In the November E-PUB (here and adapted below), I wrote a piece about finding commercial writing jobs in unlikely places. Thought I’d make it blog post, in order to collect your stories about landing copywriting work in cool and unplanned ways.
I love it when work comes from unexpected directions. In The Well-Fed Writer, I talk about picking up a big marketing brochure after chatting up a guy over chips and dip at a party.
And a few years back, I landed a year’s worth of commercial freelancing work from a big charity (probably $10K, all told), after a serendipitous chat I had with a friend in another social setting. We knew each other, but not professionally, and once she discovered what I did, it was a few short steps (and yes, beating out the competition) to a pile of work.
Back in the June E-PUB, I ran a fun piece about a commercial writer making contact with a prospect while playing online Scrabble!
I recalled all this when I got a note from another freelance copywriter, who wrote:
On and off, I erroneously get phone calls meant for another local business. Today the sales/marketing person called me to see what could be done to resolve this. As we were talking, I asked him what their business does. They do tech stuff: web design, databases, maintenance, support, etc. I have a lot of tech writing experience, so I told him a bit about my freelance commercial writing business. He said they’re always looking for good writers, so I’ll be staying in touch.
You just never know when you might run across a potential lead, even in an unconventional way! It’s good to think outside the box and always be open to opportunities that might randomly come along. I was reminded today that potential business really is everywhere around us, and that when we just put the word out about what we do, the work somewhat easily comes our way (assuming we have good writing skills, of course…).
And while it hasn’t turned into work for her yet, to find, through a wrong number, a prospect who regularly uses copywriters? That’s not only a real long shot, but a golden lead as well, and one well worth following up on.
And she’s right. We often get so focused on prospecting only in the “right” places, that we overlook opportunities right under our noses. Doesn’t mean we should turn into obnoxious self-promoters, aggressively hitting up our friends at every turn. But keeping our radar up for opportunities in non-business settings, is never a bad idea.
Have you picked up work in unconventional ways? If so, can you share some stories?
Do you keep your radar up when you’re in non-prospecting settings?
Have you landed work from someone you’ve known a long time, but never in a professional capacity? (friend, relative, someone at the gym, a club you belong to, etc.)?
Any strategies you’ve used to keep you alert to hidden opportunities?
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.
So, I went out for a lunch the other day to my local Jason’s Deli. Pretty big chain – good, thick Dagwood-style sandwiches, great salad bar, etc. And no, I’m not getting free coupons for plugging them here. Just giving credit where it’s due, since I’m about to do the opposite as well…
Anyway, so while they have all these specialty sandwiches listed on their boards and in their printed menus, at the heart of their offering is a “build-your-own-sandwich” feature. You pick your meat (~ a dozen) and your bread (ditto) and then choose from a bunch of trimmings and condiments.
That’s what I want, so I grab a menu to review my options. Just as I have done successfully every other time I’ve come here for a sandwich. I open the menu, and look, and look and look some more. I see all the specialty sandwiches, paninis, subs, salads, desserts, etc. I see the section for the Build Your Own Sandwich, which reads:
BUILD YOUR OWN SANDWICH
Served with: Chips or baked chips with a pickle.
Substitute fresh fruit for chips & pickle. 1.59
Pick your meat, name your bread, select your spreads and dress it up.
You also decide the size. whole/5.99 • half/4.99 • *slim/4.99
.60 extra: hot corned beef hot pastrami natural, grilled chicken breast
*slim = half-portion meat between two whole slices of bread
That’s it. Where’s the list of the meats and breads and trimmings and condiments you get to choose from? AWOL. They were always there before, but I don’t see them now. Am I missing something? They’ve even included the three meats that cost extra, but not the 12 that are offered as part of the regular sandwich price. What gives?
So, I walk up to the counter, menu in hand, and ask the guy, “Where’s the list of meats I can choose from? And breads? And trimmings and condiments?” And just so you know, they don’t have a big menu board mounted that provides all that info.
“They’re not in there?” he asks? Nope. “Let me take a look,” he says, and here’s the clincher: “These are brand-new menus we just got in.” He looks. And looks and looks some more. “Hunh. That’s strange.” Yeah, tell me about it.
So, get the big picture here. Here’s a national sandwich shop chain – 225 stores strong. Ranked #1 in annual sales in QSR Magazine’s Top Ten list of restaurant groups with under 300 locations. Just named “Best Restaurant in America” by Parents magazine.
And as an experienced commercial writer, I know how projects like these unfold and get produced, and know this menu revamp probably went through at least a ten sets of eyes (conservatively). Yet, somehow, some way, almost inconceivably, the menu got printed, minus, arguably, THE core, central menu information – one of their signature features.
And each location no doubt got a few hundred copies of the new menu, which means close to 50,000 printed in all. Truly amazing.
And until it’s replaced with a corrected one, it’s going to make the counter staff’s job a LOT more complicated. Not to mention far longer wait times at lunch time, as everyone who wants a custom sandwich is going to have to ask for all the choices, listen and try to remember all they heard, and THEN decide. As opposed to knowing exactly what they want by the time they get up to the counter (i.e., like it should work). A freakin’ nightmare. This is the proverbial Menu Designed by Committee.
Oh, and get this: the SAME meatless/breadless menu was loaded up on their web site, to boot! So, until they fix it (and I haven’t checked it since), when people call to order takeout, they’ll be putting the counter staff through the same ordeal! Or if they’re trying to order online, they’ll likely just say, the heck with it and go somewhere else.
Now, obviously, Jason’s has done a lot of things right or they wouldn’t be as successful as they are. And while this screw-up won’t really hurt them in the long run, it’s just one more example – and they’re all around us – of BIG companies who don’t have their act together. Now, don’t get the idea that all companies are full of morons – obviously not the case. And this screw-up doesn’t prove that Jason’s is a bush-league operation. Again, not so. But this stuff happens more than you might imagine.
So, as you build your freelance copywriting business, don’t canonize these corporate entities as all-knowing, all-intelligent, all-savvy, all-buttoned-up entities. Ain’t necessarily so…
So, how do you think stuff like this happens?
Can you share some similar stories of major screw-ups in a big company’s literature?
Or similar snafus that show the Big Boys aren’t so smart, and maybe human, just like the rest of us?
Have you made the mistake of thinking you don’t have what it takes to make a difference for a business, since, “they’re SO much smarter than me”?
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!
**************** 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.
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?
Got an email recently from a reader with a concern (and frustration…) we’ve all come up against at some point in our commercial writing careers. He wrote:
The challenge that’s just unnerving me is how to shift prospects’ minds from thinking they can do the writing themselves instead of paying a commercial freelancer $100+ an hour to do it. What would be the best way to create a brand that would neutralize this kind of thinking on the part of prospects?
Got a similar question posed to me by one of my group coaching participants:
What’s the best way to approach an industry that often relies on in-house engineers to write its copy? Should I try to convince them that a good writer is a better choice than an engineer, or could I instead offer editorial services in these cases?
Here’s an aggregate response to the both of them. There are two ways to approach this issue and both have merit.
#1: A question immediately comes to mind: Why are you wasting your time trying to convince people who don’t think they need a professional writer, to start using one, rather than finding those clients who understand the value of good copywriting and already use writers, or, at the very least, are open to hiring one?
In one of my books, I talk about The Salad Dressing Rule (explained by a fellow freelance commercial writer friend):
If you sell salad dressing, it’s far easier to convince someone who already eats salad to try your dressing than to convince someone who doesn’t eat salad at all that they should start doing so.
In both cases, these folks are finding people who “don’t eat salad.” So, using the prospecting strategies laid out in the book, start barking up some different trees.
Bottom line, you can’t convince those who are convinced otherwise, unless you get them to try you out and they see the difference a commercial copywriter can make. Which leads to the second approach…
#2: As many experienced copywriters have noticed in their travels, getting a prospect to understand what we do by trying us out will often make converts of them (assuming we’re good at what we do, and understand that particular client’s business). As such, in the case of the engineering firm (or ANY prospect who’s hesitant to hire you to execute a writing project from scratch), yes, maybe you offer editing as a door-opener.
If the client has an epiphany (and I’ve seen it happen plenty) based on the editing, maybe they’ll try you out right from the get-go the next time around. All you can do is offer. If the client isn’t receptive, move on. If you’ve had other clients start out as they did and become converts, make sure you’re getting testimonials from them and share those with the hesitant ones…
(NOTE: this is where building alliances with graphic designers can really help. Designers hate designing around crappy copy and ending up with a sample that looks great but reads like doo-doo. So if they have a client who’s written their own copy (and it shows), and you’ve built a partnership with that designer based on delivering superior copy that makes their design shine, they’ll often try to persuade the client to hire you, knowing the client will end up with a more effective piece, which can only reflect well on them. Not to mention they get a stronger piece for their book. In those cases, you’ve got a third-party doing the selling, which can be more compelling. Doesn’t always work, but when it does… There are few things sweeter than seeing an erstwhile skeptical client find religion after seeing professionally written copy that positively puts theirs to shame.)
All that notwithstanding, the “try-a-taste” approach is still going to be harder to pull off than finding those already inclined towards folks like us. If you’re in a smaller-market area, and trying to build your freelance copywriting business there, it might prove a necessary stepping-stone to cultivating serious clients. If, however, you’re in a major metro, you might not need to beat your head against the wall; there WILL be plenty of prospects who do “get” what we do. Not saying they’re easy to find, but likely easier than trying to get the others to “start eating salad.”
Do you only pursue prospects already sold on the value of professional writing?
Or do you try to do some converting along the way?
If so, how have you gone about getting them to try you out, and has it worked?
In a tough market, should we be investing more time in “educating the unsold” or do you feel it’s still largely a waste of time?