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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.

Meet Someone Like This and Your Copywriting Business Will Soar…

At first blush, it didn’t seem like such a fortuitous meeting. It was 1994, my stumbling, halting first year as a commercial freelancer. On the side, I was writing columns for a local Atlanta rag. I’d been put in touch with the graphic designer who was laying out the publication I was writing for, to address a spacing issue for my piece. We connected, resolved the issue, end of story. Not. SO not.

That designer ended up getting me in the door of the design firm where she worked, which yielded many thousands of dollars in billings for copywriting jobs over the next 4-5 years. As as we worked together on a bunch of commercial projects, we developed a rapport, a collaborative working style and plenty of mutual respect.

When she launched her own one-person design studio in 1997 (the talented ones always do), I was her first call when the freelance gigs she landed required copy. And even when her clients didn’t think they needed a writer (but did), she’d lobby to get me involved. Why? Because she’d seen, over and over again, how my writing enhanced her design, her clients’ satisfaction, her overall value proposition and her repeat/referral business.

Which, incidentally, is one of the key answers to the question, “What does it take to become a designer’s ‘go-to’ writer?” And I’m telling you, if you’re writing commercially as even part of your writing mix, you owe it to yourself to forge some alliances with graphic artists.

This woman, a one-person shop, has been, without question, my #1 client in terms of billings in my 18-year career, putting many tens of thousands of dollars in my pocket in that time. Our partnership has truly been a golden goose for this boy’s career, and I know I’ve made a big contribution to hers. She’s gone as far as to say, in a testimonial on my copywriting site, “Our creative alliance has played a key role in sustaining MY successful freelance career for close to 15 years now.” And it gets better…

She took on a second designer for a while as her business really blossomed, and I clicked just as famously with her as I did with her boss. And when that second designer eventually went out on her own again (she was already a 20-year design veteran when she was working for my lead designer), I became her ‘go-to’ writer as well. And as these two creative pros built their own businesses, landing work for themselves, that often meant finding work for me as well, and with little or no effort on my part.

What about reciprocity? Didn’t they expect me to bring them just as much work as they brought me? Actually, no. Obviously, I’d always give one or the other the work when a commercial freelancing project I’d landed required design as well (usually smaller- to medium-sized companies, of 50-200+ employees; companies of this size don’t typically have the in-house creative resources to fully execute these projects, but generally have the money to contract those services).

But, it was never expected – just a nice bonus when it happened. In their estimation, what I was contributing to their projects was enough. As a result, far more work flowed to me from them than the other way around.

So, make those design connections. If you’re in any decent-sized major metro, you’ll find a bunch of them (just Google “Graphic Designers – (your city)” for starters. And even if you’re not, our wired world has pretty much made geography a non-issue. Visit their sites, make sure they’re established, with a good reputation and doing good work, and then contact them. And remember, being the right writer is as, if not more important than finding the right designer. Happy hunting!

I invite you check out my new ebook entitled, Profitable – By Design: Tapping the Writer/Designer Partnership Goldmine. In it, I lay out all the details of a strategy that’s absolutely been my bread-and-butter for close to two decades. Check out the skinny here.

And join me for a no-charge teleseminar this Wednesday, 6/15 at noon PST (3:00 p.m. EST), when I’ll be a guest on Carol Tice’s Freelance Free-for-All. But you need to register in advance (AND pose a question). Get all the details here. Hope you’ll join us…

Have you built any partnerships with designers?

If so, how did you go about putting them together initially?

And how have they worked out for you?

If they’ve been lucrative, what have you found to be the expectations from the designer?

Any other comments on your experience with this strategy?

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.

Turning Kind Deeds to Writing Income: Helping Funeral Homes Minister to Families (Guest Post)

PB Note: Got this really intriguing guest post from Chicago-area commercial freelancer Melanie Jongsma – a great thought-starter to get your creative wheels turning. I invite you to view it not as one about someone doing “memorial folders,” but rather, as the story of someone who looked beyond the typical commercial writing box and found an income opportunity where most people wouldn’t. Ideally, it should make you go, “Hmmmm…what other arenas might I have overlooked that could be turned into a profitable copywriting direction?”

And no, projects like the ones described below won’t make you rich, but for the time expended, they’re great little “slot-ins” to keep your commercial freelancing plate full. And, again, what other even juicier untapped venues might be out there?

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My best friend’s mother died unexpectedly in 2006. I sat with her and her family as they sorted through photos and told stories through their tears. There’s not much you can do to help in a situation like that, but I did the one thing I could: I designed and wrote the funeral program.

Three years later, when my friend’s father died, I was able to help with his funeral program too. It turned out to be a keepsake that the whole family treasured.

In both of those situations, Funeral Director Mike Matthysse (of Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf Funeral Homes) expressed appreciation for the work I had done. He recognized what a value this service would be to other grieving families, so we began to talk about how personalized memorial folders could become a service option for Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf’s existing ministry.

A proposal that worked for both of us

Having learned a lot from Steve Slaunwhite about pricing, I sent Mike a carefully crafted proposal. Mike liked what I had to offer, and he wanted to hire me, but he couldn’t meet the price I had quoted. So I adjusted the quote to make it work for both of us—that is, I brought my price down, but I also decreased the time I would need to invest. For example, I reduced the number of revisions Mike could expect from me, eliminated stock photography options, and asked if there were parts of the work his staff could handle. In the end, we came up with an arrangement that looks like this:

  • The staff at Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf gather photos and information from the family, scan everything, and email it to me all with the specifics of the funeral service.
  • Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf also posts their clients’ obituaries on the MKD website, so I’m able to access that information if I need additional details.
  • I review all the info, clean up the photos, write a “life story,” and lay everything out in a format that Mike’s staff will be able to print in-house without having to worry about trimming.
  • Mike shows a proof to the family and then emails me any corrections that need to be made.
  • I email the final version of the PDF along with an invoice.

For the above, Mike pays me $250. At first, this amount did not represent $50/hour, but now that I have my systems and templates in place, the work goes faster, so I make about $75/hour per memorial folder.

A few things I’ve learned

I’ve done several of these customized memorial folders since arriving at an agreement with Mike, and here are a few things I’ve learned:

  • Good questions are important. Because I’m not present at the family interviews Mike and his staff conduct, it’s been a huge help that they are willing to include some additional questions from me. These help fill in the blanks, so I can add some color to the deceased’s life story.
  • Work like this requires quick turnaround. Mike wants to be able to show the family a proof within a day or two, so sometimes I’m working late to get it to him on time.
  • Mike and his team were already providing a valuable service before I came along. My role is simply to add to what they already do so well.
  • Families really do appreciate having this special keepsake. It requires some sensitivity, intuition, and empathy to get the writing right, but it really blesses the people who receive it. And that’s good for Mike’s reputation as well as mine.

I planned to pitch the idea to other funeral directors in my area, now that I have some well-received samples to show. But I’m hesitant because of the quick turnaround required. I wouldn’t want to put myself in a position where I need to produce two or three customized memorial folders in a day, in addition to other jobs I have!

A question for fellow writers

This income opportunity developed out of a desire to use my writing skills to help my friend and her family through a difficult time. It’s turned into a frequent (though unpredictable) paycheck with potential for expansion. That makes me wonder… Have there been other times my writing has helped someone, and I’ve overlooked a possible freelance market?

What kinds of writing “favors” have you done for friends that might represent business opportunities?

Have you stumbled on a profitable writing niche (that you’re willing to share) that you’d previously overlooked?

What other business or industries might offer hidden writing opportunities?

About the author

Melanie Jongsma loves helping people organize their thoughts and experiences into compelling personal stories, effective business collateral, and powerful ministry messaging. She blogs at LifeLines—helping you share your story. Readers of this post can download her newly-released checklist—7 Ways Professional Editors and Proofreaders Use Find-and-Replace—for just 99¢.

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.

Have You Tried the “Reluctant Rock Star Close” to Deal With Waffling Prospects?

Was on the phone the other day with a commercial writing coaching client. She has an established commercial freelancing business with a number of solid, longtime clients that call on her regularly. AND, she wanted to land a few new ones, feeling she needed to broaden her base a bit.

Well, seems the prospecting process has been a tad frustrating of late, as most of what she’s getting are indecisive tire-kickers. People initially acting all interested in her copywriting services but then dragging their feet endlessly. A typical prospect was a woman who’s driving her nuts with request after request to the point where she’s about to give her the old heave-ho.

One day it’s, I love your writing much better than any of the other writers I’ve spoken with, but you’re too expensive. (Pause) Um…here’s a crazy thought, I know… But, uh, maybe you like me better than all the other writers, because, well, I’m a Better Writer. And uh… (slow here, don’t want her to miss this one….) that’s why I’m more expensive. Gasp.

But, then that’s the first and last time the prospect talks about money. Next, it’s, do you have this or that kind of copywriting sample? And then she wants to revisit a sample my client’s already discussed with her. Listening to all this, I harken back to my sales days, and tell her: When a prospect is all over the map with their objections, best thing to do is simply ignore what they’re saying, since it really has little to do with what’s actually going on.

Sure, she could outright ask, “Ms. Prospect, you seem to be interested, and I could be wrong about this, but it just feels like something else is going on that’s keeping you from moving forward. Could I ask what it is?” And that approach is worth a shot. Though, the prospect might tell her, might not, and might freak out that she’s been busted for being so transparent. But my client and I both agreed an even better strategy might be to step back, and as you walk away, leave them with this:

“Ms. Waffler, I’d really love to work with you, and I think, on some level, you feel the same. But, truth is, and I really don’t mean to sound like a rock star or something, but my schedule is filling up pretty fast for the next few months.

“So, if you’ve got some specific projects you want to move forward on, I’d love to discuss them, along with timetables, of course. I want to make sure I have the time to provide the high quality work I’m committed to delivering, and that my clients have come to expect from me. If you’re not ready to get going, no problem at all, but I just won’t be able to promise a quick turnaround if we get started in a few weeks…”

Or some reasonable facsimile thereof…

And here’s the funny part. She was hesitant to say the above to this prospect, despite the fact that, it was, in fact, completely true. She really was that busy (but is a veeeery smart commercial freelancer who looks ahead and tries to ward off the slow periods by continuing to build her client base – even when she IS busy).

She didn’t feel comfortable sounding like she was all that, even though, if you asked her clients, she was just that to them. And I can’t fault her for being modest. I’m not comfortable talking like that, either, but if it’s true, you’ve got nothing to apologize for. And more to the point, if it takes The Reluctant Rock Star Close to light a fire under an indecisive prospect’s behind, then rock on…

Hmmm…as a matter of fact, now that I think about it, who says it’s even got to be true to say it? We’ve all heard the admonition to “fake it till you make it,” right? Here’s Exhibit A of that strategy. Not something to use on every prospect, but if you’ve got a few whose middle names are, “Noodle,” “Mull” or “One More Thing…” and you find yourself gnashing your teeth loud enough for them to hear while you’re talking to them, maybe it’s worth a shot. What have you got to lose?

In addition to being good practice for being bold (which is a muscle like any other: it gets stronger the more you use it), it just sounds like a really fun way to startle the lost causes out of their torpor. And who knows? You might just learn how motivating Perceived Scarcity can be.

Have you ever used this approach (either when it was true or wasn’t) as a way to spur a prospect to action? (or perhaps, because you simply didn’t care anymore…)

Have you encountered more waffling-type clients of late, and if so, how have you dealt with it?

What other strategies have you employed over the years to motivate prospects to pull the trigger on projects?

Any other reflections on the Law of Scarcity?

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.

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.