That may sound like an odd question, since most of us would consider ourselves freelancers, right?
I would maintain that not only can you be both, you may actually want to move away from the idea of being a “freelance writer” or “freelance copywriter.” It’s a matter of language, yes, but more than that a matter of mindset and positioning. In the long run, it will also make a substantial difference to your net worth.
Let me explain.
Up until now my tagline for the Copywriter Café has been “Personal Training for Aspiring Copywriting Rock Stars.” I’ve done quite a bit of that. I’ve helped a lot of writers move ahead in their business, especially at events like the Ultimate Writing Retreat™ (one of the six I’ve hosted so far is pictured above, in Santa Fe last year).
Yet it’s never been my aim to create A-level copywriters. I’m not an A-level copywriter, so I don’t claim to have the ability to help you become one.
If you want to do that, be prepared to spend the next five years immersed in it, preferably in an apprenticeship or copy cub situation with a master copywriter. It can be done, but it’s like a high school All-Star making the major leagues.
What’s wrong with being a freelancer?
You can certainly make a great living as a copywriter if you’re in the next tier or two down from the pros. I’ve done quite well for myself the past five years as a copywriter for hire, earning accolades from top copywriters and marketers like Dan Kennedy and Mark Everett Johnson, along with a slew of very satisfied clients you probably never heard of.
But here’s the thing. As soon as you stop writing for clients, that income dries up (unless you’re a top-tier writer who commands royalty and profit-sharing deals on a regular basis with your clients – a smart move if you can negotiate it).
I know some very high-level copywriters who really haven’t built a business. They get high fees for writing a promotion, but they don’t have a business they could sell to someone else. Their writing talent alone is what’s being sold.
There’s one other problem with only being a freelancer. Clients seem to have the upper hand. They’re the ones doing the hiring, and they have hundreds, if not thousands, of freelancers waiting for the chance to take on a project.
At the very least, develop a platform with a business name and strategic positioning, things I continue to cover extensively in the Ultimate Writing Retreat™. Consider dropping the word “freelancer” from your title (I’ve used Conversion Writer, Creative Conversion Specialist, and others). Offer a slightly different service than your copywriting colleagues. Sell yourself even more than your services.
Those are all topics I’ll continue to discuss here and in my twice a month Coffee Chat with Steve & Kat. Beyond all that, going forward, I’m going to take…
The copywriting path less traveled
Here’s my plan, and what I’d like to help you do. I enjoy helping businesses make more money by coming up with Big Ideas and writing good copy. I’ll continue to keep a handful of loyal clients who have a great product or service and are fun, visionary, big-thinkers like I am.
Even more, I like coming up with Big Ideas for myself, writing the copy, and building a solid business that actually builds equity.
There’s a big difference between that and being a freelance copywriter. Besides the Copywriter Café, I have two businesses I’m developing where I’m doing just that. One of them is mapped out here, my “Back of the Napkin” business plan I revealed to my Retreat VIP Members a few weeks ago:
If you can read it, it lays out a plan for one of my business ideas.
It starts with a Lead Magnet to a target audience that numbers about 20,000, offering a service that’s in demand and currently under-served (based on my research), and only requires me to capture 1% of the market. If everything plays out according to my highly scientific napkin-business method, over the next five years I’ll build up to a monthly income of $34,800, or $417,600 annually. At that point, I could keep it going or perhaps sell it for somewhere between one and two million dollars.
The beauty is, you don’t have to be an A-level copywriter to write copy for your own business. You have to be good, and develop a few other skills, but not A-level great. As a bonus – a big bonus – you’re building your business, not your client’s.
Does that idea sound appealing to you? If it does, I think you’ll like the new tagline of the Copywriter Café:
Turning Big Ideas and Copywriting Skills into Profitable Businesses
I also think you’ll like a new publication I’m launching this fall called Big Ideas Monthly.
In the meantime, start brainstorming Big Ideas that you’ve had rolling around in your head. Write them down, and let’s plan to chat about them soon.
I’d love some feedback on this idea of using your copywriting skills to build a business for yourself. Just a short “I’m in” or other confirmation would be great. Leave your brief message here.
On a beautiful late summer afternoon, two years ago, three hungry copywriters discovered the Copywriter Café. They were very much alike these three copywriters. All three of them were better-than-average copywriters, all were personable and all of them – as aspiring copywriting rock stars are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these three copywriters met up at a boutique hotel in downtown Chicago for a writing retreat…
There’s a point here
Okay, okay. A lame rip-off of one of the greatest sales letters of all time, the classic Wall Street Journal piece written by Martin Conroy that ran continuously from 1975 to 2003.
I use it to illustrate the fact that I really do see three type of copywriters, and the production levels of each of the three are drastically different.
Do you see yourself in any of the descriptions below? Want to move up to the next level? Simple – take action and do the things suggested in the bullet points.
Easy? That’s another story. If it was, everyone would be doing it. That’s good news for you. There’s less competition at the top.
The Average Freelance Copywriter
Want to join the crowd? The vast number of freelance copywriters that have converged online in the past 5-10 years? Do what they’re all doing:
- Learn the art of copywriting
- Practice your craft
- Determine your niche
- Establish your service offerings
- Get a good domain name and business name
- Build your website
- “Hang out your shingle”
- Hope people stumble upon your site, call you, and hire you because you’re offering something better, different, or cheaper than they can get elsewhere
In other words, the average freelancer is waiting for something to happen. Sure, you’ve done all the right things to set yourself up in business, but it’s extremely passive. Not a big payoff either.
You’re better than that, and you are looking for ways to make good money, right? Aim to at least be…
The Opportunity Seeker
Instead of waiting for things to happen, you actively seek out clients. You do all the things the Average Freelancer does, and in addition you:
- Research your target audience and launch a mass direct mail or email campaign
- Look online for companies that are hiring copywriters
- Complete spec assignments for clients who are looking for new talent
- Join LinkedIn groups, make connections with prospects, and find companies that need a copywriter
- Go to conferences to connect with key companies on your prospect list
- Network with local businesses at Chamber-type mixers
- Attend a networking meeting like BNI
- Ask higher-level copywriters if they need help with overflow work
- Contact ad agencies to see if they ever hire freelancers
- Get referrals from satisfied clients
Those are all good ideas. You’re building your business, getting good projects, and making a name for yourself. Still, you could take it a step further and become…
The Idea Generator
Now we’re talking! The Idea Generator makes things happen. Want to join the ranks of the bigger income earners, the Idea Generators? You actually don’t have to do everything the Average Freelancer and the Opportunity Seeker do.
You can take some shortcuts and skip certain things. For example, I’ve never launched a targeted self-promotional campaign. I’ve never gotten work from a spec assignment (and I’ve only done two, ever).
What I have done instead is:
- Read a lot and look for opportunities where a business might need my services (not one that’s currently seeking a copywriter, though)
- Connect with other copywriters in person, share ideas with them, and brainstorm possible project collaborations
- Listen and observe, everywhere I go, for subtle signs that someone could use my services
- Look for gaps in the marketplace – a perceived need that needs to be filled
- Constantly think about, generate, and give away Big Ideas (something I’ll touch on again soon)
- Take action anytime I detect an opening!
Here’s what I mean. Instead of waiting for a company to tell you they need a copywriter, or waiting for a “copywriter wanted” ad or spec project to be posted, do something different than your Opportunity Seeker colleagues.
If there’s a business that you think could use your services, contact them in an offbeat way, give away one or two of your Big Ideas (yes, I said “give away,” just not all of them), and follow up with them soon after (by giving one more Big Idea).
It’s too long to go into exact detail here, but two of the things I’ll be offering at my Café Writer membership site are a checklist of 101 ways to generate Big Ideas, and a series of proven scripts for landing clients. For now, let me give you three quick ideas for contacting them that stands out:
- Send them a letter. Yes, a good old fashioned business #10 envelope with a stamp on it, with their name and address hand-written. In today’s world, this will have an impact, because no one does it anymore.Take it a step further and use heavy linen paper and envelopes, and hand-write the letter. Yes. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve picked up from this one simple technique. I’ll give you some sample scripts in the future.
- Have a third party mutual friend or acquaintance set up a meeting with you and the prospect. For example, a year ago a friend of mine introduced me to best-selling author Jeff Goins, whom he already knew. That resulted in a 90-minute phone call with Jeff in which he graciously gave me tons of free business-building advice. In September I’ll be in San Diego on business. One of my clients is in La Jolla, and he has a good friend whom I’d like to get as a client. Again, I’m going to ask for a personal introduction.
- FedEx a letter or proposal. Yes, I know, FedEx is more expensive than just sending a letter. You wouldn’t do this for a mass mailing, of course, but I use FedEx all the time when I want to make a good first impression for an individual prospect. It’s how I landed Dan Kennedy as a client four years ago, and I’ve gotten other less notable clients since then doing the same thing. It works because most people are too cheap to do it. The way I look at it, it’s a better use of your marketing or advertising dollars than almost anything else.
Do these methods work every time? No, but nothing does. What does work over the long-term is to operate in the mode of an Idea Generator, versus working as an Average Freelance Copywriter or an Opportunity Seeker.
Have you landed a client in an offbeat way? I’d love to hear the story. Tell me and our readers about it here.
Want to sound like every other copywriter the next time you talk to a prospective client? Ask the same questions every other copywriter asks.
“Who’s your target audience?”
“What’s your USP (Unique Selling Proposition)?”
“Who’s your competition? What do you do better than them? What do they do better than you?”
“What’s worked for you before? What hasn’t?”
“What’s your budget for this project?”
Those are all good questions, and it’s okay to ask them (even though I said you should never ask two of them in this blog post). I’m just saying that you might not want to lead with those questions, and there are probably some even better questions.
Your interviewing skills leave a lasting impression
So let’s back up a bit. This is not so much about asking good questions as it is about positioning.
Do you want to be perceived as a freelance copywriter who “takes assignments,” waiting for direction from your client? Not the best for ultimately getting the fees you deserve.
If you sit back, let the client take the lead, and maybe ask a few standard questions like the ones mentioned above, you’ll come across as a typical copywriter. The client will sense this immediately, and mentally figure a fee they’re willing to pay, if they haven’t already pre-determined it.
A better approach? Take charge from the beginning by framing the conversation in a whole new way. You’ll sound different than every other copywriter (well, except the few hundred reading this blog post – and implementing it).
You’ll stand out. You’ll make a great first impression. You’ll get hired.
Stretch your thinking before you try this
If you’ve been accustomed to asking only the normal questions above, this may take some practice. Reading this blog post alone isn’t going to transform your interviewing skills with clients overnight. It won’t instantly improve your business. It may take a while to get comfortable with this new style.
Before you do anything, you’re going to have to change how you perceive yourself. That starts with seeing yourself on the same level as the client, no matter who they are. You have unique skills, ideas, and your own personal take on things that can help them.
Okay, ready for the good part? Want to increase your odds of getting more business?
5 questions to ask your next prospective client
These aren’t necessarily in order. Every client interview is different. And there’s warm-up conversation first, of course (a topic for another blog post). These have worked well for me, though:
1. “Why do you do things the way you do?”
Does that sound kind of bold? It’s a logical question after you’ve asked them a bit about their business. Whether they have a good answer to it or not, it gets them thinking, “Hmm…maybe there’s a better way.” You have ideas and answers. A better way. After all, you’re more than “just” a copywriter. You’re an Idea Generator, a marketing advisor, a copywriting consultant.
2. “What exactly do you want to result from this project?”
What I mean here is get them to dimensionalize the value of what this could be worth to them. If you’re writing a 5-email conversion series for new subscribers? Get them to tell you how much revenue it would generate if you got x response. A landing page for their core offer? Same thing. If they won’t tell you, calculate a very modest response rate and do the numbers for them.
This absolutely needs to get out on the table. They need to know what it could be worth, and they need to know that you know how much it could be worth. Way before you start talking project fees.
3. “If I could do that for you, would this be a successful project?”
This question comes after you paint a vivid picture for them of what following through with you and having a successful campaign could do for their business. This one requires forethought, imagination, and quick thinking on the fly.
It’s not easy because there’s no cookie-cutter script. Each situation is different.
Let me give you a quick example, though. I recently wrote 13 pages of a new website for an accounting firm in the UK whose audience is entrepreneurs and freelancers, people like us.
After an hour-long Skype call with the two partners, I said something like, “What you’re saying is that you want to dominate this niche. You want your audience to immediately ‘get’ who you are and what you do when they land on your site. You want them to stay on the site, and pick up the phone and call you for a consultation, right? I can’t guarantee traffic, or results, but imagine that over the next few years your business becomes a household name with your audience. They see you as recognized experts in your niche, business starts booming, you open three more satellite offices outside of London, and life gets really comfortable. If I could help you get started down that path by positioning you in the right way on your website from the beginning, would you be happy? Would you call that a successful website project?”
That’s roughly what I said, they said, “Most definitely,” we worked together on phase one, and they just contacted me for phase two.
You’re helping them dream, extrapolating out a bit from your initial project, getting them to think big, and planting seeds for future work together.
4. “Why did you start this business (or get involved in this business) in the first place?”
Take them back to the beginning, and get them to tell you about the company origins. It gets them thinking nostalgically, helps them remember the early days, reminds them of how far they’ve come, and in a way gets them thinking ahead to what’s possible with more big thinking. It’s slightly offbeat, and can often get into emotional territory, never a bad thing when you’re trying to get someone to do business with you.
5. “Besides the money, why do you do what you do?”
This is a different question than #1 above, “Why do you do things the way you do?” That’s about methods and systems. This is about their emotional reasons for doing what they do. Trust me, everyone has motives besides money. Dig deep, and you’ll be amazed how people will open up and tell you things. Again, if you can lead the conversation into emotional topics and not just rational ones, your odds of landing a new client go way up.
Like I said, asking these type of questions is not easy. It takes practice. Lots of it.
Have I given you everything you need to pull off a flawless client interview? Nope. Not enough space. Watch for a Special Report soon in which I’ll give you a sample script for an entire client interview from top to bottom. I’ve never seen anyone do this before, and I think it’s something that will help a lot of aspiring copywriting rock stars like you.
Two bonus tips
1. Give away ideas!
Even if you don’t land a new client, give them something of value for their time. Throw out some Big Ideas! Suggest a unique marketing method. They’ll remember you, and may come back to you down the road. Plus, it’s good practice to always be brainstorming off the cuff.
2. Record your phone interviews with clients
Ask their permission, of course, and tell them you like to keep good records. It’s professional, and they’ll respect it. Two reasons for doing this. If they become your client, you’ll get a ton of good copy ideas from the interview. And by listening to yourself with a critical ear, you’ll become a better interviewer over time.
I challenge you to incorporate these questions into your interviews, and I’d love to hear what kind of results you generate by doing so.
Do you have any good questions you’d recommend? Our Copywriter Café readers would benefit, and so would I. Leave a quick note here. Thanks.
Don’t you love it when your child starts following in your footsteps?
My son, Solomon, is a great dancer, singer, and actor. Now he’s starting to follow my lead as a writer. Not a copywriter (yet), but a songwriter. He spends hours in his room writing songs, and he also studies the craft and tries to learn from good songwriters.
Today I stumbled across his journal where he had taken notes on “10 Rules for Better Songwriting,” from this blog post.
It immediately hit me that all 10 of these points could apply to copywriting, too.
1. Don’t be a perfectionist
There’s no substitute for one simple thing: writing a LOT. It’s the only way to get better. If that means writing a daily blog post, or writing practice copy that’s not even for a client, or hand-writing (copying) great sales letters by hand every day, do it. 3,000 words a day is a little over a million a year. Not a bad goal.
2. Get feedback as often as possible
I harp on this all the time. It’s the best way to improve fast. Peer reviews are okay, but generally people are too nice, or not good at critiquing and offering constructive advice. Seek out someone who’s better than you to give you regular feedback. If you can find a top-level copywriting friend, a coach, or best – a mentor, it’ll pay off big-time.
3. Hot and cold
This was the songwriting tip to combine opposites, for the purpose of contrast. We can do the same in our copy, of course, by using short sentences altered with longer ones. Simple advice worth noting.
4. Learn to unlearn
In other words, don’t be afraid to break the rules now and then. Direct response copywriters especially seem to follow systems and rules. I’m learning from my ad agency friend Katlynn Blakely to break the rules and throw a little more creativity into my copy.
5. The disadvantage of talent
Sometimes really talented people tend to slack off a little, because they can. Average writers with a burning desire to succeed are often more successful in the long run because of their work ethic and determination.
6. See the bigger picture always
I like this one! The name of my company is Big Ideas Publishing, LLC, because I have some big plans for creating a mini-publishing empire, a boutique agency, and many other things. This is way different than the songwriting angle for this point, but I think we need to go beyond being “just” copywriters. Think big!
7. Say it differently
Underneath it all, we’re wordsmiths, right? Certainly we can come up with creative turns of phrase and clever words. The purpose of writing copy is to convert viewers to buyers, right? You won’t do it with tired phrases, clichés, or overused words. Get creative. Every word counts.
8. Keep it simple
As Winston Churchill once said, “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” Well said.
9. Work with others
Amen! That’s a big reason I started the Copywriter Café two years ago. We need to bounce ideas off each other, get critiqued from others, and brainstorm ideas with others. Yes, we’re Independent Creatives, but we shouldn’t be operating in a vacuum.
10. Take regular breaks
I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to write copy for more than two hours straight without a break, whether writing for myself or clients.
My favorite writing breaks? Confession time: Facebook. Also quick workouts, hanging out in the sauna (my favorite writing break activity, and where I get some of my best ideas), and reading the Wall Street Journal and New York Times at my local coffee shop (also a source of many of my Big Ideas).
I challenged Solomon to take these 10 tips for songwriters to heart, and keep writing, writing, writing. I challenge you to do the same.
What simple tips would you add to the list? For songwriting, copywriting, or both? Let me know here.