Got this email from a relatively new commercial freelancer recently:
My fledgling commercial writing business, launched in 2007, is alive after fits and starts. Upon reflection, I realize I haven’t had much repeat writing business from clients. In addition to commercial freelance writing, I also do marketing and magazine articles. The magazine keeps re-hiring me, and so does one company that retains me for marketing events. But, as far as clients hiring me over and over for commercial copywriting projects, no. This means I work hard at getting new clients all the time.
Is this common? Should I take it personally? I am confident in my copywriting abilities, so I wonder if I could do a better job at following up to increase the likelihood that clients return. Do you have tips for increasing repeat business?
Hmmm…. This one can be a challenge. When starting your copywriting business, you may be working with smaller clients who simply don’t have as many ongoing writing needs. Hence, they may be great for getting some income in the door and building your writing portfolio, but at some point you have to set your sights higher.
And even when you DO find a steady client, I’ve learned that, well, nothing is forever. Things change, personnel changes, your contact person leaves, and their replacement has their favorite writer, and you’re gone (or any number of other similar scenarios).
But, let’s separate those things we can control (i.e., the kinds of copywriting clients we’re approaching with an eye toward repeat business) from the things we can’t (i.e., what happens in a company over time).
If you’re a generalist (as I am), I’ve found that several client profiles can be good bets for repeat writing business:
1) Small- to mid-sized (50-200+ employees) companies. Often, they’re slammed, everyone’s wearing many hats, and they usually don’t have on-staff creative resources, so they’ll look to talented freelancers to help them with a variety of projects. And you have to have a healthy range of copywriting skills to be able to come through on a variety of project types.
2) Solo consultants who work with different companies needing a real mix of work. These can be creative folk (like graphic designers) or marketing people. Not always easy to find, but if you do, and can demonstrably enhance their offering through your skills (both writing and marketing), that can predictably lead to loyal clients. When you find a great plumber, hairdresser, financial consultant, tax preparer, etc, don’t you stay loyal?
If you’re a project specialist (i.e., white papers, case studies, etc), by definition, you’ve limited yourself, so you’ll have to pursue larger companies who have ongoing needs. If you’re an industry specialist (i.e., high-tech, healthcare, financial services, etc), it can be similar to the generalist scenario, in that, small- to mid-sized companies can provide ongoing freelance copywriting work across the project spectrum.
Regardless of how you’ve structured your offering, one thing is a given: to get repeat business, you have to be good. Really good. You need to be a solid writer with a strong grasp of that company’s audience, value proposition, messaging, etc. Plus, you need to be reliable, dependable and easy to work with. And in the case of a generalist, you need to be able to move easily between brochures, ads, direct mail, web content, articles, case studies, etc.
Just as importantly, you need to always have your radar up for additional opportunities. Don’t just be reactive – only responding to your client’s requests. Learn as much about their business as you can, so you’re in a position to make suggestions that can fill gaps in their marketing they may not see or may not have had time to execute themselves.
What attributes have your long-term, repeat clients had in common?
What’s worked for you in landing and retaining repeat copywriting clients?
What long-term client of yours stands out, and how did the relationship unfold and mature over time?
If you wrestled with this same issue when starting out, what would you do differently if you were launching your business today?
So, I was talking the other day with one of the graphic designers I’ve collaborated with in my commercial writing business for years. She’d recently picked up a new client – a big company selling something people have to have, and targeted to a specific demographic – one that’s been making money hand over fist the past few years.
While happy to get the new work, she’s been frustrated with them of late. They’ve been so busy growing they haven’t had time to sit down and discuss strategy, despite having a ton of projects (some of which will require copywriting) they need to get done. They just rented a huge booth at an industry trade show and told her they wanted her to redesign all their signage – along with direct mail and promo materials.
She wants to bring me in as soon as she can sit down with them and get a laundry list of projects (and accompanying commercial writing needs). Oh, and they’ve got plenty of money. Folks like these are dream clients for solo practitioners (i.e., commercial freelancers and designers). They’re out there and market realities are having them show up more and more on my radar and that of folks like my friend.
Prior to contacting my friend, the client had been working with a small ad agency going through meltdown. They couldn’t get ahold of people at the agency – which had laid off a bunch of folks – and the work wasn’t getting done. Now, if there was ever a situation where a talented freelance writer/designer team could save the day AND save them a bunch of money, time and aggravation, this was it.
This is becoming a more common tale in this economy. Even if an agency isn’t going under, just the fact that their high-overhead economics require them to charge far more than a copywriter/designer team would, is enough to have clients question those bills and try to find lower-priced alternatives. But, they have to feel they can get the same or better quality from a few solo operators in order to feel comfortable making the switch.
So, the opportunities exist. But they won’t drop in our laps and those we do find out there will require solid writing skills, strong marketing chops, buttoned-up presentations and absolute professionalism. But we have one BIG thing going for us: these clients WANT to believe we can solve their problems – they don’t want to hunt any longer and harder than they have to.
Have you run across any scenarios like these? New clients who’ve dropped sinking (or pricey) agencies to go with freelancers (you or someone else)?
If you have, how did it unfold?
What did it take to give them the requisite comfort level to move forward?
If you haven’t landed any new clients in this way, can you see some possibilities in your network?
Are you partnered with a graphic designer or two, and hence, positioned to capitalize on opportunities like these?
A little intellectual gymnastics – with possible real-world application to the commercial freelancing business….
So, I was clicking through a few links I found on a writer friend’s web site the other day, and came across this guy, Simon Sinek (pronounced, unfortunately, “cynic,” though he’s anything but that…), whose site is “Start With Why.”
Very provocative stuff, methinks. Check out the video on the home page of Simon speaking (next to the words, “The Golden Circle”). It’s 18 minutes and change, but well worth it for the mind-buzz factor…
Simon’s philosophy can be summed up in this statement on his site:
All organizations and careers function on 3 levels. What you do, How you do it and Why you do it. The problem is, most don’t even know that Why exists.
True enough. And when you have a powerful “Why,” it drives the “How” (the actions taken to realize the “Why”), which in turn, yields the “What” (the tangible end results). Along around minute 11 of the video, he says the following (aggregated from several places in the video):
People don’t buy from you because you have what they want; they buy from you because they believe what you believe. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you’ll attract those who believe what you believe.
I like it. He cites Apple as a company with a core belief in innovation and being first, and predictably, appealing to similar “firsters” (i.e., the people who stood in line for hours to buy the first iPhones at $600 a pop – with bugs and all).
Now, this stuff goes beyond features and benefits. Though, let’s be clear. If you run your copywriting business focusing on benefits (i.e., those things that matter to your clients), NOT features (i.e., those things about you and your business), that’ll generally be enough to set yourself apart from most of the pack.
But, he’s going deeper here. Now, I’m not saying this is The New Answer for the commercial writing field. Rather, that there simply may be some cheese down this tunnel for folks like us. So, how is his philosophy relevant to us? Well, mapping it on to what we do…
Clients don’t buy what we do (i.e., writing services); they buy why we do it (i.e., ________??).
What might be that compelling “Why” for us to share with our clients and prospects? Sure, we could all have ones specific to our businesses, but nothing wrong with a little brainstorming. So, what would be a powerful belief on our part that would draw to us those who share that belief and do business with us as a result?
Would it be, “I believe in the power of words to dramatically influence buyer action”? Too superficial?
Maybe, “Writing has changed history, so it can certainly change minds.” Closer, but perhaps a bit obtuse?
How about, “Speak honestly and the world will listen to you.” Better, though a bit lofty. Thoughts?
Could this strategy be a way for commercial writers to set themselves apart from the pack?
Do you have such a core belief for your business?
If so, how do you share it? Is it outlined on your site? In marketing materials? Shared in meetings?
If not, what core belief or “Why” could you come up with for your business? Or for commercial writing businesses in general?
Got an interesting note from a commercial freelancer recently:
Recently (and perhaps because of the recession) I’ve been asked to sign non-compete agreements from agencies I work with. The first time I was asked, I said no—and lost the account. Now I’m being asked again, and it happens to be a fairly substantial client.
I have no problem signing a confidentiality agreement, but this non-compete states:
For two years after the date your relationship with (agency) ends, you may not solicit any contractor, independent contractor, or agent of (agency) to work for you or on behalf of any competing business; or solicit any client or customer of (agency) to purchase from you any product or service which competes with any product or service provided by (agency).
My client is obviously paranoid; I think he has been burned in the past. While my town is a reasonably major metro, we only have a handful of large household-name corporations. Essentially, if his clients are one or more of those big companies, then I wouldn’t be able to do any copywriting business with any department in those firms – even those the agency isn’t directly working with.
Some of these companies probably use six different agencies in town. If I sign this agreement, and get a call from one of those other agencies (quite possible), I’d have to turn down that work. Or, if one of the companies themselves wanted to hire me to write, say, internal communications (work outside the agency’s scope), I’d have to turn that down as well. Help!
PB: Maybe I’ve been lucky in my commercial writing career, but I’ve never been asked to sign anything so draconian as this, so in my experience, it’s not at all common. Non-competes are typically used for employees who leave a company and, understandably, that company is a bit hesitant to have them go to work for a competitor for at least a few years. But to require a contractor to not solicit work from their clients or even competing agencies that might work for those clients, for two years? That’s downright preposterous.
Now, I have encountered the wrath of a copywriting client who thought I was going around them to solicit work directly from the client – a BIG no-no, and I get that (talk about paranoid; they saw me swapping cards with an account exec from the client, and made the totally wild leap that I was soliciting work directly from them).
So, this is similar but exponentially more far-reaching, and in a much more locked-down form. I wouldn’t sign it unless you’re okay with being shut out from doing any commercial freelancing jobs for any of these other companies, which I kinda doubt you are. My first instinct is to tell them to go jump in the lake. After all, according to this agreement, you do one $250 job for them, after which they drop you, and you’re shut out from all this potential work for two years. That’s laughable.
But, there’s definitely something else going on here, and a little digging ought to unearth it. You need to craft some sort of win-win. Ferret out their real concern and get to some middle ground. In addition to the quite conceivable inanity of the “one-$250-job” scenario described above, explain that each of their clients might have dozens of people/departments who could potentially hire you, and to do work THEY (the agency) had zero interest in (like collateral, internal communications, etc).
As such, how fair is that they put this blanket rule on ALL business? That’s heavy-handed, greedy, and not at all acting in good faith (just an editorial aside; I probably wouldn’t say that to them, but then again, I just might…).
Why not say you’ll get permission from them before taking on any other work from any division of any of their clients? Or, as a last resort (and not a habit you should get in), if you really want to work with them, and feel the upside potential with them is great (a gamble, obviously), why not offer, say, a 10% “royalty” on any work gotten from within that company?
Assuming their main concern is that you might poach work from them that would be up their alley, if they KNOW they won’t be interested in X kind of work, under the royalty situation, they might actually be motivated to get you in those doors so they make their piece. Not an ideal situation, and if they don’t agree to either of those, I’d absolutely walk.
By the way, I got an update from the freelancer recently:
“My client has agreed to let me propose some changes to that part of the agreement. I have done that, and now I’m waiting for his reply. He is clearly fearful that I am going to solicit his clients, which I think is the result of some past experience he had that is totally unrelated to me. However, I think there is generally a growing paranoia as competition has escalated in the days since the recession hit. I’ll email you with a full update as soon as this is resolved.”
Have you ever run into this situation before?
How did you handle it?
What would you suggest she do?
If crazy-restrictive agreements like these are indeed becoming more common, why do you think that’s the case?
It’s inevitable in an economic downturn. Clients using pricey creative agencies dump them and pull the work in-house. OR outsource it, as we’ve happily discussed in this forum (and elsewhere: check out the GREENS course at this link) to a more economical, low-overhead writer and designer team.
The premise was simple – and one with all sorts of positive implications for folks like us. Napier, an ad agency professional, established the challenge:
Losing business because a client takes its work in-house can be a very frustrating challenge for a shop that’s put its heart and soul into coming up with innovative ideas. But what agency folks sometimes forget is that a client’s decision to go in-house usually isn’t driven by creativity or quality of work, but instead by the need for a new operating model, lower costs or faster turnaround. We didn’t want to stand by and watch our clients take that work in-house, nor was it in their best interest for us to try to force-fit it into our standard agency model.
Now, read this next part about her proposed solution to this quandary, and tell me if it doesn’t have a familiar ring…
So, a few years ago, we created a second model, one we call the “in-house outsource,” or studio model. How does it work? Like a traditional model, the clients have a dedicated team to serve their business, one that’s steeped in the client’s brand guidelines, process and work flow. However, for the studio model, the process is streamlined.
There are no account executives or trafficking positions; clients work directly with a designer who is responsible for every aspect of the project, from the first request to the work getting out the door, much like having an on-staff designer. The studio team works as an agency within an agency — it has its own leader, its own process, its own job description and career path.
Sounds a whole lot like a simple freelance copywriter/graphic designer team, no? Napier describes a model that meets a client’s need for lower costs and faster turnaround – something many clients in our world have been getting from talented writer/designer teams for a long time.
So, these creative pros know what clients want and have started bending their business model to deliver just that. With us? No bending required. That’s already who we are. And this new evolution on the part of agencies just reaffirms – in case you had any doubts – the fundamental legitimacy of the freelance model.
Of course, Napier’s premise appears to cover several scenarios: 1) clients pulling in-house ALL the business they’re doing with an agency; or 2) clients pulling certain pieces that many agencies long ago deemed not worth pursuing.
As I’ve pointed out in The Well-Fed Writer, while we commercial writers are unlikely to pick up the high-profile branding work from Fortune 500 firms that’s been the domain of Big Advertising (mainly because, let’s face it, the typical writer/designer team can’t deliver everything a full-service ad agency can…), we can certainly cover the, 1) the “collateral” projects agencies don’t want or aren’t set up to handle; and 2) branding work for relatively smaller firms with the bucks to hire that agency, but which are now tightening their belts.
Of course, Napier’s unspoken message – one that can’t help but elicit a smile – is this: Given the client exodus many in our industry have experienced of late, we can’t afford to be as elitist as before. Translation: We need to figure out how to hang on to this business we previously turned up our noses at. And give them credit for adapting successfully, as Napier’s firm certainly has.
Though you have to wonder whether Napier’s clients, once they get a taste of the lower-priced, streamlined business model on some of their work, don’t start wondering – however illogically, perhaps – why that same model can’t be applied to their other work. Something we commercial freelancers, given our cornerstone value proposition, will never have to wrestle with.
Have you run into a similar scenario with your business?
Have you benefited from a client’s belt-tightening to replace a more expensive creative resource?
Have you approached creative firms (e.g., ad agencies, marketing design firms, etc.), to pick up work they don’t want to deal with (and haven’t adapted to be able to handle)?
Is this giving you ideas you hadn’t previously considered?