“Don’t talk to strangers.”
That’s the earliest advice I remember being given.
It’s also the one I followed most strictly. But not because of my parents.
Nope. What truly cemented it as an immutable law in my tiny four year old brain was a puppet show put on by the police for my pre-kindergarten class.
It started innocently; a group of woolen anthropomorphized puppies and kittens with buttons for eyes were happily playing at the park…
… then a puppy talks to a stranger. And gets abducted.
Dark twist for a bunch of four year olds who just want to play tag, no?
35 years later, I still think of that puppet show when I have to talk to someone I don’t know.
Is it why I refuse to cold pitch potential clients (AKA strangers)?
Maybe just a smidge.
But mostly it’s because:
- Cold pitching is ridiculously time consuming
- There’s a superior way to get copywriting clients that’s easier and more fun
The four big flaws that make it so damn hard to warm up to cold pitching
It’s just not the most efficient way to get clients.
I know because I tried the cold pitching thing before.
In 2014, I planned to quit my job as a radio ad writer and go full freelance. To make it happen, I sent approximately five dozen emails to various businesses I thought would be fun clients.
Seven years later, I’m still waiting for a response.
(That’s not entirely true. One guy replied to try to sell me a new vacuum.)
In May 2021, I decided to take another shot at becoming a full time freelancer. But this time I refused to send out a flurry of cold emails. (However, if that’s your thing, email copywriter Nikki Elbaz says you should start with a mindset shift.)
Instead, I went with a much different method to get clients: referrals.
In 46 days (as of this writing) I’ve earned more than $19,000 for my services.
All without sending a single frosty email to a stranger.
And it’s not slowing down either.
My referral network is becoming an ever-growing celtic knot of copy requests and I’ve got two “Referral Trees” going that keep stacking freelance opportunities. More on that later.
First, let’s see why cold pitching is an inherently flawed method to get clients.
Flaw #1: Cold pitching is a numbers game.
Much like a night playing the slots in Vegas, the numbers are stacked against you when it comes to cold pitching because less than 24% of cold pitch emails get opened.
That means for every four emails you send, one might get seen by a human.
Not responded to with a cheery “You’re hired!”
Worse still: the average response rate for cold email is a dismal 1%.
Doing a little quick napkin math, for the best odds of getting one response from your cold emails, you’d have to send out around… 400 emails!
No wonder my 36 email experiment didn’t get any traction. I guess I should have written 364 more.
Finally, Apple’s iOS 14.5 update adds a whole new fog of mystery to cold outreach campaigns. Users can now block tracking in emails, making it harder to gauge how effective they are.
Flaw #2: Cold pitching properly takes up too much time.
Your time is incredibly valuable.
Like Bitcoin, oil, or pop culture treasure Tom Hanks, your time is a finite resource. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Do you really want to spend your limited time researching potential clients and writing 400 personalized emails to maybe get one response?
Even if you stick to the so-called “perfect” email length of 50-125 words, it’ll still take you days.
I mean, you could keep emailing to see if you get any bites. But keep in mind that it usually takes at least five follow-ups after cold outreach before a prospect says yes.
Do you have time for that kind of tenacity? Because I don’t.
Even if I did, the thought of four noes (no’s? Nos? I don’t…know) in a row is depressing.
Flaw #3: Constant rejection suuuuuucks.
When sending out my cold emails, I was dreaming big. Every time I hit “Send”, I pictured what I’d do with the money from my new contracts.
SEND… “I think I’ll buy an acreage.”
SEND… “Are heated sea salt pools a thing people do?”
SEND… “I wonder what the south of France is like this time of year?”
I thought this would be me:
Spoiler alert: my failed cold pitch attempt did not allow me to move to an acreage with a sea salt pool in the South of France.
But it did put me in a funk.
For months, I second guessed my abilities and felt dumb and angry for putting myself out there. I even started to pull away from the idea of being a copywriter altogether.
Dramatic? Nope. Turns out rejection really kicks our butts, emotionally speaking:
- It can temporarily lower our IQ
- Make us feel angry and aggressive
- Destabilize our need to belong
- Start believing self-esteem crushing ideas about ourselves
Rejection can actually hit us so hard, we register it as physical pain.
Worst of all, when rejection hits hard, it doesn’t respond to reason.
Technically my experience wasn’t writer rejection, which is a special concept of its own (yay, we’re special!). I was simply being ignored… which feels worse. I’d rather hear “No” than nothing at all.
Flaw #4: It’s not fun because it’s monotonous and inefficient.
Writing with purpose and personality is rewarding.
Writing hundreds of emails with purpose and personality that 99% of businesses will ignore is the opposite of rewarding.
It is boring.
It is time-consuming.
It is annoying, both for you and the recipient.
Cold pitching through email is the textual equivalent of telemarketing. (And we all love telemarketers, right?)
To give yourself even a remote chance of cracking through and getting a yes, you have to inject a metric buttload of strategic personality and personalization into your email.
Then you have to do it 400 more times.
You could speed up the process with cold email templates, except:
- By not personalizing your emails, you’re pretty much ensuring you’re going to get that 1% (or lower) response rate.
- The hair I brush off my cats has more personality than most templates. You’d have a better chance of getting a response if you skipped the copy and emailed a photo of the last sandwich you ate.
The gist of all those flaws is this:
Cold pitching wastes too much time for too little payoff, plus you feel crappy and won’t have any fun.
“So what do you recommend instead of cold pitching?”
Referrals are the superior client picker-upper for many reasons:
- It’s easier to get a yes as the potential client actually needs your services.
- You spend far less time getting them.
- They have a better built in client vetting process than cold pitching. i.e. If someone refers you to a prospect, they feel there’s a match there. With a cold client, you don’t know about the fit until you end up working with them.
- You avoid “sticker shock” because the prospect you get referred to usually has an idea of what you charge (through the person who connected you).
- Even if you don’t get the gig, at least you get a reason why (unlike the 99% no-response wasteland of cold emailing). Plus, they might think of you next time someone they know needs copy.
- You don’t have to “sell” your services as hard because referrals are like a badge of trust. Someone is vouching for you because they know you do good work. No wonder referrals account for 19% of all purchases, and influence as much as 90%.
Plus, referrals just make you feel good.
Getting one feels like being nestled in a weighted blanket on your couch, drinking tea and reading a novel on a rainy day.
Grow your client list (and income) by planting “Referral Trees”
Referral Trees happen when you have one client that acts as an initial “seed.” You do some work for them and/or connect with them, then they refer you to other clients, who refer you to other clients, and so on.
Right now, I have two on the go:
Clients who are “locked and loaded” clients (aka, they paid and the work is done) are in dark blue boxes. If you only look at those, these are small trees. Saplings really.
But keep in mind it’s only been 46 days.
The light blue boxes are clients who 1) need my services at a later date or 2) want my services soon but are still figuring out exactly what they need.
There are a couple of potential retainer clients in those future branches. Between those and my per-project work, I’m looking at consistent $10k+ months.
Not quite South France acreage money but not too shabby either.
Keen-eyed readers have probably spotted a $0 hidden amongst the branches there.
Full transparency on why I (technically) worked for “free”: that $0 client was a copy audit for my wife.
She runs an online sales coaching business and her clients get “free” monthly copy audits from me as part of their mastermind program. One of those audits resulted in a paid gig… which led to a second follow-up project.
I firmly believe you should never work for free. You’re a specialist and people should pay for your expertise.
How much do I believe in this? Well, now you know “Seed client #1” up there is my wife…
… who I charged $3000 for copywriting.
Referral Tree #2 technically starts with a $0… but that’s also not accurate.
That “seed client” is a company I left in January. I haven’t made money from them in six months but kept in touch with some of the people there.
As soon as I started freelancing, five of those connections came out of the woodwork requesting copy help.
Referrals can come from anywhere. Here are 5 ways you can find your own.
If there’s one flaw with referrals, it’s that they might be hard to get if you’re a beginner. It’s not impossible though (points 3 and 4 below are where you should start).
But if you’ve done any work for anyone – even just one gig – you have a potential “in” for a referral.
Any of the following methods can help you plant some Referral Trees of your own.
1) Ask your previous clients for referrals (and make it easy for them to share your info).
This is the easiest method. Who better to hook you up with a referral than someone you’ve already impressed?
But don’t just DM them with a, “hey, no NE1 who nds gd words?” (Actually, don’t ever DM anyone like that).
Instead, be savvy about it and make it ultra easy for them to share your info:
- Write up a “pitch” about yourself and your services. (Get more on this from Copyhackers’ free 5-day, $5K Challenge)
- Make it easy to email out/share on social media (Canva is great for this).
- Add incentives for new clients to reach out (discounts, bonuses, etc.)
- Share it with your previous clients and have them forward it out.
Why make a pitch document vs. just including a link to your site?
Because people are 1) busy and 2) lazy. If they have to click to look at something they’re only half interested in, they won’t do it.
But by having it all right there in a “digital flyer”, it’s easier for the prospect and makes a better impression.
Marian Schembari had a coaching client successfully use this method (good foreshadowing for point #5, BTW); one mass email featuring the coach’s “pitch” led her to getting five new clients.
Plus, it still takes up way less time than writing 400 emails. 😉
2) Keep in touch with former clients.
Big companies spend millions to improve client retention. Why? Because even a 5% increase can boost profits up to 85%.
Don’t worry. You don’t have to spend millions.
But you should keep in touch with former clients because it can lead to referrals.
Maybe they don’t know anyone who needs you right now. But they might in the future.
By staying in touch, you remain at the top of their mind if an opportunity comes up.
This can be as simple as:
- Checking in to see how things are going.
- Sharing an article or post you think might be interesting for their business.
- Or just flat out becoming friends with them.
Bonus: If you’re cultivating an email list, get them to subscribe (but only if your content applies to what they do).
3) Look outside your client circle/buddy up with online service providers.
You know who knows where to find clients? Other service-providers who are getting steady work.
Since it stands to reason that they might know someone who needs some copywriting done…
And you might know someone who needs web design/photography/accounting/etc….
Don’t you think it might be a good idea to share that info with each other?
It’s like Pokemon cards. Except instead of Charizards, you trade opportunities.
And much like Pokemon, when it comes to service producers, I recommend you collect them all (well, their contact info, at least).
You’re going to need the extra help in the future anyway. I guarantee it.
This article puts it well:
“When starting out, juggling all the different aspects of being a freelancer at once can be quite cumbersome, but it is possible. As your business grows, however, you will increasingly find yourself in the need of extra help.”
If you want to level up, you’ll have to meet/hire/do work for and with all sorts of people: page builders, designers, developers, social media managers, photographers, media buyers, etc.
There are two routes to go with the motley crew of professional contacts you’ll collect:
A) Trade opportunities you come across.
I worked with a fantastic graphic designer at a start-up company. We became friends and still talk every week.
We also send each other job opportunities we hear about in our respective circles. In fact, I just referred him to a company that hired him for $90k a year. He got me… nothing.
B) Trade opportunities between each other.
There are plenty of benefits of outsourcing tasks you aren’t good at to specialists. Chiefly, it saves you time and makes your business better.
For example: I want to get a website done for my business. But I’m terrible at it.
And it’s never an easy “drag and drop” process because the second you try to move one image, your entire page rearranges itself like a goddamn Transformer.
All I wanted to do was make my headline bigger. (Source)
Instead of wasting my time with that torture, I’m hiring a designer to help me… specifically, the designer that hired me last month to write a sales page for her.
And not only am I hiring her. I’m also recommending her to any clients that need websites. And she’s referring her clients to me for copywriting.
Tradesies are good, so grow your network! It’ll help you uncover new opportunities, gain inspiration, and meet potential partners to team up with.
4) Make friends with other writers.
If you’re only seeking out referrals from clients, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity.
You should be trying to get referrals from other writers too.
“But I’m a freelancer! A lone wolf! A single banana! A… a… a some other idiom that does everything by themselves! Why would I reach out to other writers!”
We all need help. This image of freelancing/entrepreneurship having to be a one person show needs to stop.
If I’m too busy to take on a project, I don’t hesitate to reach out to my writer friends to see if they’re interested. They do the same for me.
We look out for each other. Like a big ol’ copywriting family.
Editor’s note: This is precisely why we have a #copy-tunities channel inside the 10x Freelance Copywriter Slack mastermind. Busy, ambitious freelancers can’t do it all – so why not share the opportunity with another ambitious freelancer? It’s a win-win for the referrer and the referee.
We shouldn’t view other copywriters as “the enemy”.
They should be seen as fellow members of a community we are part of.
Being part of a community is good for your mental health. Especially because writing can be an intense, lonely job at times.
Rachel Carson (of Silent Spring fame) put it beautifully when she said:
“Writing is a lonely occupation at best. Of course there are stimulating and even happy associations with friends and colleagues, but during the actual work of creation the writer cuts himself off from all others and confronts his subject alone.”
It’s good to have friends who can help you stave off any bouts of deadline terror and/or imposter syndrome.
5) Form a partnership with an online sales/marketing coach.
As mentioned earlier, my wife is an online sales coach. She started her business two and half years ago. Over the past year I’ve started working with her more.
I write her sales pages and do occasional copy edits for her clients. This has led to a few of her clients hiring me to do their copy as well.
Now, you might call shenanigans because I have an unfair “in” due to my wife. Fair.
But I counter by saying you should think of me as a case study on whether partnering up with a coach (uh, business partnering – not marrying) gets you copywriting clients.
Sales/marketing/life coaching is literally a billion dollar industry. That’s a niche with deep pockets and the COVID pandemic has boosted that as more people shift to entrepreneurship.
The whole goal for coaches is to help clients grow their businesses. They’ll be able to do that by having better copy on their sales pages and emails.
I wonder who could help them with that?
A partnership with a coach – even just for the occasional sales page – can be lucrative.
Not only will you get work writing for the coach, you also get access to an ever-filling stable of potential clients being influenced by someone who loves what you do.
Do good work and referrals will ensue.
(I should note, you don’t need to marry the coach like I did. It leads to a lot of pillow talk about aligned offers and stages of awareness.)
Conclusion: Referrals rule. Cold pitching drools.
My last bit of proof for why referrals work is a bit meta: a referral led to me writing this Copyhackers blog post about referrals.
So which sounds better?
Door #1: you waste hours of your life launching emails into the cold void of the internet like desperate space probes searching for intelligent life that might respond but probably won’t?
Door #2: you get to make friends, surround yourself with a community of professionals, and clients who are happy to pay you solid Earth money come to you… all while leaving you plenty of free time?
I know which one I prefer.
Want to be friends?