From writing for print magazines and partnering with brands as spokesperson and brand advocate, Carla Birnberg, aka MizFitOnline (@mizfitonline), shares her tips and experiences and answers questions from the audience about attracting local media and finding success as a freelance writer. Carla is an award winning writer, community builder, personal trainer, and bodybuilding competitor. A blogger since 2001, she launched MizFitOnline in 2007. She believe that “fitness isn’t about fitting in” and that we should all carve our own unique path to a longer, healthier and more vibrant life.
CARLA: This was supposed to be two separate talks given by two separate people neither of whom is me. But these are really important subjects that need to be addressed and I have a little experience with both topics. I want to share with you what I know and open it up to questions and throw it back to you as experts in the field.
I’m a freelance writer…but I was sitting and listening to Emily’s (@skinnyemmie) presentation on social media and I was looking at her PowerPoint and I was kind of having a panic attack. “I should have done a PowerPoint. It looks so awesome.” And while it is really awesome, it’s not me. It’s not my brand.
I’m Carla Birnberg and I blog at MizFitOnline. I’ve been blogging since 2001. I started off getting paid in 2001 back when it was called online journaling and they paid you to write about your life. I was a mommy blogger for a while and I launched MizFitOnline about 6 years ago.
I know who I am and any success that I’ve achieved in blogging, freelance writing and with traditional media is because I clearly know who I am and what I’m not. The PowerPoint – it’s Emily and she rocked it and she’s amazing but that’s not who I am. I’m old school handouts.
I took my 6 year old daughter, who’s an integral part of my blog and my brand, and I took her to Office Max and she picked out pink paper. This is my PowerPoint. [Hands out handouts] We’re going to separate this into two pieces and with everything we talk about today, think about how this fits with you and your brand.
FINDING SUCCESS AS A FREELANCE WRITER
1. Do your homework
Before I started MizFitOnline, I did a lot of freelance writing – newspapers, magazines, etc. I was amazed to learn early on that not a lot of people did their homework before sending in a pitch or approaching a publication. Find out how if they accept freelance writers and how the publication likes to receive their queries – email, snail mail, some don’t like formal pitches. Make a list of where you want to freelance and then do your homework.
2. Pitch what only you can write
To get your foot in the door, you can only pitch what only you can write. This was a piece of advice that I received and when I thought about it, I completely blanked. I needed to sit and think about this. I pitched an article that what was mainly my experience and it was accepted. Then, when they needed something that anyone could write, they came back to me because they liked my voice, I was easy to work with, I responded to edits, they knew my turnaround time, etc. In order to get your foot in the door, come up with something that only you could execute.
QUESTION: When it comes to doing your homework, I find that it’s not that easy to find information. Where do you find information?
CARLA: WritersMarket.com. When I first started all of this, I went to Barnes and Noble and got the Writers Market Guide to Publications and they lay it all out for you – whether they accept freelancers, how to send pitches, length of stories, who to send it to, etc. I also pitched a lot of places that didn’t take freelance pitches but I always acknowledged that in the beginning. You can still pitch them.
3. Get Creative – Stay Professional
Get creative in how and what you pitch. If it’s within the confines of your brand, go for it. I have a lot of leeway with my brand. When I graduated from college, I said that I wanted to move to Cleveland and to work for American Greetings and they were not accepting freelancer writers. I took a huge paper and wrote in “What’s the difference between a cover letter and a one night stand? A one night stand is more personal.” And I wrote my pitch inside with a big magic marker. I continue to use a non-traditional approach because if fits my brand.
Think about how you define your blog, why you want to write for them, what you bring to the table and show in your initial contact what you bring that’s different.
4. Think Tiny
Start small. Get a weekly or monthly column in the local paper or local Blue Cross Blue Shield or anywhere and accumulate clips.
I get tons of emails from bloggers and brands. When I get a really long email, I hit delete because I don’t have time to read it. Keep it to 4 sentences – who you are, a link to your blog, Twitter, etc. Tell me what you want to write for me.
CARLA: And I’m sure that if you say something and Brandi is interested, she will ask you for more.
BRANDI: Yes, I will ask for more. Sometimes we have guest bloggers and it’s one time. Some do monthly, some do weekly. I promise that I’m not the only editor looking for guest posts.
CARLA: Keep it short. I say something like “Please let me know if I can send more information, etc.”
BRANDI: Something like, “I’m keeping this short on purpose. I know you’re busy. Please let me know if I can send you more information…”
5. Be Tenacious. Take Nothing Personally.
I’m up early and I pitch myself for 90 minutes every day. Be respectful. Allow a period of time before following-up. If you don’t hear anything, it doesn’t necessarily mean “No.” You have to be tenacious. You’re going to get so many Nos. I take nothing personally.
If I get a “No” I think, “It wasn’t a fit for them right now.” Don’t take anything personally. Once you start to, beyond eroding your confidence, you’ll start pitching less.
QUESTION: When spending 90 minutes a morning sending pitches, are you sending the same pitch to multiple people or unique pitches?
CARLA: I’ve sent the same pitches sometimes. When I pitch myself to a brand, I always tailor that to that brand so it’s always different for each brand.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: If you’re pitching a brand or a magazine for the first time, you want to work on the relationship part of it. First impressions go a long way. I got pitched by someone and they didn’t leave a good impression. But then I met her later on and she was totally different from that first pitch. At the end of the day, it’s about building relationships and think long-term. Don’t share too much too quickly.
CARLA: It really helped me to get someone to define my brand for me. When I first did this 3 years ago, who they thought I was and trying to portray, it was different from how I thought. Now, I find that the voice I use in my emails and articles and tweets is the same voice.
BRANDI: Know who you are pitching. Do your homework. Come up with something really new and interesting. Really know the site that you’re pitching so you’re not pitching something that they’ve already covered 15 times.
CARLA: You don’t know where people are going. I’ve been so glad that I politely declined something that wasn’t a fit for me and then 6 months later that PR person is somewhere else where is was a fit.
6. Know your worth but be willing to work for a whole lot less.
Don’t sell yourself short. Brand X comes to me and offers me $100 for a 800 word article but it’s not a great fit I might turn it down. And a passion project comes along for $0 and 2000 word article, I would probably do it. When I first started out, I would have taken that brand project just to add to my clips. You can take gigs to add to my resume. When people look at your resume, you don’t know if you’ve gotten paid or not. Find a win-win situation. If it’s a name you can leverage, sometime that’s worth more than money.
7. Be Picky. Where you write follows you.
This last one I got from my mom who is super liberal. She told me, “If you take that job, you’re going to put on your resume. It’s a job that I believe in but someone else down the road might not.” Be careful what you write and who you write for because it follows you. You cannot be everything for everybody. I’ve had opportunities to write for pretty well-known magazines but they aren’t in my genre. I don’t want to appear like I’m shooting bullets in the dark and that I don’t know what my brand is.
QUESTION: What about using video in your pitch? Do you use it?
CARLA: I will link to video. I did an “Let me be your George Plimption” for MORE magazine but it fell flat. But be creative because you never know what they will respond to.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Video gives more dimension to your personality, your voice and gives the company/brand a chance to get to know you.
CARLA: I’m never one to check my numbers. I’ll never look at my analytics because it’s not my brand. But I do have a PowerPoint that has this information but I never send it initially. I’ll do it in the second contact.
QUESTION: Do you have any tips to handle the business side like invoicing because time consuming?
CARLA: I have like 8000 reminders, Google calendars. I’m lucky because I work for great companies that remind me.
BRANDI: We have changed our “About Us” to an infographic. It doesn’t focus on numbers but it shows “This is our personality, this is who we are.”
CARLA: Twitter has been the great equalizer. It’s a good way to know Editors. It’s authentic, casual. Start there and take the conversation offline
QUESTION: If you want to use your blog as a clip, should you use your general URL or post?
CARLA: For a while, I didn’t. Now, I do send them specific links now depending on the situation.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: One of my favorite resources as a writer is mediabistro.com. They have an online writers guide that talks about how to pitch guide. It’s been pretty helpful. What was helpful for me in breaking into the field was I took a class with one of the editors of Self Magazine and we became friend. Since then I’ve written a couple of pieces for her. Now that I’ve done a few pieces, she’s willing to send more things to me.
CARLA: HARO (Help a Reporter Out) is another resource you should all know about. They are always looking for quotes and when you’re quoted in something, that’s how people find you. And once you’re quoted in a magazine, it’s easier to pitch them. You’ve made the relationship.
HOW TO ATTRACT LOCAL TRADITIONAL MEDIA
1. Don’t be me.
I didn’t do meet-ups, didn’t join Social Media Austin. I don’t have a big local presence at all. There is so much local media out there. Whatever it is in your town, the local news in your town is always looking for people. Really try to establish yourself as an expert for local radio and/or local news. I know that I would be bigger in Austin had I done more of that.
2. Pitch in the same fashion but remember you may be the social media expert.
When pitching local media and traditional media, they may not know as much or be as savvy about social media. I found that I needed to educate them more about why social media was a win-win i.e here’s my social medial platform and how it can help you. Typically you are the experts when it comes to social media.
3. Know your brand. Know your message. Be able to articulate clearly and naturally.
4. Focus on key messaging for interview. Rehearse. Be prepared to weave into any question(s).
One thing that I’ve seen Mommy bloggers do well is that if there’s a big event like conference’ or something else, they will reach out to national media and tell them that they should have me on the news and then the national station is ready for them and they know exactly what they want to say. No matter what the interviewer asks them, they will answer with exactly what they want to say.
You have to know the exact message that you want to get across no matter what media platform. You repeat back the question that you are asked because that gives you a chance to think, “How do I bring this back to me and my brand? How can I answer this question under my brand?” Be clear for yourself why you are there and what you want to get across.
QUESTION: How do you start an email pitch to local media? That first sentence is always the most awkward and the subject line.
CARLA: It comes back to knowing your worth. You have something to offer them. You know your worth. I just lay it out and am transparent. The first line is typically about their brand so they know that I’ve done my homework and that I’m paying attention to what they are doing even before you talk about yourself. Also try to figure out who you know that may know that person and see if you can use their name as an introduction. “This person recommended that I contact you.”
AUDIENCE MEMBER (someone in the PR field)
You don’t have to actually know the person that you are trying to reach out to but you have to pay attention and know what they are covering. You want to start building a relationship by showing that you are paying attention. Start pitching the assignment editor. Start in advance. Go to local website. If you have video, link to it because they want to see if you are comfortable on camera. Pitch yourself as the expert
AUDIENCE MEMBER (someone in the HR field)
LinkedIn is an invaluable resource. Use it because there will be someone here that knows someone in that town
CARLA: I don’t do tweets on LinkedIn but I use it professionally. When I want to pitch somewhere and I don’t know anyone, I go to LinkedIn. Start building the relationship with media people and bring them into your world. Once the relationship is formed naturally, then pitch them something else.
5. Be you. Be your brand.
The bottom line is be you. It goes back to being in Emily’s session and having a panic attack, stepping back and realizing that’s not who I am. That’s not my brand. Go in there being who you are. That’s why people want to work with me. The more comfortable you are with yourself, the more comfortable people are around you
AUDIENCE MEMBER: If it’s not a good fit at the time for my company, I keep the ear to the ground. I had a list of bloggers who already mentioned that they wanted to get involved in some way and I passed on those names to a colleague because I had relationships already.
CARLA: “How can I make you look really good to your boss?” is a really great question to ask the person that you are working for or pitching to. They often aren’t asked this question.
QUESTION: When you pitch yourself, do you share your numbers?
CARLA: With my 1st point of contact, it’s basically bullet points. I have that information in my PowerPoint but I don’t share that at the initial point of contact. I’ve never had anyone ask my reader numbers. I have been asked, “I saw you working with Brand X and you were on their FB page for a month, how many likes did you get them?” Most numbers they can find out themselves on Alexa or Compete or Klout.
QUESTION: What if you’re starting something new and you don’t have the numbers and you want to be proactive? If you’re at zero, how do you put a positive spin on “I’m nobody right now”?
CARLA: Guest posting. Start to get those posts out there. You are already an expert in something so pitch that. Also look at the big magazines website. They need to keep a fresh site and constantly need content.