What’s the Perfect Recession-Protection Strategy for Freelance Copywriters?

Let’s answer that provocative question right away. It’s professional diversification.

That means equipping yourself with an arsenal of marketable skills and services and specialties. When the economy tanks or market needs and demands shift, the cagey copywriter shifts with them – not merely surviving but prospering. This strategy gives you many benefits, including “multiple streams of income” and a sort of insurance policy against hard times.

Let’s consider a real-life example …

One veteran copywriter who has mastered this technique is Barbara Weckstein Kaplowitz. Based in Potomac, Maryland, her clients include publishers, trade associations, educational institutions, and nonprofits.

Like anyone else, Barbara isn’t immune to the current recession. But in part because she alternates between copywriting, consulting, critiquing, and teaching, the effect of today’s negative economic conditions on her business and income has been close to zero.

Barbara is one of the many successful creative pros highlighted in my AWAI ebook The Versatile Freelancer. In a conversation a year ago, Barbara said: “The recession isn’t hurting me. I have between four and five clients at a time, some of whom have been with me for years.”

I phoned Barbara earlier this month to learn how she’s doing now – when, after all, conditions are far more challenging than when she gave me the above report.

“I’m booked with work well in advance,” she told me. “I’ve got two teenaged kids and I like to take time off for family needs. I may not be turning away the number of assignments that I did in earlier years. And getting a decision from a client takes longer now. But I’m as busy as I choose to be.”

Even more remarkably, Barbara has achieved this enviable situation without having to beat the bushes. She speaks to trade groups and engages in online networking. But she does no aggressive self-promotion, no knocking on doors, no cold calls.

“When people need my help, they get in touch. Existing clients initiate contacts when they want assistance. Or I’ll phone if I know that a client has cyclical needs that I can anticipate. Many of my new clients come via referrals. Lately, I’ve been hearing from a number of former clients out of the blue.”

How does she do it? She’s a versatile freelancer!

“I get more demand for copywriting in better times,” Barbara explained. “But consulting and critiquing pick up when the economy is poor. Why? Maybe because companies are hesitant to launch new ventures in bad times. There can be internal pressure not to invest in new projects.”

“But they still need help fine-tuning what exists. So these days, I get lots of requests to review websites and critique existing campaigns. ‘We have a package that stopped working.’ ‘What do we do with our list of online newsletter subscribers?’ ‘Will this direct-mail promotion pull online?’ (Or vice versa.)

“I still get copywriting jobs from longtime clients. But new ones are more cautious. Instead of copy, they want critiques; they want to use me as a sounding board. But that’s fine. I get paid for that, and it builds relationships and can lead to writing assignments down the road.”

Barbara does consulting and critiquing mostly via email and phone, but also at clients’ offices, especially if they’re in her geographic area. Following such sessions, she provides written feedback – either a formal report or an informal memo.

How can you get to where Barbara is? In The Versatile Freelancer, I explain how, step by step. You can share what you know – and get paid for it. You can not only consult and critique but also speak, train, coach, teach. That’s a great backup position for a copywriter – or any creative pro. I did all these things for decades – at fees ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 per assignment.

Any hesitations about your oral presentation skills? Well, fear not! You don’t need to be a dazzling speaker like a TV evangelist or superstar motivational guru. You only need to have marketable knowledge and experience, and the ability to communicate it.

Despite all the advantages, this sort of career may not be for everyone. I couldn’t do it – until I had reached the point when I had something to say that was of value to others.

So how can you know when you’ve achieved a sufficient level of knowledge and expertise? You’ll encounter various kinds of evidence that you’ve ascended to this point. One excellent tip-off is when people start telling you that they’re willing to pay you for what you know. You may hear the question: “How much would you charge to come to our company and … ?” That’s a clear signal that the market is ready for you.

How do you get your first assignments?

Referrals are always best. A good way to start is by capitalizing on your existing contacts: your current and prospective clients, co-workers, industry colleagues, friends, online social networks, and so on.

Beyond direct networking, the next most successful tactics for gaining exposure and building your reputation are writing articles for trade publications and speaking at business events. Both are low-key approaches that promote your services in a professional way. In contrast, cold calling and paid advertising can appear unprofessional – and they may not generate enough business to return the costs.

Howard Shenson, once renowned as “the consultants’ consultant,” wrote: “I have long been an advocate of indirect marketing techniques … I believe that the direct, hard-sell techniques [cold calls, advertising, direct mail] are not as effective as the indirect strategies, which are more like public relations activities. As an added bonus, these indirect, low-cost/no-cost techniques are much less expensive.”

This wasn’t guesswork. Howard did periodic surveys and received responses from thousands of consultants about what sorts of marketing efforts they used and what worked. The results? The lowest-paid consultants marketed themselves via cold calls and paid advertising. The most successful and highest-paid professionals relied on the public relations techniques: writing and speaking.

Finally, these presentation activities offer you numerous additional benefits and synergies, ranging from free travel to the opportunity to learn new things, and recharge your creative batteries, and avoid burnout.

One advantage is that you can often recycle content from one activity or assignment to another – and get paid for it over and over again!

For example, you might receive a fee for a consultation or corporate training presentation – and then realize that it can be repeated almost verbatim at another company or at an industry conference. This is not unethical as long as you’re not disclosing confidential information or duplicating material to which you’ve sold exclusive rights. Getting paid more than once is an established and accepted practice. It’s simply the adroit use of leverage to expand your time and multiply your earning power.

So when a professional strategy offers you so many rewards, including “recession proofing” your business and income, isn’t it worth looking into? Based on my own experience, the answer is yes. Barbara Kaplowitz and many other successful creative pros would enthusiastically agree.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: April 27, 2009

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