Five Often Overlooked Steps to Getting Started as a Freelance Content Marketer

journey one stepSeven years ago this spring, I was a freshly minted single mom building a new life for myself and my daughter amidst the wreckage of a less-than-amicable divorce. I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep things afloat financially, but I knew I didn’t want to return to my old agency life of sixty-hour weeks and around-the-clock meetings. Having spent the first three years of her life at home with my little girl, I was determined to find a way to work as an independent freelancer.

Through the serendipitous inquiries of several acquaintances, I managed to land a couple of long-term, freelance project management gigs. I snapped up the chance to generate some semi-regular income working remotely; but – although I was (very) grateful for the opportunities – I knew that, ultimately, I didn’t want to build my business around project management. I wanted to write.

This is the story of how I became a self-supporting freelance writer and content marketer.

Before I tell this story, I feel I should note, as Ann Patchett does in her wonderful book, The Getaway Car, that “This isn’t an instruction booklet. This is an account of what I did and what has worked for me.” Still, I hope that it might prove useful to you in your journey.

My Very First Freelance Writing Gigs

I had no idea how I was going to break into freelance writing. It was something I’d thought about for years, but had never actively pursued because I was afraid to fail. I had become quite adept at making excuses to keep me from putting my ego at risk. And then, suddenly there I was – nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up. It was definitely one of those now-or-never moments.

I caught a small break early on when the editors of a start-up mommy blog site called Maya’s Mom invited me to become a paid contributor. I had been “live journaling” on their community site about my divorce and had gained a respectable following amidst their audience. I was thrilled to get a paycheck, no matter how modest, for my writing.

While I was learning the ropes of mommy blogging, I kept working the project management gigs, but my small victory with Maya’s Mom gave me the confidence to let my project management clients know that I was available for copywriting work as well. Soon I was doing small writing projects for them, too.

Step #1: Always Say “YES”

It took me about eight months to pivot my business from being 90% project management and 10% writing to being 80% writing and 20% project management. Not too long after that, I gave up the project management altogether. It was pretty sweet, I can tell you, being able to say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t do project management anymore, but I’d be happy to refer you to a colleague of mine. By the way, do you have any copywriting needs?”

The trick, I found, to forcing this professional metamorphosis was learning to say one, little word: Yes.

Whenever someone asked me if I could do something writing-related, I said,  “Yes!” I suppose you could say I employed the age-old strategy – “fake it ’til you make it.” I offered my services with confidence, and then I hit the Internet to figure out how to do the thing I’d been hired to do.

The confidence I gained from my initial foray into paid writing via Maya’s Mom was something I leaned on again and again as I took my wobbly first steps into copywriting. The little start-up site was eventually bought by Johnson & Johnson and became their industry-leading mom blog on BabyCenter. Happily, the editorial team at BabyCenter chose to keep me on, and I became a regular bloggers. Though it was often only tangentially related to the copywriting jobs I was pursuing, I worked that one professional writing credit for all it was worth.

Step #2: Study

We are so fortunate to live in a time when there is an almost unlimited amount of information freely available via the Internet. You can learn just about any skill simply by hitting the web and reading everything you can get your hands on. This is exactly what I did.

I also bought several books about the freelance writing business, and read them cover to cover. I paid attention. I took notes. I got my geek on.

Sometimes, this immersion into the world of freelance copywriting was a bit overwhelming. It didn’t take me long to realize how much I didn’t know. It was easy to feel inadequate. But, I tried to remember that even when I felt like a complete novice compared to the experts I was studying, I already knew more than the people who were my potential clients.

Step #3: Make Friends

A couple of years into my freelance journey, I shelled out a few bucks to take an online course about writing white papers. The educational value of the course was fair to moderate. I never did end up writing too many traditional white papers, BUT I did meet many other professional and aspiring freelance writers. Most importantly, I met five particular B2B (business-to-business) copywriters who would help me grow both my confidence and my business.

Together, the six of us founded a collaborative blog called Savvy B2B Marketing. For several years, we blogged together about the ins and outs and constant evolution of B2B copywriting, social media, and content marketing. Since each member of the team had her own unique background and skills, the experience was like a very in-the-trenches course about every aspect of the business. We traded stories, tips, and secrets. We supported each other with referrals, advice, and encouragement. Meeting and working with these smart, kind women was – without question – one of the most important and enjoyable parts of my professional journey. Though we no longer meet regularly, we still keep in touch. In fact, I “see” one of them – Wendy – all the time here on Live to Write – Write to Live.

You can hear the full “Savvy Story,” as told by all the “Savvy Sisters,” in a podcast hosted by Monica Magnetti.

During the Savvy Era, I also had the pleasure of meeting another writer who (although she’d never accept the praise) would become a pivotal force in my career. We met at an impromptu brunch meet-up hosted by the freelance writer Peter Bowerman. Kate, one of the Savvy Sisters, had heard about the event via Bowerman’s newsletter, I think, and she and I decided to attend.

While it was something of a thrill to meet Bowerman (I’d read all his books on how to become a freelance writer … more about those in part two of this series), the best part of the day was definitely meeting another copywriter named Heidi LaFleche  (aka: The Worry Free Writer). We sat next to each other, and I couldn’t help noticing her Hello Kitty watch and cool manicure (one pinky nail was painted a different color than the rest of her nails). We struck up a conversation, and the rest – as they say – is history. Over the years, Heidi generously made introductions to several people in her network who then became my clients. Through referrals and repeat work, those introductions became the bedrock of my business. Even today, I can still trace many of my clients back to that lovely Sunday morning, sipping mimosas on a deck in Newburyport.

Step #4: Do a GREAT Job

I have many people to thank for helping me meet and land first-time clients, but once those connections were made, I knew it was up to me to prove I deserved them.

As a freelance writer of any kind, your reputation is your currency. You have to deliver the goods. Every time. On time. Sometimes, especially in the beginning, this means giving up some other things (nights out, weekends, sleep) in order to make the magic happen. But, believe me, the payoff is worth the effort.

In my experience, though delivering great copy is a given, it’s at least as important to deliver a great experience. The people who hire content marketers need well-written content, but they want the process to be easy, stress-free, and even fun. Bad customer service is a pet peeve of mine. I am easily annoyed (and sometimes incensed) by sloppy service, negligent customer relations, and lackadaisical delivery. Because of this, I am extra sensitive about making sure my clients are happy, and I believe it’s one of the main reasons they come back for more.

It is much easier and less expensive (in terms of marketing dollars and effort) to make a sale to an existing customer, than it is to land a new customer. Treating your customers like gold is the best investment you can make in your business. Happy customers come back for more, and – if you’re lucky – will share your name with other people in need of the services you offer. I do very little to market my business. I’ve never cold-called anyone or bought paid advertising. My business is built almost entirely on referrals and repeat business. It’s a model I recommend highly.

Step #5: Deliver More than “Just” Copy

As a content marketer, you will be expected to deliver more than just the words on the page. Your clients will look to you for advice about which kinds of content make sense for their brand, how to promote that content, and how to engage their audience. They will lean on you for guidance about how to create a better customer experience through content, and how to stretch their content marketing dollars as efficiently and effectively as possible.

To provide this kind of strategic support, you need to go back to Step #2: Study. Content marketing is a vibrant and ever-evolving area of expertise. Though the term and practice have become mainstream, the field is always growing and evolving. This can be daunting at first, but it also provides valuable opportunities for you to shape your business around specific kinds of expertise and projects.

I am always learning, and always refining the types of services I provide to my clients. In addition to content development, I also offer in-depth brand messaging services, content audits, content planning, and also content editing and mentoring. I love that the breadth of the content marketing landscape gives me almost countless options when it comes to the kinds of work I do.

So, that’s my story … at least, it’s my story so far.

In Part Two of this series, I’ll share some more hands-on advice about the seven tactical things to consider as you get started in content marketing: getting the lay of the land, finding critical resources, getting into a good writer’s mindset, positioning your business in the market, finding customers, identifying best business practices, and dealing with finances.

Until then, here are a few posts that are appropriate companion reading:

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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 Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Generalist or Specialist: Where Do You Fit?

What’s your opinion on being a specialist versus a generalist?

Do you think it’s best for a writer to focus in a single area or subject of interest and have a honed knowledge, or are there more opportunities for a writer who can write about anything and everything?

It’s a common quandry that all writers need to answer at least once. I find myself considering the options a couple times a year.

I admit to hearing more often than not that it’s beneficial for a writer to focus only 1 or 2 areas from the get-go — that becoming an expert in an area (or a couple areas) can lead to the most successful career.

The exceptions are journalists — and possibly ghost writers — who can make a living writing about a wide variety of topics.

Focusing on a single area and developing an expertise enables you to develop your platform as a writer.

And then once you have that platform established and start getting known for a particular area, writing opportunities within that area will find their way to you.

I admit it’s exciting to have work coming to you through different avenues rather than having to seek work out.

I haven’t selected a particular niche or area of expertise, probably because I’ve always enjoyed variety and have several years in journalism. I still enjoy trying different types of writing and learning about new products and technology.

Do you specialize? Or do you think being a generalist is the way to go?

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with Lisa on TwitterFacebookGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

A classic will always be a classic

I recently picked up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo at a local book sale on the second day where a bag of books cost $2. I figured, I’d never read it and it was one of those things that I *should* read in my lifetime.

IMG_20140304_105932161I mean a classic is called a classic for a reason, right?

I slipped it into my bag with the personal promise that if I hadn’t touched it by the next book sale, I would donate it back.

But then a funny thing happened. It was a cold New Hampshire night, I was sitting by the heater covered up in a wool blanket and I wanted to read something but didn’t want to get up (and risk losing all my heat.) So I looked around and the closest book happened to be that very same copy of The Count.

Why not? I opened to page one and started reading. A few hours later I was still reading.

“Griffin,” I called out to my son, “you are not going to believe this story. It’s got justice and injustice, deceit and naivety, good guys and bad guys, and a hero who shows incredible patience and grace under the most incredible conditions. It’s a story where good behavior is rewarded (finally) and bad behavior is, well dealt with. In short, it’s amazing. Absolutely amazing. I can’t put this book down!”

“I know,” Griffin replied to me when I was done gushing over the story,” We had to read it in high school. It’s one of my favorite stories.”

“You do know that classics are called classics for a reason, right?” He then asked me.

What I want to know is just when did my kid get to be so smart?

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

5 Things to Consider When Writing Webcopy

When I write for someone else’s website, the first thing I do is hold a face-to-face meeting. I want to be able to hear the owner’s actual voice and figure out what it is about their business that makes them stand out from the competition. Some of the information I’m specifically looking for is:

What is the voice? I talk about voice a lot in my marketing writing. It’s something you hear about all the time with regard to internet writing. People want to hear your voice. But what does that mean? You, as the writer, need to gauge whether the client’s voice is friendly, authoritative, funny, or motherly to name just a few examples.

A company that offers services to declutter someone’s house is going to have a far different voice than a company that offers international shipping options. When I sit down with the client, I listen to their physical voice when they explain what it is their company does, and that gives me an idea of how they want themselves represented on the internet.

What benefits do they offer the customer? I recently saw a client who showed me his introductory slide presentation for prospective customers. It started with how his company got started (30 years ago) and continued until today. That’s clearly a presentation that was designed for a person who is very proud of his company. It was not designed for someone who wants to know what it is you can do for them. Find out what the benefits and then use that information in every piece of writing you create.

What are the Keywords? I always ask my clients, what words would I use to describe your business? Those will often be the SEO words you’ll use for much of the documentation. I then ask, what words would I use to describe you? Those are often the words by which the company wants to be known  – trustworthy, intelligent, competent, etc. It will be those attributes that you’ll  be showcasing in your writing.

What’s the best way to present the information? Is what the company does visual? If so, like in the case of a decluttering service, perhaps before and after photos would be effective. Is the company more results oriented, as in, they save the customer money? Then charts and graphs might be effective. . Does the company showcase or teach skills? Well now, there’s a case for video clips.

Figure out, based on the product and services, how best to represent that information on the web.

To whom are we targeting the information? In almost all cases, it starts with a blog. That part is easy, what becomes a bit trickier is figuring out how then to broadcast that blog material.

Figure out who the company typically sells to? Is it the CFO? If so, then don’t spend a lot of effort on Facebook and instead concentrate on sending articles and blog posts to LinkedIn groups and out on Twitter. Does the company have a more “friendly” community? If so then go guns blazing to Facebook. Get those blog posts up and invite discussion in a community format.

Not all web promotion is created equal. It’s up to you to match what you hear and understand from your discussions with the client to what is available out there and that would bring the most bang from their investment dollars.

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

An important part of being a good writer is being a good listener.