What are some tips on how to approach potential clients as a freelancer?
December 12, 2017 11:53 AM   Subscribe

If you’re in a position to hire freelancers, what does and doesn’t work in an initial contact?

I’m a freelance writer, and I need to find work. For a long time, I’ve had steady agency work, but now things are changing at the agency, and I need to go looking. My 13+ years of experience is in direct mail fundraising, writing copy for nonprofits – letters, newsletter articles, brochures, and the like -- although over the years I’ve written a little bit of everything. Like most people, I hate looking for work, don’t like the “Knock-knock, hi there, will you hire me?” aspect of it. I feel both vulnerable and inauthentic. That said, I like what I do, and I enjoy working with organizations that are basically the good guys.

So I’d love to hear input from anyone who’s on the receiving end of inquires like mine – unsolicited emails from freelancers offering their services. Generally speaking, what sorts of emails pique your interest? What turns you off? How much follow-up is appreciated? How much is too much? In short, any advice on how best to go about this inherently not-so-fun project.

I know that as a writer who goes around asking people for money, this should be easy, but self-marketing is a whole other kettle of fish!
posted by gigondas to Work & Money (5 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I manage a pool of freelance writers. Honestly, I'd rather not hear from you - I want someone you've worked with to recommend you to me, and make the connection. That leaves me with the feeling that you're someone I should want to meet and work with.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:10 PM on December 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

2nding NotMyselfRightNow. Don't cold email people.

If you work with non-profits, a good strategy is to volunteer these skill for a couple orgs, and 3 months in, see who wants to hire you more.

Also, networking events are invaluable for finding new work. You get to make a personal connection, which helps a lot. If you can volunteer to work (or present!) at these events, that's great too, as it helps establish your reputation among your peers.
posted by ananci at 12:39 PM on December 12, 2017

Not strictly cold-emailing, but related: we just went through the process of hiring a full-time staff member to handle this kind of writing and we were contacted by multiple freelancers. While we could have been open to hiring a freelancer, our director was intent on hiring someone full-time to work with us face-to-face each day. I was contacted by a number of freelance writers who saw our job listing for a full-time on-site writing position who simply sent a generic cover letter and resume touting their freelance successes and directing me to an online portfolio without addressing the fact that our job listing was not for a freelance part-time employee or giving the impression that we were more than one of a hundred organizations they emailed that day. What would have made a better impression on me would have been a cover letter that 1) acknowledged that our job listing was not for a freelance gig, 2) explained why you are drawn in particular to our mission, and 3) included a sample of your writing for a similar organization. I worry about offering to volunteer for a while then ask for pay turning into working for free short-term without gainful employment at the end of it. An alternative might be to write one piece based upon what you see as a need for their organization, and send it to them along with your cover letter & resume as a writing sample which you might offer they could use provided they credit you. A follow-up two weeks later is welcome. Sooner than that, or more than that, can be overwhelming for a small nonprofit.
posted by pammeke at 12:55 PM on December 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I hate the salesy approach too. Stuff like “special offers” “discounts” all just speak “sales / gimme your money”. You need to project yourself in an elegant and classy whilst also displaying your passion for your subject matter.

What would I do? Get a simple website designed where people can see a sample of your work. For each promotional piece or campaign, write a brief synopsis on why it worked so well. Let your past work do the talking. You could promote this website using Facebook adverts and high-quality postcards sent via direct mail. This could be supplemented with a blog where you could critique promotional campaigns from, lets say, other countries.

In your marketing, I strongly suggest you do two things. 1) You need to convey that you're commercially minded i.e. you know what works in the marketplace and what doesn’t. 2) Project a sense of light-heartedness and fun into your (self-promotional) writing. Few people want to work with a temperamental artist or somebody who takes themselves too serious.

I hope this helps!
posted by jacobean at 3:18 PM on December 12, 2017

I work for an agency and have seen all sides of this situation. Honestly, I think the best advice is the same as it is when applying for any job - don't spam, take the time to tailor your outreach, make it easy for the recipient to see how your experience connects to their needs.

As noted by several others, I'd rather get a referral than a cold contact, but I'd pay attention to someone who has looked at our client list and project work and can draw parallels to their own portfolios. For example, I don't want to see your pithy ad copy (even if it's clever!) if I need a strong technical writer - it doesn't tell me anything about your skills.

Subject matter expertise goes a long way as well. If you see several healthcare orgs on my client list, I'd love to know that you have experience working with hospitals, or retirement communities, or pharmaceutical companies... anything in that same space that might give you a leg up when it comes to internalizing content.

If your experience isn't well aligned with the company's work, the next-best thing is a range of samples with explanations of what you did for each and why. I want to know that you worked from a dozen source documents in order to create that brochure (you can research and synthesize), or that you reconciled inputs from multiple stakeholders (you know how to interpret feedback). Above all, I want to know that you're thoughtful in your work and that you know how to apply different voices, tones, and styles to suit various needs.

It's also helpful to know basic details up front, like your general availability, hourly rate, whether or not you're available to work on site, etc. All of these things can be rolled into one simple sentence, but it saves both of us time if I know we're compatible on the most basic fronts.

Most importantly, proofread your materials and your cover email. If you say you've attached something, attach it - and make sure the attachment is named appropriately. Basic quality assurance stuff goes a long way.

Good luck!
posted by meghosaurus at 5:21 PM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

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