The Danger of Going “Too Broad”

I thought I had a pretty good idea of how to communicate my services, when I found myself fumbling recently over the question of my specialty. When you’re talking to people who work in different fields, an elevator pitch that offers a fairly general description of the work you do is usually good enough. But, in a room full of people who do similar work, it becomes important to know how to identify and articulate just where your strengths fit in.

The lesson reminded me of a conversation I had with a professor in college. I was trying to pick out a subject to focus a paper about Absalom, Absalom on and as I kept listing off topics, she kept saying “too broad.” After a fair amount of listing, I finally came up with a focused enough subject for her approval. I ended up writing over 15 pages on one particularly notable scene in the book. She was right, anything more broad would have made for a behemoth of a paper.

I started off freelancing thinking I had to be good at a long list of specialties to make it work, and spent the first few months learning what my professor had taught me years earlier: the importance of having a focus.

You can either be mediocre at a lot of things, or really good at a few.

Having a specialty or niche has a number of benefits:

  • It gives you the room you need to become an expert at something. No one person has the time to be an expert at a long list of skills and subjects, but any one of us can get a lot closer to that title a lot faster by honing in on a particular specialty.
  • It makes it easier to find your target audience. Whether you’re a freelancer or a business, looking for customers and clients from a massive audience is more challenging than being able to focus on a target group. A writer with experience working with oil and gas clients knows who to target, and can make a more persuasive pitch for why she’s the right pick than one casting a wide berth for any client at all.
  • You can become a part of a community. In any field, who you know is important. There’s a wide world of people out there and if you can focus your efforts on making connections with people in a few select industries, you can get more out of the relationships you have.

If you can pinpoint a focus that best fits your skills, you can approach your marketing with much greater efficiency and get more out of the time you spend on the work you do.

On Writing and Getting Paid

writing and getting paidThere’s been a lot of conversation online recently about the typical practices surrounding how for-profit publications pay writers, or whether they do at all. Prompted by the correspondence Nate Thayer published between him and an Atlantic editor, after he was asked to let them publish his work for free, many writers and editors have spoken up to weigh in on the subject, including Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic, and a large group of writers and editors at the Awl.

As a freelance writer, I’ve followed the conversation with fascination. Sometimes to the slight detriment of my own productivity (did you see the length of that Awl discussion?). It’s not a new discussion, but as with many heated topics, all that was required was the catalyst of one angry writer making a stink, and many others followed to weigh in with their opinion.

So, because I’m sure the internet is clamoring for one more voice on the subject, here’s mine.

Whether or not writers should be paid for their work depends on the intent of the work.


Obviously I need to get paid for my time and work, or I can’t make a living and would need to go back to working for someone else. I very much prefer freelance work to the alternative, so this is an important consideration. If I’m writing for a business or a for-profit publication, there shouldn’t be a question of payment. The content provided is valuable and serves a profitable purpose.

Almost any work I do that will help to promote another company or publication, I expect to get paid for.


Here’s where the almost comes in: in order to be successful as a freelance writer, marketing myself plays an important role in the equation. Many freelance writers produce content for self-promotion for free, whether that content is published on a personal blog, their own website, or as a guest post or article in an industry publication that will bring it to a larger audience.

This is the tricky line of exposure. How do you measure whether the publication of your work is doing more to promote the publication in question (in which case you should be paid) and when it does more to promote your own brand (in which case it serves as marketing and might be worth doing for free, or a lower rate than usual).


There’s an amazing series on the Hairpin called Scandals of Classic Hollywood. As I understand it, these stories, which are often lengthy and always include a number of photographs that surely take some time to gather, are written for free. They are also wildly popular on the site.

Why would someone put that much time into something without the promise of a profit? It’s clear that the writer, Anne Helen Peterson, loves the subject matter she writers about. It’s worth noting, she also recently published a book on the subject that many of her Hairpin readers rushed to buy, but my hunch is that she didn’t start the series a couple of years ago as a long-term marketing project for a book that hadn’t been written yet (although if she did, that’s brilliant marketing).

If a writer chooses to do some writing to help a non-profit she cares about with fundraising, or to raise awareness of an issue that’s of special importance to her, or for the fun of analyzing a good tv show – then there’s a drive to do the work that has little to do with profit.


So, that’s it. If you ask a professional writer to write for free, unless doing so achieves them a specific marketing goal, or it’s a piece about something they love and would likely write about anyways, don’t be surprised if you get an offended response like Thayer’s.

Unless you’re quick to offer whatever you do for a living for free to any asker, you should be sympathetic to their position.

In Praise of Humility in Business

This might sound like a strange case for a marketer to make, humility is not a trait commonly associate with Humility in Businessmarketing. Nonetheless, I think there’s something to be said for knowing your weaknesses and not being ashamed to admit them.

Groupon’s former CEO Andrew Mason made headlines by using his departure from the company as an opportunity to admit his mistakes. While Groupon’s got its share of critics, the response to Mason’s letter was primarily positive.

In the same way, a business who’s quick to admit a mistake (and assure customers you’re working on it), and be upfront about a product’s limitations, is as likely to earn points with customers as it is to disappoint them. An attempt to hide or justify flaws could easily backfire and make you looks far worse than going the honest route from the get go.

Just look at how offended people get when companies try to hide negative social media feedback.

What does practicing humility in business mean in practice?

  • Don’t oversell. Make sure your marketing makes clear what your goods or services can do, and doesn’t make it sound like they do more.  This will only lead to unhappy customers and the weakening of your brand.
  • Don’t be afraid of apologies. If your product has a glitch, you let something stupid slip through in your marketing, or a customer complains of a negative customer service experience — be willing to own up and do what it takes to make it right.
  • Be willing to turn down business if it’s not the right fit. Leads and sales are exciting and we all want as many of them as possible, right? Only if the transaction is good for everybody.  If someone comes to you describing needs that won’t actually be met by what you have to offer, don’t force it. Recommend them to someone who can help them (if you know somebody), and let them know you’d be happy to help them if they find they need your services down the line.
  • Don’t make your marketing all about you. Make your primary goal providing something valuable to your audience, and they’ll know to come to you and trust you when they need what you have to offer.

Many of these points boil down to: just be honest. If you know what you’re good at and how what you offer provides value, there’s never any need to mislead people in order to do good business.

Google + and the “End of Search”

Who likes hyperbole! Well, people who like provocative headlines, for one. Wired has a current article on “The End of Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It.” The gist of the article is that the way we interact with the internet is changing, moving away from static pages and individual searches, and more towards streams of steady information. The author calls this the “lifestream.”

“This lifestream — a heterogeneous, content-searchable, real-time messaging stream — arrived in the form of blog posts and RSS feeds, Twitter and other chatstreams, and Facebook walls and timelines…All the information on the internet will soon be a time-based structure”

You may or may not find the article’s argument convincing, but it does seem to tie in to an issue I’ve been hearing and thinking about quite a bit about recently – the recent rise of Google +.

When Google + first surfaced, it seemed primarily designed to compete with Facebook. It aroused plenty of curiosity and a good number of people gave it a try, but when it came down to it, it couldn’t compete with the main thing Facebook had going for it as a social media platform: people. Everyone was already there, and failed to feel a mass compulsion to switch it out for something new.

Now Google + is embracing a new identity. By linking Google + usage with your authority in terms of how Google determines ranking, Google + is quickly becoming a content distribution platform, with a strong influence on SEO. Or, another way of seeing it, via Copyblogger:

“Google+ is less social media platform and more backplane social layer that transformed all Google products into features of Google+.”

In other words, Google is aiming to leverage Google + into the frame through which all our internet activity is experienced. Potentially moving people away from the traditional search experience, and into a more customized version of the web – perhaps in a way that resembles the “lifestreams” described above.

Who knows if internet usage will move in this direction as predicted, but it’s inevitable that time, the evolution of technology, and people’s ideas of how technology can be used mean our relationship to the internet is bound to change. It’s important that businesses and marketers keep an eye on those changes as they occur and adapt marketing efforts to accommodate consumer behavior.

Norman Bel Geddes: Advertising Idea Man

When Norman Bel Geddes was asked to design an advertising campaign for a new type of gasoline for Shell Oil, he designed a futuristic city. Why just sell people gas if you can make them dream about a future with more cars, but less traffic?

His “City of Tomorrow” campaign managed to make cars and driving an essential component in an exciting idea for the future. It accomplished the company’s marketing interests, while also going a step beyond to inspire an interest in innovation for many who viewed the advertisement.

The 1930’s campaign imagined cities of the 1960’s with highway systems and skyscrapers – cities designed with the efficiency to house more people and make it easier for them to get around. It showed cities that seemed like a distant dream to people of the time, but mostly look kind of familiar to us now.

Bel Geddes took his ideas even further at the famous “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 New York World Fair. This is the creation that Bel Geddes is most remembered for. His sizable dioarama of another proposed city of the future, attracted huge crowds and was the talk of the town. Funded by and representing General Motors this time, it was another example of Bel Geddes going far beyond the needs of the brand and supplying his client with a piece of advertising that would far outlive most in its cultural influence and memory.

Shell and General Motors benefited from the ideas of Bel Geddes, but the influence of those ideas went far beyond the companies and made an impact on how cities were conceived and designed moving forward. Not all of Bel Geddes’ suggestions for better cities have been widely incorporated, but enough have to make his influence on how our cities look today undeniable.

The best marketing comes from ideas that aren’t just about selling a product. They give the audience something to think about, care about, or provide something of tangible value. Bel Geddes’ idea hit the jackpot, appealing to all three of these. The man was inventive and innovative on a level few people can reach. Even without access to that level of creative genius, there’s an easy to achieve marketing lesson to take away from his work.

Don’t just sell when you can inspire, make people think, or equip them with information of value to them. Go beyond making a case for why your product’s good and think of ways its uses can be tied to information or stories that will educate, entertain, or otherwise satisfy a need or desire that your target audience has.

What Bel Geddes did was content marketing long before the term became common in marketing circles. It’s just one more way he was ahead of his time.

*Images and a more thorough article on the “City of Tomorrow” campaign here.