You’re a writer. You dream of one day earning your living writing novels or screenplays or even (gasp!) short stories or poetry. But, in the meantime, you have bills to pay. (For some reason, landlords and banks don’t accept manuscripts in lieu of rent or mortgage payments.)
Then one day you hear about this thing called “content marketing.” Sounds like it’s all the rage in the marketing world. Consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) companies of all kinds and sizes are jumping on board, and they need content. Lots and lots of content – websites and blog posts, eBooks and special reports, case studies, white papers, and bylined articles for good, old-fashioned print publications. And you think, “I could do that.”
You’re right. Maybe you could.
The growth of content marketing has been a boon for a lot of writers. The demand for written content has skyrocketed over the last few years, luring many wordsmiths to try their hand at this type of business writing. I shared a bit of my own story in Five Often Overlooked Steps to Getting Started as a Freelance Content Marketer, but I’m just one of many writers from all walks of the writerly life who have found a way to make a good living helping companies reach and influence their customers using content.
This post provides an overview of seven areas of consideration that will help you get started as a freelance content marketing writer. It’s not a comprehensive guide (that would require much more space than a single blog post can afford), but it will help you orient yourself in this new landscape and give you some additional resources to check out.
I never once, as a child, said, “When I grow up, I want to be a content marketer.” I am, however, forever grateful that this career path has opened up to me. While writing about software and other B2B (business-to-business) companies and products may not make my soul sing, it does keep a roof over our heads and put food on my table, AND I’ve had the pleasure of working with some really great people who are smart, creative, and appreciative of the work I do.
So, without further ado, here are the six things to think about if you’re considering becoming a freelance content marketing writer:
ONE: Get the Lay of the Land
The first thing you’ll need to do is get your head around exactly what this content marketing beast is … and isn’t.
Though I am (and always will be) a die-hard fan of Peter Bowerman, author of the excellent Well-Fed Writer books and courses, a lot has changed since I first read his advice. While good writing is still at the core of content marketing, an entire industry has grown up around that core, making the landscape much more complex and sometimes tricky to navigate.
A good place to start is to get clear about the different between “content marketing” and “copywriting” and the difference between a “professional writer” and a “content marketer.” Thankfully, the wonderful (and very experienced) folks at Copyblogger have done this for us.
First, the difference between content marketing and copywriting, (as explained by Sonia Simone):
Content Marketing is the creation of valuable content that has a marketing purpose. For example, my company creates an awesome special report, and we exchange it for your email address and your permission to educate you further about our stuff.
Copywriting is designed to get the reader to take a specific action. Sometimes that’s making a purchase, but it can also be confirming an email opt-in, calling for more information, or going into a store to check out the merchandise.
To really simplify it, copywriting is the almost scientific art of using words to (almost aggressively) persuade. Content marketing, on the other hand, is more about educating buyers, building community, and creating a (gentler, kinder) path to purchase. Copywriting is the kind of writing you see on ads and landing pages. Content marketing refers to eBooks, presentations, and social media updates. Copywriting is all about “mad men” (or, Mad Men) and persuasive geniuses like Bob Bly, David Ogilvy, and Robert Cialdini. Content marketing is about providing value to your prospects and customers, becoming their ally and advocate. If copywriting is a salesman, content marketing is a teacher or a guide.
Second, the difference between a professional writer and a content marketer, (again, explained by the lovely Sonia Simone):
Good content requires excellent writing. But the elements of strategy and structure need to be there to get it to work as marketing. Which is, after all, what we get paid for.
So, a professional writer has to have excellent writing skills, but a content marketer needs to be able to produce content that delivers business value. Simone lists four attributes of this kind of content:
- It has to move the audience
- It has to earn attention
- It has to have spark
- It usually relies on proven structures
Hopefully, this gives you a sense of how content marketing is different from straight-up copywriting and other kinds of business writing. With that foundation in place, let’s move on to some great resources for really digging in and learning more.
TWO: Study (And then Study Some More)
In my last post about the “Big Picture” steps to becoming a content marketer, I wrote about the importance of studying the market and the specialized craft of content marketing. Now, I’d like to share a few of my favorite resources:
- Ann Handley’s Website: Ann Handley is one of the most well known and well respected professionals in the content marketing industry. She’s also a damn nice person with a fabulous sense of humor. Arguably the first person to don the “CCO” (Chief Content Officer) title, she is a popular speaker at industry events and the author of the two (in my opinion) best books on content marketing:
- The Content Marketing Institute: This massive website, print magazine, and event machine brand offers a wealth of information for all levels of content marketing. They have excellent resources, classes, and a very active blog.
- Hubspot: A giant in “inbound marketing” (another name for content marketing), this software company has helped to create and define the industry by pumping out many, many resources in the form of eBooks, webinars, and other materials. Their blogs are also excellent, but the link here will take you to their marketing resources library.
There are, obviously, hundreds (if not thousands) of other content marketing resources out there, but this should be enough to give you a good start on your self-study program.
THREE: Adopt the Right Mindset
A big part of your success as a content marketer depends on how you approach your clients and your projects. I consider myself a competent writer, but I believe that my writing skills are only part of what keeps my business afloat. As with any other job, attitude counts, but there are also some strategic mindsets that will help you make the right impression and deliver more value to your clients:
- Think Big Picture: To be an effective content marketer, you need to think about each content project within the context of the larger content ecosystem. As the old saying goes, no man is an island; and in content marketing, no piece of content is an island. Each piece has to play its role within the larger whole, like a cog in a machine. A smart content marketer also knows how to get the most mileage out of a piece of content by adapting it for multiple mediums and platforms. An eBook, for instance can be broken down into a series of blog posts, mined for social media posts, “translated” into a SlideShare or webinar, or be used as inspiration for an infographic. Though you may not be expected to develop all these different pieces of content, it’s helpful if you can provide ideas and suggestions for ways your client can re-use your content and therefore get more “bang for the buck” on pieces you write.
- Be a Good Project Manager: I’ve talked about this before, but it’s so important that I have to mention it again. Though your clients will not assume that you will take the lead on developing and managing a project schedule, they will love you if you can provide this service. Do everything you can to make the project experience as stress-free and easy as possible for your clients. Don’t make them feel like they have to check up on you. Be proactive. Stay in touch at each step of the way. Summarize call notes in an email so that they know exactly what the next steps are and when to expect things from you. Give them the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve got things under control and you’ll deliver the goods on time and within budget.
- Play Well with Others: Because it is an ecosystem, content marketing often involves a wide variety of players – both in-house and freelance – within an organization. Collaborating well with various departments and partners is key to your success. Listening is important, but so is asking questions. Clear, consistent communication is an absolute must. Never assume anything. Always clarify and verify. Take advantage of your teammates expertise and experience by brainstorming new content ideas and ways to repurpose existing content.
Again, these are just a few ideas, but they should get you started thinking in the right way. Content marketers are nothing like the solitary beings in the writer-in-the-garrett cliché. Content writers need to connect with and collaborate with all kinds of people on the client team.
FOUR: Explore Positioning Options
In the beginning, you will most likely work on a variety of different project types; but you may eventually want to think about narrowing your focus to a particular specialty. There are countless ways to do this, but – again, just to get your wheels turning – here are some thought starters on different kinds of niches:
- By industry – Some writers build an entire business around a particular “vertical” or type of industry – high tech, banking, health sciences, non-profit, etc. If you have particular knowledge or experience in a given industry, this can be a great way to get your foot in the door.
- By business type – Some writers like to work exclusively with start-up businesses, small businesses, micro-businesses, or “solopreneurs.” Maybe you like to work only with minority-owned companies or brick-and-mortar businesses who are going online for the first time. There are dozens of different niches you can carve out based on a particular business type.
- By format – Other writers focus on creating a certain type of content asset – website copy, eBooks, social media content, infographics, etc. If you find that you are particularly good at or really enjoy creating a certain kind of content asset, you may want to think about this kind of specialization.
- By “style” – Perhaps you have a very distinctive voice that works well for a certain kind of brand. Maybe you are really good at taking extremely complex topics and breaking them down into language that the layman can understand. Or, maybe you are skilled at using humor to educate while entertaining. In any of these cases, you could build a business around your particular style of writing and how you “translate” a company’s topics and expertise into content for their customer audience.
You might also build your business around the kind of service you offer (super fast, super hands-off, super stress-free). Or, you could design your business around offering a certain suite of service. For instance, I offer brand messaging, content strategy, and content development. This gives my clients the ability to work with one resource over a broader range of services, giving them continuity and consistency.
Pay attention to the kinds of things people ask you for, the things they appreciate most, and where they seem to have the most trouble. Look for opportunities to step up and fill the gap. Don’t overlook the value of the things that come easily to you. Sometimes, those are your best “secret weapons.”
FIVE: Find Your Customers
This is always the big question, isn’t it.
There is no one way to become a freelance content marketer. My own journey was a combination of hard work, diligent study, dumb luck, and blind faith. I cannot give you a proven method for finding clients, but I can give you a few pointers on where to start your search:
- Your Existing Network: Reach out to work colleagues, peers, and casual business acquaintances. Let them know what you’re doing. Ask if they need any support, or know of anyone who does.
- Friends and Family: Sometimes you need a little help from your friends. Even if they don’t seem like they would have need of content marketing services, it can’t hurt to let people in your personal network know what you’re up to. You never know who a friend might know.
- Local Businesses: Local businesses can be a great way to get your toes wet, even if you have to do something at a reduced rate, as a barter, or even pro bono.
- LinkedIn: Yes, LinkedIn. Though Facebook and Twitter may be your usual social media hangouts, LinkedIn really is one of the most professionally active networks online. I don’t socialize there, per se, but I do keep my fingers in a number of industry groups, and I do connect with people there as a regular part of my “getting to know someone” process. I’m also sure to keep my profile updated and as complete as possible. (People will check out your LinkedIn profile.) And, finally, as soon as you have a happy customer, make a note to ask them to write you a brief recommendation. “Social proof” is important when you’re building up your business.
- Live Events/Conferences: Though it’s often overshadowed by online methods, “Real World” networking is still one of the most effective ways to meet people and make an impression. Industry conferences, workshops, and meet-ups can be a great way to get out and meet people who are either experts, possible clients, or peers. Don’t overlook the value of meeting other content marketers. As I explained in my story, making friends was a huge part of building my business.
- Other Freelancers: Partnering with other freelancers can be very efficient way to start building your own client list. Look for people who offer services that complement your own. For instance, as a writer you might seek out designers, people who build websites, or people who manage social media for brands. Often, by combining forces, you can provide existing and prospective clients with a “one-stop-shop” solution that saves them time and aggravation.
- An Apprenticeship: This one may sound a little old-fashioned, but bear with me. You probably won’t find job listings for “apprentice content marketers,” but if you pay attention and keep your mind open, you may stumble across opportunities to provide support to a content marketer whose business is expanding. Sometimes this might mean picking up some writing work, but it could also mean helping in a non-writing capacity like project management, research, or transcription.
A few pointers on the right way to reach out to people:
Cold calling is no fun. Even “warm” calling (to people you already know on some level) isn’t something most people look forward to. There are so many potential pitfalls and opportunities for awkwardness and faux pas, but if you just keep a clear head and use your manners, you’ll be just fine:
- Never be Pushy: This should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Don’t present yourself like a used car salesman. Just let people know what you’re up to, that you’re excited, and that you’d love to hear from them if they have any questions or suggestions.
- Think About Your Services as a Gift: On the flip side of being pushy is feeling self-conscious or lacking confidence. Writers new to marketing often feel uncomfortable “pitching” themselves in a business setting, but I find it helps if you think about what you do as “being in service of,” “helping,” or “collaborating with” your clients.
- Personalize Your Messages: As much as possible, avoid blanket emails and instead make an effort to personalize each note. Use people’s names. Reference how you know each other. Provide some context for your conversation.
- Try to Offer Value from the Get Go: If you can, provide some value when you reach out. Maybe you’ve written a really helpful blog post that would be relevant to the person you’re trying to reach. Share it. Or, if you haven’t written any content yourself, share some other useful information that shows you understand what your prospect might be interested in.
- Be Specific with Your Offer: Instead of just making an open-ended announcement (“I’m getting into content marketing!”) or a broad invitation to respond (“Let me know if you have any needs!”), try to come up with a more focused and relevant offer. For instance, maybe you invite them to schedule a 15-min call on which you can share with them some quick case studies about how other businesses in their market are using content marketing successfully. (These don’t have to be clients of yours – they can just be case studies you’ve read about.) Or, even better, maybe you’ve already researched the company a little, and you have some specific content ideas (topics for blog posts, an eBook idea, or a different take on their social media presence). Let the person know that you have some ideas that are custom to their brand.
- Have Your Site Available: Optimally, you’ll have a website – even a simple one – up so that you can direct people there. Alternately, you can send people to your LinkedIn profile, if that’s all filled out and up-to-date. The point is to have somewhere to send people where you have the opportunity to share a bit more about yourself than would be appropriate in an email or social media note.
SIX: Implement Good Business Practices
I’m keeping this one in here, although I’ve realized that it really deserves its own post.
Good business practices are the secret, behind-the-scenes sauce that makes your business viable and sustainable. You could be a brilliant writer or content strategist, but still wind up failing if you can’t manage your business well.
I will give this one more thought for a future post, but a few things to keep in mind from the very start:
- Communication Skills: Clear. Concise. Consistent. As a business owner and project manager, your life will be LOADS easier if you take the time to put things in writing.
- Time Tracking: You can do this manually, in a spreadsheet, or using one of many available software programs (I happen to use Harvest and LOVE it.) Tracking your time will help you learn how long certain tasks typically take, which will help you better estimate your projects.
- Invoicing/Bookkeeping: Likewise, you should have a consistent and professional way to invoice your clients and keep track of payments. Again, I use Harvest, but there are many other software tools for this.
- Contracts: I hesitate to touch this one, since I am not in the business of offering legal advice, but – having survived my own contract-related nightmares – I do feel it would be irresponsible of me to leave it out. For starters: HAVE A CONTRACT. Even if it’s just a fairly informal document that is digitally signed, put it together and have your client sign it. Laws vary by state and even, sometimes by industry, but there are some pretty ubiquitous terms and conditions you’ll want to include in your contract. I haven’t used it, but the Freelancers’ Union has a Contract Creator on their website that may be a good starting point.
- Taxes: Especially if you’re a first-time freelancer, make sure you do your due diligence when it comes to paying state and federal income taxes. I put a certain percentage of each incoming check into a separate account, and then pay my quarterly taxes out of that fund. It saves me a lot of stress and hassle come tax time.
So, there you go – six steps to getting started as a freelance content marketing writer. I hope you find them helpful, and maybe even a little inspiring. If you have any follow-up or related questions, please feel free to leave them below in the comments. It may take me a little while to answer, but I am happy to share whatever information I have available. For now, though, I’ve got to go get back to my deadlines!
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.