Free writer doesn’t mean free from payment.

In this expansive publication, I thought I’d address – at great length – whether writers, document writers, article writers, should write for free.

It’s handily labelled A to Z with some decent (and some not so decent) attempts to subtitle like an acrostic poem.

X was tricky – so I cheated on point 24!

Z flummoxed me too but I went for a leading word of Zebra – seemed a good idea at the time!

Read on!

INK

A. A free writer – does one exist?

  • Where can I find a free book writer?

  • Will someone barter with me?

If there’s no such thing as a free lunch, is there such a concept as a free writer?

Yes I’m sure you can find people who’ll write for free. You may strike gold and even find a free book writer who will ghostwrite for you, turning your ideas into compelling literature, but I’d guess the free book writer would want paying in royalties.

I know I would.

If you do an extensive Google or Bing search for “free writer” or “free writers”, I’d hazard an educated guess that you’ll find publisher websites who will promote your content but not pay you – more of this later with Wil Wheaton.

Now by free, I don’t mean unrestricted as in freedom, but free as in being paid nothing.

I’ve quickly learned that yes I will do things for free, I will write free blogs, proofread for free, write copy for free, curate tweets for free – but only in some sort of contemporary barter – if someone does something free for me, I return the favour by paying back their time with my time.

I offer blog posts if you like as payment – it’s not got me anything material yet. I’ve not managed to persuade the lanyarded Apple chapel hipster staff to part with an iMac 5k retina on the promise of 100 free writer tasks.

The window cleaner did not want a 300 word blog instead of payment.

But others in the internet sphere I work in do get freebies as they reciprocate by giving me free advice and support for growing my business.

You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, sort of thing.

I do pay of course too – not only in Apple for my new Macbook 12, or to the window cleaner, but when I need technical help, which is often beyond my WordPress publishing capabilities.

I’ll pay a going rate.

But I think we’ve become a little bit blasé about paying creatives, like writers, designers, photographers.

Yet as a society, a global community, a world of commerce, we expect to pay for most things in life.

The old song “The best things in life are free” may have a point in terms of natural phenomena but the paradoxical adage “You get what you pay for” may counter this.

Free writers do exist.

Of course they do.

Search for them online.

As do writers who charge little, or marketing companies who pay peanuts – I’ve been there, done that, but learned lessons and don’t do low paid work or free work any more!

Ever.

Except for barter (not banter).

I’ll write, you give me that goat.

When I began this venture, I naively thought some philanthropic good would come from content writing for others for very little or for free.

I was misguided.

I’ve rationalised this free writer concept too by using domestic examples below:

If I need a professional service carrying out at home, which we’ve done recently, for example an alarm fitting or bath taps replaced and some tiling done, I don’t start searching for free tilers or free alarms or free plumbers. 

They don’t exist and they shouldn’t; so why do many businesses think content creation for web and print should cost pennies or be free?

I think it boils down to perception.

Others agree and disagree with me – Kristen Houghton is firmly in the give writing away free camp; Joshua Foust believes you should never write for free. 

B. Be kind – make it free.

  • Isn’t kindness a virtue?

  • We can all write, so why can’t you be a free writer?

We can all write, we can all use words, so it must be free or of low cost.

I was once invited for a chat about my writing with a business and afterwards I was given no less than three tasks as homework, if you like, with a deadline for submitting. I took this seriously as I naively thought it was part of the selection process – even though I was the only candidate – but after submitting it, I had no contact whatsoever from the individual not even an acknowledgement or thanks. Had none since either!

Lucky escape – who’d really want to work for a boss like that?

I won’t fall for this trick again though.

I hope.

Writing takes time, lots of time, and if we’re not paid for that time, we may as well flip burgers to make ends meet.

LIGHTBULB

Being your own boss, self-employment is a kind of Nirvana, admittedly.

Freelance for me means freedom to do the school run, or walk the school run, freedom to go and do as I please (within legal parameters), to escape the toxic politics of many places of employment and mostly those bosses in those workplaces!

If you go freelance you end up with clients as bosses, but you don’t clock in or out, have your effort monitored, but the corollary of this is no fixed pay.

Someone recently contacted me asking if I was a free book writer. Would I be his free writer?

No, was the pithy reply, but I did invite the client to discuss more at length, which he has since done, forgetting his notions of free book writer.

So.

Remember please.

Remember, we writers actually need what the employed have – money for mortgages, food, drink, to support partners and children and live our lives happily.

Writing though, good copywriting, takes time, lots of time and to end this subsection on another cliché “Time is money”.

So pay for it and put the Google search for “free writer” in the dustbin of history. 

C. Charges – how much do copywriters charge?

  • Can you give me a ball park figure of your charges?

  • Can you be my free essay writer?

So if there’s no such thing as a free lunch, the next thorny question is what do copywriters charge?

Again Google can yield all sorts of answers – I’ve seen copywriters charging £795 + VAT per day to others charging substantially lower fixed fees per blog post.

There’s a range you see, just as there is in any sphere.

Think about legal teams – I personally know a litigator who charges £205 per hour, yet a barrister in the same firm costs £500 per hour. Their time is precious and their skill sets are presumably honed with their legal acumen so they charge high fees because there’s a lot at stake in the law.

Many estate agents are coy about what they charge and this again is deliberately obtuse – make your commission fee open and transparent and it gives rivals a green light to undercut, or, more seriously, set your business up for commercial failure, through unsustainably low fees.

The online estate agents do it, as they deal in huge property volumes, without the pandering to local newspapers or expensive high street shops and company cars.

Car dealers employ people in-house to monitor vehicle values, because that’s a business built on price transparency and the real incentives come from sell-ons (accessories, insurance, GAP and exorbitant paint protection deals).

So copywriters’ charges vary though many don’t make their charges transparent – I admit I don’t – I prefer to speak to clients to gauge their requirements and then work out the time commitment required from me, in terms of research and writing.

%name how much do writers charge?

A 3000 word article on the best places to eat in Birmingham will take me much longer to create than 300 words on property prices in Norwich.

I’d charge accordingly.

I can ghostwrite for companies which means you pay and claim authorship, without me, bleating words to the effect “That’s mine, tag me now!”

You’ve paid for me to write, meaning you own it, safe in the knowledge that magpie like I’m not going to take it back and plonk it on Google for self-adulation.

You pay me, I can buy food.

I’ve got to eat you see, and I can’t do freelance for free.

In life, people always have an opinion on what something should cost – a perceived value.

You know the ones.

You have a garage converted into a playroom at a cost of £5000 only for a friend to remark that the job should have cost no more than £3k.

You have a patio laid and the world and his dog chuckle at your financial generosity as you paid £500 too much.

We inhabit a world where many people are experts on the prices of everything. The internet has made us all value ambassadors.

So why is it not clear how much copywriters, like me, charge?

My charges are not displayed on my website or social media pages, as I write bespoke pieces for clients, and can’t use a best fit for all.

Ring me though or email me and I’ll gladly send you my Brief Template, a series of questions, for you to answer, so I can give a firm cost. I’m not a free document writer, free essay writer, free book writer though.

D. Do tell me how much should I pay for copy?

  • How do I find a free book writer?

  • Do I need to pay or find a free document writer?

That depends really on how much you value your website and the opportunities you want it to afford.

I could make a glib assertion that some will charge just 5 dollars on the website Fiverr. But you get what you pay for there and, trust me, having initially had 5 dollar projects completed on there, in my naive early days, they were cheap for a reason – they were low quality.

You need to contact copywriters and freelance writers directly and ask for quotations; don’t ask them for examples or to do something for free for your business – frankly it’s insulting.

Free word writers should only exist in your mind!

Think about what you’d pay a barber or hairdresser to cut your hair and work out what they average per hour.

Think about the leaking boiler and what you’d pay a plumber to come out at the drop of a hat to inspect and fix it.

Think about a letter from a solicitor and what they’d charge.

You would not say  to those three, “First, show me a haircut, fix the boiler and write me a legal letter and I’ll judge you then. I may even pay you.”

Look at an Area Guide I created from scratch. The original post on the website had beautiful featured images that I spent time taking and rendering, the figures on there, the statistics took time to research and then it was all pulled together into the linked guide.

If you were to want something like that, what would you expect to pay and what would you expect me to charge.

Try to work out how many hours that took; determine a hourly rate and then put a price on it.

I’ll tell you if our calculations tally.

E. Excuse me, are grammar and spelling important?

  • Is correct grammar really necessary online?

  • Surely, spellcheckers can check spelling free.

I think if you’re prepared to leap in and publish posts on Medium, LinkedIn, your website, social media platforms, you should pat yourself on your back (assuming you’re flexible enough) but you should look before the jump and look and look again at your spelling and grammar.

It matters.

%name spelling and grammar

We can all make the odd typo, it’s human nature, but if your writing is meant to showcase yourself or promote your company, it needs proofreading before you hit Publish or Post.

Why?

I personally think that errors in writing may reflect sloppiness elsewhere.

If you can’t spell definitely, use lose or loose correctly, or know the difference between your and you’re, or correctly use an apostrophe for possession or contraction, you’re not going to look that expert, in my opinion, as an expert in your field.

Here’s some to ponder:

•You and your are common errors.

•Its and it’s – even more so.

•If you don’t know when to start a new paragraph, or how to use a semi-colon or colon correctly, it will stand out to many readers, and not just me a pedant!

There’s another reason too you might want to think about careful checking of your posts: it’s widely rumoured that Google may begin penalising spelling and grammatical errors in its algorithms.

Now there are three options for you:

  1. Continue with mis-spelling and making grammatical errors.
  2. Get someone to check and recheck your writing.
  3. Send them my way and I’ll proofread, improve quickly and confidentially for a small fee, based on time taken. If you have many press releases, reports and blog posts to check, I can do them too for a monthly retainer. If you want a resumé checking, send it. I’m not a recruiter so you’re safe.

So yes, spelling and grammar are important.

I’m a fully paid-up Grammar police member so obviously you know I will say it’s important.

Indeed vital.

It’s not just because I can spell and use grammar correctly, but it’s about the image of your brand, your online credibility.

You may use practice and not practise and not even spot it, but others, surfing that online sea, will and it will weaken your brand authority.

It’s called proofreading and it’s often difficult to do with your own work as you may not even realise mistakes are being made or be unable to spot typing errors as your eyes read it as you intended it to be read.

I’ve blogged about this before and can’t stress enough the importance of accurate copy.

Not only will readers make a mental note, Google algorithms may penalise you too if your site is crawled by their ‘bots and found to contain numerous errors.

You can get programs to do it obviously, or ask a friend, a wife, a husband, a partner, as sibling – or you can ask a professional proofreader, like me.

And no, sorry, there’s no such thing as free proofreading unless you’re in my inner circle of family and friends.

Technical documents, like reports, instruction manuals, medical procedures need pinpoint accuracy – there’s no margin for errors where legal or medical work is concerned.

So get written copy checked and pay for the time it will take a writer to do this.

ERRORS

Proofreading is a skill – it’s a skill I’ve honed to near perfection (no one likes perfection, so mine’s near) in marking millions of essays, exams and books as an English teacher.

Despite leaving education as a teacher, I am still a GCSE and A Level English examiner, where fine reading and proofreading skills are needed.

I do it as I enjoy it, as I am skilled at it, and it pays handsomely.

The exam boards have never phoned me to ask if I’d mark for free either; or given me a task to see if I’m good enough!

You need to ensure too that not only the content on your website is grammatically accurate but that your tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram posts are too, as well as those by page admins. Those posts can be boosted on Twitter and Facebook with payments to ensure a massive reach – the last thing you want is someone to comment that there’s an error after the campaign is underway.

Just last year, I was at a network meeting, where a friend was proudly showing his new display banners which looked great, except each one had a glaring spelling mistake.

Someone had one job.

Those banners, costing I’d imagine £200, were rendered worthless to me and others, I’d imagine, once that word in Font 200 was mis-spelt by either the banner printer or copywriter.

What a waste, so easily avoidable too, by using a professional proofreader who’d have saved that company money and credibility.

F. Fetched by Google – pardon?

  • What do you mean by SEO copywriting?

  • What is this SEO thang?

In a nutshell, it’s writing with search engines in mind. It’s not easy to pithily summarise in one sub-section but I’ll try.

SEO, as defined by Search Engine Land is:

“the process of getting traffic from the “free,” “organic,” “editorial” or “natural” search results on search engines.”

Every time you put something online, Google crawls over it, Google fetches it, effectively scanning that content to sate its complex algorithms, which it changes constantly.

The algorithm used to be heavily leaning towards keywords, but the recent Panda update has apparently made that less so.

%name SEO copywriter

Google though is secretive about its algorithmic crawls – try saying that after a drink – and SEO experts are always trying to second guess its intentions.

However some things don’t change – Google likes unique fresh content; Google takes account of page authority in terms of content and social media shares. Google loves backlinks. Accuracy of copy in terms of spelling and grammar is rumoured to be part of its crawl aspects.

Now, I’ve just invested money in Industry Leading SEO Software, not as a vanity project, but to genuinely help my own page climb Google Page Rankings (named after Larry Page, not a page) as well as other businesses. I couldn’t get it for free either, I had to pay.

SEO copywriting feeds an online audience and the robots at Google who pore over the internet constantly.

Headlines need to be the right length, with the right words containing a balance of Power, Emotional, Common and Uncommon words.

HTML headings need to be thought through as they affect Google, in terms of H1 and H2.

Featured images need alt tags with the keyword.

Your website needs to have Categories and Tags to classify information.

The meta-description, the small text under your title, that appears in Google searches, needs to be compelling and top-trump rivals.

Page URLs need to be carefully constructed in terms of keywords, tags and have something called “Long Tails”.

If you’re a new estate agent in town, it’s no good loading content with just “estate agent” to gain traction on Google – you’ve got to add to this by analysing search terms on Google Analytics and working out why rivals, often local, are so much higher than you.

SEO is a science in itself and is a burgeoning industry.

Do you know much companies are expected to spend on SEO in 2016?

I’ll tell you: $65 billion.

Traditional forms of advertising are losing pace to online marketing and your web content, your copywriting has to be written with SEO in mind, to drive traffic.

G. Give me online tools to help me with SEO copywriting.

  • Where can I find free writer tools?

  • Is WordPress a good platform?

Okay there’s loads of free writer tools, of course, there are.

The internet is stuffed with great sites, filled with great content on how to write a winning headline, how to use keywords, how to write a press release.

Writtent is a great place to start.

Handily broken down into 4 sections: blogging, copywriting, online marketing and SEO, it covers all bases.

Other sites proliferate online with many, like Writer’s Digest, offering valuable and free downloadable content for the price of your email address.

WordPress is my favourite publishing platform. I personally find it incredibly user-friendly and powerful.

There are alternatives to WordPress out there: like Wix, Squarespace and Shopify which as you’d expect is great for e commerce businesses.

If you’re intending to write content, become a writer, you won’t go wrong with WordPress.

It offers free themes, customisable purchased themes and it’s my favourite website template, as well as millions of others, of course.

You can get a domain name free with one of the many hosting companies online when you start out.

I use Vidahost as their pricing and support are both incredible.

If you use WordPress, a great and free website for writers, Yoast SEO is a perfect plugin, which assesses your site and blog post in terms of SEO.

%name SEO copywriter

It will tell you if you’ve used this keyword before, whether your title is good, advise you on H1 and H2 coding, count your words and keywords and make recommendations there.

It also advises you about outbound links, featured images in terms of alt tagging.

I take care though round Yoast as it analyses “breadcrumbs” and being a coeliac, I’m not sure they’re gluten free.

On a more serious note, breadcrumbs are categories which Yoast cleverly optimises for you.

It allows you to edit the snippet, painlessly, altering the title, slug and meta description. Slug is a term that initially puzzled me. It’s a permalink, a user-friendly URL.

Google “Slug in WordPress” and you’ll find an explanation of it, not a Wetherspoon’s pub, which it sounds like.

With all plugins, though, don’t go overboard as they can seriously affect the loading times of your website, increasing bounce rates and leading to a stern admonishing stare from Google analytics.

Yoast though, I’d argue, is necessary, because once it is satisfied, it gives you a visual green light and you can then hit Publish.

I make this sound easy but it took me months to master on the websites I manage, but, like the plumber fixing a leak, it’s a skill I’ve learned now and can use to help others.

There’s thousands of blogs on blogging, content marketing, content curation, social media success strategies.

You can publish articles and get your name and SEO skills out there on Medium, LinkedIn and other sites.

H. Hang on, what if a big publisher asks to publish your copy without payment?

  • Should I let them?

  • Would you work as a free article writer?

You’d probably be initially flattered that a company is keen to publish your work.

We all would, wouldn’t we?

Wil Wheaton was approached by the Huffington Post to publish his 3,500 word article, entitled “Seven Things I did to Reboot my Life.”

They refused to pay him and he felt, like I would, that he was being exploited by a company with assets of $50 million.

The Huffington Post could afford to pay, but was choosing not to, expecting free article writing, even though traffic and revenue would have been driven to their own site by publishing the cult actor’s piece.

He’s being collegiate too by not lowering the bar so others are not forced to be free writers.

I’ve published articles for no payment on various sites, I’ve ghostwritten pieces too for less money than I’d have earned working under minimum wage.

I still would publish articles on others, to showcase my brand and writing style but if The Guardian asked me to write an acerbic piece called “The Secret Teacher” which, I believe, is one of their most read and shared weekly columns, I’m afraid I’d want paying.

Their own staff don’t write for free, so why should writers be exploited?

It’s The Guardian too, the bastion of the left wing, middle class liberals.

I do have exceptions though for free writing – a charity asked me recently if I’d like to take part in a fund-raising event – a swim, a run, a bike ride, not to laugh at me in Lycra but to write about the whole experience afterwards.

What would I get back?

Free event entry, but more importantly, perhaps, exposure on their website and social media accounts.

I’m still uncertain though – Lycra is not a good look on a 51 year old man.

Medium is arguably another exploitative site, as Yasmin Nair, has pointed out – it allows the public to sign up and publish “stories” but hides the fact that it pays some writers and makes a profit.

Granted, Medium is hosting your stories, but given that web hosting costs are minuscule, with many free websites for writers,  there’s still, to me, a whiff of exploitation about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I publish my own stories, as they’re called there, on Medium, but there is that nagging voice in my head whispering “Exploitation, exploitation, you’re not a free writer.”

The flip side of the coin is that we all write for free in status updates, tweets, text messages but is this the same as free writing for a publication?

What do you think?

I. Invoiced already!

  • Why do you expect advance payment?

  • Come on, be my free text writer, please.

This was a thorny issue for me on setting up, but it’s something I’ve stuck to rigidly since.

And no, sorry, I won’t be your free text writer, free article writer – unless I know you.

Sorry.

Let me explain though about Invoices and how I work.

Initial contact is made with me, a dialogue ensues about the brief and the costs.

I obviously should spend time then researching the topics in the brief, keyword planning, shaping a winning headline, finding an attractive featured image and then, and only then, sitting down to draft, think, redraft.

Now if I did all this immediately and a client turned round and said “Sorry Stuart, change of heart and plan,” I’ve wasted time, I’ve worked for free. I’ve wasted my time as a free article writer, free document writer or, in academic assignments, as a free essay writer.

Okay the company might say “What a sound bloke” but compliments don’t pay bills!

So this is what I do, once a brief has been established.

But remember:

You want an essay writer free?

Don’t contact me, sorry.

Willing to pay?

Great.

I send a contract setting out terms, agreed prices, resolutions not to publish ghostwritten content, or poach clients from the PR company etc.

I send an invoice with bank details outlining the cost which is either a one-off payment or on a monthly retainer.

If you the client wants 4 blog posts a month crafting, you pay for 8 in advance.

You then pay again for 4 at the end of the first month.

Or choose to cancel.

Now this is not being mercenary, it’s making sure there’s commitment to my work and my time.

Bank account checked, the writing begins.

I spend time then researching the topics in the brief, keyword planning, shaping a winning headline, finding an attractive featured image and then, and only then, sitting down to draft, think, redraft, knowing the commitment is secure.

I send drafts for amendments to clients and make changes, as suggested.

Final copy is delivered with a discussion taking place then about ways of publicising the post and ideas for the one being delivered the week after.

J. Just how important is social media?

  • Is this something you’d do for free?

  • Do I need active social media accounts?

Social media is the channel you use to drive traffic to your website, to your business, to foster trust, harvest data or increase sales.

An inactive Facebook page is pointless, a Twitter profile which was last used 3 years ago is actually detrimental.

People online expect to see your company using Social Media – it’s a way 30% of the population will communicate.

Given that 81% of the adult population in the USA carry a smartphone and 80% in the UK, your business has to be ready for communication whether it’s a tweet, a Facebook message, a Pinned photo, a LinkedIn notification, an Instagram comment or Like.

It’s the way consumers now operate.

%name social media

Given this social media activity, when you’re focused on running the actual business, it might be best outsourcing this.

But just as you haven’t got time, it means someone else will need to spend their time and energy on creating social media content AND engaging with clients.

It’s not something most people would do for free. I have laboured already that I am not a free writer so I’m not a free social media manager.

Why?

It’s intensive, requires creativity and it’s time-consuming.

Your eye has to be constantly monitoring social media accounts and responding quickly.

Again I can’t quote prices, except for one – it’s not a free service!

You need a web designer to build your website or overhaul an existing one, craft the menus and page tabs liaising with you, set up Social Media accounts for your website to be linked to and create a blogging strategy using a freelance writer like me to build content and drive traffic through regular engaging posts on social media.

K. KK, which social media account(s) should I focus on?

  • Should I use Instagram or Pinterest?

  • Do I need both Twitter and Facebook?

Instagram is obviously visual and lends itself readily to retail with visual uploads of clothes and shoes. If you’re in retail, you need Instagram. Celebrities are power users of Instagram too – they have millions following them on that platform, as well as Snapchat, the rising star of social media. Pinterest is great too, particularly in that you can pin photos and add urls to them (which Instagram doesn’t yet allow – it’s hashtag based).

Facebook is ubiquitous – 1 billion of the world have an active Facebook account, so any business should drive traffic through an engaging, constantly updated account – one that is not purely sell, sell, sell, but builds a relationship with its audience due to its content and authority.

Facebook is arguably the best value for money marketing out there.

To throw, say £50, as a total budget at a sponsored campaign with careful strategic demographic planning can see staggering reach.

If the Call to Action is some offer that drives people to your website which can then capture data on the promise of some free gift, it’s done its job.

It’s not about number of Likes, as I once naively thought, it’s about reach and what those reached out to, do with your advert.

You can run different, even concurrent, campaigns with different headlines, varying calls to action and numerous images and measure each one’s impact.

It’s why Facebook reach is often so low on non-promoted posts as it’s asking you to pay to get results.

It works too, trust me.

Twitter is something many businesses and individuals struggle to grasp.

But once mastered, it’s an incredibly powerful platform.

You can schedule evergreen tweets, which can be recycled over weeks and months, you can pin tweets to your profile, you can pay for promotion on there (just as you can on Facebook and Instagram).

Twitter allows you to create public and private lists, which are a fantastic way of targeting followers in your field.

Clients can tweet you or direct message you and again this shows the world how you respond to communication.

YouTube is currently under-used (in my opinion) by many businesses – I can write scripts for YouTube company releases – though again, this is not free.

it has 1 billion global users and the average time spent on there per day is astonishing in my opinion: 40 minutes.

There’s arguably only Facebook and Twitter that approach these levels of consumer engagement.

YouTube feeds Google SEO like nothing else and if you’re serious about climbing Google, invest time and money in it.

YouTube will pay you back too, in real money and SEO rankings.

LinkedIn is again a powerful professional business networking stage that will give you and your company solid credibility online.

If you’re serious about business, you and your company need to be on LinkedIn.

It’s where the majority of my writing contracts have come from.

LinkedIn allows public or private profiles (visible only to connections), an excellent publishing tool called Pulse which allows H1, H2, links, images and social sharing – all free.

If you’re a LinkedIn power user, you might want to invest in LinkedIn Premium which gives you greater exposure and access to some powerful analytical tools.

It’s not free though – Jeff Weiner built a great platform but as we all do, he wants something in return.

Google Plus is somewhat neglected these days. It’s dipped in usage from a few years ago, but is still a place worth investing time in, if only to get your business “verified” on Google and start it showing on Google Maps.

People used to +1 articles they approved of, but I’ve noticed this has become rare.

The view tachometer is useful though and it does tie in with your YouTube channel, Webmaster tools and gives you some indication of your presence on the web.

 

L. Loads of advice, but Stuart, why aren’t I seeing results?

  • How long will a SEO campaign take to show results?

  • Can you give me any free writer tips?

I asked this myself the other day, and even posted a plaintive cry on my personal Facebook page.

The internet is like the universe – it never ends.Your website, your content is a minuscule seed thrown into cyberspace.

For that seed to develop, it requires careful farming: watering, feeding, further sowing of seeds and reflection when growth appears, what you define as growth and what caused that growth.

We all dream of a viral moment, when a germ of an idea gets 1,000 shares and the internet all sitting up, with its ears pricked and tail wagging.

You need to work at content, expect to pay people to improve your services, feed the social media monsters and be patient.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, as someone said, and your business may take as long to build.

It all boils down to something termed “content marketing” and “content curation”. I’ve blogged before about the distinction between these two. I’ll summarise here:

Content marketing, as defined by the Content Marketing Institute:

“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

In simpler terms, content marketing is creating unique content that will lead to your company being seen as an authority, a thought leader which will drive sales.

Put even more simplistically, content marketing is about telling stories.

So what’s Content Curation?

A curator is someone in a library, museum or gallery who is a keeper, manager and collector of specialist artefacts.

In marketing terms, this means content curation is gathering valuable links, appropriate to the specialist niche audience and sharing them.

Content marketing is unique, valuable content with stories at their heart, content curation is sharing information and not creating it.

Any company needs a content marketing and content curation strategy.

The stories need to be told to build brand authority and relationships and trust and your company needs to curate information for its followers, audience and buyers.

You may find rival firms who are ahead of you because they’ve grasped the nettle of both content marketing and curation and worked at success.

There’s no easy fix.

Trust me.

It’s hard work.

There’s no short term solutions to SEO.

M. Make it real.

  • How do I gain credibility?

  • Do I need a testimonial strategy in place?

Your business needs a review strategy in place, whether automated through an outside agency or in-house by encouraging reviews on social media and G+.

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G+ reviews are a faff as the client firstly has to have a Gmail account and sign in to leave a review and Google seems to make it something of an onerous experience.

On LinkedIn, you can give and receive endorsements, ask for and give testimonials. These are incredibly powerful in vindicating your work to the world.

Recently, surfing copywriter websites, I found one who’d cleverly renamed his testimonial section “Yestimonial”.

Reviews, genuine reviews, from real people, not friends and family, are vital.

They gain credibility.

 

There’s got to be some substance to them too – it’s why third party marketplace sellers on say Amazon often follow up with emails asking to review their product and service; likewise eBay reminds sellers, on their dashboards, that feedback is overdue.

N. Negativity

  • How do I handle bad reviews?

  • How do I deal with trolls and keyboard warriors?

Inevitably in this internet age, there’s keyboard warriors, trolls who love spouting venom, hate and general bad will.

On Facebook, you can adjust settings so no one can message your business page or post on your wall or even ban users.

On Twitter, you can make your account private (which I don’t advise) as it limits engagement in terms of followers and retweets and likes or block irritating warriors.

Better that way.

LinkedIn can be set to private or public too.

Even though I’ve set my stall out repeatedly here about not doing things for free, as a writer; as a business you need to position yourself as a thought leader, a helpful source of advice.

People will post bad reviews – look on Trip Advisor if you want to see some real poison – but it’s up to you to decide how to respond to them.

You can delete.

You can respond.

You can ignore.

Or you can pay someone to respond for you and manage social media reviews and dialogues (not free though, sorry).

O. Organic growth only.

  • Organic – isn’t that expensive food?

  • How can I check my website loading speed?

Put simply, organic food is more expensive and generally tastier and supposedly healthier as it’s not been sprayed with chemicals and pesticides etc. You pay a premium for it as it takes specialist farmers longer to grow and has to pass stringent tests from the Soil Association.

Same with gluten free and dairy free – but that’s a story in itself.

By organic growth in SEO terms, I mean treating your content like a carrot or carat, growing in a field. You may be tempted to feed that carrot some growth juice (like PPC) or spray it to make it all slick and shiny (Adwords).

You want your website, your content to blossom naturally and over time, without the steroids of Pay Per Click – more of this further down on V.In Google Analytics, you can track all manner of visitor behaviour from what browser they’re browsing on to where they live to bounce rate.

Bounce rate was a term that initially alarmed me as good advice is that it shouldn’t be above 30%. Put simply it’s the percentage of visitors who come to your site and bounce off without exploring further.

There’s a bit more to it than meets the eye though as a social media power user explained to me very recently over coffee.

Sara pointed out that your bounce rate can seem incredible when visitors may have gone to your site for your phone number, email address or Twitter handle with no intention of exploring further as the job is done.

As well as bounce rate, keep tabs on error pages with 404s on and make sure URLs are not broken.

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Your website needs to load quickly too and those plugins or 1MB images that have not been web-rendered can cause loading times of snail proportions.

Check your site speed out on tools like Kingdom. If you want to compare others’ websites, .load in their URL, check their bounce rates (all free by the way, anathema to me I know). Your job is to analyse your own and rivals’ websites and make a plan of action to foster that O word again – Organic growth.

I didn’t say it was easy, it takes time, effort and serious thought to see things begin to happen.

P.  Publish how often?

How often do I need to publish?

How long do these need to be?

As Jim pointed out to me, just recently, in one of our many chats, content in itself doesn’t drive Google but depth of content. I could write 300 words 4 times a day and sit musing about its impact on Larry Page or spend a week writing content with 2000 words or more and hopefully see some impact.

Maybe.

That takes time though, a lot of time.

When I was propelling my own estate agency business up to page 1 of Google in the town, it worked, as I ploughed the furrow of extensive Area Guides, something no estate agency locally did and we overtook one agent established in 1854, leapfrogging them on page one of Google.

One area guide I created had 20,000 views.

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Think about it.

As well as the drip-drip feed of shorter articles and tweets and Facebook updates and Instagram uploads, create longer content.

I created 5 Area Guides, all in excess of 2,000 words, and Google reached me and patted me on the back, so to speak.

It’s something I can do for your business – but they come at a price, as I keep stating.

Your content has to answer questions though and engage.

You can’t write 2000 words of inane frippery and expect a pole vault up Page Rankings.

Q. Quality matters.

  • Do I really need to promote others?

  • Or should I promote just myself?

I’ll say something straightaway – Neil Patel, Jeff Goins and Brian Dean have me salivating.

Why?

Because these three industry SEO leaders, have mastered blogging, content marketing and social media sharing. I talk more about Brian Dean and his Skyscraper Technique later on.

What all three have in common too, apart from excellent copy skills, is their helping of others.

They each give copious advice for free, often in return for just your email address.

You see it on LinkedIn too with Influencers like Liz Ryan answering workplace dilemmas in an erudite, often amusing way.

What they all have in common too is that they are pitching for a sale – whether that’s payment for a webinar, a Kindle download on Amazon or an online course, but they do this by sharing and helping for free so you know their work is high quality and you can trust them as experts.

All influencers do something else too – they don’t footnote every article they publish with a logo or a contact me call to action. You don’t need to be footnoting every piece of copy with your logo, email address and phone number – waste of time.

As an estate agent, three people, from rival companies, not all estate agencies either, stood out for helping us.

They were generous and giving, promoting us not self.

I won’t embarrass these three by naming them here but I remember and respect each one. They’d be my three go-to people if I need their services in the future. They gave, I took, I learned, I will give something back. Human nature.

You need to foster that culture in your content.

Help and share, bathing in your munificent generosity.

R. Real life.

  • Do I need to share stories?

  • Why are they important?

No one has lived their life in a vacuum, no one has not felt moments of great joy or great despair. Okay if bearing your soul is not your style, share moments, stories.

As a writer myself, I enjoy occasional release into the wild, society, because people and places inspire me.

My most successful publication to date was based on Cromer: analytics and LinkedIn swooned over it.

In the classroom, or assembly hall, high school students were enthralled by the story of how I lost my teeth, broke my jaw and chin.

It was in Stoke-on-Trent in 1997.

Stoke is hilly.

I was cycling daily to work, taking six minutes to get to the Mitchell High School in Bucknall down Ash Bank Road, a steep incline, and twenty minutes for the same journey home.

Despite doing this 4 mile run daily, hitting 30 mph to school and 6 mph home, I came a cropper one morning when a roadside drain clamped my front wheel bending my forks and carbo fibre pride and joy, sending me head first over the handle bars with inertia making me bite the kerb.

Very unpleasant indeed.

The story though has served me well over the years and added a certain daring to my character – even though I couldn’t get back on the bike for months after due to trauma from the kerb kiss.

Another one from recent times, is how the CEO of Tesco, who was a mate of mine at school, with the rumination about the different paths taken by me and Dave Lewis.

Why do stories matter?

I think because they’re real, grounded in experience not Wikipedia or what someone once told me.

The Cromer publication with its catchy headline (How to move up, not sideways, in Crabby Cromer),featured images, quotations from Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, meant it is my most read and shared publication.

I’d love to use the V word and state its content went viral, okay not viral, but perhaps a tickly throat, it caused a cough, a sneeze of appreciation.

 

S. Self-disclosure.

  • What is self disclosure in writing?

  • Do you mean those stories again?

A good freelance writer, like those good teachers you never forget from school, shares facts and stories about themselves.

Your website copy should do the same.

The most visited section of any website is the ABOUT section – look again at yours in a detached, stroking of the chin way, and ask does it disclose enough, give visitors an indication of you, your life, your values or is it keyword stuffed with jargon?

It’s perhaps one of the reasons I changed schools so much in my career – I’m a raconteur, a storyteller who enjoys a fresh audience for my life tales, which I keep adding to.

Your website, your copy needs to engage clients with new stories and personality.

Here’s some disclosure ideas:

Talk about your family

Your pets

Things you love

Things you hate

You don’t need to put “wannabe writer” – you’re a writer so write.

Show your writing skills by writing.

Another blog post that did relatively well for me was title “My 10 biggest fears as a freelance writer.” People like lists of 5, 10 or 100 because it’s finite and measurable and people like blog posts that convey negative or positive emotions.

That headline is negative, but much of the content was humorous and positive.

Think of your “About” section, look at others and ask does it truly convey what I do, what I’m like as a person.

If it doesn’t, change it.

Add personality and anecdotal snippets.

We’ve all got stories, like the bike accident and friendships with famous people, so tell them or allude to them.

 

T. Turn up the modesty button.

    • Why do I need to stay humble?

    • What if someone imitates my content?

Your website may reach the heady heights of page 1 on Google for certain search terms, but stay humble and keep working at it. Because someone is looking closely at how you managed this and emulating, nay improving, on your efforts.

They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery and they’re right.

If someone is emulating your website, be pleased. If they’re copying and pasting, be less pleased.

Look at other websites that occupy top ranking in your field and check out each section to see what strategies they’ve used to get there.

Pick up the phone and talk to them, or talk to their web designer.

Look at their social media pages and see why they’re successful.

The number one estate agency in Norwich according to Google was established just 20 years ago yet has garnered 59 G+ reviews and a number of industry accolades.

Do they crow about it daily?

Tweet their success?

Denigrate their opposition?

Brag, brag, brag on Facebook.

Not at all.

They’ve struck gold with their humility and their excellent customer service, and it appears to have chimed in a chord with its buyers and sellers, leaving other businesses looking on, wondering.

 

I’ve learned loads in the past few years after waving goodbye to education, it’s because I’ve had mentors, champions, who’ve coached me and the precious commodity of modern life – time.

Life is one long learning curve and that is not is a glib soundbite.

Turn up your own modesty button, stay humble and ask others for mentoring, championing and support.

 

U. yoU have had the copy created.

      • How do I spread the word?

      • Is this something you’d do for free?

Your social media pages are tickety-boo, your content is being hit according to Analytics, it’s now time to reach for the killer: email outreach.

Email campaigns, carefully constructed using paid for tools like Campaign Monitor, can create massive impact.

But in the white noise of emails, you have to get the message opened, not deleted, read and responded to.

Sharing is the Golden Fleece of email outreach.

First though you need to collect email addresses and the best way to do this is to create a pop-up on your landing page, with the promise of something free when an email address is submitted.

It could be a free e-book, a competition with a free paper writer for a chosen blog, a free guide to solve something your visitors are looking for answers for.

That content, the free download, needs to have value too to maintain your credibility and then you have the email addresses gathered from web visitors who are genuinely interested in what you offer.

They’ve already committed themselves to you by submitting their email address and contact details voluntarily.

They’re half-captive, if you like.

You can then build an email outreach campaign.

Some of the biggest independent marketing industry leaders, I know personally, have nailed this strategy.

One openly shares tips on Tuesdays and Fridays and another circulates a weekly newsletter every Saturday.

Their customers who receive these, have signed up in the expectation that this information will be shared on time, every time and have something good to say.

You need to craft newsletters and blog posts as part of your email marketing campaign to capture and engage an audience.

%name print is not dead

Direct mail is another marketing strategy that is vastly under-used but uber effective method of content marketing. Read more here.

As post has decreased with online business booming, you still occasionally get golden nuggets hanging from your letter box.

Print is not dead.

I’ll tell you why.

When a great piece of marketing literature hits your doormat, you will probably read it, may put it on a table, it may get read by others like your family and friends and you may then go online to find out more.

Personally I prefer reading a physical book, rather than a Kindle download and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Recently, just killing time, I was disappointed in a big car dealership to be told that printed car brochures were no longer held in any of their showrooms but available to download at home.

I was disappointed with this as I like the feel and look and repeated rereading of a glossy brochure whether it’s on cars or caravans or sofas.

That car dealer missed a trick in environmental cost cutting as the available literature could have driven an action, a sales enquiry, a test drive, a purchase.

The content is there online, but they failed to spread that word in that showroom today.

 

V. Vehemently avoid cheap tricks

      • What do you mean?

      • Why do you dislike Pay Per Click?

There’s a reason Google removed those right hand side, margined ads from search results – people ignored them, seeing them as clickbait.

You’ll be inundated, trust me, with spam emails and cold calls, telling you how for £100 a month they’ll get you on page one of Google.

They will do this – it’s called Adwords.

There’s a problem though with it.

Skilled internet users are consciously or subconsciously trained to ignore.

Like with Sky Plus or Tivo, we fast forward through ads. We are programmed to reach for the remote to filter out content noise.

You need to foster organic growth not quick fixes.

Here’s an example from my own business:

We paid good money to promote the website through Adwords.

The company did then occupy a nice artificial page one position but did people click it?

Yes.

I know because the budget ran out.

Did it lead to sales?

No.

This is what happened: over three months it generated one speculative lead, and that was from someone in Ipswich, 57 miles away, who’d clicked the ad and wanted to know what we’d charge to manage the letting of a property in Ipswich.

May even have been a rival company?

When we focused instead on organic growth, through reviews, social media, a carefully thought out blogging strategy, we got real leads that meant 13 properties went up for sale with us.

It didn’t cost us anything, except time, but it worked.

Your business needs to do the same in whatever sector or niche you’re serving.

Strategise and aim long term for natural growth and avoid steroids like PPC.

W. Website presence.

      • How do I make sure my website is visible everywhere?

      • Can you guide me?

The web is full of free business directories, Yelp, Brownbook, Apple Maps and Google Maps listings.

But are you listed on them all?

Are your listings accurate still?

Have you checked recently?

Now I realise no one in this day and age would search for say Thomson Local and then search within their site for listings.

Same with delivered Yellow Pages and Phone Books – anachronistic and fit for landfill only?

But what these micro-search directories do is feed the Google monster, a drip drip of information that will, for free, enhance your online presence.

Include your name, address, phone numbers, email address on all manner of listings to improve your web credibility.

Attach your website details, company logo and company social media accounts to email signatures, company signage and business cards to enhance your online presence.

Direct marketing through leafletting, complete with high quality writing and graphics, can enhance your web presence.

When the micro brochure from Subaru was delivered (they knew I’ve had Subarus in the past, so it wasn’t a blind marketing guess) it drove me (pun intended) to the Subaru website, then to read reviews then to check prices.

Their website and social media links, as you’d expect from a niche Japanese car manufacturer, was visible and high quality. Did Subaru use a free marketing writer? I’ll let you decide.

 

X. eXamine the web frequently.

      • How do I keep my finger on the Google pulse?

      • What are Google algorithms?

You’re on a treadmill, you need to keep an eye on your heart rate, the pulse, so you don’t collapse or fall off.

Googling Google algorithms may not seem like many people’s ideas of a great night out nights or weeks in, but you need to pay attention.

Put simply, you can set up a Google alert on this or any other topic that will keep you informed of new information as it breaks.

Your job is to read, digest, share if necessary and act.

Many years ago, blogs were overloaded, stuffed even, with keywords. Google cottoned on and began penalising (yes giving penalties, yellow cards, red cards) to sites that stuffed themselves with keywords.

Rightly so, as it made so much content robotic and repetitive with little natural flow.

Your audience, your clients are humans who want to be engaged, entertained, informed, persuaded.

Your audience is not primarily Google, remember.

Write with a human voice, with human readers in mind.

But check the Google updates to see if your great content, that you’re paying writers and designers and photographers and PR companies to create for you, is not about to be penalised.

 

Y. You find great content – now what?

      • What’s the Skyscraper technique?

      • How will this improve my page rankings?

Otherwise known as the Skyscraper technique, this is where you use tools like Buzzsumo to find the most shared content in your field, read the top 10 and set about improving these.

The most shared article has 30 floors, 30 layers, 30 tips – read it and make that 100 or 200 or 1000.

Brian Dean says no one wants to know the 9th tallest skyscraper in a city, they want to know, see and visit the highest.

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Your website, with its content and social media strategies, needs to be the tallest skyscraper, not the one bedroomed bungalow or ground floor apartment that’s ignored daily but the tallest, biggest piece of content on Google.

Ambitious yes.

Hard work yes.

This blog post of mine, here, has been a labour of love taking me weeks to research and write. It’s not happened magically. I’ve got a family and life and I am not a distraction free writer.

But I took time to write and learn.

The skyscraper strategy builds on great content which is already answering questions your audience are looking for. Your job is to take this and make it better.

Examples: possibly the greatest model of using the Skyscraper technique is in The Lego Movie. Here you have a film about its products, marketing its bricks in a fabulous movie.

It’s a movie that made more than it cost to make in its first weekend only – now that is exceptional business success.

I know too from my days teaching Media Studies to A Level that film makers, PR and marketing companies conceptualise the console games, the merchandise before a film is often written. Which would make more money? The Lego Movie released for PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox One at £40 per disc or the movie revenues where the cinema costs have to be factored in? You know the answer, so do I.

Buzzfeed has its detractors but no one can doubt its success, so much so that its ideas are increasingly aped by other content marketers, like regional papers. Here in Norfolk, the EDP often attracts detractors arguing its content is too much like Buzzfeed. They’ve though latched on to its success and the journalists in Norwich are mimicking its style, to gain shares.

Buzzfeed builds its content, skyscraper, with lists and “How to” advice that its shares are phenomenal – not its stock exchange value, but its social shares.

Your content marketing strategy, with or without a free writer in tow, needs to think skyscrapers. It works in any field of business.

If you’re keen to promote, say, your antique business, broadening your sales to online, via a website, you could write 5000 words on the 50 best antique pieces of furniture you’ve ever seen, coupled with photos, infographics and share buttons.

Think Skyscrapers and build that content.

 

Z. Zebras to Alpacas and back again

      • Now where do I start?

      • Can you give me free writer advice as a summary?

Well done, you made it to Z, the final letter of the alphabet and this guide. I’ll give you a cyber hug or virtual high five and yes some free writer advice in my summary.

Look at your goals, your business aims, step back and take a long detached look at your online window display. Then take these first five steps:

      1. Deal with the Website – create one, rebuild or revamp. If you’re an estate agent, you need one, in my opinion, those who piggyback on portal microsites are being short-sited (deliberate mis-spelling, before you all tweet me). Get a web designer (I know great ones) to create or revamp. It’s no job for amateurs, trust me, I’ve tried and failed at it. Whatever your business, you need to work on great online visibility. It’s how consumers operate,
      2. Build Social Media presence. Stick to 2 or 3, depending on your business and find someone to build, manage and socially connect on these platforms. Facebook should be one of the favoured few, regardless of whether you dislike it or don’t use it personally. Your consumers and potential buyers do – so do not ignore it.
      3. Blogging strategy. Google rewards fresh content so invest in a freelance writer who is adept enough to engage readers and feed SEO. It will cost you, yes, but the long term rewards are massive in terms of Page Authority and consumer perceptions.
      4. Pay up. Whether it’s a web designer, a Twitter account manager, a photographer, a writer, pay up. You get what you pay for. Buy cheap pay twice. Etc.
      5. Be patient. I used the organic farming analogy before but it’s vital that you don’t see this as an overnight trip to Google heaven, page one. It’s a bicycle trip around the world, with you getting the expert support to enable you to do this and allowing the time to achieve such a mammoth feat.

To achieve success, you need the right people with the right skills, as well as strategic plans, to get you there.