Eric Ahrendt Writer

Archive for January, 2014

Why Freelancers Should—and Shouldn’t—Specialize

Posted on January 30, 2014 by Comments are off

A fundamental business decision every freelancer must make is whether to specialize in one industry or not. Should you become an expert on Big Data or mortgage lending or children’s shoes and seek out only assignments in your specialty? And if you do specialize, how narrowly should you define your specialty: Is software too broad? Is enterprise databases too narrow? Or should you be a generalist who writes about any subject in any industry for any client?

To analyze just one of the choices, here are some reasons for and against being a specialist.

Reasons For Being a Specialist

  • If you become an expert in a specific subject, you can write better and faster about topics in that field for your clients.
  • You can market yourself to companies in that industry as someone who’s already very far up the learning curve, which saves them time spent educating you—and saves you from having to learn about a new industry every time you get a new client. Clients will also spend less time editing your work and will get content that’s written at the right level of complexity and detail for their target audience.
  • You can charge more, given that you’re an expert, because the client saves money by not having to educate you and because you’re adding your expertise to every assignment. In other words, you go beyond the information the client supplies and add context and insight from your knowledge of the industry, and that’s worth something.
  • If you’re competing with generalists for assignments in your specialty, you can win more business by pointing out to prospects that you’ll be able to produce better content faster with less work on their part. Being a specialist is a competitive advantage when you’re competing for assignments in your specialty.

Reasons Against Being a Specialist

  • Part of the attraction of being a freelancer is the opportunity to work for clients in different industries so you don’t get bored writing about the same material all the time. If you specialize, and you define your specialty narrowly—like CRM software or pension plan consulting or fashion eyewear—you risk finding out after a while that writing about the same subjects is a chore. You’re now saddled with one of the big drawbacks of working for a company—same material all the time—with none of the advantages, like a steady paycheck.
  • If you choose the wrong industry to specialize in, and your industry falls on hard times or consolidation greatly reduces the number of possible clients, your prospects for assignments shrink. Again, it depends on how narrowly you define your specialty. Financial services is a smarter choice than REITs. Social media is better than Friendster. Of course, if you define your specialty too broadly, it’s not possible to become and remain an expert on too wide a range of material.
  • If you’re an expert in a subject, you’re aware of all its details and distinctions, which can be an advantage but can also cause you to try to account for all the variables and lose sight of the big picture. A generalist can use his outsider’s or non-specialist’s perspective to find and clearly express the essential messages to communicate. All things considered, it’s better to be an expert on the material you’re writing about than not, but if you’re writing to an audience of non-experts like yourself—which is often the case in marketing communications—reading background documents and conducting interviews as someone looking only for the most important takeaways can help you produce better content.

My choice has been to not specialize, mostly because that has meant I could take assignments from a really wide spectrum of companies. I’ve found it’s been a successful business formula to be a generalist who can ask the right questions, separate the wheat from the chaff, and communicate simply and clearly. But that’s a generalist speaking. Ask someone who’s chosen the specialist path and you’ll get a different perspective.

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What My Gardener Taught Me About Freelancing

Posted on January 3, 2014 by Comments are off

We moved recently and had to regretfully say goodbye to the gardener we’d had for 10 years. We have a different gardener at our new house. Comparing the two, it struck me that clients want a freelancer with an approach like that of our former gardener, not like our current one.

Taking the Initiative

Rafael, our former gardener, was possessive about our yard. He’d knock on the door to tell me he’d bought and planted new flowers to replace dead ones. He’d recommend we replace the transformer on our outdoor lights. He’d fertilize the lawn and tell me what the watering schedule should be for the next week. He was always taking the initiative to make the yard look better, save us money, streamline maintenance and so on. After 10 years of working with our yard, he knew it in some ways better than I did and cared for it as if it were his own.

Not So Much

Tony, our current gardener, isn’t like that. To be fair, he’s only been working on our yard for half a year, but I don’t think he cares like Rafael did. I noticed the lowest corner of our lawn had become a bog because the automatic sprinkler system has been overwatering it for weeks. So I changed the watering schedule. I don’t mind that, and I accept that I have responsibility for my yard, too. But I couldn’t help noticing the difference from Rafael. Then the weeds near the street were getting big. I cut them down once, they came back, and I had to ask Tony to cut them. I even had to tell him I’d found oil spots on the driveway from the blower and that they should get it fixed. Tony does an acceptable job, but doesn’t show any initiative and doesn’t make me feel like we’re partners in making my yard succeed.

Something You Can’t Fake

Clients want freelancers like Rafael, not like Tony. They want people who get to know their business, take the initiative to suggest projects that help the business reach its goals, and show by their actions that they care about the business as if they had a personal stake in it. They want you to volunteer to accept part of the responsibility for finding ways to succeed.

I do that for some of the companies I write for. I admit I don’t have that approach for all of them, and the reasons vary. But when I do, it’s because I’ve worked with them for years and write a lot for them; am friendly with my client contact; know a lot about their products, markets, audiences, etc.; and am part of their strategic planning. Having a partnership attitude isn’t something you can fake; and you can’t talk yourself into it. Either you genuinely care about the company and take it personally when projects go well or badly, or you don’t.

It Takes Two

How do companies get freelancers like that? It takes a commitment from both sides.

Some of the things the company needs to do are stick with the freelancer for years, treat him or her fairly, include him in important briefings on marketing strategy, be receptive to suggestions for projects (which doesn’t mean saying yes to them all), and give credit and praise when it’s due.

The freelancer needs to take the initiative to learn more than the basics about the company and its industry, make contacts within the company aside from the main contact, do more than what was asked (and sometimes more than what’s being paid for), and look on the degree of success the client enjoys as a reflection of the quality of his work.

Because a relationship like this takes time, I’m always suspicious of freelancers who claim to be “passionate” (a word I hate with a passion when used in business contexts) about their client from day one. Caring about a client and about the things they care about is a feeling that takes a while to develop, and doesn’t happen with every client. But when it does, it benefits both the client and the freelancer. I saw that with Rafael; we’ll see if it happens with Tony.

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Most of these posts are my opinions and observations about marcom writing; others are about somewhat-related subjects I felt were post-worthy. I'm just hoping none of my current clients leave me after reading these.


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