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The Secrets to Landing and Keeping Repeat Clients…

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?

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?

What Would You Do About a Client Like This One?

Got a note from a fellow commercial writer recently. She wrote:

I have a client who’ll give me two or three days to write something (when I really need a week), insisting such a tight deadline is necessary, and then take a week to review it, revealing the deadline wasn’t real after all. I know they’re not getting my best work because there’s no “dwell” time. I’ve pulled all-nighters to get projects done, and then hear nothing for days or even a week. When they do come back with comments, I might get a day or two to generate a second draft.

The last time this happened, I did ask for a rush fee and got it. But the extra money isn’t worth the extra stress. After all, reducing stress is one of the biggest reasons I became a commercial freelancer.

Yes, I’ve brought this up to them, but it’s come to nothing. They try to do better for a week or two and then the old habits return. Moreover, these conversations just seem to make our otherwise genial relationship tense. And other than this, they’re great clients: they’re fair on other matters, pay promptly and I’ve worked with them for seven years. A commercial copywriting client like this is a godsend in this crummy economy. Is this just the way it is? Or can you suggest some tricks I might be able to use to manipulate them into better behavior?

My reply:

Alas, no tricks, but you may have more leverage than you think. If you’ve worked with them for seven years, obviously you deliver a lot of value and they know it. That being the case, you should be able to make your sentiments known without them freaking out. Clearly, while they may appreciate what you do for them, they’re not showing you much respect. Though, I suspect there’s nothing malicious in their actions, but rather garden-variety cluelessness.

To repeatedly insist a job is a rush job and then repeatedly take a week to review it shows they believe, perhaps even unconsciously, that their time is more valuable than yours. If it were me, I’d draw a line in the sand. But obviously, you have to weigh the value of this otherwise good client vs. the stress this situation causes.

If you decide to have this talk, make sure you ARE prepared to walk. The old sales adage, “He (or she) who cares least, wins” was never truer than here. If you’re truly fine with losing their copywriting business (and it’s totally okay if you’re not), you’ll come across with conviction and confidence. Which, I suspect, might just impress the heck out of them and have them suddenly see you in a brand-new light.

Many commercial freelancers have “come-to-Jesus” chats with problem clients that turn out just fine. The client develops new respect for the writer, AND often, the writer has an epiphany along the way, suddenly “getting” their own value. After all, if their client changes an offensive behavior as a result of a talk, they realize it’s indeed a two-way street, and that the client didn’t want to lose them.

I’d thank them for their ongoing confidence in you, but I would NOT go overboard in thanking them for all the copywriting projects they’ve given you over the years. Remember, this is an uncoerced market transaction: if they weren’t getting as much, if not more value out of the relationship than you are, they wouldn’t keep hiring you. They’re not hiring you out of charity, so don’t go to them hat in hand.

Explain that, as a copywriting professional, your goal is to always deliver superior work, and these conditions make it impossible to give them your best effort. But, that you could even live with THAT if the constant tight deadlines were legitimate deadlines, but they’re obviously not.

I’d wager they don’t kick you to the curb after all these years. How long would it take them to train a new copywriter? And do they want to go through that, when they could simply start making deadline requests based in reality, not whim?

Bottom line, nothing IS going to change on their side unless you somehow interrupt their pattern of doing things as they always have by getting their attention in some way.

What would you suggest she do in this situation?

Do you agree with my take or would you do things differently?

Have you had such a conversation with a client and how did it turn out?

Where do you draw your line in the sand with a “problem client”?

Generalist vs. Specialist, Part Two: FREE Webinar September 17th!

Back in July on this blog, we explored the age-old issue for commercial freelancers: In my commercial copywriting business, should I be a generalist or a specialist? (Read it here).

And when economic times are tough, it takes on even more importance. Which strategy is better in tight times? we ask. Well, grab a seat and join the debate here.

I’ve been a generalist since Day One and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Love the variety, the access to a potentially much wider range of clients and for a bunch of other reasons. Marketing brochures, ad copy, newsletters, direct mail, sales sheets, case studies, speeches, video scripts, sales letters, landing page copy, headlines, tag lines, slogans, naming, book titling. The list goes on and on, and for a soup-to-nuts industry spectrum of companies.

I’ll fully admit that specialists who truly set themselves apart in their niche will likely make more money than me, and that’s just fine. I’d be a very unhappy camper if I had to do the same kind of project or write for the same kind of industry all the time.

Sort of like the guy who’s told by his doctor that if he doesn’t quit smoking, drinking and eating rich foods (all the stuff he enjoys), he’s only got 5 years to live, and but he’s got 10 if he cuts out all those bad things. And he decides, heck, I don’t WANT to live five years longer if I can’t enjoy those things.

Anyway, we’re not done with the Generalist/Specialist debate – literally and figuratively. I invite you to join yours truly, Peter Bowerman, Mr. Generalist – who’s made a most comfortable living writing for clients across the spectrum for going on 16 years – and Mr. Specialist, Michael Stelzner – who’s done pretty darn well focusing exclusively on white papers for many years – in a lively debate.

Thursday, September 17 at 3:00 EST for an hour. Be there.

There’s no charge for the event, but you need to register here to join us. Can’t join us? Register anyway and we’ll send you the recording!

We’ll debate the pros and cons of both sides (AND take your questions). And when we’re done, you’ll have the inside scoop on which path makes the most sense for you and your circumstances…

Don’t miss it!

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Let Them Keep Thinking Writing is a Dead-End Game (More for Us…)

A reader recently sent me a link to an interesting piece in The Week, entitled “Is Writing for the Rich?” It was written by the editor himself, Francis Wilkinson, who concluded that the future of freelance writing is mighty bleak, and that, given the unfortunate current financial calculus of the craft, it’s become a field only for those who don’t have to make their living from it – trust-fund babies, those living on Daddy’s money, heirs, etc.

I just LOVE reading stuff like this. Makes me laugh out loud. I mean, when the editor of a prominent national publication is saying this, it’s clear that the commercial writing field, by and large, is flying completely under the radar. I should have left well enough alone and let him spread his “Abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here” message unimpeded. But I was torn.

On the one (greedy) hand, the less people who know about our field, the less competition we’ll have (though, that said, you do have to work hard to get established in commercial writing, and that’ll weed out most people right there…). On the other hand, I firmly believe there’s enough to go around for all of us. And I DO have a few books to peddle…

So, I wrote him a note (email me if you want a copy), essentially cluing him in about our field, which can be a most refreshing financial oasis from the otherwise sad and sorry freelancing paradigm. Addressing some of the inane “talk” about the commercial copywriting field, I wrote: “I’ve heard it all (‘sellout,’ ‘going over to the dark side,’ and other assorted and sundry head-scratchers – as if the only ‘writing’ that’s pure and acceptable is that which provides the writer with neither pay nor respect. Sure seems that way sometimes.

Never heard a word back. Big surprise. And that’s fine. I went on record. Meanwhile, the carnage continues out there. All I hear these days is about how tough it is in “freelance writing” right now – magazines paying nothing, asking for assignments on spec, $10 articles for web sites, all the “how-can-a-writer-make-a-living” talk. Meanwhile, many of us in the commercial field are doing just fine, thank you very much.

Part of the problem – and what I say to anyone who asks what the answer is – is that straight articles (especially for the web) are a “commoditized” project type – meaning there are zillions of writers who can write a decent article. As such, it’s a buyer’s market, and rates fall to nothing. It’s when you get good at project types NOT everyone can do (that’d be us…), and hence, are competing with far fewer people, that you’ll start making more money. As long as you’re in a BIG pool of interchangeable skills, it’s tough to make a living.

What do you think when you read articles like the one in The Week?

What would you have said to Mr. Wilkinson?

Are you hearing a lot of wailing and caterwauling coming from straight freelancers these days?

Any other comments?