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Case study: Eyeshot Photography

Eyeshot_SiteThis past fall, thanks to a referral from past client Ann Parker (of Grit & Wit Design, which partnered with me on the new website for CaringWorks Inc.), I got connected with Eyeshot Photography, an outfit in Scottsdale, Arizona that takes a uniquely innovative approach to wedding photography.

As one of its partners, Tom Curtis, told me, they see the eyewear company Warby Parker as an inspiration. With that example in mind, they set about re-inventing the standard formula for this particular business in order to give people on tight budgets access to truly wonderful creative work to commemorate the biggest day of their lives.

The big idea: centralize the “thankless tasks” photographers have to tackle — invoicing, image editing, marketing, customer service — for a stable of hand-selected talent, and make all of the pricing upfront and haggle-free. Result? Everybody wins. Photographers get a steady flow of business while focusing on what they do best, clients get quality work for lower-than-usual prices, and the principals reap the benefits of a growing business that’s always in demand.

As the copywriter for Eyeshot’s new website, my challenge was to explain this unusual (but really cool) business model in a way that made it attractive to future customers.  Explain, sell, call to action.

And while we definitely exercised great care over every word that appeared on the site, ultimately the task was straightforward thanks to the client’s well-thought-out prior work defining a business model and a niche. I’m really proud of the result.

Rules vs. a mongrel language

Native speakers of English may not recognize it, but our language is incredibly difficult to master. Difficult to read. Difficult (maybe more difficult) to pronounce correctly. I do not envy speakers of other languages, particularly languages such as Mandarin and Japanese, which have a lot more innate purity and order than English, trying to learn this mongrel tongue.

A lot of the difficulty is because English borrows words from everywhere. So we have the French-derived silent-t words chalet and ballet sitting side-by-side with hard-t words like millet and billet, which got Anglicized when they transitioned from Old French to Middle English more than 1,000 years ago.

While rules of grammar and usage can be tricky, and while (as I mentioned yesterday) those rules can be bent or broken at times in the service of compelling copy, simply understanding the rules of how a word is to be read, understood and pronounced can be a pain in itself.

To illustrate, read this poem which popped up in my Facebook feed today. Apparently, according to the clickbait headline, if you can read every word correctly you will be speaking English better than 90 percent of the English-speaking population.

What Winston Churchill taught me about grammar

I recently got a pretty good question from a client. After seeing some copy I’d drafted which had a few sentences beginning with conjunctions, he wondered: aren’t you supposed to avoid that? (After all, he’d had English 101 and remembered at least that much.)

So how did I answer? Was this professional malpractice on my part?

I don’t think so. Here’s why:

Winston Churchill was once chided by a woman for ending a sentence with a preposition. He thundered at her, in mock agreement, “Madam, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall never put!”

Love that guy.

Like Churchill demonstrating the absurdity of adhering to certain arbitrary rules no matter how much they mangle your syntax, this one works the same way. In general one should avoid beginning sentences with “And,” “But” and “Or” — or any other similar conjunction. If you are consistently beginning sentences with conjunctions, that should be a clue that you can restructure your copy to be clearer, more concise and more powerful.

That said, there are undeniable times when it’s the right choice to drop one of those in there. While “proper English” is an exact science, copywriting is more of an art, and a good copywriter knows when to bend or break the rules for the sake of flow, rhythm, or grabbing attention.

For instance, Strunk and White tell me not to use sentence fragments. But sometimes? That’s exactly what you need.

How a tomato made me more productive

People with desk jobs: be honest. How much time do you sacrifice every day to the temptations of Facebook, Twitter, online shopping, Buzzfeed lists, etc.?

Or, how much time do you spend “doing email” and resorting to other low-priority items when you have a big deadline looming?

Finally, if you lock yourself in your office for four hours with the intent to really “get some work done” because you’re swimming in it, do you really get four hours’ worth of value from that time?

I bet every single one of these scenarios has your head ruefully shaking. And guess what? It’s even worse for those of us who work from home at times. (*waves hand*) There’s always the temptation to run a load of laundry, pick up a cluttered room, or load the dishwasher instead of writing that speech, that ad, that tagline.

I knew that in order to keep doing what I love, I had to come up with a productivity trick. What I stumbled across was “Pomodoro,” which isn’t a style of red pasta sauce, but is a technique (popularized by Francesco Cirillo) for cranking out work in a counterintuitive way. Want to shop online? Check Facebook? Pay bills? Go ahead! Just mind the timer.

The way Pomodoro works is that you set a timer for a certain length of time (for me it’s 30 minutes) and focus just for that period on the project at hand. You ignore Facebook, non-project email, anything that isn’t The Thing You Need To Do. Then when the timer dings, you set it again (for me that’s 15 minutes) and give yourself permission to scratch all those itches. “Like” that status. Retweet that joke. Etc. Then when the timer dings again, you get back to work.

Despite taking frequent breaks, what I’ve found is that I’m FAR more productive (and far LESS guilt-ridden!) with a block of time when working this way. Plus, if a project is engaging, I’ll just re-set the time for another 30 minutes and keep working.

I haven’t gone deep into it (i.e. I won’t be getting my Certified Pomodoro Master badge any time soon) but it’s a trick that works for me. What productivity tricks do you use?

On Monday, I’ll talk about another trick I’ve recently discovered, this one a bit more technological…

Atari vs. Intellivison

Intellivision_Plimpton“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

It’s a truism, but is it actually true? I can immediately think of a few counterexamples. As a child of the ’80s, I can well remember a skirmish between two competing video-game platforms: the Atari 2600 and the Mattel Intellivision. The Intellivision was a much better machine — there was surprisingly little argument about that. And George Plimpton popped up on your television regularly to offer a smug reminder. (How many of you played “Pac-Man” or “Adventure” on the Atari? Painful.)

Yet the Intellivision remained a cult console. In my small town, I had two friends who had one, and dozens of friends who had Ataris. Despite the unflagging efforts of poor George, Atari simply did a better job in promotion and market penetration.

A similar story played out, just a little later, when VHS and Betamax competed for videocassette supremacy. Everyone agreed that Betamax was better. But we all know that VHS won the battle.

Business lesson? Being the “better mousetrap” only gets you so far. You have to hustle, promote, and get your name out there. After all, it doesn’t matter if you’re the town’s best nonprofit copywriter if none of the big 501(c)3s know your name.

I am preaching to no one but myself here. I have relied heavily on word of mouth, and very little purposeful marketing, since starting this business seven years ago. I think it may be time to think a bit more “Atari” and a bit less “Intellivision.”


Lots of work on my plate, so no post this morning. (Sorry if you showed up looking for one.)

But that easily leads to a mini-post, aimed at fellow creative professionals. When you blog and engage on social media in order to offer value and promote your work, how do you deal with those days when there are just too many deadlines to set aside 30-60 minutes to post? Do you discipline yourself to carve out the time no matter what, or do you simply skip it?

And no matter what you actually do, what do you THINK is the best approach? I’m curious.

Defining your terms

Thanks to a techie friend who does this kind of work for a big company, I have gotten some timely tips and tricks for maximizing the value of this site. There has also been some entertainment value along the way.

One thing my friend had me do was create a Google Webmaster account, and along with that comes info from Google analytics, which tells me what search terms people had been using. Some of them are logical, like “Reid Davis” and “tastemaker” googleand in those cases, I’m hoping they found the ‘droids they were looking for.

Others have some logic to them. Take “one flight down Norah Jones.” I did a cover feature on Norah Jones for Paste Magazine, and that was hosted on the old version of this site. “Rogers and Cowan client list” also makes sense, because I one did a bio for the band EchoJet for Rogers and Cowan, a west-coast entertainment PR firm, which means they were listed among my clients. Even “nihilist chewing gum,” a head scratcher at first, made sense when I realized I’d written a magazine feature on Lebowski Fest, a celebration of the cult film that features, yes, some nihilists chewing gum.

The one I really can’t figure out, though? “Dirty undies band.” Um… help? Not sure what that query is all about, and I have no idea why that would have sent someone here. I’m not curious enough to type that into Google myself, though.

How about you? What off-the-wall search terms have sent people to your sites? And does that truly give you any insight?

To niche, or not to niche?

Yellow PagesIt’s a truism in copywriting circles: if you really want to be successful, you’ve gotta have a niche. “Copywriter” is too general. But “holistic health direct-mail copywriter?” Son, that may be territory you can truly own. Get out there and niche-ify yourself, and watch the business roll in.

But since founding this business in 2007, I’ve resisted this idea. After all, one of the things I truly loved (and still love) about self-employment is that you can do a little bit of everything, as long as you have the skills and experience. For me, this means that as a freelancer I’ve managed and assembled publications while writing everything from executive speeches to taglines, from fundraising materials to radio ads, for organizations ranging from professional societies to local catering companies.

But since anything you do well leads to more of that thing, over time I’ve found myself carving a few parallel niches just by default — nonprofit/fundraising, consumer product copy/ads, and website/identity/marketing copy for small and mid-size businesses.

I do recognize the wisdom in “niche-ifying” and in carving out unique territory. It narrows down what kinds of clients you need to chase, while establishing yourself as an expert. So while I love the variety of my work, I’m taking my first steps in this direction and acknowledging what my three main businesses and client types truly are.

What do you think? Is picking a “niche” limiting, or freeing? And for those who have defined niches, how have you selected them, and what have been the results?

SEO vs. good copy?

The term “SEO” has been a huge buzzword for the past half-dozen years. It stands for “search engine optimization” and refers to the somewhat murky practice of writing copy loaded with keywords to make it friendly to search engines. (There’s also a practice of linking and seeking inbound links that goes along with the tactic, but I’m mostly talking about “keyword bingo” today.)

Anyway, as a copywriter I’ve consciously avoided SEO up to this point. Why? Because a lot of “SEO-driven” copy looks really fake and obvious to me. When I see the words “North Atlanta photographer” used five times in a short paragraph, it’s a dead giveaway.

That said, as I build this site, I’m faced with my own SEO challenge. Do I want to rank high in Google‘s search listings for “Atlanta nonprofit copywriter?” No doubt.

And that leads me to my own clients. Is there a way to write artfully and clearly, yet also hit SEO targets simultaneously? Is there a way to “artful SEO” or “subtle SEO?” I’m honestly asking this question, because I don’t know the answers. But I know that I want to know more, and possibly incorporate it into my practice if I can figure out a way to do it and not spend the entire time cringing.

Which shoes?

The last few days have found me surfing for WordPress themes. Right now the shortlist includes Roxy Bird, Proxima, and the Swiss Army knife of StudioPress.

Why am I blogging about this? Let’s just call it a case study. I’ve worked with a lot of clients to build sites, but have never been overly concerned with the look or the structure. I provide copy and some best practices for where to put it, and they do the rest. (Or a trusted partner does.)

(In fact, right now I’m about to begin work with a client using what I now realize is a Proxima variant.)

But the end result here is that the cobbler’s son is going to be getting some shoes just as nice what the cobbler’s customers wear. The only question is: which shoes?

So, for any of my creative friends reading this, I’m curious. How do you use WordPress? What themes do you like? What tricks should I know?