Columns by Linda Formichelli:
List all of Linda's columns
Visit our other Getting Work columnist
The Re-education of a 1099 Columnist
After I wrote the column Why the Web Sucks last month, Al Gore and a posse of hackers paid me a little visit to show me where my thinking had gone awry -- and I must admit that they were very persuasive. Why, they had me on my knees begging them for a chance to right past wrongs. They even took my husband away on a trip so that I'd have more time to think about what I'd written.
Well, after a lot of thinking and praying and recuperating, I have to admit now that I was wrong: the Internet does not, in fact, suck. I don't know how I could have been more wrong. If I had to graph the relationship between the Web and suckiness on a piece of paper, well, I'd have to tear the paper in two because there's just no connection.
I also had contact with a bunch of IPs who proved quite willing to lend a hand -- often the back of a hand -- to my re-education. Let me share with you what I've learned. I hope, for my sake, that you'll take these stories to heart.
Say you want to get the goods on a competitor, or you need to learn more about a potential client before approaching him or her (and if you don't know the gender of your prospect, a bit of research is probably a good idea). You could call the company under an assumed name, pose as a prospect, and ask them to send you a brochure. I did this five years ago, and I still receive ads and product announcements addressed to Mr. L. Formichelli at EMTAE Corp. Thank goodness my competitors never bothered to read the name backwards.
Another effective tactic -- which, I must stress, I have never tried -- is to sneak into the prospect's or competitor's office, hide in a men's room stall until after hours (because nobody has security cameras in the bathroom), kneecap the watchman while he's got his hands full at the urinal, bind and gag him, dress up in his uniform, head up to the marketing department, and take any information that seems relevant.
The third way, of course, is the Internet. Rather than risking humiliation or jail time, do what Catherine Romaine, an IP who runs the virtual marketing communications company Integrated Communication Consultants, does: check out the company online. "I can scope out potential clients online instead of calling to get their marketing literature," she says. Romaine browses the Web sites of prospects to get an idea of their products, their corporate cultures, and their styles, and tailors her proposals to the information she uncovers. Other IPs get the scoop on competitors or potential clients through directories like Companies Online.
Equal Opportunity Internet
If we put you and a corporate competitor side by side in the real world, what would we see? Most likely, a guy in a chichi Italian suit with a cell phone, a company BMW, and a million-dollar advertising budget standing next to well, you.
Online, however, things are different. Since you've wisely decided to work only with yourself, you don't have to deal with some VP of marketing constantly complaining, "No, no, no! The site's not proactive enough. Maybe you should add more blinking text." This can make the difference between a Web site that's chock-full of high-tech hoo-haws, geegaws, and thingamajigs -- and one that actually draws visitors.
Take independent documentary filmmaker Doug Block. He's no Spielberg, yet his site The The D-Word generates 60,000 hits per month for his film Home Page, a documentary about the early days of the Internet. "I didn't lift a finger to publicize the site," says Block. His journal entries about the making of Home Page began attracting the attention of Web surfers and journalists, and his content-packed site was suddenly the place to be.
This shows that when it comes to the Internet, the IP starts out on equal footing with the corporate megalith, then gains an edge through smarts, talent, and the personal touch. In fact, an article in Entertainment Weekly Online calls Twentieth Century Fox's Phantom Menace site " so cold and impersonal, it's a bit like visiting the Death Star itself," while about sites like The D-Word, the article says, " it's so refreshing to see a handful of indie filmmakers take to the Web to promote their low-budget labors of love with the same do-it-yourself spirit that got their movies made in the first place."
Lower Than Low
Another thing about that slick competitor who operates in the real world: who do you think pays for that meatspace office, that cell phone, that BMW, that extensive therapy? That's right -- the poor, hapless client.
Marsha Koller, owner of the virtual agency MBK Marketing and Advertising, knows that operating online gives IPs the marketing edge of low overhead. After she contracts out work to another freelancer by email, "Changes are spec'd and approved by the client via email, and the piece goes to the publisher or printer without ever touching my hands," she says. "Before the Web, this couldn't be done without extensive overnights or expensive color proofs. And then my company's 'edge' of offering inexpensive creative would be eaten up with additional cost, overhead, and time."
Just make sure your potential clients know that your prices are lower not because you stink, but because the Internet affords you lower overhead costs.
Around the World in 80 Microseconds
Mike Weiner, a "freelance voice guy," discovered that with the Internet, he doesn't have to be stuck working only for American clients. "A week after putting my tapes online, I got a call from Televend in Israel who hired me to voice some telephone prompts for a demo product they are rolling out," he says. "They even put it on an American Express card, so I was paid that day! I love it!"
And so do I. I really, really do. And I have Al Gore and his gang of lovable hooligans to thank for giving me the opportunity to rethink my position on the Web's non-suckiness. I can't wait to tell my husband what I've learned -- if he's ever returned to me.
We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Linda Formichelli if you like. You may also like to see her biography.