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!

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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.

How Would You Deal With Such an Unpleasant Client?

Recently got an email from a new commercial writer up North. All you experienced folks, if you’re like me, you’ll be saying, “Oh, just let me at this guy…” She wrote:

I’m writing a web site for a logistics company, a family business run by a nice guy in his early twenties. It’s my first job as a freelancer commercial writer, although I have quite a bit of experience as a copywriter at an ad agency. Here’s the deal:

Sent the initial agreement outlining that three revisions are included; any over that amount, I charge for. Sent initial draft. Client says they’re happy with it; suggest few minor tweaks. “Awesome,” I think. Make changes; send second version. Client sends back a few more minor changes. “Easiest first client ever,” I muse.

Third version I send, emphasizing “Let’s look this over, make sure everything looks great, and I’ll proof for grammar, punctuation, etc., and we’ll call it a day.” Client responds, “Great. I’ll just send it along to our consultant and we’ll get back to you.”

(Sound of brakes screeching). “Um, okay…”

I wait nervously for a few days before emailing client. I’m told he and the consultant are still making lots of changes. Wait a few more days; told they’re still making changes. Finally, not knowing what’s left of my copy, I insist on having a phone conference with this mystery consultant, who turns out to be a very confrontational and opinionated attorney, who not very nicely attacks me for all manner of grammatical transgressions.

According to him, the lead’s been lost in a pile of blah-blah-blah. He wants everything stripped down to bare facts. In short, he is a writer’s nightmare. And I’m a new twenty-something commercial copywriter, eager to please my first client, and totally intimidated by gruff, fifty-year-old lawyers.

When I ask my client why the sudden change, his response is merely that his consultant pointed out a lot of things to him.

My question: We’re still technically on the third round of revisions, although the “revisions” are adding sections, removing sections and making very significant changes. The client doesn’t want to get back to me and give the OK on this last round because I think he believes as long as he’s within the three rounds of revisions, the sky’s the limit on making changes.

How do I diplomatically communicate the scale of changes permitted? How do I prevent this from happening in the future? How do I avoid both pissing off my first and only client and being a sucker who’s doing work for free?

Whew. Doesn’t that story just make you want to shine up your brass knuckles? Of course, she did make a few newbie copywriter errors. Like not determining up front all the folks who’d be approving copy. Honest mistake, and one of those “hindsight-is-20/20” things. Been through many projects where I didn’t think to ask that and it never turned out to be a problem, but had there been a hidden butcher with machete and red pen lurking in the shadows, I’d have been hosed.

And no question, when starting out (and young, too boot, and easily daunted; we’ve all been there), and have a great gig going with a first client, you really do want to please. All things considered, she got paid, learned some valuable lessons (far more than she’d have learned on a smooth-sailing gig), and will be that much more prepared next time.

One thing that’s a no-brainer is the whole idea of expanding scope of a project. Not sure whether they spelled out the project parameters on the original agreement. But, given how she agonized over saying anything once the thing began spreading in all directions, I’m guessing not. Big mistake.

If you make it clear upfront, in writing, that the project includes X components – X # of pages, for X fee, then as soon as things start expanding beyond those stated specs, then it’s a simple matter of saying, “Things have changed, and the fee needs to be renegotiated.” No need for hesitation or angst. The client agreed to a certain sized project for a certain fee, and it’s now grown beyond that. End of discussion.

Being completely matter-of-fact about that is crucial to preserving your status as a professional. And it should happen regardless of whether it’s your first client or your 1000th. If you had a plumber over to fix your sink and you asked him to fix that leaky toilet upstairs while he’s here, you’d never expect him to do it for nothing. So, why would you think for a nanosecond that clients are entitled to freebies? They’re not.

Another non-negotiable point for any professional is how you’re being treated. If someone starts with snide remarks, confrontational, belligerent tone, or insulting manner in any way, I’m going to say something. Anyone who does that honestly believes you’re little more than “The Help,” and as such, can be talked down to. I once told one such a client, who the hell he thought he was, talking to me that way. That went over well. I ended my participation at that moment, walked away, and got paid for my time.

Got this update from our beseiged copywriter:

“I wish I could say I’d come up with a brilliant way to resolve the situation, but it really amounted to a combination of contributing many more hours than I’d planned on (thus losing money) and finally, drawing the line and telling the client I’d have to adjust the quote before making any further changes.

“Trying my hardest to diplomatically plow through numerous revisions was what kept my relationship with the client from souring. (At the project’s completion, he enthusiastically volunteered to be a reference for me.) But whether the situation was resolved successfully is debatable. I succeeded in making the client happy, but lost money and watched some great copy turn into something I’m not as thrilled to put my name on. Live and learn.”

Ever found yourself dealing with a similarly unpleasant individual? If so, what did you do?

Any other suggestions to head off problems like these?

When you were starting out, how did you balance your desire to be accommodating and customer-oriented with the need to not become a doormat?

And if you didn’t manage that well (and many of us didn’t!), what did you learn from the experience?

Got This Fun, In-Demand and Lucrative Copywriting Specialty in Your Project Mix?

So, suddenly I’ve been thinking a lot about case studies. For starters, I just finished a big one and it consumed a big chunk of my commercial writing life (details in the July and August ezine “Appetizer” courses).

Then, my friend Casey Hibbard (The Case-Study Queen), announced she’s offering a six-month intensive case-study coaching program for copywriters.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about how marketing is moving in a much softer, gentler direction – more informational and educational (think white papers). Customers have become savvier and more skeptical (haven’t you?) over the past few decades as more and more unbiased product information is readily available. So “selling” needs to be more low-key, more genuine, and more real-world. Case studies – essentially third-party testimonials – are a perfect example of that.

In a recent email Casey sent out about her program, she noted that “survey after survey shows that happy customers are the #1 thing that influences buyers’ decisions.”

Makes sense. After all, what’s more compelling: some company telling you their product does this, that and the other, and you should buy it (even if not that inelegantly)? Or reading several verifiable stories about actual customers saying, essentially, “We had a problem, this product solved it, and we couldn’t be happier”?

Think about a case study, whose basic form discusses The Challenge the client company had encountered; The Solution offered by the vendor (for whom you’re writing the piece); and The Outcome, complete with gushing quote from the now-thrilled client.

The whole goal of the piece is to have the reader find themselves (i.e., their company) in that story, to have them say to themselves as they read about this company, “Interesting. That’s the same thing we’re wrestling with.” And given that the company is named, they can even call them up to confirm the information.

So, a case study can sell a client – or at the very least, move them a lot further and faster along the sales cycle – without any direct involvement of the company selling the product or service. True third-party selling.

The key? People don’t want to be “sold.” They want to come to their own conclusions, at their own pace, without someone (with a vested interest) breathing down their neck. They can find that company’s web site and all the information they need about the company’s offering by themselves, thank you very much, with no need (yet) to talk to a salesperson.

So a case study can do the heavy sales lifting, and if a series of them all resonate with a reader, that prospect could essentially be sold by the time they call the company. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Third-party selling is credible because, presumably, the company in question who bought the product and is now happy with the solution, would have no reason to tell tales, and no reason to speak well of a product and the company selling if it weren’t true (notwithstanding outright bribery, though again, all of it’s easy to confirm).

I have one commercial freelancing client for whom I do longer-form case studies (4-8 pages) and for fees that range from roughly $2000 to over $4000. It’s fun and challenging work. I interview several players involved in a particular project, spin an interesting (hopefully) narrative, weaving in quotes throughout – including many that gush on and on about the company. See some samples here.

If you haven’t added case studies to your freelance copywriting menu, you’re no doubt leaving money on the table – AND missing out on some enjoyable work.

And for all you ex-journos out there: case studies are one of the easiest commercial copywriting project types to transition to from a journalism background. You need to be able to add a marketing spin, but remember, you’re simply reporting how a “solution” unfolded (facts) and including quotes (more facts) from those whose company benefited from that solution. It’s the juxtaposition of those components that make it compelling to a reader.

Are case studies a part of your copywriting mix?

If not, why not? If so, what do you like about them?

If you hail from a journalism background (magazines or newspapers) and have parlayed that into writing case studies (among other projects), how did that transition go?

Any comments/observations, from your own experience, about the place of case studies in marketing today?

The Confidence Conundrum: How a Newbie Writer Builds Enough to Succeed…

In my first commercial freelancing group coaching series, one of the participants said: “I think my biggest problem is uncertainty. I prefer feeling confident about what I’m doing – to be able to do it with authority, and I just haven’t been able to reach that point so far. I’m always afraid I’ll do it ‘wrong.'” Welcome to the human race.

Not at all surprisingly, that statement resonated with all the other “coachees,” and the same issue has been brought up by many folks in every series since. When you’re starting out in a new field, and often, as one’s first foray into self-employment, to boot, it’s easy to get mighty wigged out by this Big Unknown (a.k.a. commercial writing).

Sure, I’d like to think that commercial copywriting resources like my book can demystify the business-building process quite a bit, and it no doubt does. But still, until someone takes those steps for themselves, everything they read about in my book (or any other) is still untried, unproven – to them – and hence, still theoretical.

So, how does one develop the confidence necessary to make it as a commercial freelancer? How do you know you’ve got what it takes to succeed? How do you get yourself to a place where you can boldly go where you’ve never gone before?

Well, the bad news is if you’re a newbie, chances are, you’ll have to deal with this. But, that’s also the good news: most commercial copywriters starting out deal with this. Sure, if you’ve left a corporate position, and carry experience, clients and work from that industry – or ex-employer – with you, you’ll likely have an easier transition. But, that’s not the norm.

I see the confidence-building game as three-fold. Arguably, a lack of confidence is driven by a lack of mental adjustment, a lack of experience and a lack of knowledge. The mental side? Get comfortable with the fact that you likely won’t be comfortable for a while (one reason this field pays so well…). Just the nature of the beast, and knowing that’s the case should make it easier to deal with.

The experiential side? Self-evident. You gain confidence by doing. Every new commercial writing experience you have, every copywriting project you work on and complete successfully, is a brick in your own personal Confidence Wall.

You learn a little more about the commercial freelancing process, you understand a little more about copywriting clients – what they expect, how they are to deal with, and how to make their lives easier (your goal, by the way…). Sure, all situations are a little different, but there are always some commonalities in every scenario.

String enough successful commercial writing projects together (translation: growing respect, competence, portfolio, testimonials, and bank account), and one day you’ll wake up and realize that this gig is for real, and so are you. That’s where confidence is born. But it takes time.

The knowledge side? Along the way, of course, you can hasten the process by reading books on copywriting, marketing, sales, etc. The more you know, the more tools you have at your command when talking with clients about their challenges. In addition, study the work of fellow commercial freelancers. Visit their sites, see how they position themselves, look at their samples (starting with mine) to get a sense of the required skill sets.

How did you build confidence in your abilities when you were starting out?

Was there one particular project that stands out as a big confidence booster for you?

Do you remember the moment when you realized you had what it took to make it in this business?

“Niche or Die!” (Really? You Sure About That?)

So, I’m in the midst of series #5 of my commercial freelancing group coaching program (as I write this) – geared towards business copywriters just starting out. Not surprisingly, one of the BIG bugaboo issues for newbies is “niche.” Seems you can’t spit these days without hitting a guru or two who’ll adamantly assert, chopping the air for emphasis, that you absolutely, positively must differentiate yourself in the marketplace by way of a well-delineated niche.

If you don’t, they’ll continue, you’re on a one-way road to professional oblivion (with financial ruin swiftly on its heels). So many new copywriters agonize over this one, so afraid to hang out a shingle without a laser-specific professional focus. Sorry, but as an across-the-board strategy, I don’t buy it.

(Note: we did touch on this subject a year or so ago in the Generalist vs. Specialist debate, but I’m taking a bit of a different spin here, and looking for slightly different input from you experienced folks).

Here’s my take: If you have a well-defined niche you can pursue, by virtue of past career experience, track record or education, by all means, go for it. Having a niche absolutely can set you apart – AND earn you more money. Even if you don’t have a big portfolio of work in, say, Industry A, if you know all about Industry A by virtue of 10-20 years in the business, you’ll be attractive to writing buyers in that industry (who’ll translate that experience into “minimal learning curve”…).

Even if you hate the field in which you’ve spent a decade or two, if you’re trying to get started as a commercial copywriter, I’d still recommend you leverage that experience out of the gate. You don’t have to write about it forever, but it’d be nuts to not parlay that into work until you get established.

Remember, even if you don’t love your industry any more as a field to work in, writing about that field from the comfort of your home in your sweats is a whole other ballgame from having to go to work every day (i.e., commute, endless meetings, office politics) in that same field in a job you loathe.

But what if you don’t have a 10-20-year track record in some field? Listening to the experts, you still need to create a niche. But what niche? Pull one from thin air? Flip a coin? Declare yourself an expert on X, but without the background, training or samples to back it up? What’re you going to say if someone asks for those samples? I’m afraid I just don’t see a whole lot of sense in that approach. If a niche isn’t occurring naturally to you, it’s probably not there, so don’t force it.

So, Plan B is to build your business sans niche as a generalist. Something I’ve been doing for 17 years, incidentally. Sure, I had a sales/marketing background, and I did make sure people knew that, but most of the projects we commercial writers do are marketing-oriented anyway, so is that a clearly defined niche? Debatable.

Sure, it’ll be tougher with little to leverage. But, if the alternative is touting yourself as an authority in an arena where you’re really not, I say the anxiety level with that scenario will likely top that of someone going niche-less. And in the latter situation, if you’re a really good writer and go out of your way to be overly professional, reliable and easy-to-work with, those things will set you apart (assuming you’re reaching enough people with your marketing efforts).

What’s your take on niche?

How important do you feel having a niche is for someone starting out?

Did you have a niche when you began? If not, how did your story unfold?

Do you feel strong writing skills, professionalism and reliability can be a “niche” of sorts (given how relatively rare they are)?