked with in recent months, but some — well, one was a madly creative, rather intimidating woman I knew 10 years ago at Apple. We both left at the same time and went off to make our ways in the world. She remembered me? Wow.

I answered each of the messages, using the opportunity to catch up, and came away from the experience pretty impressed with LinkedIn.

I was even more impressed a few days later when the CEO of a small software company contacted me to do a project, mentioning that a friend (one of the folks who’d congratulated me on LinkedIn) had recommended my work. Today I’m starting on a fascinating new web-writing project. I’m pretty sure that the LinkedIn anniversary message reminded that colleague about my work, and led him to recommend me.

Clients often ask me what social media activities will get them business immediately. The answer? Buy Google ads. Free, organic marketing — that takes time. But it has at least one advantage: if you build and nurture a good LinkedIn network, the leads that come from it are very well qualified.





What’s next for Seattle’s tech community?

The agenda for GeekWire Summit (2014) includes panels and presentations with Chris Anderson (no relation) the former editor of WIRED magazine and now CEO of 3D Robotics; Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher of Re/code; Elissa Fink, CMO of Tableau; John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile; and the U.S. governments top technology official, Steven VanRoekel.

WebIt’s been a few years since I’ve attended the GeekWire Summit in Seattle. I’m going this year as a journalist covering the event. I’m attending in part because I’m sensing some changes in Seattle’s technology community and I want to know more. It seems as though more of the tech folks I know are working for large, established companies. There’s also a renewed focus on hardware (wearable gadgets and drones). And you can’t help but notice increased competition from technology hubs in cities where the cost of housing is significantly lower.

So, I’m going to GeekWire to see which of my assumptions get validated — and which get altered by new information.

The full-day, single-track agenda includes panels and presentations with Chris Anderson (no relation) the former editor of WIRED magazine and now CEO of 3D Robotics; Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher of Re/code; Elissa Fink, CMO of Tableau; John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile; and the U.S. governments top technology official, Steven VanRoekel.

GeekWire Summit, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Oct. 2, at the Westin Seattle. Tickets: $399.; group pricing available.


A tale of 2 testimonials — is one of them yours?

How much should you expect to pay a freelance writer to do a case study or testimonial?

Nothing brings more credibility to a B2B website than detailed case studies and testimonials from customers about how a product or service benefitted them.

Just about every  company I’ve done work for has asked me to interview a major client and craft a testimonial for marketing purposes. Before I start the work, they ask me what it’s going to cost. After six years of tackling these projects, I finally have an answer:

“Five hours of my time for a great case study or four hours of my time for no case study at all.”


I can explain with — what else? — a case study of two testimonial projects.

Case Study #1: Company A and their client WidgetSoft

Company A’s project got off to a great start. Even before they contacted me, their VP of sales called the CEO of WidgetSoft and asked if we could get a testimonial from their head of IT. The WidgetSoft CEO agreed.

Company A’s VP sent me

    • background on their product
    • the history of the relationship between the two companies
    • phone numbers for the IT folks WidgetSoft.

I studied the materials, set up two phone interviews (mentioning the CEO’s agreement when I called), conducted the interviews, and wrote a draft. After Company A reviewed my draft, I sent a revised version over to WidgetSoft for review, along with a request for a photo of Company A’s product in use at WidgetSoft. When the draft came back, I incorporated their comments and changes and submitted the final version to Company A — along with a bill for 5 hours of my time.

Case Study #2: Company B and their client Gadgetron

Company B’s PR person called me to say that one of their salespeople had a buyer at Gadgetron who just loved Company B’s product. They wanted me to write a testimonial after talking with the exuberant salesperson and his customer.

I set about contacting the Company B salesperson, with repeated emails and phone messages. A week later, he got back to me with

    • links to background on their product
    • some numbers on how many units they’d sold to Gadgetron at various times over an unspecified period
    • a phone number for the IT buyer at Gadgetron.

Dead end on the roadI studied the materials and called the number. Sure enough, the IT folks at Gadgetron did indeed love  Company B’s  product. But the buyer’s numbers for how many products they’d purchased were considerably lower than the numbers from Company B. I also found out, at the end of the 30-minute interview, that Gadgetron’s PR department does not let employees endorse products, so I couldn’t quote any of the nice things the buyer told me. When I reported all this back to the Company B PR woman, she said “Well, can’t you write something?”

It was downhill from there. I  called the Gadgetron PR guy, who’d never heard of Company B. He said I needed to send him all of my interview questions and he’d see if he could get an executive to comment. Emails went back and forth, and eventually he sent a feeble quote to the effect that “Gadgetron believes that every company needs to buy products such as those made by Company B and other companies.” A photo? Get real.

By now, the PR person at Company B was impatient and exasperated. She sent me the original email from the salesperson, full of vague claims and what I now knew to be overstated numbers, and suggested that based on that I should be able to write some sort of case study. When I suggested that she ask the VP of sales at Company B to call one of the executives at Gadgetron, her response was that she couldn’t “bother” the VP of sales with “that sort of thing.” They’d hired me because I write testimonials, she noted, so why hadn’t I written one? With a sigh, I emailed her the name of her PR counterpart at Gadgetron — along with an invoice for the four hours of my time spent failing to write her testimonial.

The Bottom Line

If the second scenario above sounds familiar, it’s time to make some changes. If you’re the PR person, take a lesson from Company A (or, better yet, look for a job at Company A). If you’re the writer, take a firm stand. Say that you’ll be happy to conduct and write up an interview with an executive at their client company — as soon as they line one up for you.

Age discrimination over 50: Are you a victim — or a perp?

Are you a victim of age discrimination — or are you a perpetrator? Some of the ugliest and most inaccurate stereotypes about over-50 professionals come from over-50 professionals themselves.

I’ve been reading discussions (on LinkedIn:Seattle and other forums) about age discrimination experienced by older professionals — discussions filled with anecdotes about incidents in which a company discouraged, ignored, or rejected a qualified over-50 job applicant for reasons related to their age.

I’m sure that many of the stories are true. And I suspect that, as a contractor, I sometimes lose opportunities based on my age and companies’ stereotypes about people over 50.

However, I’ve been reluctant to get into these discussions. That’s because I don’t have any objective data to bring to the table and posting yet another indignant individual tale of woe just fuels the general climate of self-righteous victimhood.

But now I have something to say. It’s based on reading a recent essay by a man who is well over 50. I’m not going to name the essayist, or even describe the essay in detail. What caught my attention was that at several points in the article the writer referred to himself as “out of date,” “ancient,” no longer active in the field, etc., etc. I realized that if an editor had removed that self-denigration and those apologies, I would have had no idea of the writer’s age. The essay topic itself would have been a logical one for an expert of any age in the field, and the writer’s age had nothing to do with his conclusions, or his ability to reach them.

So, what’s going on here?

Why do I keep encountering older professionals who seem compelled to make age an issue, to describe themselves and their peers over 50 as less technically competent and less intellectually nimble, and to do so at great length. I’m mystified by this stereotyping, and, as someone over 50, I’m annoyed. Because when I go in to talk with a prospective client who is 20 years younger than me, the chances are that they’ve recently encountered someone like the self-deprecatory essayist and are afraid that I’ll go off on a similar tangent.

Or they may have recently attended a professional meeting, like the one I was at last month, at which an older participant made sweeping, derogatory comments about the technical abilities of her over-50 peers.

I'm over 50 and totally confused.
I’m over 50 and a mess.
I'm over 50 and highly competent.
I’m over 50 and competent.

The meeting was a small seminar about new features for some website software we were all using for our businesses. The attendees were asked to introduce themselves. The younger men and women in the room all introduced themselves in a professional manner, describing their businesses and why they were interested in the new software features. But five of the over-50 participants proceeded to describe themselves as being afraid of technology, probably doing the wrong thing, and having no idea of what to do with website software. One woman went on at length about how, “of course, everyone my age is terrified of computers.”

I was embarrassed, and angry.

When the time came for me to introduce myself, I was surprised that I was able to unclench my jaw long enough to say I that I’m a social media communications consultant specializing in online content for technology startups and medical device companies. I left that seminar wondering if it was time to invest in hair dye and Botox.

Before I resort to those, I’m going to make an appeal to my age cohort.

Folks, I’ll be blunt. It’s hard enough dealing with media-fueled societal prejudice against people over 50 without having those of us who should know better mouthing the Madison Avenue script and perpetuating that stereotype. What is the point of running ourselves, and our contemporaries, into the ground?

If you’re having tough time with job interviews, client meetings, or networking events, it’s easy to blame that on age discrimination. But before you do, ask yourself if you are giving people a chance to judge you (and me) on the  basis of professional abilities — or are you frightening them off with your attitude first?

I’m not going to speculate on what’s causing this wave of self-inflicted ageism — there are no doubt many complex factors in play. But I am going to suggest that it stop.

Please get it together. Stop, thinking, acting, and talking as though anyone over 50 in the world of business is a victim. Not only are you sabotaging your own chances of securing good work, you’re taking the rest of us down with you.

The 5 warning signs of deadbeat clients

How to avoid taking on clients who are likely to be deadbeats. In my experience, in every instance where a client has received my bill but tried to avoid paying, the signs were there from the very beginning.

bill for deadbeat clientRecently I’ve been in a discussion with colleagues about how to deal with clients who don’t pay your invoices on time (or at all). It’s an upsetting topic. You’ve worked with someone on a project, you’ve established what you thought was a decent relationship, you’ve given them good work, on time — and then they ignore your bills.

Of course, in some cases it’s just a matter of reminding them, or asking the right person, and you get your check in the mail. But other times, weeks roll by, emails go unanswered, and you reach the inescapable conclusion that you’ve been “stood up.”

I’ve discovered that people react in all sort of ways to a client’s deliberate failure to pay up. In my case, I feel insulted. I feel angry. And I feel even angrier when I realize that I now have to invest time trying to collect my money.

I’ve faced up to the fact that it’s much easier simply to avoid taking on clients who are likely to be deadbeats. In my experience, in every instance where a client has received my bill but tried to avoid paying, the warning signs were there from the very beginning. At least one, and usually two, of the following factors were in play:

  • Inexperience. The client is a sole proprietor with no previous business experience (they had always worked in a  corporate environment where they never had to think about expenses). They have no office manager, no bookkeeper, no budget, and no established system for paying clients.
  • Cluelessness. The client offers a touchy-feely service like “positive visualization.” For whatever reason, I’ve had two personal growth coaches attempt to ignore my bills for web content writing — even though they were using my content on their sites.
  • Delusions. The client is a technology startup. When I quoted my rates, they tried to talk me into a fancy title and ownership of some unspecified “share” of their “sure-fire” company.
  • Shady business. There is very little evidence of the people, or their company, online (by Googling names and email addresses). It’s as if they’d landed from Mars. When I check the state government’s online public records of business licenses and registered corporations, there is no record of the company, or the records connect back to an off-shore corporation.
  • Lack of authority. The person who is contracting with me to do work for a large, legitimate company  is himself (or herself) a contractor rather than a company employee. When my bill is ignored, they’re sympathetic but have no authority to enforce my contract with the company or get me paid.

In the more than 20 years that I’ve been a contractor and freelance writer, I’ve encountered all of these situations. Yes, you should always have a contract or a memorandum of understanding with a client, but only if you are prepared to go to small claims court (for a small invoice) or hire a lawyer (for a large invoice) to get your money. (I am, and I have. But that’s another story.)

I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better just to pick the right clients in the first place.

Round-the-clock drives people round the bend

24/7A list I follow pointed me to a Jan. 9 article in The New York Times which predicts a new generation that expects instant replies to its queries for information. The author, Brad Stone, believes this is the generation his 2-year-old belongs to, a generation that will view even the current 20-somethings as “Old Fogies” when it comes to information technology.

Stone quotes Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who has written “Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn.”

Dr. Rosen said that the newest generations, unlike their older peers, will expect an instant response from everyone they communicate with, and won’t have the patience for anything less.

“They’ll want their teachers and professors to respond to them immediately, and they will expect instantaneous access to everyone, because after all, that is the experience they have growing up,” he said.

I’ve got news for Rosen and Stone. People who expect instant responses have been around for centuries. They’re called “tyrants.” They can also be known as “bosses” and “clients” (or even “spouses”) to those unwary or unwise enough to get involved with them.

I’ve had some amusing experiences along those lines recently. All too recently. Last night there was a message left on my phone at 7 p.m. by a businesswoman I’d never met saying that she wanted to talk with me about doing some writing for her website. In the message, she asked me to call her back later in the evening. “I work from 7 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week — this project is so important,” she said in a highly dramatic tone. “You can call me any time, so we can get started as soon as possible.”

I called her back this morning, on my way to a meeting in Olympia. It took quite a bit of conversation to politely get her to hear that I was saying “no” to working on her Very Important project. What I didn’t tell her, though I was sorely tempted, was that it was not my current busy schedule, or the quality of her project, that prompted my firm “no.” What turned me off was her insane approach to the project. Clients who don’t have any balance between work, friends/family, and play in their own lives will never understand that I insist on having that balance in my life.

I am sensitive to the balance issue because of a bizarre experience I had a few weeks ago. (NOTE: Details are changed to protect identities.) I was working with an out-of-state client on a long-range project that involves routine phone meetings. He emailed me saying that, hey, he had some free time the morning of Thanksgiving Day, so why didn’t we do an hour-long phone meeting then?

I didn’t know whether to be more astonished by someone asking to have a routine, hour-long meeting on Thanksgiving than I did that he hadn’t even acknowledged in the request that there might be something unusual about expecting me to be available on a major national holiday that focuses on friends and family.

It felt awkward to be reminding him that, er, I had plans, so would not be available for a Thanksgiving meeting.

This rant has a happy ending. I don’t believe that Stone’s daughter and her toddler friends are going to grow up to be tyrants and demand that everyone be available to them all the time. They’ll learn that some things are worth waiting for. And that some things, by virtue of being demanded rudely, will cease being available at all.

Getting the gig: Skills vs. style

Pay close attention to each contractor’s ad to figure what they want to know about first — skills or work style.

I bid for contract work on a regular basis, and recently started two new contracts.

The selection processes for the two gigs got me thinking about the way companies choose new people for their organizations. The process usually involves two filters, but the order in which they apply them is significant.

One filter selects for quantifiable skills and experience. How effective this filter will be is based on how well the organization has analyzed the work it wants to have done. Well-structured organizations with narrow job descriptions for contract work (“an experienced editor to edit the latest revision of this book” “an experienced outside sales person to fill this sales position while our regular employee is on National Guard duty”) have great success with this approach. But often this relatively rigid approach leaves organizations deaf to applicants whose strengths are wholistic rather than job-specific: energy, team building, leadership, loyalty, creativity, etc.

The second filter selects for the best stylistic fit with the organization. At its best, the “fit” filter gets the company a smooth transition, clear communication, and a satisfied employee or contractor  — one who’s likely to be with the organization for the long haul. But this filter often accounts for hires who “look like” the rest of the organization when it comes to gender, age, socio-economic background — and that can lead to self-congratulatory group-think and stagnation.

For one of the contract positions I sought, the company filtered applicants first by skill set and then interviewed a few of us to find out if we would be a stylistic fit. Company #2 filtered applicants for style, and then interviewed the compatible folks to see who had a decent skill set — and was really compatible.

The process told me quite a bit about each of the clients, and their priorities. (And I noticed that client #2 seemed to be having a lot more fun with the interview process.)

But it also reminded me that I need to pay close attention to each contractor’s ad to figure out what they want to know about first — skills or work style.

When, why, and how to turn down a writing assignment

As a marketing writer, I get paid to write about a wide range of products and services for a variety of audiences. Some of what I write verges on the silly; other assignments are dry and technical; still others involve hard-driving sales language that verges on being over the top.

I don’t mind being asked to write in a way that isn’t my style; in fact, I relish the challenge. I couldn’t do it 40 hours a week, but for a shorter assignment, it’s fun.

But what I want to talk about here is those assignments that just…aren’t…right.

They might sound like just another writing assignment when the phone call comes in, but when I sit down to do them, the tell-tale clues appear. It often starts with a weird little twitching in my stomach. And there’s a narrowing of the eyes. I try to get started with a few sentences, but something just isn’t…kosher.

This is the point at which I’m tempted to call a writer colleague and whine, or go off and distract myself with a cup of tea. But that’s just a waste of time. Because when I return to my desk, the problem assignment is still there.

I  started to draw up a bullet-point list of the five top signs that something is wrong with an assignment. But then I realized there’s this simple litmus test:

Would you want your name attached to this piece of writing or would you be comfortable if it came to the attention of a potential client or employer, identified as your work?

If the answer is “yes,” you can probably buckle down and do the writing. If the answer is “no,” stop now. Move away from the keyboard. Take a deep breath.

Because you’re going to call (not email, but call) the client and tell them why are having “some issues” with the piece. If your client is the type who doesn’t hear or recognize feedback, you may need to state, clearly, “You need to get someone else to write this.”

They’ll either say “OK,” or, more likely, they’ll ask “Why?”

Tell them what makes you uncomfortable about the piece. Chances are, if you’d be unwilling to have it appear under your name, they’d probably be embarrassed to have it appear under theirs. Explain why, and they’ll be grateful to you for bringing it to their attention.

I recently had a client whose SEO consultant asked me to post a bunch of “anonymous” comments on rival companies’ blogs, touting my client’s products. I was able to show the client the story about the Motorola employee who did this and how he and Motorola got outed and humiliated on Boing Boing (“Motorola, could you please tell your viral marketer to get out of our comments?”). The client’s heartening reponse was: “Whoa! Don’t do it!”

A few minutes ago I got an email from an established Seattle website for female shoppers. The chatty introduction to their list of this week’s hot sales and events was this:

But there is one thing that never fails to make us feel like a kid… we hate staying home alone at night. Especially for long periods of time, like when our boyfriend goes on week-long business trips or our roommate goes on vacation. We are completely ridiculous about it. We end up checking every nook, cranny and closet for scary attackers at least twice before we climb into bed, seriously consider sleeping with a big knife under our pillow for protection (and would do so if we weren’t afraid we would end up hurting ourselves with it), and finally, we resort to sleeping with the lights and television on. We only manage to catch a few winks of sleep between all the worrying and jumping up to check out every little noise we hear. It’s exhausting to be a grown-up (a scaredy-cat grown-up, that is).

Well burn my bra and call me a feminist, but if a client had asked me to write that, I’d have been deafened by the alarm bells going off. What about you?

It wasn’t my client, it wasn’t my email, so I just clicked Unsubscribe. And I doubt I’m the only one who did.

Goals: Mission critical

Grappling with issues of goal-setting and self-motivation? Jim Benson offers some insight into the relationship between our actions and our goals

Coincidentally, I was talking with a friend who’s looking for contract work about the mission of my writing business. I asked him to guess what my mission statement is, and he replied “to provide high-quality writing products for clients you enjoy working with.”

But that’s only half of it.

The part he couldn’t come up with was the first half of the mission. The complete statement is: “To support myself by providing high-quality writing products for clients I enjoy working with.”

That’s a mission statement. Without the first half, it’s just a martyrdom statement. And I have seen too many small businesses march off under that type of banner, never to be seen again.

When should you write “for exposure?”

The economy is putting many experienced writers out of jobs and leaving once-busy freelancers fretting over shrinking contracts and vanishing clients. I’ve had one client go out of business and two others are capping my hours on particular pieces of work.

At the same time, there’s still a lot of writing work available. Many companies are advertising for freelancers to come in and do the writing work previously handled by staff writers or agencies. But the bad news is that some of this work has plenty of strings attached and suspiciously little money.
What I’m talking about is a freelancing issue that’s always out there, but which comes into greater prominence in tough times: Working for exposure.
It’s tempting to work free (“for exposure”) to develop a portfolio in an area where you may have some experience, but no published or bylined pieces to show to a prospective employer or client. It’s even more tempting to work for exposure when times are bad, and you have available hours to fill.
As a rule, I don’t think writers should work for little or no pay. It’s demeaning to the writer, and it’s unfair to others in the writing field who charge professional-level hourly rates so they can pay the rent and eat. 
But…rules are meant to be broken. And some “pay for exposure” gigs can be just the stepping stone you need to go on and land a great contract or position. Here are some ways to tell if a “pay for exposure” gig is going to be worth your time and effort:
• The people who hire you should be taking the same chances you are. A talented friend doing a start-up who needs you to write the website might be worth your time. A well-paid manager hired by an out-of-state company to recruit a herd of starry-eyed freelancers via Craig’s List is not.
• The publication or website you are writing for should look professional. It should be attractive, sound intelligent, and be kept up to date. Otherwise your “exposure” is likely to be of the embarrassing type. If you find yourself being hired to post fake comments on a rival company’s website, flee!
• The “pay for exposure” work agreement should be clearly seen by all parties as a short-term stepping stone for you — not the start of a system in which you work your way up in their organization. Sadly, it’s not unusual for the types of companies that offer “work for exposure” to try to make the writer feel there is some obligation to stick with the company at low wages because it “gave you exposure.” Keep in mind that when you work for free, you’re giving a company hundreds or thousands of dollars of writing. You have absolutely no further obligation to them.
• You should be having fun, and truly developing your writing skills. This is your chance to prove yourself in a new area of writing, and, if you are lucky, to collaborate with a great editor or a great designer to make your work shine.