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How do you break into the lucrative field of commercial freelancing -- writing ads, sales letters, brochures, catalogs and other materials that will earn you as much as a six-figure income?
In commercial freelancing, you perform writing services for corporations, entrepreneurs, trade associations, professional societies, colleges, museums, hospitals, and other commercial enterprises and organizations instead of for the traditional editor at a magazine or book publishing house. The material you write may have as its goal any of the following: to educate, to motivate, to entertain, to inform, or to persuade. But most assignments involve writing documents designed to sell (or help sell) a product, service, organization or idea.
What types of commercial assignments are there?
In a given year I will produce for my clients ads, sales letters, annual reports, direct mail packages, sales brochures, capabilities brochures ("corporate" brochures), catalogs, press releases, feature articles, speeches, slide presentations, videotapes, films, newsletters, booklets, pamphlets, and any other materials they need to sell their products, communicate with employees and customers, or describe their activities.
The biggest advantage of commercial writing is that it pays well. Many freelancers working in this field earn $50,000-$125,000 a year and more. Unlike the magazine and book marketplace, where authors prepare queries and proposals they hope to sell to editors, clients in the commercial sector approach you, the writer, with specific assignments. They also provide all necessary background information, eliminating the need to do outside research.
According to an Adweek survey, 75% of commercial freelance writers charge by the project, while 25% bill at an hourly or day rate. And as freelancer Sig Rosenblum points out, "Fees are all over the lot." I know many freelancers who charge $25 for a one-page press release; my fee is $300. 1 charge $3,000 to write a direct mail package; my friend Don Hauptman is asking for -- and getting -- $10,000 for the same assignment. Hourly rates for freelancers also vary widely according to experience and geography. In my area, northern New Jersey, some freelancers charge as little as $25 per hour, with $50 being closer to average. Ben West, a good friend and successful freelancer specializing in financial copy, was getting $75 per hour last time I looked.
To get a feel for what to charge, remember: your initial meetings with your first prospects will quickly give you an idea of what constitutes a reasonable fee. For instance, let's say you ghostwrite speeches for local businesspeople. You find that some want to pay only $500 per speech while others agree to your quoted fee of $2,000, but no one expects to get it for less than $500 and no one is willing to go to $3,000. The range, then, is $500-$2,000.
It also helps to find out what fellow freelancers are charging for similar services.
Many publish fee schedules, which you can get by calling or writing. Some, surprisingly, are happy to advise novices on what and how to charge. Your own fees, of course, will probably fall somewhere in the range of what others in your area are billing clients.
Any organization in your area that produces promotional, educational or informational materials is a potential client for your freelance writing services. But many freelancers find prospecting for clients easier when they focus on companies in a particular field or industry --an industry in which the freelancer has prior experience.
When I started, I knew I could write competently in many different fields. Clients saw it differently, however. Banks wouldn't hire me because I had no financial samples in my portfolio. Pharmaceutical companies said to me, "We need a medical writer." Chemical and industrial firms, on the other hand, were thrilled to find a writer who was a chemical engineer by training and had been the advertising manager of a major manufacturer of chemical equipment.
The lesson here is that we live in an age of specialization. Your best bet for breaking into commercial writing is with clients in industries in which you have inside knowledge or previous experience -- either as a writer or from some other job. Clients are eager to hire writers knowledgeable in their industry who can advise them on promotional and marketing strategies, not just write copy.
How do you locate clients? The Standard Directory of Advertisers, available in most libraries, is a good place to start. It provides detailed information on more than 17,000 companies nationwide that actively market their products and services, and is indexed both alphabetically and by state.
Who do you want to reach in these companies?
If you write advertising materials -- print ads, TV and radio commercials, sales brochures, point-of-purchase displays -- contact the advertising manager, marketing manager, sales promotion manager or manager of marketing communications.
If you specialize in corporate communications -- annual reports, speeches, capabilities brochures, material for in-house publications -- contact the manager of corporate communications.
If you write public relations materials -- press releases, feature articles, case histories, newsletters -- contact the manager of public relations.
If you specialize in employee communications writing, contact personnel managers or managers of human resources.
At large corporations, each area may be handled by a separate person. At smaller firms, one individual may be responsible for all these functions. In either case, call the company and ask the receptionist for the name of the person in charge of the department you want to reach (if it is not listed in the The Standard Directory of Advertisers). Nine times out of ten, this information is given freely over the phone.
Some freelancers get most of their work directly from corporations, called "clients" in the ad business, while others work primarily for advertising agencies, public relations firms, graphic design studios, audiovisual production houses, and other "vendors" that supply communications services to corporate America. Listings for such vendors may be found under the appropriate category in your local Yellow Pages. For more detailed information on each company, consult industry directories. Ad agencies, for instance, are listed in The Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies, again available at your library. Your contact will be the creative director, copy supervisor, or -- at very small agencies -- the owner or president. Writer's Market also lists some ad agencies, although the listing is incomplete and represents only a fraction of the agencies that purchase freelance work.
In magazine and book publishing, writers approach prospective "clients" (publishers) with ideas they hope to sell. In commercial freelancing, the opposite is done: You approach clients and try to sell them on using you and your writing services. You are selling yourself --not a specific idea.
If the client likes you and decides to hire you, the client gives you an assignment to write according to specified guidelines. For example, the client may tell you, "We need a one-page ad selling our chemical product -- a degreaser -- to firms in the pulp and paper field."
If a client instead says, "Here is our product; tell us how to sell it," answering this question would require considerable thought on your part and would be considered a separate consulting assignment for which you should get a contract before starting. Giving away ideas for free, which is accepted as standard practice by book and magazine writers, is not done by successful commercial freelancers.
How do you make the initial contact and sell yourself to clients?
Use the same approach as any business trying to sell its product or service:
What are the marketing vehicles used by successful freelancers working primarily in the commercial field? They span the spectrum from "hard-sell" promotions (such as classified and display ads, sales letters, brochures, self-mailers and telemarketing), to "soft-sell" publicity vehicles such as giving speeches, networking, seminars, and writing articles for the trade press.
Direct mail is especially effective in making the initial contact. You can send a straightforward letter describing your background and writing services, either preprinted or computer-personalized, to prospective clients, both on the ad agency and corporate side.
In my own such letter, I include a reply card the prospect can mail back to request additional information on my services and a package of writing samples. The response rate of people sending back my reply card is 7%, which means by mailing 200 letters I can produce responses from 14 potential clients who say, in effect: "Yes, I'm interested in the possibility of hiring you to write for our firm. Tell me more about you. This is the type of response you want to generate.
Another powerful marketing technique is to publish articles in the trade press.
Such articles, written by you on some facet of advertising, marketing or business communications, help position you as an expert in the field and increase your visibility among the target audience you want to reach. Reprints of articles, imprinted with your address and phone number, make excellent additions to direct mail packages and can be used as handouts at shows, conferences and meetings.
The most important ingredient of success in commercial writing is attitude. A recent conversation with the president of a small public relations and advertising agency summed this up nicely for me: "I have been dissatisfied with most of the freelance writers I have used. The problem is, they don't understand what they're doing. They think they're just putting words on paper. I tell them the background on a story, and they hand it back to me exactly as I gave it to them and say, `Here's the story you wanted.' What they fail to realize is that our words have a purpose -- they must sell, educate, inform, and motivate -- or the client is not getting his money's worth."
Or as ad man David Ogilvy puts it: "When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it 'creative.' I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product."
Let me give you a few tips that can help you produce the kind of copy commercial clients desire:
* Keep it simple. On an episode of Thirty something, college professor Gary questioned Michael's simple-minded approach to advertising. Ad man Michael replied angrily, "Much of the public has a second-grade reading level; they're not big fans of Shakespeare."
I don't know about the second-grade reading level, but I agree that commercial messages should be clear, simple and understandable.
Remember, you are writing not to dazzle the reader with your prose, but to get the client's message across.
* Be concise. Don't waste words. Get your point across, then move on.
* Put yourself in the reader's shoes. The reader could care less about your client's products, or sales goals, or corporate policies.
The reader cares about himself -- his needs, his goals, his fears, his hopes. Always try to start with the reader, then build a bridge that relates to your sales message. For example, instead of "Our new telephone system. . .", say, "Your telecommunications needs . . .", or "Tired of paying through the nose for sky-high telephone bills?" You get the idea.
* Stress benefits, not features. Tell how the product, service or idea helps the reader save time, make money or improve his life. Instead of saying "The Encyclopedia of Health is 467 pages long with 44 charts and graphs," say, "Now all the information you need to live a healthier, happier life is available from one single, authoritative source."
* Be specific. Avoid superlatives. Good commercial writing is fact-filled: imparting information the reader can use to make an intelligent decision about using your client's products and services.
Many commercial writers mistakenly believe that consumers are stupid and that puffery will somehow bluff them into making a bad buying decision. They are wrong.
How do you get started in commercial freelancing? Although you can use the marketing techniques outlined above, the best way is simply to grab the opportunity to do this work when an offer comes your way.
And chances are, it will. Most magazine and book writers receive occasional offers to do corporate or ghostwriting work for commercial clients. But they pass it by. Next time such an offer comes your way, take it. Then build on this foundation.
The first client is the hardest to get. Once you have one commercial assignment under your belt, you can approach prospective clients as an experienced writer with a portfolio and client list, not as a novice.
Ask friends if their companies have employee newsletters, in-house publications or annual reports. Ask them to find out the names of the people in charge of those publications. Then see if they can arrange introductions for you.
Getting your first clients and serving them well is extremely important. Do everything in your power to satisfy these clients and get more work from them.
They become an important part of your marketing effort, providing references, testimonials, and proof of your ability to serve clients successfully.
Don't worry too much about fees at this point. The important thing is to build a portfolio, a client list, and a reputation for quality. Once you expand your client base and have a comfortable amount of work coming in, you can think about raising fees and dropping difficult or unprofitable accounts.
Successful commercial freelancers often talk in terms of "billable hours." These are the hours during the work week spent writing, researching, and doing other work on projects for paying clients. Most writers and consultants find that only half their time can be spent on billable hours; the balance is taken up with such matters as administrative tasks, training, reading, and marketing for new business.
Thus, if you work a 40-hour week, you put in only about 20 billable hours each week. Multiplied by 50 weeks a year, this is 1,000 hours. Even at $100 an hour, your income peaks at $100,000 a year. And that's the gross figure, before subtracting for business expenses and. income tax payments.
Increasing your income beyond this $100,000 "ceiling" is difficult, but not impossible.
One way is to raise your fees, and as your reputation grows, you may want to do this. Another option is to find ways of working more efficiently, thus increasing billable hours. A computer, for example, can eliminate hours of needless retyping for drafts and revisions. And why run down the block every time you need a photocopy when you can buy a good machine for your home office for less than $1,200?
Another option is to hire an assistant to handle the mundane tasks of typing, correspondence, bookkeeping, and other general administrative functions, thus freeing you to concentrate on writing and marketing. And several writers I know subcontract work to other freelancers who write at lower rates, and keep the difference as profit. This sounds fine in theory, but in reality finding other writers who meet your own standards of excellence can be difficult: And often, the work they produce for you is not what you would find acceptable for submission to the client.
One writer I know of describes himself as a "freelance information packager," and this is a good description of the direction many self-employed commercial writers are going in these days. For instance, in addition to writing ads and brochures, I also consult, teach, and market my own seminars on direct mail and other communications topics. Recently, I professionally taped one of my seminars; I now market the cassettes as a separate product.
The idea here is to take your expertise and offer it to clients and buyers in many different ways, shapes and forms. You are no longer subject to the whims of the publishing world, but can become a self-sufficient entrepreneur -- a "mini-conglomerate," if you will -- selling information, expertise and writing ability in a variety of ways and formats.
If you can think, learn and write, there's no limit to what you can accomplish. And commercial writing -- putting your skills to work for corporate clients paying big money for writing services -- is one of the best and easiest ways to expand your writing activities.. .and your income.
Related learning materials:
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