The Best Copywriting Clients — and the Worst
Okay … Let’s say you want to make the transition from journalist or creative writer to freelance business writer. One of the things you’re going to have to decide is who your potential clients are. A desirable client is someone who has the budget to pay respectable fees to freelance writers and is willing to do so.
But finding clients ready to whip out their checkbooks and pay big bucks for your business writing may be trickier than you think.
So, let’s break down what to expect when working with a variety of companies that hire copywriting help.
The Fortune 500
An obvious market for freelance corporate writers is the Fortune 500 — the nation’s 500 biggest companies. There are three advantages to working with these and other large corporate clients.
First, these companies, by and large, have deep pockets, though some are deeper than others. Pharmaceuticals and financial services have traditionally been two sectors rolling in wealth — though, given the current financial upheaval, I’d be wary of the latter. But as a rule of thumb, all giant corporations are well-capitalized and can easily afford to pay your bill.
Second, your client within the corporation is likely going to be a communications professional — typically a manager of marketing or employee communications, or a public relations or corporate communications director. That’s good news, because dealing with communications professionals can make your life a whole lot easier. These trained communicators know what to do with your copy, appreciate the value you bring to the table, understand the fees top freelancers charge, and, for the most part, expect to pay them.
Third, large corporations can offer the freelancer a steady stream of assignments. Years ago, on a visit to The Dow Chemical Co., a marketing manager told me Dow needed to produce 740 different brochures that year — enough to keep dozens of freelance copywriters busy all year long.
Any disadvantages dealing with large corporations as writing clients? A few: Even when your invoice says 30 days, expect payment to reach you in 45 days, 60 days, or longer. In larger organizations, many people have to review and approve your copy, which can mean untold headaches for you. Peggy Noonan, one of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters, once said that an important speech for Reagan would be reviewed by 50 White House officers.
Local small businesses — especially SOHOs (small office/home office), self-employed professionals (dentists, doctors, attorneys), and solopreneurs (entrepreneurs in a one-person business) — are at the opposite end of the size spectrum from Fortune 500. Their characteristics as freelance-writing clients are also the polar opposite of large corporations.
The owner of your local dry cleaner or jewelry store doesn’t really understand marketing, and therefore may not appreciate the value a professional writer brings to the table. So she may haggle over your fee — and after hiring you, she can be difficult to work with.
Small businesses, lacking basic marketing knowledge and not having a marketing manager on staff, need a lot of hand-holding. So they will turn to you for marketing advice and assistance — everything from strategy to project management. Be sure to charge a separate fee for these consultation services in addition to your copywriting fee, lest you end up as an unpaid — and frustrated — marketing coach.
Dow Chemical might produce hundreds of brochures a year, but a small local company may literally have one or two possible freelance jobs for you in a year. So as a rule, they are not the most lucrative of clients. Their projects tend to be smaller in scope. And they are always looking for a lower price.
If the average local small business is a mediocre client at best, it’s an even worse gig writing for doctors, dentists, lawyers, and other self-employed professionals.
Why? To begin with, these folks believe that their education entitles them to earn more money than those of us without an MD or JD. So in my experience, most self-employed professionals in fields other than marketing cannot accept that you, a writer, charge as much or more than they do. (One exception to this is the specialty of newsletter writing, which pays at a fair rate for the steady work.)
Most of these self-employed professionals have “hard skills” that require extensive technical knowledge in a given field. They view writing as a soft skill. Anyone can do it, they think. They would do it — many fancy themselves good writers — except they don’t have the time. Because of this, they look down on writers. They have a difficult time accepting us as professional peers.
An “SMB” — small/medium business — is a company larger than your local chiropractor and smaller than Cisco.
SMBs typically have more than 10 employees and fewer than 500. As such, SMBs, also called “middle-market companies,” are halfway between the two extremes of large and small businesses in terms of their desirability as clients.
Depending on the size of the business, you may deal directly with the owner. Or you might be hired by the general manager, sales manager, chief operating officer (COO), or marketing manager. The worst is the COO, who typically views marketing as just another operation and has no conception of the skills copywriting entails.
An SMB’s volume of writing projects is usually less than a giant corporation’s. But if the client likes you, you might be the company’s sole or primary writer, which could mean plenty of work, at rates equivalent or close to rates for the Fortune 500.
One key difference: Marketing communications managers at Fortune 500 companies are primarily looking for you to make their life easier. So they seek out writers who are easy to work with, as well as those who provide extra services (e.g., a copywriter who not only writes the email marketing message but knows how to format it for the email delivery platforms) and are fluent in the same technologies the corporation uses (i.e., a copywriter who uses the same software and tools as the company). Business owners, on the other hand, are much more concerned with results. Did your copy sell a lot of product for them? Did it make them a profit far in excess of what they paid you to write it?
Ad Agencies and PR Firms
Many businesses that hire you as a freelance copywriter may also be working with an ad agency or public relations firm. For instance, the ad agency might handle online and print advertising, while you’re brought in for special writing assignments such as annual reports or speeches.
You can market yourself directly to ad agencies and PR firms, and both routinely seek freelancers to supplement their staff copywriters. But should you do it? Perhaps in the beginning of your freelance copywriting career, when your goal is to gain experience, a client list, and portfolio samples — yes. But after that, no.
In my view, it’s easier and more profitable to work directly with a business client rather than through its ad agency. Why? The agency needs time to review and comment on your work, and to make money on your copy, it has to mark up the price. Therefore, ad agencies as a rule have shorter deadlines and pay less for the same assignment you could write, at a higher fee, for the corporation directly.
With the explosion in Internet marketing over the past 15 years or so, freelance business writers now routinely get calls from online marketers looking to hire them. They may need you to write a landing page (a dedicated website selling a single product), an email marketing message, a regular e-newsletter, or maybe a webinar presentation or white paper.
This is a difficult market to navigate, because the size, seriousness, and success of Internet prospects are not always easy to gauge. Sometimes I get an inquiry from someone who appears to be a small-time operator but turns out to be making millions of dollars online and can easily afford my fees. Other times, what you think is a promising inquiry turns out to be a retired grandma who wants to sell her e-book on knitting online and has $100 to spend on your services (and she can’t understand why you’re not interested).
The Right Clients
There is no hard and fast rule that says one type of corporate client is better than another. Some freelance-business writers I know have a client list that reads like a who’s who of the Fortune 500. They get a kick out of having these prestigious companies as clients, and enjoy the high degree of professionalism they bring to their dealings, not to mention getting paid top dollar. Other freelance copywriters deliberately stay away from large corporations because they see them as dull and rigid, more interested in getting the copy through the approval process without making waves than creating a truly memorable and persuasive promotion.
I suggest you work with clients you like and are most comfortable with. For me, that means having a mix of SMBs, large corporations, and Internet entrepreneurs. I like working with clients that sell interesting products, which to me means information products, technology, or professional services.
One other thing you should be aware of when looking for copywriting assignments: Size matters. The simple truth is that you can generally charge more money for larger projects requiring thousands of words of copy, less for short-copy projects like banner ads and email marketing campaigns.
Okay, that’s a recap of the variety of companies that hire copywriting help. Keep in mind that trained communicators know what to do with your copy and appreciate the value you bring to the table, and are willing to pay you accordingly.
Which clients do you think will work best for you? Post in the comments below, along with any questions you have.
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