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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)?