Hiring Solar Copywriters, Part 2 – Paying by the Project

Hiring Solar Copywriters - Solar Energy WritersYesterday, we looked at the pros and cons of paying solar copywriters by the hour.  Today, we’ll look at the advantages and disadvantages of project-based pay rates.

Paying Solar Copywriters by the Project

Whether for one-off blogging assignments or much longer writing campaigns, paying by the project has very obvious appeal for many clients.

You know what you’re getting and you know what you’re paying (more or less).  But the advantages don’t stop there.

Let’s explore why so many copywriters and clients prefer project-based payment systems.

Advantages of Paying by the Project

  • Pricing Certainty

Per-project rates offer greater certainty.  Whereas per-hour rates can sometimes go over budget, project rates are easier to determine in advance – usually.

Many clients enjoy this security – especially when resources are tight and they need to count every penny.  However, this certainty is not necessarily etched in stone (as we’ll see in the disadvantages down below).

  • Comparison Shopping

Per-project rates give you a standard metric against which to compare different copywriters.

As you shop around your project with different solar copywriters, you can easily determine which one gives you the best bang for your dollar.  This, of course, assumes that you’re comparing copywriters of relatively equal experience and ability.

  • Background Research & Incidentals

As the client, you don’t have to worry about miscellaneous charges.  It’s the copywriter’s job to factor in whatever research, travel, and expenses she’ll incur while completing your project.  You pay one lump sum and let the copywriter worry about execution.

Straightforward enough.  Now the downsides of paying by the project.

Disadvantages of Paying by the Project

  • Changing Project Scopes

You lose some wiggle room if you pay by the project.  Requirements often change over time.  You might want to expand a section, extend a deadline, or remove a few pages.

Any one of these changes requires that you reassess payment terms.  If work has already begun, it may be difficult to agree on what those new terms should be.

  • Accuracy in Value

Some clients feel that paying by the project exposes them to overpaying.  The rationale is that if a project is completed sooner than expected, the copywriter shouldn’t receive as much money.

I don’t agree with this reasoning, but I occasionally have to deal with it.

As the client, you’re paying for a finished product.  Assuming that the quality is up to your standards and all deadlines are met, it shouldn’t matter how long that product takes to complete.

I’ve actually had a client who refused to pay in full because he was upset (yes – upset) that I had returned the finished project back a full week ahead of schedule.

When asked about the quality of the work, he admitted that it was excellent.  But he placed greater value on time invested than on the finished product itself.

I included this disadvantage here – not because it is a true strike against paying by the project – but because both clients and copywriters need to be aware of miscommunications.

  • Dwindling Commitment

This one is rare.  But I’ve met clients who shared horror stories of projects that extended far past the expected deadline.

As a result, the copywriters they hired became increasingly less committed to the project.  After a certain point, these freelancers felt that they had already completed as much work as they needed to do.  Any hours over were provided at a loss to the copywriter.

This should never happen.

  • It’s the client’s responsibility to clearly communicate all expectations and provide all relevant resources in advance.
  • It’s the copywriter’s responsibility to estimate how long the project will take, based on this information.

If the project takes longer than expected (and the scope, deliverables, etc. remain unchanged), the writer needs to finish the project as agreed – even if he or she must put in extra hours.

As I said, this is rare, but it’s something both sides need to keep in mind.

And this concludes our discussion of project-based payment systems.  Tune in next time when we discuss paying by the word (or page).

In the meantime, share your own experiences with project-based payment systems that worked (or didn’t work) for you.

Hiring Solar Copywriters, Part 1 – Paying by the Hour

Hiring Solar Copywriters - Paying by the HourAs you shop your next solar marketing project around with different copywriters, it’s easy to get confused by all of the different payment systems out there.

Some copywriters charge by the hour, others by the word, and still others by the project.  This can make comparison-shopping a real challenge.

But in truth, most payment systems are fairly interchangeable.  I generally charge by the word, but if you need a per-hour rate, I can easily do the conversions and come up with a time-based quote.

You might be asking yourself, “If all the systems are interchangeable, then why does it matter?  Comparison-shopping shouldn’t be difficult at all.”

In a way, you’re right.  It doesn’t really matter.  But each system has its own pros and cons – issues that you need to factor in when selecting a payment system that suits the needs of the project.

In the next several posts, we’ll explore these advantages and disadvantages:

  • Part 1 looks at charging by the hour
  • Part 2 focuses on charging by the project
  • Part 3 explores per-word rates
  • Part 4 tackles performance-based pay
  • Part 5 deals with communicating your requirements and selecting the best system for your needs

Let’s begin.

Paying Solar Copywriters by the Hour

Hourly rates are pretty common within the copywriting community.  I personally have mixed feelings about them – the pros somewhat outweigh the cons in my book.  But let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of this pricing system.

Advantages of Paying by the Hour

  • Familiarity

Hourly rates are familiar.  Car rental agencies, lawyers, wedding cover bands, and most of the corporate world bill their clients by the hour.  There’s no learning curve required – no education needed for either party.

  • Background Research

Hourly rates make it easy to factor in non-writing activities like research, formatting, proofing, and editing.  There’s a lot of footwork that goes into producing a quality document, and hourly rates help compensate for this.

  • Expanding Scopes

Hourly rates make it easy to address changes in direction.  What begins as a simple white paper on solar financing can easily grow into a 50-page eBook on financing, incentives, rebates, and project payback periods.

If you’re paying by the project, you need to constantly reassess deliverables and timelines.  But if you’re paying by the hour, you simply factor in whatever additional time is needed to complete the newly defined deliverables.

The same goes with project scopes that become shorter.  Some clients need to halt or reduce a writing project.  With hourly rates, this usually isn’t a problem.  The copywriter can just bill for whatever time has already been invested.

  • Ongoing Deliverables

Hourly rates are great for ongoing projects (like SEO or AdWord campaigns).

Perhaps you want your solar copywriter to invest 2 hours a day distributing content to partner sites and checking Google Analytics.  It’s very difficult to assign a per-word or per-project rate to these types of activities.

Those are just some of the main benefits of paying by the hour.  Let’s look at the downsides.

Disadvantages of Paying by the Hour

  • Penalizing Efficiency

A less experienced solar copywriter will usually take longer to produce the same level of quality as a veteran writer.  And yet, the novice earns more because he’s billed more total hours.

This same problem manifests in other ways as well.

One of the benefits of being a “solar energy” copywriter is that I specialize in just one industry.  All things being equal, I’ll require less research, fewer hours, and less preparation than a generalist would for the exact same project.

The quality of the writing may end up being the same, but because of my more specialized focus, I actually make less than a generalist would if we both charge the same per-hour rate.

  • Monitoring

Hourly rates are harder for clients to monitor.  Whereas a per-word rate or per-project rate is easy for both sides to assess, hourly rates require a greater level of trust.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the next copywriter payment system in the line-up – paying by the project.

Solar Marketing 101: Walking Visitors through Solar Energy Incentives, Pt. 2

Solar Marketing 101 - Solar Energy IncentivesIn Part 1 of this post, we explored the importance of solar incentives and how promoting them could help combat some of the very powerful misconceptions surrounding solar PV affordability.

Today, we continue the discussion and look at a couple more options for educating users and making your solar marketing efforts more effective.

Option 2: Link to Official Solar Incentive Websites and Programs

If you don’t want to rewrite a ton of information, you can always link directly to the official solar rebate sites that you want your readers to know about (check out DSIRE and Energy.gov to help you get started).

There are pros and cons with this approach as well.

Advantages:

  • Minimal upkeep is the main advantage here.  When programs change, you don’t have to worry about it as much (unless the program itself dies completely).  Again, Google Alerts can help you remain abreast of changes.
  • Less legal exposure.  Since the information is not directly on your site, you’re not responsible for the wording or “promises.”  You’re just referring users.
  • Your site is still useful since it alerts visitors to these opportunities and explains (more or less) what the incentives are and what resources they should explore to obtain them.

Disadvantages:

  • There isn’t much SEO value – unless you include a lot of unique content of your own.  This means you won’t receive as much search engine traffic.
  • A portion of the traffic that you do receive will leave.  After all, you’re directing people away from your site.

Option 3: Cutting and Pasting to Your Own Site

I’ve seen some solar sites that simply cut and paste information about incentives, rebates, tax credits, etc.

This is relatively easy to do – you don’t have to put much thought into cutting and pasting.  That’s the primary advantage.

But to me, this option is actually the worst of both worlds, and I don’t recommend it.

Here are the cons:

  • There is very little SEO benefit in posting duplicate content on your site.  In fact, you may expose yourself to potential blowback from Google, Yahoo, and Bing who downgrade your site specifically because it has duplicate content.
  • You still have to go through the trouble of monitoring solar incentives and making sure that the copied version on your own site reflects the most recent changes.

You’re better off just writing the content yourself (and staying on top of changes) or linking to the official rebate and tax credit sites.

But which should you choose?

Solar Incentives: Making Them Your Own vs. Linking to the Authorities?

As mentioned before, I’m an SEO junkie, and my general preference is to make the content your own.

But there are very compelling reasons why you might prefer linking to the official Websites of whatever solar incentives could best help your customers.

Below are 3 of those reasons:

1.  Your Solar Marketing Budget Is Limited

Perhaps you don’t have the budget or bandwidth to rewrite all of this information.  It does take some time getting the core content up.  And of course, you need someone who can stay on top of changes.

Not everyone can afford those kinds of resources.  It may make sense to keep the copy light and use hyperlinks for the most important components.

Then again, if you’re the only game in town that provides this type of information, you can set yourself apart from the competition.

2.  You Serve a Very Large Solar Market

This is pretty similar to the reason above.  If you’re a regional distributor or installer, you only have to worry about the solar incentives in New Jersey or California or wherever.

But if you cater to the national market, it may be impossible (or at least very difficult) to stay on top of all the programs out there.  With 50 states to deal with, you’d have to make changes constantly.  This can be very taxing – even if you start with a generous solar marketing budget.

I don’t think anyone would get mad at you if you opted to link to solar incentive programs directly.

3.  Solar Incentives Are Your Core Business (or a Value Added Service)

Some companies charge a fee to help customers seek and apply for solar incentives.

If incentives are a part of your core business or a value added service, you may want to tone down the access a bit and highlight how your company can help customers overcome the “very real difficulties” of applying for solar incentives.

In other words, you:

  • Briefly explain the who, what, when, and how of solar incentives
  • Provide links to official program sites (for users who want to learn more)
  • Sell users on your ability to help them secure these incentives if they decide to sign up with your company

Comprehensive Solar Marketing Can Be a Pain – But It’s Worth It

Very little of what I just described sounds like fun.  The technical side of you probably prefers to deal with efficiency rates and power output.  The marketing side is likely more comfortable with social media and conversions.

The prospect of sludging through legalese, terms & conditions, and application deadlines – it’s probably not very appealing.  I don’t blame you.

But you know what?  As unpleasant and daunting as solar incentives may be for you – they’re even more uninviting for the customers you hope to convert.

This is why spoon-feeding your visitors is such a critical part of solar marketing.  The goal is to remove as many barriers to entry as possible.  If you make their jobs easier, you paradoxically make your own job easier as well (despite the initial and ongoing effort involved).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  If 97% of Americans overestimate the cost of going solar by as much as $20,000 – we haven’t been doing our job.

Solar Marketing 101: Walking Visitors through Solar Energy Incentives, Pt. 1

Solar Marketing 101 - Solar Energy IncentivesFor the past few days, we’ve discussed some of the solar cost myths that continue to hamper widespread renewable energy adoption – especially within the residential market.

In a previous post, I pointed out that 97% of Americans grossly overestimate the cost of installing solar PV on their homes.  In many cases, they’re off by as much as $20,000.

And in a follow-up post, we looked at how solar calculators can boost your marketing efforts as you educate potential users on the true cost and savings of installing solar PV technology.

Today, I want to explore solar incentives, rebates, tax credits, feed-in tariffs, and other awesome goodies that can help dramatically reduce the upfront and total costs of installing solar.

Solar Incentives Exist – But Do Your Customers Know How to Use Them?

As a nation, we’re very fortunate to have access to so many different local, state, and federal green incentives.

I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have nearly enough – especially when you compare the subsidies and tax breaks that fossil fuels receive.  But after living in places like Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, Russia, and Costa Rica, I’ve developed a very measured appreciation of how lucky Americans truly are.

Unfortunately, too many solar firms out there don’t market these incentives effectively.  They make passing mention of the “unbelievable savings available,” but they fail to walk users through the actual steps.

This is a wasted opportunity – and one that is so easy to fix.  I’d love to see more solar stakeholders explain:

  • What solar rebates, credits, coupons, and programs exist
  • Who qualifies for these incentives
  • The potential savings and cost reductions (especially when coupled with a solar calculator)
  • The exact application process, including deadlines, contact info, etc.

And of course, we should include downloadable forms to make the application itself as easy as possible.

These steps not only make your site more user friendly, but they also create opportunities to gather leads.  For example, you could publish a handy Step-by-Step Solar Incentive guide that users could download IF they fill out some simple contact details:

“Want to learn how this young couple cut the price of their solar installation in half using state funding?  Click here to learn more.”

This discussion about solar incentives and cost reductions should be front and center on your site (along with solar calculators).

It’s important that you make this information as accessible as possible so that the 97% of Americans who believe solar is too expensive can finally learn the truth.

How To Educate Your Users about Solar Energy Incentives

The big question isn’t whether or not to share this information with visitors.  It’s how BEST to share it.

I see 3 options – only 2 of which are winners in my book.

Option 1: Rewrite the Info and Make It Your Own

As a solar SEO junkie, I naturally see the world through search-related opportunities.

If you’re market is small enough (geographically), you probably have the resources to gather all of the incentive information out there, rewrite it, and then publish it directly on your site.

There are a couple of major advantages and disadvantages of this approach:

Advantages:

  • You have unique index-able content that adds greater weight to your SEO efforts.  Not only will you receive traffic for your unique solar products, but you’ll also receive traffic anytime someone Googles [insert name of solar incentive].
  • Your site becomes more useful and keeps people on longer.

Disadvantages:

  • You’re 100% responsible for the content you publish.  This means that you have to really research the subject matter and present information that is factually accurate and legally sound.
  • You have to keep up with changes.  Incentives evolve, devolve, split, merge, and die.  Something you published yesterday may no longer be relevant today (this is actually a fairly strong argument against publishing a downloadable eBook or guide that captures leads).

One way to manage these changes is to set up Google Alerts for whatever local, state, and federal solar energy incentives you cover.  You’ll know as soon as a program has new rules or deadlines – and you can update your marketing copy appropriately.

If you’re looking for handy resources to get started, check out Solar Power Rocks and the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

In the next post, we’ll continue our discussion about solar incentives and how to walk your Web visitors through all the options out there.

 

Solar Marketing 101: Adding a Solar Calculator to Your Site

Solar Calculators for Better MarketingIn an earlier post, we explored an incredibly disturbing statistic in which 97% of Americans grossly overestimate the cost of installing solar on their homes.

Whereas the true cost can be in the low thousands (sometimes even zero upfront) the perceived cost is closer to $20,000.

You’d think that with all the information out there – all the offers, sales, blogs, literature – misconceptions like this could never surface.  But unfortunately, this is wishful thinking.  97% is a pretty telling number.

As solar marketers, we have a lot more work to do.

So I asked myself – how could that many people be so wrong?  What are we not doing correctly?

Then I took a closer look at several solar energy sites – companies that primarily target residential and commercial customers.  And I realized that the current solar marketing approach simply isn’t working.

Current Solar Cost Estimation Practices

If you’re like most solar firms in the residential market, you probably have lead generation forms in which interested parties fill out their details and request a free on-site estimate.

On the surface, this makes perfect sense.  “Let us know where you live – and we’ll come over to give you a free, no-obligation inspection.”

Simple.

But for Web visitors, I can imagine a very different thought process going on.  After all, they’re just researching – exploring.  They want to know (more or less) what an installation might cost and how much money they’ll save on their electricity or heating bills.

I can imagine them thinking:

Great.  I give these guys my contact information.  Now I’m in their system and will begin receiving junk mail.  

What’s more, I now have to block out a Saturday afternoon so I can be at home to receive solar inspectors. 

And I gotta do this with each and every company I contact.  I just want a ballpark figure for now.

As you can see – it’s kind of a hassle.  There are probably a lot of folks who visit but never fill out the “free consultation” form because they’re simply not ready to go through all the trouble.

With iPods, cars, vacations – you know what you can expect to pay.  But with solar, you have to commit even before you’re ready to commit.

How a Solar Calculator Can Boost Your Marketing Efforts

A solar calculator (or solar cost/savings estimator) is a solution that I wish more companies adopted.

For users, it’s easy to see the advantages.

They can shop around and understand pricing options from the comfort of a computer.  Instead of inaccurately believing that solar panels will set them back $20K, they can learn (for free) what the “true” cost of an installation is.

A solar calculator makes your site more user-friendly, period.

But there are also huge benefits for your company as well.

  • You chip away at the solar cost myth, making it more likely that homeowners and business owners will adopt the technology (your technology hopefully).
  • You benefit from more qualified leads.  If after using the calculator, a visitor still requests an on-site estimate, you know that he or she is more primed to buy.
  • You receive fewer unqualified leads, thus, saving you money.  Anyone who uses the calculator and decides not to request a free on-site estimate is a lead you don’t have to chase down in person.

In short, you boost sales and reduce costs.  From a solar marketing standpoint, I count this as a double win.

You can still collect leads if you require that people fill out their contact info to use the solar calculator.  In fact, they would probably have to input their street addresses to locate their homes on a map.

But instead of sending your inspection team to those houses (at a fairly high cost), you can simply add these leads to your newsletter or direct mail campaigns (at a much lower cost).

Making Solar Calculators a Reality

The marketing benefits of a solar calculator are very real.  The execution is a little bit trickier.

First a disclaimer – I’m neither a programmer nor an installer.  I’m a solar copywriter and marketer.  Obviously, the technical and logistical challenges of creating an accurate platform are enormous, and I’m in no position to help you overcome them.

You have shading, orientation, incentives, slant, regional utility rates, and countless other variables to factor in.  Using satellite mapping technology will only address a handful of these.

And yet, a growing number of solar calculators are popping up all over the place.  Some even claim to have overcome many of the challenges outlined above.

I just read a story about Geostellar’s new online platform that shows tremendous promise.

Here are a few more solar calculators you might want to check out for inspiration.  Some are very basic, others are more detailed:

I can’t really say how accurate these solar calculators are.  If I had to guess – probably not very.

But the goal is to provide accessible estimates that aid potential customers in their shopping, thus, making your solar marketing efforts more effective.

Accurate or not, having a solar calculator makes your site more useful, helps you generate more qualified leads, and lowers your on-site inspection costs.

The goal, obviously, is to make your calculator as accurate as possible.

And with time, I believe that these calculators could become more and more precise.  If the estimated cost is consistently 17% lower than the true cost (after your team has completed an on-site inspection), you can simply adjust for the difference when making future online predictions.

My Solar Calculator Wish List

I’d love to see a truly universal platform.  Anyone who created such a platform could then license it out as a branded tool for other solar companies to use on their own sites.  This may be the model Geostellar is pursuing.

How might this work?

  • On the front end, the calculator uses mapping technology to pinpoint the user’s home or business.
  • The user can outline her property using a mouse – and the calculator will capture the potential rooftop or ground area.
  • Next, the user inputs her utility company and average monthly bill.
  • Using aspects of Geostellar’s approach, the calculator can factor in slant, shading, orientation, etc.
  • On the back-end, licensees of the technology (i.e. individual solar companies) can customize efficiency rates and energy output, depending on the PV technology used.
  • These solar companies could also factor in discounts, incentives, rebates, and tax credits on the back-end (depending on the region).

And voila – the calculator spits out a ballpark figure that shows estimated cost and utility bill savings.

If there were a feedback mechanism in which data from on-site inspections or completed installations could be funneled back into this online platform, the calculator would become more and more precise with time.

How much would such a platform cost?  I have no idea.  But how much do you currently spend chasing leads and sending inspection teams that never materialize in actual sales?

Do you think accurate solar calculators could be a reality?  Are they already?  Share your thoughts down below.

When to Hire a Freelance Solar Copywriter

Hire a Freelance Solar Energy Copywriter - Solar Energy WritersYou’re part of the marketing or communications team at your company.  Until now, you’ve handled all copywriting services in-house with fairly decent results.

Under these conditions, why would you ever hire a freelance solar copywriter?

Sure it makes sense to bring in outside help if you’re drowning.  Professional copywriting has very obvious advantages when profits start to dwindle or the competition grows much stronger.

But if your company is doing pretty well – why go through the trouble and expense of securing a freelancer?

There are actually many reasons why you might want to turn to an outside copywriter.  Below are the 4 most common reasons I hear from clients and fellow writers.

1.  Freelance Copywriters Bring Expertise

The most obvious reason is expertise.  You might be the leading authority on your product or service, but freelance copywriters are leading authorities in written presentation.

They literally spend all of their working hours researching, writing, and editing (and usually a fair amount of marketing on the side).

This is not to say that you’re incapable of writing press releases or blogs on your own.  In fact, we started with the assumption that you and your team HAVE handled everything up until now – and with solid results.

But by outsourcing some projects to a professional, you potentially benefit from a level of polish that might otherwise be absent.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m just as talented as any writer out there – who are you to elevate copywriters above everyone else?”…. jump to the next reason.

2.  Freelance Copywriters Bring Bandwidth

You’re a phenomenal writer.  The best in the business.  But you’re also a terrific marketer, social media expert, communications guru, etc.  You wear many hats and have many responsibilities.

So why hire a copywriter if you’re already able to do the job just as well?

The answer is bandwidth.

We don’t hire gardeners or assistants or event planners to do what we can’t.  We hire them to free up time so that we can focus on more important areas – areas that speak to our core strengths.

Every hour that you spend writing is an hour NOT spent on some other aspect of your primary business.

By bringing on a freelance solar copywriter, you’re able to manage your time more efficiently.  You focus 100% of your attention on the most pressing areas while the copywriter focuses 100% of his or her attention on researching and writing.

But what if your marketing team has the expertise and bandwidth?  Why would you ever bring on outside help in this situation?

See the next reason.

3.  Freelance Copywriters Bring Objectivity

So you have the talent and time to handle projects yourself.  Why outsource?

Simple – greater objectivity.

It’s easy to get lost in the culture of your firm.  Over time, you become too close to your products and services to view them objectively.

This is true with any corporate culture, highlighting one of the benefits of hiring employees externally.  Fresh, new ideas.

You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon at some level.

Perhaps you’ve worked on a particular document for so long that you need a fresh pair of eyes to look it over.  You’re no longer able to catch typos or objectively judge the overall flow.

Freelance copywriters help with this process.  By asking probing questions about the project, they can poke holes or find leaks – issues that only an outsider could ever spot.

I’ve worked on campaigns in which clients used industry terms and jargon that were totally obvious to them but utterly incomprehensible to anyone outside of their silo.  They needed external help to discover this.

Greater objectivity can help prevent missteps.

New ideas can help amplify your successes.

Because freelance copywriters work on countless projects for many different types of clients, they develop a portfolio of strategies and insights over time.

Imagine having access to that wealth of external knowledge.  You reap the benefits of your own methods while simultaneously injecting new ideas.

But let’s imagine that you have the expertise, bandwidth, and enough fresh eyes already.  Are there any other reasons to go outside the company walls?

There are a ton, but we’ll look at one more.

4.  Freelance Copywriters Bring Savings

It’s a sad fact that in down economies, marketing departments (and their budgets) are usually the first and hardest hit.

This trend is a bit silly when you study the numbers.  Firms that increase marketing activities during recessions generally outperform those that don’t.  And they usually rebound faster once the economy improves.

If you’re gonna cut costs, it’s better to look elsewhere in the company.

The solar industry has actually done quite well overall.  Yes, there are bankruptcies just like with any other sector.  But aggregate solar employment has grown significantly faster than the national average for most other industries (nearly 7% versus 0.7% from August 2010 to August 2011).

This doesn’t mean that marketing budgets are 100% safe.  If you find that your own department is facing hard times, hiring a freelance copywriter might provide some relief.

That’s because employees are expensive.

The value they bring is totally worth it, but still they’re expensive.  In addition to base salaries, you must also factor in insurance, retirement, paid leave, benefits, training, offices – these costs add up very quickly.

Although freelancers occasionally have higher hourly wages, their true costs are often much lower than finding, training, and keeping full-time employees.

This is especially true if your writing needs are infrequent.

It’s analogous to buying a car you use a few times a year versus renting the same car a few times a year.  Rented cars have a much higher hourly cost, but you don’t have to worry about tags, insurance, maintenance, storage, theft, etc. for all the other days of the year.

So Should You Hire a Freelance Solar Copywriter?

Whether or not you hire an outside writer really depends on your unique situation.

If you have the bandwidth, budget, expertise, and objectivity, perhaps it doesn’t make a lot of sense for you.

Then again, I’ve had clients with all of the above who hired me anyway.  They wanted the added convenience of… well… convenience.

Some clients are deeply passionate about their products and services but don’t really enjoy writing about them – even when they’re truly gifted with the pen.  It simply made sense to bring in someone who was equally passionate about writing.

If any of this sounds like you, feel free to shoot me an email.  Perhaps we can explore opportunities to work together.

 

Dispelling Common Solar Myths with Smarter Marketing

Solar Marketing - Myths and Misconceptions - Solar Energy WritersThe global transition to solar energy is inevitable.  I truly believe that.  With rising oil prices and falling solar costs:

  • Grid parity is ever closer
  • Payback periods are getting shorter
  • The economics of solar are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore

These, coupled with the environmental benefits, help to explain why 90% of Americans support solar technology.

And yet, this inevitable transition isn’t happening nearly fast enough.

Despite overwhelming support for solar (and renewables in general), we’ve barely made a dent.  Total, cumulative solar PV capacity in the US is just around 4,000 megawatts, one third of which is in the residential market.

If you’re the marketing manager for your own solar company, you probably know these and similar statistics as well as anyone else.  This is especially true if you work in the residential market.

I feel your frustration.  And it gets worse.

According to a survey by SunRun, 97% of Americans overestimate the upfront costs of installing solar PV technology on their homes.  Whereas the true cost can be as low as $0, the perceived cost is closer to $20,000.

What’s more, SunRun reports that 77% of those surveyed said they’d install the technology if cost were not a factor.  Click here for a zoomable infographic.

Even more exasperating – traditional standbys (e.g. oil, gas, coal) receive unbelievable subsidies and tax breaks – far more than the average American realizes.  This helps perpetuate the myth that renewables are expensive while fossil fuels are cheap.

And although I don’t have exact statistics, I often hear from friends and family members that “solar is a great idea but it’s just not very powerful, efficient, or reliable.”

Sigh.

There’s obviously a huge disconnect – one that is hampering growth and making your job as a solar marketer much harder.

So How Can Smarter Solar Marketing Help?

Better education and more aggressive engagement are really the best tools for combatting common solar myths about cost, efficiency, and reliability.

Some of this education needs to happen at the macro-level, where we as an industry pool our resources to launch national (if not international) campaigns alerting people to the very real and tangible benefits of solar.

This post focuses more on micro-solutions – i.e. what you (in your office) can do right now to better engage potential customers.

These tips are primarily geared towards solar companies in the residential and commercial markets since these are where the biggest perception gaps seem to emerge.

But better engagement is something that we all need to tackle – upstream, downstream – we all have a vested interest in educating the world about how amazing solar truly is.

Marketing Solution 1: Solar Calculator

This is one of the most important improvements – one that I’ll develop in a later post.  But the best way to dispel myths about the price of going solar is to actually show people what that price truly is.

Sure – you probably have a lead form through which homeowners and business owners can request free on-site estimates.  But if someone just wants to kick the tires, then arranging an in-person inspection is not terribly convenient.  In fact, it’s a downright hassle.

Imagine if you were shopping for a new car online.  And for every model and manufacturer, you had to block out a free afternoon to talk with a dealer BEFORE receiving a ballpark estimate of the true price.

Let visitors see, from the comfort of their home or office computers, what a solar installation actually costs.

Marketing Solution 2: Incentives, Guides, and Workflow

Walk your Web visitors through the process – from incentives to guidelines to payback periods to next steps.  Make sure that the savings and low costs are prominent.

  • If incentives and tax credits exist, make them visible on your site and explain how they work
  • If there are forms they need to apply for tax credits or incentives, make those forms available for download on your site

For you and me, the process might seem obvious.  But for the average user (or at least 97% of them) solar energy is a nebulous gray area.

Why not outline the exact process with a Step 1, Step 2, and so on?  In fact, you can use images and big clickable buttons to really make the flow more conceptual and inviting.

I assume that all this info is already available on your site.  But how prominent is it?  Does one have to read a lot of copy to discover that you charge $0 down?

If you have a truly great offer, make it known – not just on the homepage but on every page.  Remember that first-time visitors will enter your Web property through many different channels (e.g. homepage, about us, blogs, FAQs, etc.).

With a static banner, sidebar, or header, you’ll be able to alert everyone – no matter how they find your site.

Marketing Solution 3: Publishing a Solar 101

Provide a comprehensive tutorial about how solar technology works (in general) and how your technology works (specifically).

A Solar 101 Guide won’t necessarily combat cost misconceptions, but it will help with efficiency and reliability concerns.  You’d be surprised (or maybe not surprised at all) by how many people incorrectly believe that solar simply isn’t powerful enough.

Images like this will blow their minds.

There’s no shortage of equally jaw-dropping facts, stats, and graphs.  Use them abundantly.

Marketing Solution 4: Testimonials Front and Center

Want to demonstrate solar’s cost and efficiency even more clearly?  Promote your testimonials – make them super visible (on every page).

I don’t know what it is about testimonials.  They’re used so much, you’d think their power would diminish with time.  But they’re still incredibly effective – especially when coupled with pictures of “real” customers standing in front of “real” installations.

Marketing Solution 5: Blog, Blog, and Blog Some More

If you blog enough about solar installation costs (and their affordability), potential users will eventually find you when they Google related terms like “solar installation costs.”

In fact, I’d go as far as publishing an on-going series of posts, with titles like:

  • The Truth about Solar Panel Installation Costs
  • The Most Affordable Way to Install Solar
  • How Much Is a Solar Installation in [Name of Your State]?

For you (and for your most loyal blog followers), these posts might seem repetitive since they’d cover the same general details.  But the keywords and wording would change in anticipation of what actual users might search.

Solar Marketing – Together If You Can, Alone If You Must

If every solar energy firm adopted some or all of these marketing tips, the entire industry would benefit.  There’d be enough information out there to help dispel misguided notions about solar’s “unaffordability.”

But as a solar marketer for your own firm, you face a very different reality – one that is not dependent on what other solar stakeholders do.

Fortunately, these tips will help place your own solar firm exactly where it needs to be in the cost debate.  If other solar companies come on board and adopt similar measures – great.  The cumulative effects benefit both you and the entire industry.

And these improvements represent just the tip of the iceberg since they’re very site-focused.  When you factor in newsletters, social media, direct mail, etc. – the results become amplified.

Have you stumbled across different solar marketing tips?  If so, share them down below.

How Long Should Your Solar Blog Posts Be?

How Long Should Your Solar Blog BeBecause many copywriters in the solar industry charge per hour, per word, or per page, this is a fairly popular question.

As a marketer within a solar energy company, you don’t want to spend more money than you have to – and the money you do spend needs to generate results.

So how long should a blog post be?

Before answering that, you must first determine what the ultimate goal of your blog post is.

Broadly speaking, there are 3 main types of blog posts – at least in the corporate world.

1.  Brief Announcements or Tidbits.

Usually 100-300 words, you should use these to update your readers on a new feature or upcoming event.

Think of them as an FYI for your audience.

Because really short solar blog posts are typically spur of the moment, they’re not outsourced very often, and they don’t carry much SEO value.  I sometimes receive requests for these, but most clients simply handle them in-house.

2.  Tips, Lists, How To, What Is?, Did you Know?, etc. 

From 300-1200 words, these types of blogs are what we usually think of when we imagine a standard post.  They can have a lot of SEO value when they include the right types of keywords and formatting.

I’ve read countless SEO gurus who claim that 300 words is the bare minimum you should budget for a blog post of this type.  I don’t know if it matters that much, but 300 words has become the standard.  Rarely do I write blog posts shorter than this.

3.  Anchor Pieces

1000 words on up, anchor pieces are reserved for those really important subjects that need a lot of clarification and explanation.

In the solar world, anchor pieces are ideal for diving into really technical topics, whether you’re talking about PV technology or green legislation.

They can be a pain to write, but they’re also great at driving traffic – a lot of traffic – for a long time.  Anchor pieces have tremendous SEO value when executed correctly.

Extremely informative and valuable, anchor pieces often become downloadable e-books or PDFs in their own right.  Other times, the copywriter will break up an anchor piece into several pages with “Next” and “Previous” buttons to guide the reader.

What Is the Ideal Length for Your Budget?

If you write your own blogs, the above length guidelines are exactly that – guidelines.  Time is the only cost involved, so you can write as little or as much as you want.

But if you’re outsourcing your projects to a freelance solar blogger, you want to receive the most bang for your buck, right?

After all, if SEO is your primary goal and you’re paying by the word, aren’t two 300-word blogs better than one 600-word blog?

Yes and no.

In strictly SEO terms, having two 300-word posts probably will drive more traffic to your site than having one 600-word post (usually).  But SEO is only half the battle.  You also need to engage and potentially convert that traffic.

Solar SEO is extremely important.  Believe me.  But the message and presentation are more important.  The focus should be on quality and not length.

In recent years, Google has increasingly encouraged marketers, copywriters, and SEO consultants to focus more on valuable content than on SEO guidelines.  If you write enough informative content that helps people solve their problems, you’ll naturally rise up to the top… regardless of the length.

In other words, write for people – not for search engines.  Make sure the length of each blog post is suited for the reader.

  • If it’s too short to fit all of your thoughts in, make it longer.
  • If you’re writing fluff, remove some of the fat and make it shorter.

And if you’re on a budget as you outsource your blog to freelance solar copywriters, encourage them to:

Use as many words as they need.  But.  Use as few words as they can.

Need help with an upcoming solar blogging or copywriting project?  Contact me today for a free consultation.

What Are the Best Keywords for Your Solar Business? Pt. 2

Solar Blogging and SEO KeywordsIn the previous post, we looked at Google Insights and discussed some general brainstorming tips for coming up with a keyword list.

In this post, we’re ready to refine that list.

Google Keyword Tool

Google’s AdWords Keyword Tool is another personal favorite of mine.  Free and comprehensive, it can give you a fairly good indication of what people are looking for (and what competitors are optimizing for).

How to Use the Keyword Tool for Solar SEO

Let’s go through an example and see the Keyword Tool in action.

Step 1.  After coming up with a starter list (from brainstorming) and a more detailed list (from Google Insights), you’d insert your new keywords into the Keyword Tool to develop a more comprehensive list.

For now, we’ll just use the same example keyword, “solar training.”  But you can add as many or as few keywords as you like.  You can even insert a competitor’s website in the 2nd field to see what keywords it’s going after.

Solar Energy Keywords

 

Step 2.  Check the box that says “Only show ideas closely related to my search terms.”  If you’re really desperate for new keyword ideas, you can leave this box unchecked.  The results will be all over the place, but you may find some hidden gems.

Step 3.  Under the expandable Advanced Option, I usually leave the default language and country alone.  Unfortunately, if you’re a regional solar firm that only operates locally, you’re stuck using statistics at the national level.

Step 4.  If you’re signed into AdWords, you can just hit “Search.”  If you’re not signed in, you’ll need to fill out the security question (CAPTCHA) that shows you those distorted letters.  And then hit “Search.”

What you’ll see is a dizzying list of keyword ideas, complete with:

  • How competitive they are
  • How many times that keyword has been searched in the past month

You can activate additional fields but clicking on the Columns pull-down menu in the upper right hand corner.

Selecting Your Solar Keywords

Your job is to go through these new ideas and select keywords that could help drive traffic and conversions.

I usually like to tackle the low hanging fruit first – keywords with high monthly searches and low competition.  Optimizing for these keywords should be relatively easy since there aren’t many other sites going after them despite their popularity.

In our example, only one keyword stands out: “solar training Ontario.”

Solar Blogging Keywords

 

As a solar training school that offers courses all over the US, “solar training Ontario” doesn’t help us very much.  But I might add it anyway if I believe some additional promotion could entice a few Canadians to come to our US solar training courses.

I wouldn’t necessarily build my entire SEO campaign around keywords like these, but a well-placed blog post could deliver solid results.  So I’ll set these keywords aside for now and remember to use them every now and then.

Next, let’s check out those keywords with the highest volume and the greatest relevance to our business – in this case – solar PV installation training courses.

There are a million ways you can do this, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s just make an excel spreadsheet and copy/paste the data in.  The goal is to create a weighted list that gives greater importance to relevance, competition, and # of searches.

  • In Column A (Keyword), we insert the keyword.
  • In Column B (# of Searches), we insert the total monthly searches.
  • In Column C (Volume Quality), we assign a quality score for the monthly searches from Column B.  Basically, the keyword with the highest volume represents 100.  All other keywords are a percentage of that number.
  • In Column D (Relevance Quality), we assign a quality score based on the relevance of the keyword, with 100 being the most relevant.  You’ll just have to eyeball this and determine a number that works for you.
  • In Column E (Keyword Value), we create a simple formula that takes the quality score from Column C (Volume Quality) and adds it to twice the value from Column D (Relevance Quality).

This gives us a weighted score that places greater emphasis on the relevance of a keyword than on the search volume of my keyword.

The figure below shows an example snapshot of what this might look like.  Your own list will obviously be much longer.

Solar Copywriting SEO  Keyowrds

 

And now, we’re ready to select the top 10, 20, 50, or even 100 keywords from our list and begin optimizing our site.

A Few Notes on Mining Keywords for Your Solar Business

There are a few things to keep in mind.

1.  No Keyword Tool Is 100% Perfect

Google’s Keyword Tool is popular because it’s free and comprehensive.  But it definitely has some drawbacks.

For example, it doesn’t show you actual searches – it shows you pay-per-click (PPC) data.  The difference between search and PPC is usually pretty small, but not always.

If you have the budget, you should try a mix of free and paid keyword search tools.  Here’s a list you might want to check out.

2.  Traffic vs. Conversions

When determining the relevance of a given keyword, it’s best to focus on conversions and not on how much traffic that keyword can bring you.

There’s a big difference between the two.

When I first started out, I worked on an SEO campaign for a medical tourism company that helped patients find affordable hospitals overseas for everything from liposuction to dental implants.

They wanted to be #1 for the search term “medical tourism.”  We optimized the hell out of their property and finally got them to the number one spot.  The traffic was great – it exceeded our wildest expectations.

There was one problem though.

No one who needs quality liposuction in India or affordable dental implants in Thailand ever searches the term “medical tourism.”  They search for “quality liposuction in India” or “affordable dental implants in Thailand.”

The company got a ton of traffic but not many conversions.

So make sure the keywords you select are ones that a potential customer would actually search for at some time during the buying cycle.

3.  Keywords Change Constantly

The top 10 hottest keywords for your solar business today could be very different a month from now.

  • New technology emerges
  • People’s tastes change
  • Competition increases

This means you need to go back occasionally to develop new and improved keyword lists.  At least every few months – if not more often.

Stay tuned for more insights into solar keyword selection.

What Are the Best Keywords for Your Solar Business? Pt. 1

Solar Blogging and SEO KeywordsIf you work in online marketing, you’ve undoubtedly heard of keywords.  They’re essential to search engine optimization (SEO).

With the right solar keywords, you receive visitors primed to buy.  With the wrong ones, you receive traffic that doesn’t convert.  Or worse yet, you don’t receive any traffic at all.

Whether you’re starting a new site (or blog) from scratch or launching a new SEO campaign for an existing property, your keywords can make or break your solar business.

So choose wisely.

In this 2-part post, we’ll explore what goes into solar energy keyword selection.  Part 1 provides some general background and a “how to” for one of my favorite tools.  Part 2 checks out another favorite technology of mine and includes some tips and suggestions.

Phrases Are Better Than Individual Words

When you search on Yahoo, Google, and Bing, rarely do you use individual words.  More often than not, you use longer phrases.

The same applies to your target audience (regardless of what vertical you’re in).  No one in the market for solar panels will simply type in “solar panels.”  There would be too many results, most of them irrelevant to a shopper.  He or she would see results like:

  • How to manufacturer solar panels
  • The history of solar panels
  • The best solar panels for residential rooftops
  • How to clean solar panels
  • Order solar panels online
  • Acme Factory installs solar panels on new facility

Only the underlined topics above are likely to interest a potential buyer.

So right off the bat, you need to think in terms of longer phrases.  Shorter keyword phrases invite way too much competition.

Is there any ideal keyword phrase length?

Not really.

Just remember – the shorter it is, the more competition you’ll have.  But the more specific it is, the fewer searches and hits you’ll receive.

Brainstorming a Starter List of Solar Keywords

With keyword length in mind, we’re ready to start brainstorming.  Intuition should be your guide here.  Ask yourself,

What would someone type into Google if she wanted to purchase my product or service?

Let’s pretend that you offer solar installation certification courses throughout the country.  Potential keyword candidates might be:

  • affordable solar training courses
  • solar installation classes in California
  • solar PV installation certification

I like to start with 5-10 starter keyword phrases.  Some prefer having a longer list, others start with just one phrase.  It doesn’t really matter since we’re going to grow this list in the next few steps.

Free & Paid Keyword Tools

There exist a number of keyword tools – both desktop clients and web-based – paid and free.

If you have the budget, you might wanna check out WordTracker.  It’s a terrific resource for expanding your starter keyword list.  Because it’s subscription-based ($70/month), you can use it to kick-off your SEO campaign and cancel it once you’re done. They have a free trial version, but the features are limited.

Fortunately, you don’t need to spend a dime developing a solid keyword list for your solar property.  Google offers two outstanding tools for free.  In this post, we’ll look at Google Insights for Search.  In the next post, we’ll look at Google’s Keyword Tool.

Google Insights for Search

Google Insights for Search is a relatively new resource, and it’s awesome!

Let’s run through an example.

Although I mentioned above that 1 or 2-word phrases aren’t very useful, we’ll focus on the keyword “solar training” strictly for demonstration purposes.  In actual practice, you’d probably want to go after something more like:

  • where can I find nearby solar training courses
  • the best solar training program
  • solar training in new jersey

So let’s begin.

Solar Copywriting Keywords

  Just input:

  • your keyword phrase (“solar training”)
  • select the region (in this case, the US)
  • time range (Jan 2010 to Now)

And Voila!  The tool shows you recent search trends for “solar training.”

Solar Copywriting & Marketing Keywords

Ouch.  It looks like interest in solar training has kind of tapered off in recent years.

But that’s ok.  If you scroll down, Google Insights provides some additional data that are of tremendous use.

Solar Marketing Keywords

For example, we see that Arizona, California, and New Jersey are the three regions of the country with the most searches for this keyword.  Perhaps it’s worth targeting these areas in some of your upcoming solar marketing campaigns.  Or maybe you’ll want to write blog posts that feature these three States.

If you scroll down further, there are more goodies.

Solar Copywriting SEO Keywords

 

On the left, you see Top Searches.  This is a list of related search terms, ranked by popularity.  Numbers 2 through 10 are good keywords to weave into your solar blog copy.

On the right, you see Rising Searches.  This list shows terms that have become increasingly popular with time.  If more and more people are searching for these keywords, you definitely want to weave the relevant ones into your copy.  Solar training institute, NABCEP, solar training NJ, and solar system training are all good candidates.

Tune in Tomorrow

Google Insights is great for developing keyword ideas, but I don’t recommend using it in isolation.  To really solidify your keyword list, we’ll need to use at least one more App.

In Part 2 of this post, we’ll take a quick look at Google Keyword Tool.

If you need help with solar-related keyword research or writing in the meantime, contact me today for a free consultation.