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This Writer’s Clients Give Him a Check Every Month (Thanks to a Tough Economy…)

So, a few months back, in the April 2011 Well-Fed E-PUB, I ran the following Main Course about retainers from Visalia, CA commercial freelancer Tim Lewis (tim@tlcopy.com, http://www.tlcopy.com).

Retainers – essentially a guaranteed monthly income from a commercial writing client – can be wonderful things. Not to mention especially welcome in a tough economy – and as you’ll see in Tim’s account, they’ll not only benefit us, but our clients as well.

Tim’s had some solid success with this strategy in building his own commercial freelancing business, and generously shared his experiences. Then it hit me that it’d make an ideal blog post – perfect for gathering input and experiences from all of you.

Frankly, I haven’t had much firsthand experience with retainers in my commercial copywriting practice, but if you have, I hope you’ll weigh in! Take it away, Tim…

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Being a commercial freelancer can be more than just “per project” work. There’s a way to enjoy our fabulous lifestyle without worrying where your next check will come from. Setting up retainer-based agreements with clients is a great way to ensure consistent freelance copywriting income.

This is exactly what I did a few years ago when I said goodbye to the corporate world. Instead of hurling myself into the freelancing abyss without a safety net, I approached my boss with a unique proposition: I would resign my position as a hospital marketing director, but stay on as a consultant to help groom my replacement (my assistant). This way, she could learn the ropes and I could have the time I needed to build my copywriting practice.

It was a win-win for both parties. We agreed on a three-month contract that paid me roughly the same as I was making full-time. I had plenty of time to build a healthy business base while spending a few hours each week training my replacement and writing all of the communications pieces for the hospital. Plus, I could still pay all of my bills! The arrangement worked so well, I decided to approach some of my recurring clients with a similar proposal.

The response was tremendous. Because of the economy, many of my prospects (large hospitals) had laid off much of their marketing and communications staff. Since the work still needed to be done, they jumped at the chance to bring in an experienced hospital marketer/communications writer to help them get through this economic downturn.

As things start to pick up, many of my clients are realizing that my services fill all of their marketing needs, and at a fraction of the costs associated with bringing someone in full-time. Though I still do some one-off project work, my most productive partnerships are retainer-based consultant gigs.

How to get a client to agree to a retainer? Here’s how I approach it:

1) Every long-term relationship starts with a single project. Once you land it, knock it out of the park. Exceed your client’s expectations.

2) Once you’ve floored them with your talents and professionalism, follow up with a phone call. If they’re local, take them out to lunch. Ask if they have an ongoing need for writers. If so, pitch yourself as the solution.

3) If they’re interested, find out what their needs are, and what their budget is. From that info, craft a proposal detailing the services you’ll provide (e.g., blogging, web management, e-newsletters, etc.), the hours you can dedicate to them, and your monthly rate. The proposal doesn’t need to be some extensive legal document; one or two pages will suffice. If it’s a large company, they’ll most likely have you sign a legally binding vendor agreement. Read it carefully.

Make sure to include language in your proposal stating what will happen if you exceed—or don’t reach—the hours you’ve agreed upon. When the client has a light workload one month, I still ask to be paid in full (that’s the beauty of a retainer).

On the flip side, during busier months, I reserve the right to charge my hourly rate for excessive overages. Now, I have strong relationships with my retainer clients. As such, I will often not charge for a few extra hours here and there. However, when there’s an unusually heavy workload, I will let my client know that I’m approaching the cut-off and there might be some extra fees involved. That way, they can plan accordingly and either give me the go-ahead to move forward or hold off.

Also, revisions to your proposal should be expected while negotiating the agreement. Be prepared to be somewhat flexible with your rates and the hours you commit to. You may also want to start with a one-month contract to see how the partnership works, then make changes to the agreement down the road.

If negotiations aren’t as smooth as you’d like, be patient. Remember that this is a mutually beneficial situation––you’re guaranteed consistent income for an extended period of time and they’ll have dependable access to an expert in their industry.

If you’ve had experience with retainers, how did yours unfold at the outset?

How did you structure them?

Has the tougher economy opened doors to possible retainer scenarios?

Have you had retainers that didn’t work out well, and if so, what would you have done differently?

If you haven’t done any retainers, do you have some clients who might be a good candidate for such an arrangement?

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.

Got a Guest Post for The Well-Fed Writer Blog? (Now Three Years Old!)

Okay, so I tried this waaaaaaay back when, shortly after the blog’s launch – asking for guest posts. Got a few submissions from my fellow commercial freelancers, but after a while, things sort of fizzled out. And yours truly had to load that big blog burden back on my shoulders. I know, get out your violins, right? 😉

But seriously, I’d like to revisit this idea. Why? Because over the past three years (almost to the day – we launched on 3/30/08), we’ve developed a pretty extraordinary commercial writing “master mind” here. I’m happy to say, this blog has made its mark in that time, and has enjoyed great participation, with an average of ~25 comments per post! Compared with typical copywriting blogs, that’s a smokin’ number. So, thanks to all of you!

I’ve kept the blog frequency low: about twice monthly (heck, it usually takes 7-10 days to work through the commentary on any given post). That said, I’d love to start posting weekly, and to do that, I really need your help.

After all, The Well-Fed Writer approach has always been collaborative. My books, ezine, knowledgebase, the new Partner Pantry, and yes the blog, wouldn’t have been possible without the countless stories, insights, inquiries and experiences from commercial writers across the country and the globe. I’m just one guy, with one limited set of commercial copywriting experiences. What could you share?

Perhaps a prospecting strategy that’s borne some serious fruit over the years?

An unusual market (if you’re willing to reveal it)?

A particularly great success story – with a lesson attached?

A fabulous tip that’s made you more efficient, better networked or more profitable?

An insight into the business that’s made a huge difference for you?

Anything else to share that can help commercial writers make more money, have greater professional fulfillment, or enjoy a higher quality of life?

And keep in mind, you don’t have to be a seasoned freelance copywriting veteran. Had an experience that taught you something and enhanced your career in some way – something that others would benefit from? I don’t care if you started your commercial freelancing career a few months ago; let’s hear it!

Guest posts should be 400-800 words. And you know our drill: real-world stories and experiences are best. And of course, please include questions at the end to turn it into a subject with “legs” – one that can spawn a rich discussion.

What’s in it for you? Besides the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll get from helping your fellow commercial freelancers? Not enough? How about raising your profile in the eyes of your peers? More? Geez, tough crowd… 😉

Seriously, if you’ve got a book, ebook, ezine, report, program, service, blog or web site you want to promote, I welcome your promo copy at the end of the piece.

The first three years have been fabulous – yielding a mighty impressive body of work covering subjects across the commercial writing spectrum. I’d love to see where we can take it during the next three years, and beyond.

Got a blog post idea? Post the particulars here, as a comment, or email me at peter at wellfedwriter dot com.

An Ode to “Good Clients” (i.e., Virtually All of Mine…)

I just got off the phone with one of my favorite commercial writing clients – someone who embodies what I like about most of my clients: she always thinks of me first when writing comes up (who wouldn’t love that?); values my contributions; respects me and my process; gives me enough time, attention, and input to do my job well; never balks at my project bids, and makes sure I get paid promptly.

And yes, most of my clients over the years have been like her. Sure, even the greatest client has their quirks and minuses. After all, we’re still dealing with human beings here. One is hard to reach and often doesn’t return calls. Another can be a bit of a micro-manager, though backs down graciously when it’s gently pointed out. Yet another may be a little scattered in meetings. But, all in all, small stuff.

So, needless to say, I was a bit taken aback by an email I got recently from a budding commercial writer recently, discouraged about this commercial writing field of ours. Based on what he’d read on the blog, he wrote:

“The message I get is more or less as follows: “Yes, you can make great money, there’s plenty of work, but most of your clients will suck – kind of like the so-called ‘colleagues’ you have if you’re employed full time.”

Hmmmm. Never really considered that the blog was presenting, perhaps, a skewed perspective of our business. Though, as I explained to him, by definition, the blog addresses issues and challenges common to commercial freelancers, and as such, often focuses on the “problem children” amongst our clients. After all, people don’t need much help dealing with ideal clients, or all the things that go right.

Yet, the blog’s often-necessary focus isn’t The Story of the copywriting field. At least, it’s not been mine. And in the relatively rare cases when my commercial copywriting clients haven’t fit the above description, some haven’t hired writers before, and perhaps I’ve failed to communicate properly, or clearly outline terms and expectations. Sure, we’ve all had a few jerks, but for me anyway, those types have absolutely been the exception, not the rule.

The fact that, overwhelmingly, I’ve had good clients, is largely a function of this commercial freelancing field of ours. Assuming you’re targeting the right prospects, you’ll be landing a higher-caliber breed of client (than say, the clients I often hear about from my magazine-writer friends), and that’ll yield good client experiences.

Case in point: in my 18+ years as a copywriter, I’ve never once been stiffed by a client. Not ever. And I can count the slow-pay episodes on the fingers of one hand. I’d challenge any non-commercial writers to make the same claims. We’re just dealing with a better class of client (or probably more to the point: corporations have healthier budgets than publications do, which makes payment challenges a non-issue).

So, who are the right prospects? They’re professional, busy, high performing and exacting. They intimately understand the difference that professional copywriting can make in their messaging, their value proposition, and ultimately, their bottom line. They have the resources to invest, and – this is key – for them, the right outcome trumps price. And when you find them, this business can be a lot of fun.

And yes, I DO know that when you’re starting out, sometimes you have to put up with more…stuff (though still less than other writing avenues) than later on. But if you’re in that place, know that as you become more established, the quality of your clients will rise – mainly because, at that point, you can afford to cut some loose.

So, I want to hear your stories of great clients – to underscore that they’re the norm, not the anomaly. I want to hear about those people who make this business worthwhile, challenging (in a good way), enjoyable, and rewarding – both creatively and financially (okay, we don’t always get creative fulfillment, but I’ve found it happens far more than the uninitiated might imagine…).

If your situation is similar to mine, good for you. If, however, most of your clients make you crazy; don’t give you the respect and consideration you deserve; haggle over fees and need repeated reminders to take care of invoices, know that that’s not typical. AND, it might be time to consider a phased “house-cleaning.”

Tell us about your favorite client(s). What do you like about them?

Do you have a favorite “Clients-Behaving-Wonderfully” story?

Do most of your clients fall into the “good-guy” category?

If so, how did (do) you make sure that’s the case?

This Writer’s Landing a Ton of Work Doing What So Many Companies Need…

Caught up with a commercial writing chum of mine on the West Coast recently (we’ll call him Joe). He told me about all the work he’s landed with his latest client. So many good lessons for commercial writers in his story, I just had to share it.

Joe landed the client through a friend. Do your friends know what you do and your specialties within your profession? If not, they should…

Anyway, a marketing director with a one school of a larger university system (yes, I’m obscuring some identifying details) mentioned to a mutual friend that she needed some proofreading and editing done, and Joe’s friend suggested him. Joe and the client spoke, hit it off on the phone, quickly realizing that he lived in the client’s hometown. The proofing/editing gig ending up falling through, but the good rapport they’d developed had the client call Joe back when some new work came up.

It’s important to note that her hiring Joe was arbitrary and based on little more than he was a writer she’d crossed paths with and with whom she’d hit it off (Remember: clients don’t want to spend a lot of time hunting for a writer). But, much to the client’s delight, Joe’s background – which they hadn’t previously discussed in depth – was a perfect match for the new gig: helping with their new content marketing strategy, to which they’d committed a healthy budget. CM is becoming a popular approach for companies trying to position themselves as “thought leaders” in a particular industry.

Here’s how it works… It all comes down to searchability: helping people find you via Internet searches. You start by determining what kinds of information people are looking for via Google searches, in the relevant subject areas (in this case, information related to the school’s mission). Then, by crafting and posting high-quality content that satisfies those searches, the school draws a steady stream of traffic to its virtual doorstep, and in the end, helps support the school’s goal of increasing enrollment.

Joe’s content-generating efforts are going well enough that the university’s now pondering duplicating the strategy in several other discipline-specific schools in their system. And Joe’s in the wonderful position of recommending friends who are subject-matter experts in those arenas. Given the trust the school has in him (coupled with the desire, as discussed, to quickly identify resources) his fellow writers are basically shoo-ins.

Do fellow commercial freelancers know your strong suits, especially when they differ from theirs?

And to get your wheels turning a bit, what’s cool about a content marketing strategy is the broad array of businesses for which the approach would make sense. In addition to educational institutions of all stripes, how about medical/health practices of every kind (GP’s, veterinarians, chiropractors, alternative health practitioners, massage therapists, acupuncturists, nutritionists, etc)? How about law firms, financial advisors and accounting firms? Which just scratches the surface…

Interior design firms, flooring companies, landscape architects, plant nurseries, building contractors – heck, we could be here all day. Every single one could boost their search-engine rankings and marketplace stature above their competition, by creating solid, relevant content related to what they do, and for which they’ve determined people are searching, and which will bring those people to their door.

You can probably think of a handful of companies in your area that are doing this already? Who else could be a candidate?

Any current or ex-journos out there? Content development could be a wonderful avenue by which to transition to commercial copywriting (if that’s your goal), or at least help craft a healthy mix of editorial and commercial work. It’s not straight editorial; it will usually have a soft marketing slant, but truly soft.

Oh, Joe told me he also landed, thanks to a basic familiarity with social media marketing (Facebook, Twitter), a $1200+/month retainer to execute those components for the school. He’s the first to say he doesn’t consider himself a social media pro, but given how few writers out there today can claim to be, his skills are more than adequate.

Finally, in a serendipitous twist of fate, in the midst of all this, a government agency put out a report about the future of the field for which the school trained graduates. One of their recommendations? More education for those considering the field. Could there be a more perfect dovetail with the school’s mission?

Joe came across the report in his research, and suggested he do a four-part summary of its main points, simplifying and encapsulating the highlights, and have the school post it on their web site. The school loved the idea, and he’d just landed another roughly $1500 worth of work. So, he saw an opening for work that the school hadn’t considered but was happy he’d brought up, and more than happy to fund.

It gets better. Related entities and organizations found this solid summary on the school’s site, ended up linking to it, further boosting the SEO love coming the school’s way already. Over time, the school earns a well-deserved reputation as that thought leader, and a gateway to high-value content on a particular subject.

Getting any ideas from reading this?

Have you picked up any content marketing work?

Can you share how it unfolded, and/or general thoughts on the strategy?

Are you seeing more call for content development amongst your clients?

Ever “suggested” your way (as Joe did) to additional paying work, not on a client’s original to-do-list?

Might This Guy’s Process Win You More – and More Loyal – Clients?

Had a chat recently with a commercial freelancer with whom I had a long-term mentoring relationship last year. Our goal was to give his business-building efforts some serious structure and discipline (i.e., regular cold calling and ongoing follow-up), as he ramped up a former part-time commercial copywriting practice to full-time and operational.

As of late fall of 2010, he was landing some solid copywriting gigs. He shared with me his process when working with new commercial writing clients, and I was so impressed, I asked if he’d write it up for me, which he did below. Really good stuff:

Peter, I recently landed a new client, and as part of my value proposition, I do a thorough business analysis – all part of the package they invest in. I spend approximately three hours reviewing my client’s web site and marketing materials, as well as the web sites of their major competitors – all with an eye toward understanding their respective businesses and how they’re positioning themselves in the marketplace.

Once I finish my research, I’ve learned a good deal about their business – and, what I want to know more about. In fact, I’ll typically end up with a list of 20 to 25 follow-up questions. Next, I set up a face-to-face meeting (which could be done by phone in the case of remote clients) with the client, during which time we discuss my findings and I ask my questions to fill in any blanks.

I tape the conversation and have the tape transcribed – providing the client with a copy of the transcript as well as giving me a verbatim record of our discussion for future reference.

The end result of all this is a deep understanding of my client’s business and industry, from which I can make knowledgeable recommendations for effective marketing initiatives (and the accompanying written materials) moving forward.

More importantly, it serves as a true market differentiator for me. Few commercial writers delve into a client’s world as deeply as I’m doing (though none of what I do is particularly difficult), and that sets me apart. My clients are typically delighted at my approach, which, in many cases, actually leaves me more knowledgeable about their industry than even they may be.

As a result, I quickly go from being a copywriter to something far more than that: someone who’s made it his business to intimately learn their business, and who can then apply strong writing skills more effectively and strategically. This in turn fosters a longer-term mentality on both our parts, which is, of course, my goal: clients with whom I can work closely for many years to come.

While most commercial freelancers I know – myself included – will study a client’s site and materials, in my experience, few of us – again, myself included – are taking that research to as deep a level as this writer is. In a tough economy, shouldn’t we be grabbing every potential edge we can? Especially, as he points out, when it’s a relatively easy way to set ourselves apart from the pack?

One of the things I like most about the approach, as he notes, is the groundwork you’re laying to build a long-term, loyal partnership. When you start out interacting with a client on such a deep level, you powerfully transform the traditional client-vendor relationship into something much more solid and interconnected.

Put another way, when you can tell a new client things they didn’t realize about their business and industry, based on your research (vs. just following their instructions as to what they want written), you’ll earn a whole new level of respect, and will be viewed radically differently from the writer who didn’t do all that.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do as he does. Most of us don’t, and most of us have built good businesses. Just think of it as a tantalizing “what-if” scenario.

No, this approach isn’t always appropriate with every client (if you’re contracted, say, by a Fortune 500 client to just develop a brochure, they may not agree to pay for a full analytics package as well…). But, for many smaller- to mid-sized entities (50-200+ employees – arguably, THE “sweet spot” for freelance commercial writers – it would absolutely fly.

If you don’t conduct such analyses with new clients, what is your process?

Might something like this give you an edge over your competition?

If you are doing something on this level, can you share your process?

How have clients reacted to your process?

Have you always followed this process, or did it evolve over the years?