Why Writers Need CRM — And Why I Use Gist

I mentioned Gist in my list of online tools that can help writers. I’ve gotten a couple of responses that make me think that most writers think that customer relationship management software can’t help them — maybe if they work with a long list of clients, it can make sense, but what does a fiction writer need with a rolodex on steroids?

Personally, I think that every writer needs to have some sort of CRM system in place. It’s the easiest way I know of to keep track of people. Not only do I have all their contact information in one place, but I can label my contacts, search for them by keyword (instead of by name or company), and even keep notes on them:

  • Editors: I have every editor I know listed in my system, with notes on what sort of topics they’re interested in and any inside information I have on pitching them.
  • Sources: I’ve worked with a long list of sources, most of whom continue to be active in the fields I write about. Why should I go find new sources when I can just run a search on my software?
  • Clients: If you work with other kinds of freelance writing clients, having the ability to track your communications can be absolutely crucial — and CRM software can provide that.

I know that telling someone that they should be using CRM software is one thing. Actually getting them to do so is often a lot harder: you may be worried about what it will take to get a system set up, how much it might cost or even whether you have the time to take care of it. In order to answer these questions, I’m going to go through each step I took to get my own system set up.

Why Gist?

For the purposes of this project, I’m talking about Gist because that’s the application I use. It’s set up so that it can pull in information from social media — I’ll go into depth on just how helpful that can be for a writer a little farther down. It’s also free to use (which I know is a big factor for many writers). It can automate some parts of keeping your contacts up to date.

You can manage your contacts elsewhere, of course. Gist is still in beta, so there’s always a chance that things won’t go quite as expected. It is an online application, which I find preferable to desktop software. I can access it from anywhere, without having to figure out how to synchronize my files on my desktop and my laptop.

Setting up an account with Gist is a simple matter: all you have to do is give the site your name and email address and your account will be created. You’ll need to confirm your account by clicking a link the site emails to you, but after that, you’ll be ready to go.

Getting Your Contacts In Order

Once you’ve got an account on Gist, it’s time to start getting your contacts into your profile. Luckily, Gist has a very simple import tool that works with a lot of different sites. I started with importing my email account. All of my emails wind up in my Gmail account eventually (most of my other email addresses simply forward to Gmail), so I clicked on the Gmail button to import my account. I did have to give Gist both my Gmail address and my password — for those of us who are security conscious, an easy solution is to change your password after you’ve finished importing your contacts.

Adding other email accounts is a fairly simple task. If you use Outlook to manage your email, Gist offers a plugin that will connect your Gist account and your Outlook account. You’ll need to download and install the plugin, but you’ll actually get a few tools not available to non-Outlook users, like the ability to access Gist within your email application.

With any other email address, you’ll need an IMAP connection — the same type of connection Outlook uses to download email. Your email provider will probably list information about your IMAP server in the options on your email settings page. If this is not the case, it may be necessary to contact the person in charge of setting up your email account.

To add contacts from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, the process is much easier. With Twitter, you simply give Gist your user name — you don’t need to give the application your password or anything. With Facebook, you just have to already be logged into your Facebook account: Gist uses Facebook Connect to get your Facebook contacts.

LinkedIn can take a bit more: you’ll need to visit the LinkedIn website and download a copy of your contacts as a CSV file. On the ‘Contacts’ page, scroll all the way to the bottom and select ‘Download connections.’ From there, just follow the directions to export your contacts as a CSV file. Once you have that file, upload it to Gist’s LinkedIn section. The site will process your information and add your LinkedIn contacts. You can also bring in other lists of contacts as CSV files — for instance, if you have a spreadsheet listing out a bunch of editors or sources in Excel, you can export that document as a CSV file and add it to Gist.

Tagging And Searching

Once I had all my contacts imported into Gist, I sat down in front of the television. I had a couple of episodes of Project Runway that I’d been meaning to watch (guilty pleasure) and I took my laptop with me. While the show was going on in front of me, I went through the list of my contacts in Gist and added tags to all of them. Here are just a few of the tags I used:

  • editor
  • source
  • tech
  • smallbiz
  • publicrelations

You can probably figure out which contacts I tagged as editors and sources, but I also added a couple of other tags. For my sources, I also tagged them with ‘publicrelations’ if I knew that they did public relations — when I’m in a real pinch for a source, I’ll check out who I know in public relations who could possibly make a connection for me to another source.

I also tagged my contacts with their areas of expertise. If I had talked to a particular source about small business issues, I tagged him with ‘smallbiz.’ If an editor works at a publication covering technology, I tagged her with ‘tech.’ You can use different tags, of course, and you may wind up with quite a few different tags.

Once you’ve got those tags in place, you’ve got a secret weapon when it comes to looking through your contacts, however. You can search for contacts by name or company, just as you might in an address book. But you can also click on a particular tag and get a list of every source you have on a particular topic or check out every editor who might be interested in a story on a particular topic. This ability alone has cut the time I spend on finding sources and pitching stories in half.

One additional tip: I’ve also tagged all of my contacts with where I met them (if I remember). If I know that I met an editor that I want to pitch at a particular conference, but I can’t remember her name, having that tag will be very helpful in the long run. To make the most of this tip, though, it’s important to add any new contacts you make to your Gist account as soon as you meet them.

The Usefulness Of A Dossier

Gist does offer another set of tools that seem custom-built for writers: the ability to bring together information about your contacts. In addition to being able to tag a contact, Gist can list their Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts. The application can even go out and find those accounts, so you can avoid spending a lot of time on gathering information. When you’re getting ready to contact a source you haven’t spoken to in a while, you can refresh your knowledge just by looking at the dossier that Gist has created: without leaving the site, you can see your source’s tweets and blog posts, as well as news about that person on other sites. These details can also make it easier to determine just which of your many contacts will be able to help you.

I know that if the editor I want to reach out to tweeted that she’s having a bad day today, it’s probably best to wait to make contact. In the same vein, if an editor has made a comment in her blog about the types of articles she needs currently, that information is now at your fingertips.

You can also add notes of your own to a dossier. If, for instance, you write primarily fiction, you might want to make notes about a particular editor’s taste or the overall submissions process for the publication. You can bring all sorts of information together that might otherwise be scattered across spreadsheets, emails and so forth.

Gist can also pull in your correspondence with your contacts: you can see at a glance the emails you’ve sent. That sort of information can be useful for following up with an editor on an idea or checking back with a source about an interview time. As you browse through your list of contacts, you can also see how long it’s been since you contacted them — if you have a query in to an editor, that information can be invaluable. After all, if you follow up too soon, it’s possible to annoy the editor. But if it’s been too long, the editor may have forgotten all about you.

Gist Can Give You Stories

Lastly, Gist can actually find you stories, if you learn how to browse the news section of your account. For each of your contacts, Gist automatically searches for news, listing their own online posts as well as news from other sites. You can look at the news about each of your contacts on their contact page.

You can also browse through news about all of your contacts on the front page of your account. Several times, I’ve found news that I could quickly turn into a pitch for one editor or another. I’ve also found a couple of stories that spiked ideas for fiction writing. A quick run through of your news can find you all sorts of information that will allow you to turn out a couple of queries without ever leaving Gist.

Even better, you can read the news related to people you’ve tagged in a certain way. Every so often, I like to pull up the news for my ‘editor’ tag: sometimes there will be a call for submissions in there, sometimes I’ll find a tip on pitching a particular editor, sometimes I’ll find a reason to touch base with an editor just so they remember I’m out there.

There are plenty of other features in Gist, many of which come in handy for different types of freelance writers. If you concentrate more on writing for clients, you’ll still find an application like Gist helpful. This is really just an introduction to what a CRM tool can do for you.


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  5. Linda Formichelli   •  

    Thursday, great post! I signed up for Gist based on your recommendation and am very impressed. Look out for some Renegade Writer link love on Thursday (the day, not you!).

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  22. Anita   •  

    Thanks for the tip. It sounds like this site is a winner!

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