Clients: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em

Dec 23, 2021

Issue #146
If you’re like me, this week has been busy catching up on ALL those Christmas-related tasks you haven’t gotten to yet…

Planning holiday meals and get-togethers… wrapping presents… sending out holiday cards (which likely won’t arrive until after the holiday)… last-minute shopping (Pearl’s stocking is still sadly empty, but I’ll be stuffing it with some organic dog treats)… putting up decorations… etc etc etc.

Meanwhile, your questions to “Santa” have been rolling in… and many of them have had to do with CLIENTS. Yes, those pesky clients… as freelancers, we can’t live without ’em… so learning how to find, negotiate with, and manage them is an essential part of maximizing your earnings while minimizing headaches.

So today, I’m going to focus on some of the client-related questions I’ve gotten in so far. In a later issue in the next week or two, I’ll answer the other questions that have come in. (And if you want to add your question to the list, it’s not too late. You can do so here.)

Okay, here are my honest, uncut answers to your biggest client questions…

Question #1: Getting a new client by offering to write copy on “spec”…

One of your fellow Copy Insiders, Joseph, asked this question after reading my last issue (“When you’re the ‘hot girl at the bar’“):

“Thanks, Kim, this is a gem. How about a beginner that doesn’t have any track record. How will he go into the market? This has a lot to do with me. Because whenever I pitch a client and say, ‘Okay let me write you this piece for free,’ they don’t value my opinion and they don’t recognize my effort. I don’t know how to get my foot in the door. Should I start charging even if I don’t have a track record?”

Now, before I get into the answer I provided Joseph, I do want to point out that I corrected at least 3-4 grammar and punctuation errors in what he wrote to me. I would expect that if Joseph was sending an email to a potential client with this kind of offer, he would proof it fastidiously, especially if English is not his first language (or even if it is–plenty of us make errors even if we’re native-born speakers).

My experience is, most U.S.-based clients will not hire someone who does not demonstrate an excellent command of English language basics as well as attention to detail. So having a few errors like these in your outreach email could deep-six your efforts right from the start.
But back to Joseph’s question. I think when you offer to write for free, clients won’t value you. I would suggest re-framing it… maybe something like: “If I write this email for you to drive traffic to your sales page and it generates at least one sale, you’ll pay me $100. Otherwise, you owe me nothing.”

Then you’re talking about what the client cares about—getting results—and shows that you’re confident your work will deliver.

I would also try getting some “reps” in with lower-paying gigs just to get some samples. I’ve never explored the Upwork world but some top copywriters like Stefan Georgi and Dan Ferrari actually started there.

I’ll be honest though–I made the same recommendation to my son (who’s starting to do some freelance copywriting on the side) to check out Upwork, and all he could find were ridiculously low-paying gigs. So it seems like things may have changed there compared to 5 or 8 years ago when these guys were on it (that would have been the bargain of the century to snap up one of them back then!)

So where DO you find those FIRST clients when you’re a complete “newbie” starting out? I received several questions along these lines…

Question #2: Finding and landing clients when you’re just starting out

“What are the best ways to go full client hunting and pitching?”
“How do I get my foot in the door – i.e. Find my first clients?”
“How do I pitch a client as a newbie copywriter?”
“How do I put myself out there and avoid impostor syndrome.. It’s really draining me.”
“As a newbie trying to get my first client, should I try to do a variety of samples with design (like a magalog), or concentrate on sales letters with just copy as spec? Should I also focus on 1 niche or present a variety to show flexibility?”

So many questions about finding those first clients.There are more opportunities for freelance copywriters than ever before. There’s also more competition than ever before. And I’ll get to the “niche-ing” question in just a moment.

I will NOT proclaim to be an expert in helping you in today’s modern world to land those first initial clients. I am not an expert in using things like LinkedIn or YouTube, for example, to find clients… because when I was starting out more than a few decades ago as a freelancer, they simply didn’t exist!

And I haven’t had to do “client-hunting” for many years since establishing myself waaaay back when (beating the late Jim Rutz and becoming the first female copywriter to get a Boardroom control helped a lot to put me “on the map”, but I even waited several years before tooting my horn about that… and still had plenty of work coming to me.)

But here are some timeless, “old school” tactics that work as well as–or likely, much better–than any of these social media techniques. And they can work whether you’re just starting out OR you’ve got a full client roster but always want to keep new, better ones coming in the door…

  • Let everyone know you’re a copywriter now. Chances are you’ve had some prior work experience, maybe within a company that also produces marketing and advertising efforts. Guess what? They could be your first client! My former employer became one of my biggest clients the year after I walked out the door on good terms (always avoid burning bridges). There’s also the power of referrals to tap into…
  • Being “referred” by someone else drastically increases your odds of getting hired by a client AND helps you charge higher fees. Make an exhaustive list of all the people you know who could possibly refer you to a potential client. It could include former coworkers and bosses… friends who work for various companies… any past clients you’ve done work for… people you’ve gotten to “know” on social media (perhaps in copywriting groups where you’ve contributed some value or when people talk about having extra work to offload)… Anytime someone refers you–especially if they say things like “s/he’s a great copywriter” or “great to work with”–your “stock” goes up with a potential client. If it’s someone they trust who’s referring you, you may find it VERY easy to close them AND get a higher fee (as long as you handle things professionally, demonstrate attention to detail and a strong command of the English language, etc.) And chances are you know more people than you think who can refer you.
  • Consider working as an employee for an established direct response company. Many companies are looking for entry-level all the way up to more senior positions and some are fine with 100% remote workers. Being an in-house employee your first year or two gives you the opportunity to get paid to learn, get feedback from more experienced people on your copy, get access to the results data that many freelance clients aren’t willing to share, and build an incredibly valuable network of referrals you can tap into later.
  • Crawl on out of that cave and meet people via events, online mastermind groups, and copywriter communities. The #1 best way I’ve met clients has been attending in-person events and masterminds. Now, Covid really put a stop to that for most of 2020 and 2021… and we’re waiting to see what 2022 holds (though I’ve already made plans to either speak at or attend a few events). But it’s been amazing to me to see what some of my copywriting mentees have been able to accomplish virtually… by joining virtual mastermind groups like Titans Xcelerator (run by my good friend and mentor Brian Kurtz). Or being an active, engaged member of copywriting communities like Copy Chief. Or joining one of the many copywriting business-building trainings that my friends Kira Hug and Rob Marsh put on via The Copywriter Club. (BTW these aren’t affiliate links, I just want to share these resources with you because I know they’re valuable).

Then there’s the close camaraderie of other copywriters as well as client management training and referrals I offer my mentees that you get with my Fast Track to A-List program. It’s been a great way to virtually connect, develop A-level copywriting skills, and begin working with great clients for many of my past mentees (you can read more about their stories here… there are still a few spots left for next year’s program, which starts January 12th! All the details are here.)

I get that most of these programs do require investments that right now may not be viable for you. But I would suggest that when you are able to do so, investing in attending a conference, for example, may well provide an ROI of at least 2 to 5 times the cost of attending (and I’m factoring in airfare, hotel, and meals, too)…

That’s true as long as you use your time there sitting next to people you don’t know and striking up conversations (like when I joined a table of strangers at an event and ended up sitting next to Joe Sugarman), hanging out in the bar at night (instead of holed up in your hotel room), and initiating spontaneous “hey, let’s grab lunch” groups that you pull together during session breaks. Yes, even if you are naturally an introvert, you can do this… (I am, and these are all things I’ve done multiple times. It gets easier the more you do it!)

One other thing: “imposter syndrome” is real. Even top copywriters deal with it all the time. It’s often difficult–if not impossible–to see yourself as others see you. But remind yourself just how awesome you are whenever possible (positive “self talk” really works). We often focus on our own shortcomings and weaknesses way too much, and ignore our own strengths and accomplishments.

So maybe update that resume. Put together that website. And ask past clients, bosses, and co-workers to write a testimonial for you. Then luxuriate in all of that goodness… let it build you up. Start to BELIEVE it about yourself.

Play the role of consultant and advisor to your clients (who often know far less about direct response copywriting than you do, unless they’re one of the big publishers or supplement companies) versus being an “order taker”. All of these things will help boost your confidence and help you overcome “imposter syndrome”.

Okay, I promised to answer your questions about “niche-ing”, so here goes…

Question #3: Should I choose a niche to focus on as a copywriter?
One of the biggest questions on copywriters minds when they’re just starting out seems to be “to niche or not to niche”. I got questions like these from your fellow Copy Insiders…

“How do you identify a niche?”
“Is it advisable to niche down as a newbie copywriter?
“What’s the best niche to kick-start my Copywriting career?”
“As a newbie trying to get my first client, should I try to do a variety of samples with design (like a magalog), or concentrate on sales letters with just copy as spec. Should I also focus on 1 niche or present a variety to show flexibility?”
“Can I make good money solely by learning how to write Short Copy?”

(Yes, that last question isn’t about “niche-ing”, but it’s related…)

Here’s how I feel about choosing a “niche” when you are just starting out as a copywriter. You can focus on studying and mastering a particular type of copy (say financial or supplements, if that interests you). But in the meantime, you want to get your “reps” in as much as possible with a wide variety of projects, based on what you’re able to do for clients and get paid.

Getting paid to write ANY kind of copy will teach you far more than creating multiple “practice” promos in one particular chosen niche. It teaches you not just how to handle clients, but gives you the versatility to work on different types of copy (say emails, landing pages, Google or Facebook ads, etc.) for a variety of different products (forcing you to quickly master the research needed to attack each new project).

Plus, the sooner you can start getting paid, obviously the better. You can get to the point that you can start investing in your training and building your network (i.e., do some of the things I mentioned earlier that can really fast-forward your freelance career).

The other thing to remember is, there are a ton of copywriting “niches” out there. You hear a lot about supplements and financial from myself and other long-form copywriters. But there are successful, 6+ figure careers to be had in everything from SaaS (software as a service) to corporate training to, well, you name it.

If you already have deep experience and knowledge in one particular area, your best bet–at least initially–may be to focus on that. You will be ten times more valuable to a client than someone who doesn’t have that unique or relevant background… versus trying to compete in a crowded, competitive niche in which you have little to no experience.

When I left Phillips Publishing after launching and running the Healthy Directions business, finding supplement clients was a breeze. But if I hadn’t had that experience, it would have been much more of an uphill battle.

So perhaps your best bet is to let your niche choose YOU… that’s what I did! Eventually, after writing both health and financial copy for years, I decided since I was mostly doing supplement copy–with the occasional financial promo popping up and then forcing me to “re-learn” what was going on in the market and where investors’ heads were at–I decided to “niche down” to supplement copy. But mind you, this was after nearly 10 years of freelancing!

My advice is to not feel pressured to “niche”… pursue the opportunities that are most relevant to your background and experience… and if something else calls to you, go for that as well. But get as much paying work as soon as you can, as it will be what truly helps you learn and succeed early on.

And yes, that leads me to that last “short copy” question. Writing long-form sales pages and VSLs is difficult even for experienced copywriters. And some people don’t have the bandwidth or want to bother with them at all. I definitely recommend starting out with shorter copy (and deciding later if that’s what you want to stick with).

Shorter copy is less intimidating to learn, you can often get faster feedback on the results, and you can turn it around faster (and get paid faster… rather than a long-form copy project that can drag out for months, while your rent, mortgage or other bills need to get paid every 30 days!)

Okay, I’ve got to wrap this up for now, but I’ll be back later with more answers to these types of questions… plus several more I had about learning and upgrading one’s copywriting skills more quickly.

This won’t come until after Christmas, so in the meantime I wish you and yours a wonderful and very merry holiday season. Thank you for being a Copy Insider!