Lord of the Ink: Return of the Freelancer

I’m back to freelancing. Although, when I think about it, did I ever really stop?

One Does Not Simply Cease to FreelanceI’ve tried working at other companies — big Fortune 100 firms, tiny startups, medium agencies —but no matter the flavor, if I wasn’t working for myself things just didn’t seem to, well, work. I crave the flexibility and variety that freelancing provides too much to work for anyone else. And now that I’m a new mama, that flexibility is more important than ever.

How about you? Do you love freelancing? Hate it? Want to give it a try but are nervous to take the leap?

Does Ugly Duckling Branding Work?

ugly ducklingI recently had lunch with a friend who said,

“I don’t want my non-profit to look too polished. Then people will think I don’t need the money. We go for the ugly duckling effect.”

This got me thinking. Does the ‘ugly duckling’ effect work?

First of all, let’s think about what branding is.

Branding is the way people interacting with your organization perceive you.

A polished brand is:

  1. Consistent
  2. Visible
  3. Unique

But wait — you might ask — where are the things like websites and brochures? Isn’t that branding? Well, yes and no. Branding elements, or tactics, (websites, brochures, public service announcements, social media, etc.) are extensions of your brand and combined give an overall impression about your organization. This impression is your brand, not the individual components themselves. Think of it like your reputation. If you generally punctual, prepared, and turn in assignments on time, it’s fair to assume that people will perceive you as responsible. It’s the consistency of these actions, together, that create your reputation (or personal brand, but that’s a whole other post).

So, when you talk about having an ugly duckling brand, you’re saying you don’t want a polished brand. You’re saying that you’d prefer mismatched materials, that no one sees, and you just want to be like everyone else. If that’s your goal, no doubt, it will be difficult to raise money. Think about non-profits that you admire. Is this how they present themselves?

I believe what my friend (and anyone else who believes in this philosophy) was trying to express was the fear of being perceived as not being good stewards of the money that was entrusted to them. Fair point. It doesn’t make good fiscal sense to spend $30,000 on a beautiful, custom-designed website, when your operating budget is only $100,000. But good branding doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

Here are some ways that you can achieve a polished brand without blowing your budget. All of these can be accomplished on your own, without spending a dime on consultants. But, should you find yourself stuck, there are definitely people out there (insert shameless plug here) who can help you out.

Conduct a Brand Audit (Consistency and Uniqueness)

The word “audit” can conjure images of grey-suited CPA’s threatening to shut you down. That’s not what we’re talking about here. An audit is just an objective lay of the land. There are two steps. 1) Gathering materials, and 2) Making an assessment. When you conduct a brand audit, you look at ALL your marketing materials: letterhead, business cards, social media, brochures, press releases, and a whole lot more. Then, you look for places where you can improve. Are your materials consistent? Is your logo easy to identify?  Does your writing convey the personality you’re going for?

Create a Style Guide (Consistency)

We use guides all the time. Think of traffic signals, flow charts, and “this end up” stamps on boxes. Guides are ways to help communicate how something is done. They prevent accidents, ensure progress, and help make sure that lamp your godmother gave you in college doesn’t get smashed in your next move. Style guides do the same thing, but for your brand. Typically, they’re broken into two different sections: visual and voice. Visual style guides will address things like which colors to use and how your logo should appear, while voice explains how the personality of your brand is conveyed in writing (along with nit-picky grammar topics like whether or not to use the Oxford comma). If you do a lot of work online, you might also choose to have a style guide just for the web. Nancy Schwartz has a great post called, “How to Create a Nonprofit Style Guide” that you might want to check out.

Study Guerrilla Marketing Tactics (Visibility)

Maybe you’ve heard of guerrilla warfare? Small groups find ways to capitalize on their flexibility when they don’t have a lot of funds. In war, this means ambushes, raids, and sabotage. I’m in no way suggesting you engage in unethical practices, but if you don’t have a lot of budget how can you make the most out of what you DO have? Jay Conrad Levinson literally wrote the book on guerrilla marketing. On his website, you’ll find tons of articles about direct mail, telemarketing, and email (hey, those sound like marketing tactics that you probably rely on). Most of the content is written for an entrepreneurial audience, but the core message certainly applies to the non-profit world, too.

So, what do you think? Are you ready to turn your ugly duckling brand into a beautiful swan? Or, do you still hold true to the idea that a brand that’s not quite polished is more effective? It’s a great topic, so I’d encourage you to leave a comment below and let’s keep the conversation going.

6 Tips for Writing a Powerful Non-Profit Mission Statement

If your organization were a car, your mission statement would be the tires. Without one, it would be really hard to go anywhere; it’s the part on which the rest of the components rest.

So, it’s important. You’ve got that. But what you need help with is creating a mission statement that’s strong enough to support your organization (just like you wouldn’t want car tires made out of silly putty) and flexible enough to allow you to respond to changes (just like how steel car tires wouldn’t get you very far either). Here are some tips on writing a mission statement that works:

Keep it short. One sentence. Maybe two. A good test for this is can you repeat it without having to “memorize” it? If you (and your staff) can’t repeat it often, it’s not going to do its job. The American Lung Association does a good job. Their mission is, “to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease.” Easy. Short. Effective.

Stay specific. Yes, we have big hearts and want to help everyone. But being too broad can actually harm your programs. A mission I ran across when researching this article that demonstrates this well is:

Non-Profit XYZ exists to do all the good we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as we ever can.

Wait, what?! That sounds like a nice ambition, but it’s not a very effective mission statement. There’s a saying in the for-profit world, “the riches are in the niches” — and that applies in the non-profit realm as well. The more specific you can be about who you serve and why, the easier it will be for foundations and governments to fund you.

A program does not a mission make.  Many non-profits mistake a successful program for their mission. But remember, a mission statement describes the ends, not the means; it describes what you’re trying to achieve, your ultimate goal, not the programs you implement to fulfill your mission.

Using a program to describe your mission severely limits you. For example: The mission of AfricaXYZ is to collect personal computers in the United States and place them in schools in Africa. That’s an amazing thing, but it’s not a mission. It’s a program. Let’s say their program was really successful, so they wanted to start collecting computers from Europe. According to their mission, they can’t — they only collect computers from the United States. Or let’s say a cell phone company approaches them for a partnership. Well, darn. That wouldn’t fit their mission either, because they only collect personal computers.

See the difference? A better mission for this organization might be: AfricaXYZ provides technology to African students, so that they can achieve the same potential as children in first-world countries. Effective missions describe the why, not the how.

Use plain language. The people reading your mission are bombarded with millions of competing pieces of information vying for their attention. So, how do you stand out? Plain language. Use plain language by choosing a conversational tone and easy-to-understand words, among other things. Plus, for government agencies, plain language is required by law according to the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

Don’t try — do! It’s easy to let wishy-washy words sneak into our mission statements. Words like “try”, “seek”, “influence”, “encourage”, “works to”, “attempts”, “aims”, “helps” give the impression that we’re not actually successful in fulfilling our missions. Put a stake in the ground and use declarative words. The American Lung Association doesn’t “attempt to save lives”. They save lives. What does your organization do?

Avoid writing by committee. Yes, you have to get buy-in from others, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the integrity of your writing. Watch this short video by Dan Heath with Fast Company to show how your really effective statement gets warped into a meaningless jumble of mess when other people get involved, and how to avoid it.

Your mission statement is the torch that will guide your organization for many years to come, so it’s worth the time, energy, and attention that you’re devoting. Have a tip you want to share? We’d love to hear it. Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

Closing a door. Opening a window.

Today, we wrapped up the last client at Corgibytes. Sad, indeed.

For the past two years, I’ve worked with my husband building websites and apps. But, after three very expensive lessons in a row, we had to pivot. So, Scott accepted a full-time job and will continue to build apps in his spare time.

Where does that put me? For awhile I felt like I was in a professional vacuum. My job at Corgibytes was development, marketing and customer service. Now that we’ve changed our business model, there’s little need for me.

So, I’m going back to my roots, with a twist. For six years, I’ve worked as a professional writer and I’ve worked with some amazing organizations (especially over the past year). I started to notice a common thread — my favorite clients are all working to make the world a better place. So, that’s where I’m putting my stake in the ground. Communication services for non-profits and socially-conscious businesses.

We’ll see where this new adventure takes me — but the destination doesn’t really matter, I’m just enjoying the ride.

Have you ever had to reinvent yourself? How did it turn out?

5 Takeaways from Creating Change at Discovery Communications

create change posterI jumped up and down like a four year old when I received the email. Peyton Rowe, my “friend in reward (not crime)” was inviting me to join her at the CreateAthon -inspired event Creating Change at Discovery Communications. Sure, there were things that needed to be shuffled, but none of the life logistics even entered my mind when I replied with a resounding, “YES!!”

Now, here I am. Bouncing around between the 24 creative teams. A mission statement here. A social media plan there. All of this work is helping create professional marketing materials for different non-profits in the DC area. Imagining the positive impact that just this event boggles my mind in a good way.

I snagged a sunny spot in the atrium to share a few tidbits about my experience.

1. Past professional lives matter.
Immediately after registering, I was introduced to Jennifer Cortner, VP of Account Services at Discovery Creative. Yeah, she’s a big wig around here. So it was pretty amazing when we played the you-look-familiar game and recalled meeting each other at Success in the City’s Social Media Nouveaux conference in 2007. At the time, I worked as a freelance writer/social media consultant and Jennifer was President of EFX media. It just goes to show that good work and good impressions are always important.

2. Corporations are vital to creating social change.
Last week, when I posted a question on a LinkedIn group about non-profit development, I got a comment that struck me to the core.

[At our non-profit] all members work free of charge in our poorest community and not one cent of funding goes towards any administration, office rental or transport. This is our way of giving – selflessly. If you have the compassion to work with the poor, then do it voluntarily, and not turn it into a business.

This us vs. them attitude really affected me. After reflecting, I came to the belief that in order for REAL change to occur, it needs to be part of our social fabric at every level, not just with the seemingly selfless individuals who can afford to be full-time volunteers. The idea of changing our world for the better needs to be the forefront of our minds — all of our minds.

Corporations have the resources (not just money, but talent and infrastructure) to make a huge impact. Businesses are not bad — they are a critical part of the solution.

3. Shorter missions get greater impact.
A lot of the work today has been helping non-profits revise their mission statements (I think the longest I saw today was two paragraphs long). One of the amazing tests of whether a mission works is how easy it is to recall. For example, employees at Discovery can state without blinking or thinking that their mission is, “satisfying curiosity through non-fiction media.” Six words. That’s it. It’s easy to recall, repeat and reinforce.

A mission is more than a jumble of words written by committee. It’s a living, breathing statement about why your organization exists. Its goal is simply to get people to stop, think, and ask to learn more.

4. Action trumps ideas.
As I look around at the amazing-ness that is Creating Change, I have to think back on how it all got started. On a summer night in 1998, Cathy Monetti and Teresa Coles had an awesome idea — stay up all night and donate the work to charity. A great idea, truly, but it’s their courage and commitment to making it happen that I find most remarkable.

How many of us have had those light bulb moments? “We should……!” “Wouldn’t it be great if……!” “How about…..!” Ideas are easy. Execution is hard. Because Cathy and Teresa followed through, they created change. Big change.

5. This is absolutely, positively, what I want to do with my life.
When I met my husband, I knew within a very short time that this was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Now, with CreateAthon, I’ve found the professional equivalent of a match made in heaven. I want to help CreateAthon grow. I want to help corporations and creative agencies implement the marathon model for pro bono services. I feel like all my experience; sales, social media, senior writer at a corporate conglomerate, social advocate, board member, and more, has all occurred to prepare me for this moment. To expand the reach of CreateAthon. To help non-profits get the professional communications they need to thrive. To make the world a better place and create lasting change. I couldn’t be more grateful and I’m thrilled to see what adventures await me as I skip merrily down this new life path.

A Potential Adieu

cat-out-of-the-bag-2.jpgWell, it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. I’ve accepted a position as a Senior Copywriter for a large Fortune  500 company and I’m super stoked about this opportunity.

See, landing a job as a full-time copywriter is sort of like a singer who makes it to Broadway. There are simply too few organizations who can afford a full-time position that most of us end up freelancing to make the best of it. I’ve certainly enjoyed freelancing and I’m looking forward to working with and learning from a team of top talent.

So….the question remains. What am I to do with my blog? I won’t have the time to dedicate like I did when I was freelancing. Yet, my readership is decent and I don’t want to disappoint. I’m considering continuing to post once a week or so as long as I have people who are getting value out of what I have to say. Like I said in my bio – I don’t want to be blogging just to hear myself type.

So, please, let me know your thoughts. What do you enjoy reading the most and how can I continue to serve you through this blog? Leave your answer in the comments below.  🙂

To your success,

Andrea

Humble Thoughts On Blogs, Social Networks, and other New Media Stuff

Last week Geoff Livingston and I participated in Smart Business Ideas(TM) Magazine’s Ready, Set, Grow event where the topic focused around blogs. Since our presentation I’ve been receiving e-mails from those in attendance regarding my opinion on social media. So here it is – humbly submitted, of course.

Who should blog?
Blogging is not for everyone. Keep in mind that although the operating costs are minimal, you still have to invest a significant amount of time to research, write and promote a blog. In my opinion, here are the three things you must have to start a blog:

1. Passion for a subject – I’m passionate about marketing. I could talk about this stuff all day long. To me, it’s easy to find stuff to write about because marketing is a topic to which I naturally gravitate. And you can tell just from reading my blog that this is really my life. My personality comes through because I’m passionate. Now, if I were to write a blog about, say, accounting (not a subject where I naturally gravitate) because someone said I “should” it wouldn’t have nearly the same effect because every time I would sit down to write a post I would hate it. Inevitably (if I had a blog about a subject I wasn’t passionate about) I would try to take shortcuts by reading and repeating what everyone else is saying without interjecting my own thoughts. At that point I would simply be regurgitating instead of contributing positively to a conversation.

2. Time – While the actual overhead expenses of maintaining a blog are (generally) low or no cost, you can’t forget about the time it takes to maintain a blog. Keep in mind there is more to blogging than simply sitting down to write.

A. Research – Reading related blogs so you know what’s going on around you takes time.

B. Writing – Hashing out your idea into a cohesive thought takes time.

C. Editing – Revising your cohesive thought so you don’t sound like a bumbling idiot takes time.

D. Analyzing – Checking your stats, referrals, and understanding what your readers like takes time.

E. Promoting – Registering at Technorati, putting widgets, continually adding to your blogroll, responding to comments and the thousands of other ways you can promote your blog takes time.

If you blog once a week, plan on investing at least 5 hours a week (especially in the beginning when you are getting everything set up) to produce a quality blog. For each additional post per week – add 2 hours. (Oh, and for those people who tell you they crank out a post in 10 minutes – I don’t buy it. Quality writing takes quality time.)

3. Dedication – I really liked how Geoff put it in his presentation last week – “Bloggers must be sharks. Not in the sense that they are aggressive – but in the sense that if they stop swimming, they die. Blogs where the author stops posting die.” With that in mind, you must commit to posting on a regular schedule. Yes, it’s tough – but it’s the way it is.

Facebook vs. Myspace vs. LinkedIn
Social networks are popping up everywhere. Yes, they can be amazing business tools. But they’re kind of like address books – they’re only as useful as the information in it. My advice? Don’t spread yourself too thin. Pick one and go deep. Don’t bother with other ones until you’ve mastered the first. If you’re new at all this, I personally think LinkedIn is designed to be the most effective in a business setting (and is the most intuitive to set up in my opinion). Myspace is more personal. Facebook is a little bit of both.

Widgets, Twitter, Second Life & Other Randoms
This July at the New Media Nouveaux Conference, speaker Brian Williams mentioned how learning about all this new Web 2.0 stuff is like “drinking from a fire hose.” And it’s an accurate description. It can be overwhelming, especially when you feel pressured to participate in every single type of tool available. Here’s how I see it – there are enough new tools out there to keep you busy for 27 lifetimes. So, if the premise of the strategy doesn’t feel right, you shouldn’t feel like you “have to” participate. I don’t use Twitter or Second Life because at this point in time, it isn’t a good return on my time investment. As I said before – it’s more effective to go deep into one tool instead of spreading yourself thinly across many.

I know my opinions are more down-to-earth than most – but hey, it’s what I think. What about you?