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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?

“Niche or Die!” (Really? You Sure About That?)

So, I’m in the midst of series #5 of my commercial freelancing group coaching program (as I write this) – geared towards business copywriters just starting out. Not surprisingly, one of the BIG bugaboo issues for newbies is “niche.” Seems you can’t spit these days without hitting a guru or two who’ll adamantly assert, chopping the air for emphasis, that you absolutely, positively must differentiate yourself in the marketplace by way of a well-delineated niche.

If you don’t, they’ll continue, you’re on a one-way road to professional oblivion (with financial ruin swiftly on its heels). So many new copywriters agonize over this one, so afraid to hang out a shingle without a laser-specific professional focus. Sorry, but as an across-the-board strategy, I don’t buy it.

(Note: we did touch on this subject a year or so ago in the Generalist vs. Specialist debate, but I’m taking a bit of a different spin here, and looking for slightly different input from you experienced folks).

Here’s my take: If you have a well-defined niche you can pursue, by virtue of past career experience, track record or education, by all means, go for it. Having a niche absolutely can set you apart – AND earn you more money. Even if you don’t have a big portfolio of work in, say, Industry A, if you know all about Industry A by virtue of 10-20 years in the business, you’ll be attractive to writing buyers in that industry (who’ll translate that experience into “minimal learning curve”…).

Even if you hate the field in which you’ve spent a decade or two, if you’re trying to get started as a commercial copywriter, I’d still recommend you leverage that experience out of the gate. You don’t have to write about it forever, but it’d be nuts to not parlay that into work until you get established.

Remember, even if you don’t love your industry any more as a field to work in, writing about that field from the comfort of your home in your sweats is a whole other ballgame from having to go to work every day (i.e., commute, endless meetings, office politics) in that same field in a job you loathe.

But what if you don’t have a 10-20-year track record in some field? Listening to the experts, you still need to create a niche. But what niche? Pull one from thin air? Flip a coin? Declare yourself an expert on X, but without the background, training or samples to back it up? What’re you going to say if someone asks for those samples? I’m afraid I just don’t see a whole lot of sense in that approach. If a niche isn’t occurring naturally to you, it’s probably not there, so don’t force it.

So, Plan B is to build your business sans niche as a generalist. Something I’ve been doing for 17 years, incidentally. Sure, I had a sales/marketing background, and I did make sure people knew that, but most of the projects we commercial writers do are marketing-oriented anyway, so is that a clearly defined niche? Debatable.

Sure, it’ll be tougher with little to leverage. But, if the alternative is touting yourself as an authority in an arena where you’re really not, I say the anxiety level with that scenario will likely top that of someone going niche-less. And in the latter situation, if you’re a really good writer and go out of your way to be overly professional, reliable and easy-to-work with, those things will set you apart (assuming you’re reaching enough people with your marketing efforts).

What’s your take on niche?

How important do you feel having a niche is for someone starting out?

Did you have a niche when you began? If not, how did your story unfold?

Do you feel strong writing skills, professionalism and reliability can be a “niche” of sorts (given how relatively rare they are)?

“Start Making $300 an Hour as a Copywriter in Just Seven Days!”

Wow. That sure sounds like an opportunity tailor-made for me. I’m a pretty good writer (I mean, my Mom’s told me so, and that’s good enough for me!). And I’d sure love to turn that skill into “$300 an hour”! That’s what they promised in this copywriting program I saw on the Internet. And it has to be true if it’s on the Internet, right? I mean, they could get into BIG trouble if they told lies. But there it is, in black and white!

And the best part? According to the program, I can get started as a “commercial writer” in just seven days! And here’s what those seven days look like:

Day One: I’m going to learn the basics of the freelance commercial writing business. I mean, it’s just writing – how hard could it be?

Day Two: I’ll create my copywriting portfolio. They say it’s easy, and I believe them. Heck, I’ll probably be done by lunch!

Day Three: I’ll create and send out a press release to my local paper, letting them know about my new copywriting business. Wonder how long after I send it out till the phone starts ringing. Could I end up with too much business? It’s possible!

Day Four: I’ll explore making money in PR writing. Working around all the “movers and shakers,” yeah! Sounds like fun – and profitable, too!

Day Five: I get to figure out if I’m going to a generalist or specialist. Decisions, decisions. This is just too easy.

Day Six: I’m going to learn the “ultra-easy” way to market my new business so I can, according to the program, “stay booked up for months.” Like the sound of that. Heck, maybe I will go ahead and buy that Camaro I’ve had my eyes. I mean, obviously, I’m going to have the money to make the payments.

Day Seven: I’m going to learn all about writing for TV and radio. Bet you can make big bucks there, and get to be around all the cool actors. Life is looking up!

I wish the above was just a dramatization of some poor slob getting reeled in hook, line, and sinker by some fictionalized copywriting course, but alas, it’s based on a real one. THIS one. What a joke. I know, why am I surprised? I mean, I know stuff like this exists. It’s just that seeing flat-out fabrication up close still sets you back on your heels a bit.

Someone sent it to me, asking if I knew anything about it. A two-minute visit revealed all. I don’t know who you are, but your offer is a scam, and you know it. And people like you have buyers looking for legit information on copywriting lump the rest of us trying to do the right thing into the same scam-artist boat.

I mean, their “7-Days-to-Riches” timetable would be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that countless unsuspecting folk are dropping $147 for nothing but a mirage. And $300 an hour? Have you no shame? Yeah, right. Silly me.

I can hear them now: “Well, if you read it carefully, I’m not actually promising people they’ll make $300 an hour inside of a week.” Ah, the old “have-‘em-connect-the-imaginary-dots-in-their-mind” strategy. So, you’re weasels on top of being scam artists. Quite an accomplishment. What an unbelievably fragrant and steaming pile of road apples this is.

Our mothers were right: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” As the experienced commercial writers on this blog know, our field can be a wonderful way to make a great living as a writer. But they also know it’s no cakewalk. As writing fields, go, it’s one of the most accessible, but it still take a lot of hard work to get established and work up to healthy hourly rates. And $300 an hour as a copywriter? In a week? I can hear the hysterical laughter echoing across the land. From sea to shining sea.

Did you ever fall prey to any offers like these before you got started?

What would you say to someone considering this fairy tale of an offer?

What truths would you want them to know about our field instead?

Any general comment for this shyster?

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!