The Web has created a wide avenue for self-employment opportunities. In fact, one of the hottest careers right now on the Web is freelance copywriting.
Every Web site needs content. An e-commerce site needs product descriptions; online publications need articles; company information site needs write-ups, and sales oriented sites need sales copy. Content is the one constant requirement of every Web site, whatever its purpose may be. Some site owners write their content on their own, but many require the help of professional copywriters.
Eileen Coale has found her niche doing business on the Web as a freelance copywriter. She started her writing career as a translator, and then went on to become a freelance journalist writing for newspapers and magazines. Since founding her company Coale Communications http://www.eileencoale.com, Eileen now focuses on copywriting projects on Internet marketing.
PowerHomeBiz.com interviewed Eileen Coale to learn more about the business of copywriting marketing materials such as direct mail, brochures, and flyers, as well as writing Web content and online articles.
Starting a Freelance Copywriting Business
How did you start in the business of writing?
I’ve been writing in one form or another since I was a child. In any job I ever had, I gravitated to the writing-related tasks. My first career was as a translator, which is just another form of writing. During the ten-year period when I was at home raising children, I began writing a regular newspaper column and freelance articles for magazines. In 2000, I read Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer: Financial Self-Sufficiency as a Commercial Freelancer in Six Months or Less. That was when I first realized that writing for businesses could be a viable enterprise for me. It took me another two years, though, before I got brave enough to try it.
What qualifications does one need to be able to enter this type of business?
Obviously, you must be able to write well, and you must be willing to keep learning. You should have a basic understanding of marketing concepts and techniques; I’m self-taught in this area. You also need to be willing to market yourself. This is where a lot of good writers fail; they don’t enjoy marketing themselves, they don’t do enough of it, and therefore their business does not do well. You also need to be able to listen to your clients and write what they need, not what you want.
Can you please describe your early days in the business?
I was afraid I would fall flat on my face. I was afraid I would fail. But fortunately, I two outstanding mentors – entrepreneurial women who had started their own businesses while they also had young families. More than anything else, they built up my confidence and urged me to spread my wings.
I had to learn about targeting the right kinds of clients — that is, ones with budgets to pay me. This was much more of a confidence issue than anything else. I had to learn, too, how little or how far of a stretch I could make in trying out new types of writing. It was both a scary and exhilarating period for me.
What made you shift from freelance writing to doing business communications writing?
I was good at freelance writing articles and got some good magazine credits to my name. But I did not enjoy the process of querying editors or the way the whole freelancing system works. It’s very difficult to make good money. Magazine writing is seriously undervalued. Top markets in the 1960s paid $1 a word. Most top markets today still pay only $1 a word, which of course is worth far less than it was a generation ago. In two years, working just part time, I make what most full-time magazine freelance writers take five or more years to build up to.
What was the market’s reaction to your service? Did clients immediately come knocking to your door?
The need for freelance copywriters is definitely out there, but success does not happen overnight. Until I learned exactly who my best prospects were, and started connecting regularly with the business community by networking, things were slow. It wasn’t until I was in business for over a year that I stopped worrying about whether or not I’d get enough business each month. It took a year and a half until I started getting regular referrals.
What kinds of writing services does Coale Communications currently offer? What types of services enjoy the greatest demand from clients?
I write traditional print marketing materials such as brochures, direct mail, advertorials, and press releases. I’m equally comfortable writing an editorial, so I also ghostwrite articles for my clients’ bylines and write newsletter articles. But increasingly, my business is for internet marketing — this week, out of five active projects on my desk, four are for the web. Web writing encompasses web copy (sales oriented), web content (information oriented), e-zines and e-newsletters, and email marketing.
Marketing Your Freelance Copywriting Business
What has been your most effective marketing strategy?
I built my business primarily by networking. I’m fortunate to live in an area with seven thriving Chambers of Commerce to choose from, plus other organizations. I belong to one Chamber, one entrepreneur’s networking group and a paid leads group organization. Membership dues and event fees are my single largest expense, and they are worth every penny. I am also proactive in following up with people.
What other strategies do you use to market your freelance copywriting business online?
I have a website, of course, which allows me to show my work via an online portfolio. The site itself acts as a 24/7 brochure. I’m launching a monthly e-zine, Third Thursday Marketing Tips. Offline? This spring I taught a seminar through my Chamber of Commerce that was very successful. It brought me new business and raised my profile in the business community. I am now actively pursuing other opportunities to teach the seminar to other groups.
What are the benefits to your freelance copywriting business of having your own website?
In my opinion, a website is a fundamental marketing tool that every business should have. The practical benefits are many. Clients can see samples of my work on my portfolio page. They can learn about the process of working with me on my FAQ page. I also list my fees as a way to prequalify prospects. Many writers won’t do this, but I’ve found it saves me time creating proposals for prospects who don’t have a realistic idea of what it costs. People can sign up for my e-zine online. At some point, I will begin posting my own marketing articles on my site. There are many ways a business can use a website, and I expect mine to grow along with my business.
Do you usually bid on projects?
If so, what sites do you use to possibly solicit new projects? I am not a fan of bid-for-work sites, because most writers, whose work is already traditionally undervalued, find they must bid ridiculously low prices in order to compete. I see writers on bid-for-work sites bidding $5 for work I typically charge hundreds of dollars for. The word is out there on Internet discussion boards that if you want cheap writers, go to the bid-for-work sites. Of course, the quality of work isn’t there, but buyers who are looking for cheap writing really don’t care about the quality. In fact, sadly, much of the $5-an-article work is simply copy-and-pasted from copyrighted material.
Some writers tell me they don’t bid low and do get work, but it didn’t work for me. In a three-month membership with Guru.com, I submitted dozens of carefully targeted proposals and never got a single job. In the offline world, when I submit a proposal to a prospect, I close two out of three sales. I’m not sorry I tried bid-for-work because now I won’t be wondering if I’m missing out on the party. Marketing oneself is always an experiment, and finding out what doesn’t work is equally as important as what does work.
Growing Your Freelance Copywriting Business
How has your freelance copywriting business grown through the years? Did the types of services you offer shift as your business grew?
My first year in business, I took almost any writing project I could get, sometimes taking less money than I felt the work was worth. My typical client was a very small business owner who needed lots of education about marketing. While the types of projects I work on have not changed, the clientele has. While small business owners still make up a majority of my clients, they have bigger budgets and understand the importance of investing in good copywriting. They don’t need nearly as much hand-holding as my earliest clients. I have developed relationships with several ad agencies and web design firms, who refer or subcontract work to me. It took me a year to build up a portfolio in order to approach these firms. I also get some outsourced work from corporate marketing and HR departments; I would like to concentrate on growing this segment of the business more.
How do you handle the growth of your business and the increase in the number of projects? Do you have an assistant?
At this point, I do not have an assistant. For three months last winter, I had an intern for about 10 hours per week, and it was a great arrangement. She conducted a lot of background interviews and research for me, and she even did some of the writing. At some point, I would consider getting a contract assistant to handle the chores I dislike, such as filing and record keeping.
How do you decide if a project or client is worth taking on?
Since I get most of my clients through networking or referrals, I get a real sense of who they are in our first conversation. Most people are delightful to work with, but sometimes I sense that someone will be difficult. The few times I’ve gone against my intuition and taken on a difficult client, I’ve really regretted it. Now I listen to my intuition and don’t take on those clients. I occasionally turn work down because it’s not the right fit for what I do. I’ve turned down jobs editing a book, writing resumes, and doing a PR campaign. These were great opportunities to pass referrals along to colleagues, who are likely to repay the favor at some point.
Can you describe examples of your best projects?
Two of my most measurably successful projects were postcard marketing campaigns. I created the concept and copy for two different postcards, and the response rates were 8% and 12%. In the direct mail world, that’s outstanding — the average response rate is 1 to 2%. My personal favorites, however, are web copy projects. I feel the most satisfaction when I provide all-new web copy for a web site that was poorly done before.
What do you do if a client is not satisfied with the results of their collaboration with you?
My fee includes two rounds of revisions, and I have never had to go beyond that second round to satisfy a client, although I would do so without charge if I felt it were justified. The only time I had an unhappy client was when she did not understand the collaborative nature of the work, and got very upset when the first draft was not perfect. She didn’t even want very many changes, but she pulled the plug on the project at that point and said she would finish it herself. It was a good lesson for me, though. Now I make sure my clients understand the give and take necessary to produce a product they are happy with.
Balancing Business and Family Concerns
How do you balance the tasks of fulfilling your projects, soliciting new accounts and being a stay-at-home mom?
I don’t work a 40-hour week, for starters. In fact, I don’t plan ever to do so. I expect to max out at 30 hours this fall when my youngest child starts first grade. When I first started out a little over two years ago, all my client contact — networking, meetings, and phone interviews — had to be accomplished around the 8 hours a week my youngest child was in preschool. That was challenging, to say the least. I wrote with the children at home, but my productivity was poor due to continual interruptions. Summertime is always a challenge, because I do not have regular childcare.
How do you keep your home life separate from your work life?
Frankly, it’s a juggling act. Much of my work time is fragmented because of the needs of the kids. The two worlds overlap quite a bit — when I take my kids to the pool in the afternoon, for instance, I always bring work with me. While the balancing act has its frustrations, being available to my family is very important to me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Starting Coale Communications allowed you to leave the “one income lifestyle behind.” Can you please elaborate on what that means?
When my four children were very young, I was a stay-at-home mom, and my husband was the breadwinner. With four children and one income, frugality is important, and I spent a lot of time stretching our pennies. Ironically, it was out of these efforts that I landed a newspaper column in 1999 about money management, which is syndicated in four Maryland newspapers. Today, it’s a joy to be able to buy my children clothing in the mall instead of at yard sales. We can afford to go on vacations. We also have achieved one of our most important family goals, which is to give our children a private school education. None of that would be possible without my income. If my modest income projections come true, we’ll be able to build a second home in a few years on land we recently purchased for our retirement.
Do your kids or other family members help you in your business?
My four children range in age from 6 to 13. My husband and I were just talking the other day with our accountant about employing our children in some capacity in my business. We haven’t reached any conclusions yet, but this is something we certainly want to explore. My husband is my computer tech support. I actually pay him a retainer to back up my files regularly and troubleshoot my computer problems. Since I pay him less than $600 per year to do this, that income is not taxable for him, but it is a deductible expense for me.
Advice to Other Entrepreneurs
What do you think are the keys to the success of your freelance copywriting business?
First, I love everything about my work — the writing, the freedom and control I have, and being part of the business community. That passion has been fundamental to my success. Second, I have mentors who prod me to take risks I wouldn’t take, and who act as sounding boards when I face challenges. I couldn’t have gotten this far without them. Third, I am continually learning, whether it be about the craft of writing, trends in marketing, or the elements of running a business.
What are the next steps from your business? What are your plans?
I’m launching a monthly e-zine, Third Thursday Marketing Tips. I’m eager to see if this form of viral marketing works as well as the experts says it does. I’m also thinking about trying pay-per-click ads online; some writers have great success at finding clients this way.
This year will be an exciting time for me. My youngest child starts first grade. This means that for the first time ever, I will have a solid 6 hours each day that I can devote, without interruption, to business. I expect my productivity to rise significantly as I will have more control over my schedule. This also means that when my workday is over, at about 3pm, it’s really over. I expect to be spending fewer evenings and weekends in my home office. I’ll also have more time to learn the craft of direct response copywriting, which is something I’ve only dabbled in.
To those who wish to start a freelance copywriting business, what advice can you give them?
The field is wide open for freelance copywriters, especially with the continuing growth of the Internet. You only have to see how many badly written sites are on the web to see the opportunity. There are many excellent books out there that will inspire, motivate, and educate aspiring copywriters about the field. If this is a field that interests you, read everything you can get your hands on, and visit online discussion boards about the subject.
Any other success tips that you can share to PowerHomeBiz.com readers?
Get out and network like crazy. Ask for advice and help when you need it. Find friends who will encourage you. Try things. Don’t be afraid to fail; mistakes are just part of the journey. Don’t let other people define what your business should be — it’s yours, and you are the one who can shape it to fit your life and goals.
Recommended Books on How to Start a Freelance Copywriting Business:
- Start & Run a Copywriting Business (Start & Run a) (Start and Run a…)
- Secrets of a Freelance Writer, Third Edition: How to Make $100,000 a Year or More
- The Copywriter’s Handbook, Third Edition: A Step-By-Step Guide To Writing Copy That Sells
- Getting and Keeping Great Copywriting Clients – How to Generate Leads, Close Sales, and Pay Your Bills to Stay Profitable Right from the Start
- Writer’s Fast Track to Freelance Copywriting for the Web: The Original Work from Home Job Opportunity
- What is SEO CopyWriting?
- Starting a Freelance Technical Writing Business
- Book: Content Rich: Writing Your Way to Wealth on the Web
- Unique Selling Proposition: Know What Sets Your Business Apart
- Web Copywriting Tips for Online Entrepreneurs