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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.

“What’s the Current State of Freelancing?” is a Bogus Question…

So, about a week ago, I get an email from a good friend and fellow commercial freelancer who’s presenting on an IABC panel on freelancing a few days later. She’s written to me to get my input on an issue of exceptional interest to the many would-be attendees. Her question is:

Can you sum up “the current state of freelancing” in two sentences?

Sounds like a logical question, and one phrased in precisely the manner we’ve all become accustomed to. After all, there’s the current State of the Union, of the healthcare debate, of male/female relationships, of the Atlanta dining scene, etc. So there must be a “current state of freelancing” as well, right? Well, actually, no.

Here’s my reply (with a few embellishments after the fact):

I’d actually take issue with your wording. There IS no “current state of freelancing.” Think about it. That implies some condition pervading ALL of the freelancing market, which, by definition, affects everyone. Sort of a silly notion, actually. There’s MY current state of freelancing, yours, and everyone else’s, and none of them have much to do with the others.

Our respective states are dependent on how good a writer each of us is, how broad a network we have, how aggressively we’ve been tapping into that network, and a ton of other things inherent to us alone and how we run our businesses.

Buying into the idea of a “current state of freelancing” is victimization waiting to happen. It implies a reality to whose dictates we’re all subject, and hence, can do little except ride the wave along with everyone else, and “wait for things to turn around.” Which is exactly what a lot of people are doing, having bought into the idea (after listening to what some “experts” said IS that current state) of a “force” beyond their control. I suppose some people just like to be told what to do next (or not do).

In truth, my current state of freelancing is pretty good, as are those of a lot of others I know. And part of the reason for that is because we realize our commercial freelancing businesses are OUR businesses, largely under OUR control.

Sure, many businesses have pulled, back, but many haven’t, and the work is out there. Magazine and newspaper writing? Absolutely, those arenas are way down, but that’s not our field of freelance copywriting. So, don’t buy into the gloom and doom. Remember: the average commercial freelancer needs such a tiny slice of the overall universe of freelance commercial writing work to do well.

How would you respond to the above question?

Why do you think people are so anxious to be told what the “reality” is?

How IS your “current state of freelancing”?

“Financial Self-Sufficiency As a Freelance Writer (STILL?) in Six Months or Less”??

Okay, need some input here. As you all know, the subtitle to The Well-Fed Writer is “Financial Self-Sufficiency As a Freelance Writer in Six Months or Less.” When TWFW came out in 2000, that subtitle was no hype. After all, I was paying all my bills through commercial freelancing less than four months after hanging out my shingle.

Given the upcoming release of the updated version of TWFW (1Q/09), I’m rethinking this. Can someone, starting from scratch, indeed create a financially stable income stream from this business in 180 days or less? And if not, what would be a fair number?

I can hear you: “Well, it depends.” Course it does. Everyone’s starting in a different place. For someone coming out of, say, a corporate marketing position, with a pile of samples from their old job, a bunch of contacts and perhaps a few clients who’ve already whispered, “Count on me if you go solo” in their ear, I’d say six months is mighty doable. Obviously, someone with little of any of that is going to take a whole lot longer.

I can count on the fingers of one hand, minus 2 or 3, the number of folks who’ve bitched at me in the past eight years because it took them longer than six months. So, I’m not terribly worried about a bunch of whiney “You promised!” emails. I just want to be straight with people. I say it was easier when I started way back when, but that could have been my imagination: you’re in a groove, all pumped, nothing’s going to stop you, maybe it just seems easier. Can’t be sure. Hence the question. And yes, Jon, I know, if I think it’s easy, I’m right. And if I think it’s hard, I’m also right… 😉

But if it is a bit harder, conventionally speaking (and by definition, being a book title, it has to speak to everyone), I’d like the title to reflect that. And it needs to reflect how long it would take that mythical average person starting out – sort of a generally-speaking number. I’m sorta leaning toward 12 months. Sounds realistic, but still has a bit ‘o the “wow” factor (more so, of course, if you never saw the first one…).

What magic number would you put in this title? Twelve months?

If you’ve been in the business for more than 5 years (and preferably at least 7-8), do you think it’s harder than when you started, and if so, how so?

Even Seasoned Scribes Fret Over “Just-Turned-In” Copy…

I recently got a note from a fellow FLCW and friend of mine up in New York. Here’s what he wrote:

Peter: Do you sometimes anguish over the waiting period, after you’ve submitted work to a client and then anticipate their thumbs-up or thumbs-down response? As I write these words, I’m waiting on a client to whom I sent what I believe is some pretty solid creative copy. But the longer it takes to hear back from them, the more that glass-half-empty side of my mind’s town crier belches out, “Now hear this: they hate it! They hate it!”

Do others ever go through this kind of self-doubt? Do you sometimes think the worst? Or wonder if you’re good enough to be doing this sort of work? Do you find yourself too needy in the “I-need-validation” department? I confess that this yoke finds itself around my professional neck more often that it ought to. But, I can’t help it! Am I totally alone in my self-imposed angst?

My reply?

You’re absolutely NOT alone in that. Believe it or not, I go through the same thing on every project. Thanks to a lot of successes and happy clients over the years, I’m not nearly as crazy about it about it as I was some years back. In fact, in the rare cases in which I DO miss the mark these days, in most cases, it’s a matter of the client changing direction or not being clear, because I will ask the right questions to get the copy right. But yes, until I hear, I’m always a bit concerned.

In fact, as I write this, I’m waiting to hear back from a client about the third ad I’ve written for their company in the past few weeks. The creative director loved the first two, and I’m sure she’ll like the latest, but she also usually responds within a few hours. It’s been closer to 24, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t nag at me a bit…

Perhaps it’s something in the nature of writers (okay, some writers; I’d be curious as to Jon McCulloch’s take – the subject of the 5/12/08 blog post (just scroll down) – a fundamental insecurity about putting our creations our there – especially when money’s on the line. Perhaps it’s just human nature – the propensity to think the worst when an outcome isn’t certain.

So, if that sounds familiar, you’re not alone, and if you’re still on the outside of the business looking in, know that even the seasoned pros chew a fingernail from time to time. And in a perverse way, I see an upside: that mindset will always keep you a bit humble, and humble writers listen carefully to their clients to make sure they DO create work that hits the mark. Which, in turn, will keep those angst-ridden moments to a minimum.

Do you experience those pangs of insecurity if you don’t hear back from a client after turning in copy?

Have you gotten beyond it, and if so, what made the difference for you?

“Stupidest Question Ever Asked” Spawns 5 Commercial Writing “Facts”

A year or so back, I got an email from an Atlanta gentleman that has to be a top contender for The Stupidest Question Ever Asked. I realize that’s not very nice, and I know “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” when starting out, but still…. In essence, here’s what he wrote:

“I noticed you’re in Atlanta – I am, too. Congrats on your freelancing success. For someone starting out in the same market as a commercial freelancer, that success is a bit intimidating. (Here it comes). Can I safely assume that you’ve pretty much sewn up the Atlanta market, copywriting-wise?”

(Beat). Rub eyes comically. Re-read. Drop jaw. Guffaw. Shake head. Okay, okay, maybe not the stupidest question ever asked, just one from someone with very little understanding of business in general and our business in particular.

My reply: “Joe, think about this logically. I couldn’t sew up the copywriting market in a city of 100K, let alone one of close to five million. Could one attorney, plumber, accountant, real estate agent, or mechanic sew up the market for their specialty? Rest assured, there’s plenty of copywriting business out there.” I’ve been working in this market for 15 years and consistently run across working, thriving copywriters I’d never heard of before.

Sure, as we all know, this business isn’t a cakewalk. 5K jobs don’t fall out of the sky with minimal effort. Lucrative freelancing requires good writing skills and a grasp of business. That said, his question is similar to those I get asking if this is still a good business to get into – given the economy. Questions like these underestimate how much potential work there is AND how many companies know the value of good copywriting (and they overestimate the number of competent, reliable copywriters out there). They fail to see the reality at work:

Fact #1: Every single business has to create written materials either for marketing, advertising, or internal needs. The bigger the business, the bigger the volume.

Fact #2: There are only two ways to create those materials: do it in-house or hire it out.

Fact #3: As long as that company’s in business, those needs won’t ever disappear (if they want to STAY in business), even in lean times, when arguably, they have to do even more.

Fact #4: While many businesses don’t understand the importance of good marketing materials, those are the ones that fail or struggle eternally. Forget ‘em.

Fact #5: Most successful businesses DO understand the importance of good writing as a key contributor to their growth and success, and many of those companies hire it out – especially smaller companies (which can mean $1-100 million+), for whom it’s not usually cost-effective to have in-house creative staff.

Obviously, our challenge is to find those companies, but know, as sure as the sun rises in the morning, that they’re out there.

Until and unless American business undergoes such a radical shift in modus operandi that all business books and schools have to retool their offerings, those five facts, are in my humble opinion, fairly immutable.

Agree? Disagree?

What would you have said to him?

Other comments?