An Interview with Steve Slaunwhite, Part 2

Most freelance copywriters concentrate on consumer products and services, so there are big opportunities in the business-to-business market. The pay is great, and the work is steady.

We recently sat down with B2B copywriting veteran Steve Slaunwhite to get his take on this increasingly popular (and lucrative) niche. Steve had so much information to share that we decided to turn the interview into a two-parter.

The first part of this interview appeared in Issue #273 of AWAI’s popular weekly e-zine The Golden Thread.

But right now, let’s jump right into Part 2 of the interview …

CI: How do B2B companies find you?

SS: A lot of people find out about me through referrals – which is why being visible and known in the marketplace is so important. Marketing managers talk to other marketing managers, perhaps at meetings. And they ask around.

CI: You’re well-known and recognized as a specialist. But how does someone just starting out become well-known as a B2B copywriter?

SS: Well, first of all, understand that I’m not well-known in every B2B sector. But, based on my experience, I think the best way for a copywriter to become well-known to his target audience is through writing, because that’s what we do best.

Writing articles for e-zines and newsletters and other publications is the first thing that comes to mind. But there are other ways to leverage your expertise as a writer. You can write articles – and even if you don’t get them published, you can post them on your website or print them off and use them in self-promotional mailings. You can even write letters to the editors at trade publications that may publish them.

CI: What trade publications would you recommend in the field of B2B marketing?

SS: There are several. There’s Business Marketing, Marketing Sherpa, Marketing Profs, and B2B ( There’s also the Business Marketing Association, which has a newsletter.

There are a lot of niche publications as well. Software CEO, for example, is mainly a business marketing publication for people who work in the software industry.

CI: Are search engines are a primary way for potential clients to find B2B copywriters?

SS: Well, I have to be careful here, because that’s not the main way people find me. However, two B2B copywriters who are friends of mine – one who specializes in direct mail, the other who specializes in high-tech industrial companies – use search engine optimization and getting a high listing on a search engine as part of their strategy. They swear by it … and they’ve been very successful.

CI: Do you think copywriters need to have a big presence on the search engines?

SS: No. Nor would I recommend using that as a primary marketing strategy, because it’s so difficult. And it’s hit and miss. Plus, there are a lot of other strategies, at least when you’re starting out, that work a lot better and a lot faster. If you’re marketing your services as a B2B copywriter, consider search engine optimization to augment your efforts, but don’t use it as your primary strategy.

CI: There seems to be a wide range of B2B clients a freelance copywriter can choose from. On one end are the Fortune 500 clients – prestigious and with plenty of money. Then there are the small local businesses … and the slightly larger companies that do maybe a few million a year … and the in-between mid-market firms.

Which do you prefer?

SS: I like good clients. And I don’t really care where they come from – as long as they are great to work for, pay a professional rate, and have interesting projects.

Mid-market and Fortune 500 firms can be great clients, because they have a lot of work. Because of their size, repeat business can continue for years. A big client has a huge marketing department and the budget to pay professional rates. You still may get some price resistance and have to negotiate a little, but, in general, their pay rates are at the professional level.

Small businesses tend to be a mixed bag. Sometimes you can find a great client in the small-business sector (in fact, I’m working with one right now), but in a lot of cases small businesses either don’t know what a copywriter is or they don’t understand the value of a copywriter or what a copywriter actually does and can bring to the table. And they often can’t pay (or balk at paying) professional rates.

CI: What about ad agencies?

SS: I prefer to work directly with clients. However, I do work with a few agencies and I’m very happy doing so.

It’s quite a bit different to work with an agency instead of directly with a client … for a number of reasons. First of all, they’re a middleman – so you’re dealing with the agency but they’re putting your stuff together and presenting it to the client. And the rates you can charge for a project with an agency tend to be lower, sometimes by 20% to 25%, because they have to mark up your fee on their invoice to their client. Plus, agencies tend to work at a frenetic pace. Rush jobs and tight, tight deadlines are the norm. It’s always rush, rush, rush at an ad agency … and you can feel burnt out pretty quickly.

CI: Is there an upside to working with agencies?

SS: They can offer you a wide variety of work, and the people who work at ad agencies and design firms are professional communicators. So if you’re a beginner, you can learn a lot from these folks. You can be exposed to art direction and production and dealing with clients and things of that nature. You can soak up a lot of information and education, and you can get the chance to work with some big-name clients. When you’re starting out as a copywriter, it might be difficult for you to get hired by IBM – but you could get hired by a design firm that has IBM as a client. So you might get a chance to write copy for a brochure for one of IBM’s projects, and that goes in your portfolio.

CI: Who would be the potential client at an agency?

SS: Well there are three general job titles. The obvious one is the Creative Director, the person who is in charge of the writing, the design, the art direction, and the ultimate production of a piece. They often manage designers and art directors and freelance writers. Another important contact that I think a lot of copywriters miss is the Account Manager. They’re in charge of keeping the clients happy. They communicate and deal with the agency’s clients on a day-to-day basis, so they’re often looking for writers who match up closely with the needs of those clients.

Very large ad agencies (and direct-marketing firms) sometimes have what’s called a Copy Chief or Copywriting Director. Sometimes they manage a group of copywriters who work as employees of the agency, but sometimes they’re the one and only copywriter on staff (which makes it kind of a bloated title). In either case, they’re involved in hiring freelance writers.

CI: And who would be the potential client in a corporation?

SS: Sometimes a corporation has a Creative Director, but that’s pretty rare. Mostly it’s someone who has the word “marketing” in their job title – Marketing Manager, Marketing Director, Marketing Communications Manager. They also may have “public relations” in their title – Public Relations Manager, Public Relations Director, etc.

CI: Is it the same for a small business?

SS: Small businesses often don’t have a marketing department, so the owner is also in charge of the marketing. Companies that are slightly bigger might have a Sales (or Marketing) Director. Those are the people you’d want to contact for freelance projects.

CI: Do you use business directories to find clients?

SS: Yes. Every industry has a directory, and there are also directories of marketing people. Sometimes these directories are published in an industry trade journal as part of a special issue, sometimes as a separate book by an industry association.

CI: How do you price your B2B copywriting?

SS: In my experience working with B2B marketing people, they prefer to have a fixed, firm price for a project. In other words, they don’t want to be quoted an hourly rate. They want to know exactly how much the copywriting is going to cost so they can plug that number into their budget.

As a copywriter, that means you need to do your work up front to make sure you understand the full scope of the project – exactly what’s involved and what you’ll be doing – so you can quote an accurate price.

CI: Are you ever asked to write at an hourly rate?

SS: Every so often, someone will ask me, “What is your hourly rate?” I say, “Well, I quote by the project, not by the hour” … and they usually say, “Good, that’s great.”

CI: Let’s do a couple of examples. How would you price an email that’s only two or three paragraphs long?

SS: A lot more than you might think – between $750 and $1,500. And that’s because, even though it’s short, it’s a lot of work … and it has a lot of value to the client if it’s done well.

You have to really think about it. And you have to structure it in just the right way and make every word count. You also have to spend a lot of time on the subject line, because that’s all-important in an email piece. People use subject lines to decide whether they’re going to open an email – and if the email doesn’t get opened, it doesn’t get read … and they don’t reply to the offer.

Let’s say a company is investing in a webcast that they want their customers to attend, and they hire you to write an email to get people to sign up for it. If your email is a dud and doesn’t work, their investment of time and money in preparing for the webcast fails. Everybody looks bad. Including you.

CI: How would you price a Google ad?

SS: Well, Google ads are more complex than they look. As recently as a couple of years ago, if someone asked me to write a Google ad, I’d write two or three versions and that would be it. Now I insist on packaging it, too, because there is more involved than just writing the ad. Picking the right key words and determining when the ad will be displayed is also very important.

CI: What do you charge for a white paper?

SS: A lot of thinking and planning can go into a white paper – so, again, it’s important to understand the scope of the project and exactly what’s involved before you quote a price.

Sometimes you’ll be asked to write a white paper, and they’ll have the whole thing planned out for you. It will be roughly outlined, with the content pretty much in place, and all they really want is for you to do a good job writing it. Other times, none of the pre-work will be done. They’ll expect you to interview the engineer and perhaps even define the topic a bit more and do a lot of upfront work before you even start writing … and you have to factor all that into your price.

In general, white papers pay anywhere from $2,000 up to $5,000 and more, depending on what’s involved. I find $3,500 to $4,000 to be average, but because white papers vary so much in size and scope, it’s hard to nail down a number.

CI: Do B2B projects ever pay a mailing fee or a bonus or royalty, like consumer direct marketing?

SS: I’ve been paid something along those lines a few times – and I mean a very few times. It’s not the norm at all. In most cases, B2B companies are not set up to pay royalties or bonuses of any kind. It’s almost always a fixed flat rate.

CI: Is there a technique you use to increase the number of projects you get from B2B companies that come to you for one specific thing?

SS: There’s a technique I use all the time. And though I haven’t actually measured it, I would estimate it’s increased the amount of work I’ve gotten (and my income) by maybe 30% or 40%.

Let’s say I get hired to write a case study (which is a product success story). I’ll ask, “What are you going to do with this case study?” If they say, “We’re going to use it as a promotion for a trade show,” I’ll say, “Okay. Then you need the case study reformatted as a press release. I’ll give you a price for that.”

When I asked one recent client who wanted me to write a case study how she was going to use it, she said, “We’re going to use it to generate leads by sending it as an email to our customers.”

So I said, “Why don’t I give you a quote to write the email as well, because that has to be written in a special way in order to be as effective as possible.”

Then she said, “We’re going to develop a banner ad for the case study, too, to put on some sites.”

“Well,” I said, “I can help you with that.”

And then she said, “We’re also going to use the case study in a webcast, with one of our executives delivering the presentation.”

So I said, “Does he work with a script or does he just speak off the cuff?”

And she said, “He works from a script.”

So I got the job to write not only the case study, but also the email, the banner ad, and the webcast script … almost tripling my fee for the original project they hired me for.

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Published: April 25, 2007

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