Carve a Niche & Build Your Own Demand through “Query-Free Freelancing” (Guest Post!)

PB NOTE: I’m delighted to have Jennifer Mattern as our first guest blogger in this go-round (AND to have this piece be part of her virtual blog tour). Jennifer, the founder of the critically acclaimed AllFreelanceWriting blog, is a consummate freelance professional and someone with a wealth of knowledge and experience in all aspects of freelancing and freelance business-building.

In this piece, she shares a great story that encapsulates any commercial writer’s ultimate scenario: clients finding them, not the other way around. Hence the term “query-free freelancing.” And don’t get hung up on the term “query” – which, yes, is usually associated with magazine writing. Here, she simply means it as any contact made directly to a prospect. Thanks again, Jenn, and take it away!

Build Your Own Demand!

Query-free freelancing means, first and foremost, building demand for your services – not waiting around hoping clients are going to find you. I’d like to share a story about how I not only did that, but how I created demand in a relatively new market at the time by identifying a need and choosing to fill it.

(NOTE: If querying works well for you, then stick to it. But understand it’s not the only way to land lucrative commercial writing gigs. To put yourself in a position where prospects find you, not the reverse, you build demand and increase your visibility. Most freelance professionals I know get at least some gigs this way. I chose to build a career on it. And despite the common “you have to pitch, pitch, pitch” thoughts, I’ve never hurt for work since going query-free.)

I ran a music PR firm. I worked with clients throughout my region. It’s an industry where everyone knows everyone else in the local scene, so word spreads. We had a few well-known publicists in the area so I needed a way to stand out. I knew I needed to increase my visibility if I was going to create greater natural demand for my work, so I launched an indie music webzine. After a while, I turned to a webmaster forum to ask for advice on improving the site.

Identifying the Needs of a New Market
As I spent time there learning and improving my own site, discussions cropped up among the online business owners. They were interested in press release writing but didn’t understand it. The few press release writing jobs advertised in the community were picked up by generic Web content writers (the “Sure, I’ll write you over-hyped, keyword-stuffed garbage content for $10 and throw it into a press release template” kind of writers).

There was a need for better information. I took part in press release discussions there, trying to educate the market about how to use them more effectively. I emphasized focusing on real coverage and exposure over blatant links and how that could actually do more to help their SEO efforts too. Interest quickly spread within that group about press releases (not just in that community, but all over the Web due to the growth of distribution sites like PRWeb).

Because I stepped into that market, building my visibility and authority status early on, the work flowed in naturally, even though I charged much higher rates than most that started targeting the market. That played a role in my move from music PR to online PR for a wider variety of clients, and even now that I’m solely a full-time writer it doesn’t stop. That’s what happens when you build a platform, build visibility, and build a strong professional network — the building blocks of a query-free career.

Plenty of Opportunities Still Exist
It’s something you can do too. Let’s say you’re a sales letter writer. It doesn’t matter how many other sales letter writers are out there. All that matters is how many competitors are focusing on the same target market in the same places. Not all people looking to hire a sales letter writer fall into the same market group. You may find client groups that have a demand for the service but who aren’t being exposed to qualified writers. They’re itching to find someone like you, but no one’s making it easy enough on them. Step in and fill the void.

What have you done to build your professional platform as a commercial freelancer?

Have you ever landed gigs without directly pitching prospects — where they came to you? How did you get those gigs?

Contributing to a larger community is how to show prospects you know your stuff and are competent at what you do. How might you be able to increase that interaction (and sharing) to demonstrate your own authority status within your specialty area?

Or if you’ve done so successfully, what’s worked best for you so far?

About Jennifer Mattern
Jennifer Mattern is a freelance business writer and professional blogger who writes about freelance writing, social media, indie publishing, and small business. She also publishes e-books for freelance writers and is scheduled to publish her first nonfiction book, The Query-Free Freelancer, next year.

Want to be a guest blogger on The Well-Fed Writer Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

27 replies
  1. Sharon Hurley Hall
    Sharon Hurley Hall says:

    Good points, Jenn. I tend to share my expertise through my blog, Twitter and responses to email requests. I’ve found over time that people recommend me to potential clients and pre-sell my services so when I speak to the prospect, it’s more a question of nailing down the details than having to win the job. I also had an experience recently that showed me that even good client communication can win you work. Someone contacted me through my client website asking about writing and editing services. I sent a detailed response and, at the same time as he hired me, he also recommended me to one of his friends – even before I had done any work!

  2. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Jenn, for being here! Really great stuff. A lot of parallels here with the idea of just being a really good writer. Meaning, over time, word gets out and clients come to you. Same in the publishing world. Write a really good book, and word-of-mouth is so much stronger, so your outreach marketing doesn’t have to be as aggressive over time.

    Obviously, I’ve done this on the book side of my business – built a platform, done a newsletter, this blog, coaching, speaking, etc, and as a result, book (and coaching) buyers find me more than I have to find them. But, not as much on the copywriting side. I mean, I think my clients think it’s pretty cool that I’ve written books, but that fact doesn’t hit their radar before they hire me.

    So, for all of us who traditionally landed clients mostly through direct contact, this’ll take some retooling, but I know how well it can work. And obviously, it works best if you have some sort of niche. Not that it can’t work for generalists, but specialists have an edge because they can focus their platform-=building efforts a bit more narrowly.

    And thanks Sharon, for the affirmation. Very cool that you’ve seen this firsthand yourself!


  3. Amanda Brandon
    Amanda Brandon says:

    Hi Jenn,
    Great article. I’ve been doing similar things. I think it’s important to get out there and share information with a larger community. It not only builds your credibility and sends business your way, but it also gives you more ideas and opportunities to network. This isn’t totally related, but I am finding that getting out in just my local community and talking about what I do is generating interest. I actually picked up an opportunity from my doctor on Tuesday. Never thought that would happen in a million years. The word of mouth aspect of this business is incredible if you put yourself out there. Thanks for sharing some new ideas.

  4. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Sharon — Blogs and Twitter are two great examples of tools for building your networking and sharing information to build authority status. And you’re right. Making a good impression is a big part of going query-free. When you do, even in the simplest of ways, people remember you over the competition when they or someone they know wants to hire a new writer.

    Peter — Exactly. It’s just good old PR and word of mouth, but focusing on it from the start instead of letting happen over a longer stretch of time. It doesn’t surprise me that your book doesn’t necessarily lead prospects to hire you since it targets colleagues rather than the target market of your commercial writing business. But I suspect if you published a book more directly targeting your prospects, you’d see the effect a few times over. Of course I know your colleagues love your books, so I hope even if you do that someday you don’t leave us behind as an audience. 😉

    Amanda – That’s actually very related. I work with a lot of international clients, so it makes sense for me to focus on Web-based communication options. But you can do exactly the same thing in a local market, and I’m so glad to hear you’re seeing success in building visibility in your community! 🙂

  5. Mary Shaw
    Mary Shaw says:

    Hi Jenn, great article! Very relevant to positioning yourself for higher fees. It’s always great to be found. One of my better blogging clients came to me through Twitter. He saw one of my blog posts and said “Would you like to write for us?”, and of course I said yes! I’ve seen your work on other blogs and know the value you bring to your readers. Thanks for sharing your expertise here 🙂

  6. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Love the real-world examples, Jenn! My success has been along the same lines as Sharon, although I reap more benefits from LinkedIn (so far) than Twitter, and definitely my blog.

    As you know, I use my business writing blog platform as the same site for my static pages on my business. I learned from more than one prospect that turned into a client that my philosophy on marketing prompted them to contact me. If I didn’t have my website, they wouldn’t have known what my approach was.

    Another source that quite frankly surprised me on how many queries it sent my way was an article I guest wrote for a magazine on national health care reform. It was 10 months ago and I received two more queries within the last two weeks.

    Thanks again, Jenn, for some great tips. You have my mind spinning with new ideas. 🙂

  7. Chad Stamm
    Chad Stamm says:

    Great points. And I think content marketing falls right into this category, as well. When you provide valuable content instead of hastily-written, keyword-stuffed garbage, you increase the number of link backs to your site. And when you increase the number of link backs, you bump your SEO to another level.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  8. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Mary — You’re exactly right. It is largely about landing those higher fee gigs — the ones that aren’t usually advertised. And blogging is a great tool for getting your name and your work out there. 🙂

    Cathy — I’ve heard a lot of good things about LinkedIn (mostly in the PR industry, although used for similar purposes). I have an account that I keep promising to put to better use, but right now it’s not one of my biggest tools. Any suggestions on how writers might want to use it? I know there are groups and Q&As. Do you focus on those or something else?

    Chad — Yep. “Content marketing” is just a social media buzzword that encompasses several different effective and long-tested PR and marketing strategies. And that’s really what platform-building is all about. 🙂

  9. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Hi Jenn-I think why LinkedIn works well for me is my niche. I don’t know that it’s a good fit for everyone, but here are some of the ways I use it.

    I have a health care/insurance niche. Part of my targeted market is notorious for not “doing social media.” They will do LinkedIn because it’s got a rep as more professional.

    1). Groups I joined Groups in my niche and participate with absolutely no sales pitching. Just sharing my knowledge. It’s great for networking. If you’re helpful, they are more than likely going to check out your profile.

    2) Profile Because the profile is like a nice in-depth resume, I feel I get in front of prospect I otherwise wouldn’t. They can check out my profile that has links to my site and portfolio without too much fear of being stalked afterwards. 🙂

    3) Add-on Applications You can link up your blog to feed to your Profile page. There are applications to showcase PowerPoint presentations or other portfolio work. Not too long ago, they added a feature where you can link to publications of yours. And a ton more I am forgetting.

    4) Answers They have a section where people post questions in different categories and anyone can answer them. I periodically peruse it and leave responses where I might add value. BTW-it’s a great source for getting ideas about blog posts/material for products-like reports or other services.

    5) Network with Peers If you find the right group (e.g., for writers), you can get some really helpful information on resources, etc.

    There’s plenty more, but I’ve already monopolized Peter’s space. 🙂 LinkedIn has its growing pains (like any of them) like an influx of smarmy marketers, but if you control your activity, I personally get a lot of good from it.

  10. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Great info there Cathy — practically a guest post on its own! (You should convert it into one.) 😉

    I like the idea of being able to feed my blog posts into LI. I think my issue would be deciding which blog. I network with three different groups there — writers, PR professionals, and social media specialists. And while I write for each audience, it’s not in the same place.

    Anyone know if you can add multiple feeds to stream together there, or know of any tools worth recommending that let you merge multiple feeds into one? I know Yahoo! used to have something that could do it years ago, but I can’t recall the name.

  11. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Jenn-I would love to know that, too! I have two blogs that also have different audiences. My health care blog is published on Tuesday so I call it Health Care Tuesday and put a brief excerpt and a link on my business writing blog. Not the ideal, but it then feeds into LinkedIn.

  12. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    I wonder if that might be a good use for Twitter. Set up a “side” Twitter account (with no live updates — just auto-tweets from all of your blogs). You can do that with tools like Then you’d have a Twitter feed that’s really just a collection of all of your posts.

    It’s not ideal in that you only have titles and a link to the post rather than the post content, but if you’re just looking to drive traffic to your own sites rather than keeping them on LI, then it might be an option worth considering.

  13. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great, stuff, everyone (and thanks, Jenn, for all your follow-up comments),

    This is why I did the guest blogging – because you guys have so much experience and good stuff to share! And Cathy, you absolutely are NOT monopolizing my space! I love detail like this in commenting. And I absolutely agree with Jenn, that your comment on all the ways how you’ve used your LinkedIn profile could absolutely make for a blog post on its own. If you’re game for expanding it a bit (and we can discuss ideas offline), I’d welcome that!

    Jenn, I have no plans at this point to write a book geared to my clients, so I guess I’ll jut have to get busy building my copywriting platform a bit more aggressively, and all the ideas here should give me more than I need to keep me busy for a while.


  14. Amanda Brandon
    Amanda Brandon says:

    @Jenn and Cathy – If you use WordPress, you can add an app for one blog. In your additional contact info, you can add an RSS feed and a link to your other blog. So, you could potentially link to as many as three blogs from your LinkedIn profile. I currently only link to my business blog in all three places, but this is doable.

    I’ve faced the debacle of whether to have multiple Twitter accounts for Tweeting all of my different blogs (that I write for), but it’s too complicated. I just use my main account. So far, so good. Especially for a writer who has a few specialties.

    I’d love to know how other writers handle promoting wide specialties? For example, I specialize in real estate finance and high tech/software. Any best practices for Twitter? LinkedIn?

  15. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Amanda – Thanks. Unfortunately I run at least a dozen. 😉 But for most freelancers, I’m sure connecting three would be more than enough. 🙂

    I do have multiple Twitter accounts, so I don’t mind another (and that one wouldn’t be monitored anyway — solely set up as a feed). My main one is for freelance writing and just general chit-chat to let my readers get to know me a bit better. The other active one is about indie publishing since I’m pushing hard into that niche right now. I have others reserved that will be used down the road — one tied to my genealogy site and another under a pen name I’m using for fiction (and the Twitter account will become active when that author site launches in coming weeks). It’s a lot to deal with but I figure if I can handle running that many sites then I can handle the Twitter accounts. Just involves lots of note cards and white boards to keep me organized. 🙂

  16. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Hi Amanda- great tip and I do that. I just wish there was a way (at a minimum) I could choose which of my post would appear in the WordPress app on my Profile page.

  17. Brandi
    Brandi says:

    I have to say Jenn, that your guest post was an eye opening experience for me! Maybe I’m the only one, but I have been focusing most of my energies on querying and getting clients to notice me. Now I’m thinking about what I need to refocus my efforts on so I can do less of that and more writing. Thank you for this insightful post!

  18. Melzetta "Mele" Williams
    Melzetta "Mele" Williams says:

    Great food for thought, Jenn! I specialize in script writing, which includes everything from radio spots to infomercial scripts, but I’m looking to narrow my focus a bit. Currently I’m developing a sub niche in writing scripts for online advertainment, specifically webisodes (TV-like episodes created exclusively for the web where a product/service is its central focus). Since many of my prospects won’t know what a webisode is, I’ll need to educate them first, thus setting myself up as the expert. Thanks for a great post!

  19. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Brandi – I don’t think you’re the only one. There’s a lot of advice on there about direct pitching with cold calls, emails, and traditional query letters. There’s less info out there about platform building, and most of what I do see is targeted to authors more than freelancers. I just don’t think a lot of freelance writers consider it because no one’s talking about it and bringing up the option on a regular basis. And there’s no need to refocus. If querying works for you, you can always just combine the two. 🙂

    Mele – You sound like a perfect example of a freelancer with an opportunity to educate and break into a new niche. Congrats! And I hope you’ll let us know how it turns out. 🙂

  20. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Just a few thoughts… I wholeheartedly line up with the takeaway of this post – I mean, who wouldn’t want clients finding them as opposed to always having to do the “outreach”? But, Jenn, I think you’d agree that this is a much longer-term strategy IF you’re not doing some sort of platform-building already.

    Because platform-building is, by definition, a process of gradual awareness-building and credential-establishing (especially if we’re talking about venues like LinkedIn), it’s something you need to simply begin adding to your marketing with an eye to having it bear fruit further down the line. But, no time like the present… 🙂


  21. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Actually, no. And that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about this approach and why so many writers get themselves stuck in a cycle of querying without much time left to focus on that platform.

    For me it only took three months until I’d built enough visibility in my niche (and demand) that I had more work than I could handle. And the only time that’s not been the case since then was when a client pulled out of a major project at the last minute. Even then I was able to replace the work in a couple of days by looking to my waiting list, letting my network know I was available for new referrals (usually can’t take them), and contacting a handful of my best old clients. There’s no time for all-out querying and direct pitching when you need something that fast, and having the demand and platform in place makes it easier. I don’t think three months to get to that point is long at all. And that doesn’t mean there was no work coming in during those three months — plenty to sustain myself. You just have to be visible, vocal, and active in your network.

    On my blog I put out an offer a while back to help one content mill writer transition to higher paying work using this kind of approach. Here’s how long it took us to replace that old income — two weeks! Within a month she was earning more than double what she’d earned previously by changing how she looked for that work.

    So no, it really doesn’t have to take as long as many people assume it does. That’s not to say you can spend 5-10 minutes a day on your LinkedIn account or Twitter and expect those results. You need to be aggressive early on, like I was using forums. You can still do the same in niche forums, social networks, or finding ways to narrow your reach on generalist networks and microblogging services although I strongly suggest sticking to the smaller niche outlets. Another common mistake people make is assuming they should be where the most people are. That rarely works. The only thing that matters is that you’re where the right people are and that you have something of value to say to them.

  22. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Wow – well, shut my mouth…:) Okay, are you all as impressed as I am? Seriously, that’s very cool, Jenn. Makes the whole thing much more viable in one’s mind.

    And the more I think about it, when I launched my business in 1994, from a dead stop, with no writing background/training/experience, while I did take the querying approach, in under four months, I had more work than I could handle.

    So, viewed through that lens, this shouldn’t be that surprising. No less impressive, but definitely feasible, especially if one DOES have an established business already, and the task at hand is more about letting the world who you are and why you’re good at what you do. Very cool.


  23. Lori
    Lori says:

    Great post from a super writing talent! I’m a Jenn fan. 🙂

    To your questions:
    What have you done to build your professional platform as a commercial freelancer?
    I’ve found a niche that isn’t well traveled by other writers. In fact, I know 75-85 percent of the writers in this space. The pay is great and the demand is greater. I’ve kept busy and have built a name for myself by specializing.

    Have you ever landed gigs without directly pitching prospects — where they came to you? How did you get those gigs?

    I’ve landed several this way. Many of them come via referrals, but a lot is by proving myself and having the clients come back with more work. I’ve also had editors recommend me to companies, companies recommend me to other companies, and editors recommend me to other editors. Much of my work last year was through referrals and recommendations.

    Contributing to a larger community is how to show prospects you know your stuff and are competent at what you do. How might you be able to increase that interaction (and sharing) to demonstrate your own authority status within your specialty area? Or if you’ve done so successfully, what’s worked best for you so far?

    I’ve done it via forums and blogs. I have followed people on Twitter who work in the industry, and I join LinkedIn forums to chat with these folks in a more casual setting. Also, I’ve weighed in on discusssions in news blogs and magazine comment sections. All of this helps to familiarize people with who I am and what I can talk about with some coherence.

    I’ve sent out tweets saying what I’m working on, which has led to more than a few people getting in touch asking me to handle their projects, as well.

  24. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Peter — I think if you’d have tried the query-free approach in ’94 it probably wouldn’t have worked as well anyway. The reason it works so well right now is that the Web gives us incredible reach we didn’t have before. Maybe it would have worked for those only targeting local markets, but definitely not in my case at least.

    Lori — You know I love ya right back lady! And you’re right about proving yourself to clients you do land. That’s a big part of it. You don’t want to constantly change clients, having to learn about new businesses and products and markets. It works out much better when you can keep clients coming back for more, but still drive enough new interest that you have to turn people down. Then you get the security of regulars, but have a built-in backup plan should one of them stop working with you down the road for whatever reason.

  25. easy Money
    easy Money says:

    I do consider all the concepts you’ve introduced on your post. They’re very convincing and
    can certainly work. Still, the posts are very quick for novices.
    Could you please prolong them a little from next time?
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