Pitching Outside of the Box
Ever had a moment in your life when someone offered a wholly unexpected and “out of the box” approach to solving a problem?
The latest example for me happened just last week, when through a series of catastrophic yet completely understandable miscalculations, I locked myself out of my garage. After a few too many pitiful minutes pacing up and down my driveway wondering why bad things happened to good people, I decided to seize my own destiny. I set about inventing a brilliant tool for reaching the manual door mechanism using an artful fusion of duct tape, an old coat-hanger and a bottle-cap.
Early trials were promising. But tragedy struck when the Doortronic 6000 developed an unfixable bend on my third attempt.
At this point, my neighbor took pity on me. He sauntered around my garage, gave my old air-conditioning unit a shove, crawled inside effortlessly, and opened the door. If I’m generous with myself, his whole intervention took maybe five minutes from initial problem identification to sympathetically squeezing my shoulder and strolling off to finish his morning coffee.
Which leads me to one (slightly infuriating) observation:
Sometimes a person might believe they know the best way to tackle a problem, but a better approach lurks just around the corner. All it takes is seeing things from a different angle.
This trick of lateral thinking isn’t just great for getting into garages! It can also be an invaluable part of crafting a winning pitch for a prospective client. Here’s a garage door-opener luddite’s take on the art of crafting a surprising pitch, touching on:
- How to identify when a client might be missing something important
- What approaches you can take when suggesting something new; and
- Why a touch of lateral thinking might well earn you some valuable writing gigs.
Find That Gap! How to See Something a Prospect Might be Missing.
As writers working for clients, there’s a certain rhythm that it’s all too easy to fall into when building a pitch: Step 1 – Identify what a prospect wants. Step 2 – Get clarity on their vision where you need it. Step 3 – Describe how you’ll meet that vision to the best of your ability.
And this is all well and good!
But what if your client wants to achieve the metaphorical equivalent of opening a garage door with a coat-hanger? Should you focus only on straightening out the bends knowing it probably won’t ultimately work? Or is it smarter to look for better ways to achieve their goals? Here’s a few strategies I’ve found useful.
1. Take a Close Look (I Mean a REALLY Close Look!) at The Writing Brief
Anyone who’s been writing a while knows there’s a vast range in the quality of instructions you’ll get from someone seeking a writing job. Some are prescriptive right down to the finest details of style. Others will effectively be saying, “I want some nice words about stuff I sell.”
Here’s the thing though. Vagueness is useful! When you encounter conceptual fluffiness, try to get CSI-level forensic in understanding why. Here’s some actual examples I’ve stumbled across recently:
- Does the client have a solid grasp on their target audience? – Just a few days ago, I found this in a prospect’s content description: “my target audience are people that buy our products.” Now, this could simply be an example of a fed-up individual entering anything that springs to mind to stop a pesky required field from being blank. Or, it could also be a valuable clue; a smoking gun hinting that the client may not actually have a firm picture of who buys their stuff and why.
- Is it clear what kind of traction they want to achieve? – This one is where nDash conclusively demonstrates its value as a platform built for writers — because an “Objective” field is right in their company description metadata. Useful. Is that field a grab-bag of good stuff, like thought leadership, lead generation brand awareness and membership sign-ups? Worse, is it completely blank? Either way, this might be a useful window for you to pitch a granular content idea which targets one tangible, positive outcome.
While these are just two examples, hopefully you can see the bigger point I’m driving at here. Counter vagueness with precision whenever you can, and don’t always take a prospect’s content instructions at face value.
If your prospect isn’t building their content on firm strategic foundations, maybe you are the wordsmith to kick in the air conditioning unit of fuzzy thinking to reveal the treasure trove of content possibilities lying just out of reach.
2. OK, They Want an Article. But Will it Have a Good Home?
Your client may only be looking for blog post pitches, but that might be because they assume this is the best — maybe even the only! — way to build trust, strengthen brand awareness and make the sale. But anyone who regularly uses words to sell stuff knows that a fantastic blog post is almost pointless if it’s surrounded by lackluster landing pages and stale, lifeless general information.
It can therefore be a smart move to spend some time auditing a prospect’s website in its entirety. Here are some issues to scout for.
- How’s the writing? – Are you hitting content patches with noticeably bad grammar or spelling? One great place to sniff out thin and under-prepared content is in the “About Us” and “Vision Statement” sections of a client’s site. If this content is lackluster, maybe you’re the one to shine it up right nice.
- Is the product understandable? – Simplifying content takes work, and this onerous task is frequently overlooked. Check out the site’s “What We Do” and “Why Work With Us” content offerings. Is the site employing the right level of language for its target audience? If the page targets novices and uses complicated terminology, there may be a pitch you can build around simplifying their brand awareness landing pages.
- Does the brand successfully build trust? – Does the company have a face? A vision? An origin story? In your opinion, should it have one? And if so, how would you go about building that content? Before pitching specific article ideas, perhaps you can set the scene with some winning copy about the people, beliefs and vision which gave the company life.
3. Scrutinize Their Blog and Social Media With Fresh Eyes
Yep. Let’s name the elephant in the room: all of the above takes time.
Looking for out of the box solutions is an investment. But after sniffing around a prospect’s whole website, you may find you start to look at their blog and social media content differently.
You might find it’s easier to intuit where the client is a little light on content. You might even suddenly realize that one part of their core business is under-sold, misrepresented or out on a limb in a forgotten corner of their website.
Other, subtler issues might also come into sharper focus — like inconsistent voices, or blog post calls to action which don’t quite match up with the landing pages they point to.
All of this information is gold! Why?…
… Because it may just give you a glimpse of a better approach, and an out of the box pitch which startles a prospect and gets them excited about trying something new … with you steering the content wagon.
Making it Happen: How to Craft an Unexpected Pitch
If you’ve been at this a while, I don’t need to be telling you that there’s an art to pitching an article idea. You could read a whole series of articles about building a good pitch and still only be scratching the surface (that said, here’s a great place to start).
But when you’re approaching a prospect with an idea that may be new to them, these three key principles are definitely worth building into your game-plan:
1. Build a Knowledge Profile
As you read and ponder a prospect’s content strategy, it can be helpful to build a profile of their existing knowledge. Are they engaged with the writing process or do they view it as a necessary evil, like eating kale?
If you see a big issue with their branding, what’s your take on their awareness level? Are they oblivious to it? Are they aware of the problem but unsure of the solution? Or are they solution aware, but unsure of how to make it happen?
All this is going to change your approach, your language choice, even the kinds of products you’ll offer. For a graphic illustration of what I’m talking about, check this out. A good explanation requires that you know your audience!
2. Don’t Tell them Their Business. Tell them YOUR Business
This boils down to the subtleties of language. No-one wants to be told their business. Unless you’re very sure in your content area, it’s good to double-check your language to be sure you’re not presenting yourself as someone who knows more about their core business than they do.
It’s probably a bad move to tell a pultruded fiberglass manufacturer how their product works and why they should sell it differently if you’ve never worked a day in the manufacturing industry! There’s a good chance they’ll write you off as one of those slick, ego-driven writers — and worse — they’ll likely also dismiss the good content ideas you do have to offer.
Instead, show a prospect that you know your business: how to explain stuff, how to sell stuff, and how to get more eyes on their brand.
3. Let Data be Your Copilot
When presenting an out of the box pitch, it’s always a good idea to lead with data. If you think their brand needs a stronger origin story, share an authority article about how this kind of content can establish trust. If their landing page is in desperate need of a good edit, show the dodgy stuff and how you’d fix it.
And the opposite is equally true!
If you audit a brand and see no issues, it’ll usually be very transparent if you just grope for a problem to fix and try to bluff your way through it. If a better approach doesn’t jump out at you, it’s probably best to congratulate the prospect for owning a great site, pitch something they expect, or simply move on.
Why It’s a Smart Approach to Try
“Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.” – Samuel Johnson
There’s probably a ton of useful evidence out there for why an unusual and unexpected content suggestion has a good chance of working. But thinking back on the times it’s worked for me, I’m just going to own up to the fact that it probably just boiled down to simple human-nature.
We love surprises. We dig novelty. We think new stuff is cool.
A surprising pitch works because it riffs on the basic truth that, as a species, we’re drawn to shiny things.
Provided you do it artfully (and preferably with a bit less smugness than my too-cool-for-school neighbor!) there’s a good chance that an out of the box pitch will land you some useful — and potentially lucrative — wins.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by nDash community member Mark Lambert, a freelance writer specializing in management consulting, marketing & advertising, consumer electronics and other categories. To learn more about Mark, check out his nDash profile.