How to Become a Freelance Copywriter

  1. Prove you’ve done this work before
  2. Only do work worth talking about
  3. Choose a niche or specialization
  4. When cold pitching, consider lowering your rate
  5. Apply the tactics that work for your clients

I’m a lucky bitch.

Yes, I’m a lucky bitch.

… And that’s not just because I have an amazing partner and home life and family and job. And great health. And generally strong financial security. And a sense of balance, love, hope and purpose.

(Wow – I am a lucky bitch.)

But because I’ve lucked into a lot of things in my professional life.

Of course, when I look at how I “lucked” into those things, it’s clear that I’m one of those people who’s only as lucky as she is hard-working.

When the effort stops, the luck stops.

Thankfully, I’ve never had to worry much about earning an income. That’s lucky. Maybe I haven’t worried because, when I first started out, I was happy to take anything. If I’d wanted a $50k/year job when I first started copywriting, I probably wouldn’t have felt so lucky when I landed a $32k/year copywriting job.

I haven’t had to worry about freelancing. The work has just come.

But it’s not that easy for everyone.

OR… it is that easy for everyone, but others have higher expectations than I’ve had.

So last week I got a question from a reader named Susan Silver. (Great name, hey?)

It’s a question that I get quite a bit, which is why I asked Susan if she wouldn’t mind me publishing my response here, on the blog I so rarely get a chance to update.

She happily agreed.

So here’s the question Susan sent me:

I was wondering what advice you might give to someone starting up a small time copywriting business. I have been encouraged to build my business, but I am not sure who my best clientele might be.

My strongest skills are blogging, SEO, and relationship marketing.

The Coles Notes Version of How to Become a Freelance Copywriter

Six ways to build a small freelance copywriting business.

  1. Prove you’ve done this work before.
  2. Talk about everything you do. And only do things worth talking about.
  3. Choose a niche.
  4. Choose a niche that’s either a “networker” or an “influencer” so they will spread the word for you.
  5. Pitch yourself to an ideal client, even if you have to discount your services to get the work.
  6. Try the tactics that work for your clients.

How to Become a Freelance Copywriter:
The Proven-Only-For-Joanna-Wiebe Model

By the time I decided to freelance full-time in Sept 2011, I’d already been freelancing on an ad hoc basis for clients like Acana (that high-end pet food most of us can’t afford… but should really try to). I’d also built up a nice resume that included senior-level duties at Intuit and agency work. That’s what clients wanted to see.

That’s what your prospects will want to see.

Not experience at Intuit. Or in an agency.

Just proof that you’ve done this before. Proof from an authority that you are skilled. Proof from a multitude of others that you’re worth hiring.

Quantity of proof. And quality of proof.

The smaller the job you’re going for, the less you should worry about quantity or quality.

So that’s tip numero uno: Prove you’ve done similar work before.

How?

Carbonmade is a great tool if you want to become a freelance copywriterStart with a good-looking, easy to navigate online portfolio. I use Carbonmade, and I totally recommend it. You can create multiple portfolios – so you can have one portfolio of copywriting for hair salons, another of print copywriting, another of copywriting + creative direction. Then you can send your prospects to the appropriate portfolio.

Now, in recommending that you prove your work in order to get work, I know what you’re saying:

“I need work to get work. But I can’t get work without a history of work. I’m doomed!”

I hear you!

But, I guarantee it, you’ve already done some sort of copywriting work. Even if you’ve never been hired by a client.

If you’re the one your sister goes to when she needs her school paper edited, voila – you’re an editor!

If you wrote a brochure for your mom’s workplace, voila – you’re a copywriter!

If you proofread for your university paper, voila – you’re a copyeditor!

You do not need to do a lot. You just need to know this one little secret:

Everything you do has the potential to be BIG.

What does that mean?

It means it’s up to you to milk every piece of experience you have. To wring it dry in your self-marketing. Even if it’s small, it can be big in your marketing.

You know why big names like Anthony Robbins, Marie Forleo and Laura Roeder became big names?

They put themselves out there. And then they talked about the results endlessly.

Everything they do becomes big. Everything they spend energy on is something they then market themselves with.

So that’s tip numero two: Talk about everything you do. And only do things worth talking about.

That means you 1) need a blog that you 2) post your wins and client stories on, with a focus on 3) only doing client work that will translate into a blog post that can bring in more clients.

Let’s say you want to write copy for local hair salons. You want to be the go-to person in this niche. Why? Well, let’s say you really like getting your hair done (so you have a personal interest), you love the volatility of this sort of small business (because that’s a fun challenge for you), and – this is important – you recognize that hairdressers are people who not only connect with other hairdressers but who also have clients that they spend an hour or so talking to during each visit. Which means that, if you do a good job for them, they are VERY likely to spread the word about you to people in and beyond your niche.

So that’s tip number three: Choose a niche.

And tip number quatre: Choose a niche that’s either a “networker” or an “influencer” so they will spread the word for you. (Susan, this is where to start when thinking about clientele!)

So you seek out a hairdresser. Maybe it’s your hairdresser. You pitch yourself. You even agree to do the copywriting work for half of what you’d normally charge. Yes, for half. Because you’re trying to grow your business. And you need someone to bite.

(Should you give your services away free? That’s the topic of another post!)

Tip number 5: Pitch yourself to an ideal client, even if you have to discount your services to get the work.

The result? You get a client who’s a hairdresser, and you write a direct response piece – like a postcard – to help him grow his client base. This is a client you’re going to want to blog about.

Tell him you’re going to promote his business on your blog, and then write a great post all about what you did to help him, such as:

  • Getting an understanding for his ideal client
  • Identifying the need to do a print piece / DR mailer
  • Targeting an area in town to send the piece to
  • Developing the right value proposition for him
  • Crafting the offer / Developing the best incentive, if any
  • Taking things further – promoting sharing by liking him on Facebook
  • Creating a Facebook page for him

Don’t forget to share the results! Be explicit with the outcomes. People need to know both the immediate outcome and what that actually means long-term.

Did you bring in 3 new clients for him? That may not sound like a lot… but what’s the lifetime value for a client? Can he expect to make $125 off each one every 3 months? That’s $1500 more per year. If the cost of producing and sending the mailer was $750, you just got him some serious ROI.

And he can resend the mailer again and again – to the same neighborhood and different ones – without paying you for anything more than tweaks and distribution coordination. Imagine if he gets just 2 new clients from every mailer, and he sends out 6 more mailers over the course of the year. Suddenly he’s got 15 clients, thanks to you!

When you write this blog post, share it! Put it on Facebook. Put it on LinkedIn. Submit it to Inbound.org. If you have any sort of Twitter following, tweet it.

After a week passes, repeat. Share it on Facebook again, and tweet about it again.

Three months down the road, repeat.

But that’s not all.

Why stop at creating a great promotion for your client?

Tip number 6: If something works for your client, try it to market your own business.

It’s always a good idea to set aside a portion of the money you make to spend on promoting your own business. If you’ve gained traction in a niche where you can rely on word of mouth to grow your business, that’s great. But don’t forget about the power of good ol’ self-promotion.

If the postcard worked for your client, do a mailer for your business. After all, you just got more experienced in direct response… so why not put that experience to work for you?

Create and send your postcards. Then, measure the results.

And then?

Blog about it. Even if it totally failed. Blog about the experience… because some people will relate.

And share the post. And update your portfolio!

So there you have it. Six ways to build a small freelance copywriting business.

  1. Prove you’ve done this work before.
  2. Talk about everything you do. And only do things worth talking about.
  3. Choose a niche.
  4. Choose a niche that’s either a “networker” or an “influencer” so they will spread the word for you.
  5. Pitch yourself to an ideal client, even if you have to discount your services to get the work.
  6. Try the tactics that work for your clients.

In your freelance copywriting business, you are both the product being marketed and the marketer of the product.

You may have skills in blogging, SEO and relationship marketing – that’s what you’re selling – but you need to have skills in marketing in general.

In Susan’s case, she’s got relationship marketing skills, so connecting with someone in her niche shouldn’t be a challenge. Telling yourself to do it – that’s the challenge.

She’s also great with blogging and SEO. Her clients will benefit from those skills… and so will her business. She’ll have no trouble blogging about her successes and getting traffic to those posts.

Additional Tips for Starting & Growing
as a Freelance Copywriter

  • Get your name in front of your market! Guest blog post strategically. Remember to talk about everything you do… but only do things worth talking about. Which means no guest posts on sites that won’t help you.
  • Ask to be paid the value of your work! If your SEO services will help bring in $1000 for a business in the first year, you shouldn’t be charging $25/hr for 4 hours of work. If you undervalue yourself, others will undervalue you, too.
  • Don’t ask for more than you’re worth! Unless you have some sick data to prove how amazing you are – like the results of split-tests – don’t ask for more than you know you’re worth in the early stages of your career. Let yourself learn, and, once you’ve learned, charge more. Battle scars will get you to six-figure income. Ego won’t.
  • Leverage your existing network! My first paid copywriting gig came via my stepmom, who knew a guy. She brought me the contact, but my work proved itself – and I kept that client for 10 years, until I decided to cut ties.
  • Charge for think time and meetings! Some people charge only for the time they’re actually typing. That’s crazy – and that’s a quick way to get burned out. Every minute you’re thinking about your client is a minute to charge for.
  • Don’t annoy people! Exact thing not to do: use autoresponder DMs for your new Twitter followers. There’s not a person alive who likes receiving a Twitter A/R. Same goes for building an email list that you only use for promotions. And for giving out crappy ebooks or fluffy newlsetters. Not cool. Annoying.
  • List yourself in [quality] directories! Before they became a Pinterest knock-off for copy, Drivvel.com specialized in connecting freelance copywriters with clients. The AWAI has also helped to create many successful copywriters.
  • Follow people you want to be like! If you love me, follow me. 🙂 If you want to be like Nick Usborne, follow him, too. Learn from the people who’ve been there… so you don’t have to learn the hard way yourself.

Additionally, remember that you’re a business. Think of yourself as one, and suddenly you’ll have no choice but to take marketing yourself seriously. To help you remember that you’re a business, do things that drive that point home. Such as making your home workspace feel like an office: if you’re in the guest bedroom, take the bed out; if you’re in a cubby off the kitchen, tell your family that your “virtual door” is closed from 8am to 6pm.

Make sense?

One last thing: I’m slightly concerned about the idea of keeping your copywriting business small. It’s a concept I don’t quite understand.

‘Cos when you get more clients, you get to build a waiting list – which makes your clients feel even better about working with you. (No one wants to work with someone that isn’t in demand.)

And when that happens, you get to start increasing your hourly rate. And you get to be more selective with the clients you take on as a freelance copywriter.

And when that happens, you get to work fewer hours.

Don’t you want to move from $50/hr to $150/hr? Sure you do.

So good luck, Susan! And good luck to everyone who wants to become a freelance copywriter.

~joanna

PS: For more on becoming a freelance copywriter, check out these posts