The “APPETIZER” Series: The original version of this piece first appeared as an Appetizer course in The Well-Fed E-PUB in December 2015, and was one I wanted to run as a blog post (with minor alterations) in order to get input from many voices.
So I’m on the phone a few weeks back with one of my long-time commercial writing clients (a husband/wife graphic design team). We’re reviewing feedback from their client on the first draft of copy I’d turned in a few weeks earlier.
One of the items their client wanted clarification on was a claim I was making about the impact of a particular resource (an online encyclopedia the client sponsors) on both teacher and student performance in the classroom.
They wanted to know what I was basing that assertion on. That’s easy, I said: In the annual report I had done for this same client the prior year, we did a small feature/success story on this particular resource, and the classroom teacher I interviewed for the story shared its impact, and that revelation made it into the story.
In working on this new project (a rebranding initiative for the client), I needed to refer to this resource and why it was important. As such, in order to refresh my memory about it, I dug up the earlier project, and found the reference.
Given that part of the rebranding process entailed gathering information on the difference that this client’s organization made, I felt it fitting to reiterate what the teacher had said.
Once I explained to my copywriting clients where it had come from, there was a silence on the other end of the line, and one of them said something in a soft voice. I missed it, so I asked if he could repeat it, and he said, “No writer does that.”
I laughed, and asked what he meant, and he replied, “I’ve just never had a writer go that extra mile to add color to a new project.”
Naturally, we writers live to hear stuff like that, but at the same time, I thought to myself, “It’s really no big deal.” And it wasn’t. But, the fact is, it’s not very common, either.
In truth, I did it, first and foremost, to refresh my memory about the resource in question. But, once I got there, I saw the possibility of spicing up the current project with some interesting tidbits from the earlier one.
Since my goal, when doing any project, is always to make it as interesting as possible, and to increase the odds that that piece I’m creating—whatever it is—will get read, it was a no-brainer to include it.
Bottom line, I walked away from the exchange with yet another “shareable” clue as to how you can easily set yourself apart from the herd, and build gratitude, respect, and—most importantly—loyalty, with your clients.
Have a similar story of standing out in a client’s mind?
Did you think it was all that big a deal, or just what you consider baseline professionalism?
How hard do you think it is to go that extra mile?
If you have that “extra-mile” mentality, how did you develop it?
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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?
In my first commercial freelancing group coaching series, one of the participants said: “I think my biggest problem is uncertainty. I prefer feeling confident about what I’m doing – to be able to do it with authority, and I just haven’t been able to reach that point so far. I’m always afraid I’ll do it ‘wrong.'” Welcome to the human race.
Not at all surprisingly, that statement resonated with all the other “coachees,” and the same issue has been brought up by many folks in every series since. When you’re starting out in a new field, and often, as one’s first foray into self-employment, to boot, it’s easy to get mighty wigged out by this Big Unknown (a.k.a. commercial writing).
Sure, I’d like to think that commercial copywriting resources like my book can demystify the business-building process quite a bit, and it no doubt does. But still, until someone takes those steps for themselves, everything they read about in my book (or any other) is still untried, unproven – to them – and hence, still theoretical.
So, how does one develop the confidence necessary to make it as a commercial freelancer? How do you know you’ve got what it takes to succeed? How do you get yourself to a place where you can boldly go where you’ve never gone before?
Well, the bad news is if you’re a newbie, chances are, you’ll have to deal with this. But, that’s also the good news: most commercial copywriters starting out deal with this. Sure, if you’ve left a corporate position, and carry experience, clients and work from that industry – or ex-employer – with you, you’ll likely have an easier transition. But, that’s not the norm.
I see the confidence-building game as three-fold. Arguably, a lack of confidence is driven by a lack of mental adjustment, a lack of experience and a lack of knowledge. The mental side? Get comfortable with the fact that you likely won’t be comfortable for a while (one reason this field pays so well…). Just the nature of the beast, and knowing that’s the case should make it easier to deal with.
The experiential side? Self-evident. You gain confidence by doing. Every new commercial writing experience you have, every copywriting project you work on and complete successfully, is a brick in your own personal Confidence Wall.
You learn a little more about the commercial freelancing process, you understand a little more about copywriting clients – what they expect, how they are to deal with, and how to make their lives easier (your goal, by the way…). Sure, all situations are a little different, but there are always some commonalities in every scenario.
String enough successful commercial writing projects together (translation: growing respect, competence, portfolio, testimonials, and bank account), and one day you’ll wake up and realize that this gig is for real, and so are you. That’s where confidence is born. But it takes time.
The knowledge side? Along the way, of course, you can hasten the process by reading books on copywriting, marketing, sales, etc. The more you know, the more tools you have at your command when talking with clients about their challenges. In addition, study the work of fellow commercial freelancers. Visit their sites, see how they position themselves, look at their samples (starting with mine) to get a sense of the required skill sets.
How did you build confidence in your abilities when you were starting out?
Was there one particular project that stands out as a big confidence booster for you?
Do you remember the moment when you realized you had what it took to make it in this business?