Setting Out Bait Online

In 1995, I created and distributed a free document called “The Freelance Writing FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About Freelance Writing.” I’ve updated it a few times since then and allowed people to post it on their web sites without a fee. That FAQ has done more than anything else to keep my 1988 book, “Freelance Writing for Magazines and Newspapers: Breaking in Without Selling Out,” in print. The last time I checked, my FAQ was posted at more than a dozen web sites and linked from scores of others as well as recommended in numerous books and magazines.

With the growth of the web, the strategy of setting out free bait for your target market has become more and more powerful. Here’s how and why it works.

Feeding the Information Hungry

On the Internet, people are ravenous for information. Correspondingly, lots of sites find it in their interest to point their visitors to the best resources available in their topic areas. If you can create a mostly nonpromotional informational piece and make it available with minimal strings attached, you’ll find complete strangers publicizing and distributing it to your benefit. Really!

In a nutshell, you start by asking what data or advice would be of value to the group of people you want to attract as customers or clients. Search to see what’s already available on that topic so you don’t spend your energy satisfying a thirst that’s already been slaked. Create something authoritative on the topic that unobtrusively establishes you, your company, or your product as serving that market. Then set out your bait online with explicit permission for people to spread it widely. Keep your piece updated; every once in a while, search for new takers; and then enjoy the results.

I concocted my FAQ after interviewing a law student named Terry Carroll. He said that his FAQ on copyright law (http://www.eff.org/pub/CAF/law/copyright-FAQ) had made him a minor celebrity with respect to the topic and helped him land his first job as an attorney. Since I’d been teaching classes on freelance writing for years, I knew the questions beginning writers had and their answers. Following the format of other FAQs I looked at, I organized 24 commonly asked questions into five categories and did my best to keep the answers concise.

Again following the pattern in FAQs that I looked at, after my title, I wrote the following:

    This FAQ is a primer on freelance writing. All comments welcome. Copyright 1995 Marcia Yudkin. [Now: Copyright 1995, 1999 Marcia Yudkin.] Electronic redistribution allowed so long as you make no changes in the file. Please address questions and comments to Marcia Yudkin at marcia@yudkin.com.

To make sure that writing and distributing the FAQ would redound to me, I also composed the last of the 24 questions to read, “And who are you, anyway?” That gave me a natural way to present my credentials and the titles of several of my books.

What Bait Will Best Draw Them In?

Although I believe the FAQ format has particular power on the Net, for you, the ticket might be an article along the lines of “Five Things to Think About Before You Hire a ___,” “11 Low-Risk Ways to ___,” “___ Demystified,” or simply “How to ___.” Call your bait piece a “white paper” if you’re appealing to a corporate population.

Resist the temptation to devote more than 10 percent of your bait piece to self-promotion. Doing so would make it less appealing for others to recommend or reprint. Producing something that benefits your market without a heavy sales pitch attached puts you in a very positive light. Put just a low-key business bio and contact information at the end to entice readers to get in touch.

My Freelance FAQ began spreading the week I put it online. I uploaded it to the newsgroups misc.writing and alt.journalism.freelance. Almost immediately, one complete stranger offered to upload it every month automatically for me, and another to put it on his web site. As the web became more popular, people collecting resources on writing placed it on their web sites, and others linked to it. A couple of times a year, I do a search of freelance writing sites and let those who haven’t yet linked to my FAQ know about it. Referring to your bait piece in your signature when you post to discussion lists, as I mentioned last week, is another way to spread it around effectively.

Think broadly about what kinds of sites might be willing to host or link to your informational offering. In addition to resource sites that aim at a comprehensive collection of topical links, consider noncompeting businesses whose visitors need to know about your specialty. For example, with some of my small-business-oriented bait pieces on marketing and publicity, I’ve had requests to repost them at sites for a stock photo company, a specialty printer, a crafts dealer, and numerous trade associations. Always request a live link to your web site and an email link to you when someone posts your piece at his or her site.

If you already have a web site, the out-of-pocket cost to add a bait piece there will usually be zero. Make sure you insert appropriate keywords in the coding and submit the page separately to search engines. If it has an appealing title and genuinely useful content for some well-defined, information-hungry audience, you’ll find this piece soon funneling leads to you — without the big expense of a conventional traffic campaign.

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