One of the big challenges when you first go freelance is finding your first customers. And hanging on to this hard-earned customer base once they’ve engaged you can also be an ongoing headache.
For many freelancers, sourcing the ideal customers, winning work and generating a steady revenue pipeline are big challenges in the early days. But once you have a group of regular valued customers, there’s another stark reality to face – one day these customers are very likely to outgrow you and will no longer need your services.
A harsh truth, but one it’s best to prepare for early on.
If you’re looking to set up as a freelance writer, marketer or creative, here are a few tips for dealing with the ups and downs of being an outsourced content person.
Becoming the Content Emergency Services
When startups and small businesses are at the early stages of their development, it’s unlikely that they’ll have the right skills in-house to start their content marketing.
Content marketing is all about using your digital and social media channels to post engaging, helpful content, with the aim of attracting your ideal customer audience – and that means someone has to write the blog posts, create the videos or craft the email copy for your campaigns.
Creating killer content for your startup isn’t easy, especially if the founders in the business are not experienced content creators. So, most early-stage startups will look to outsource their content creation, to a greater or lesser degree – and this is where you come in!
As a freelance writer, marketer or creator, you are the ‘Content Emergency Services’ who can swoop in and fill that content talent gap.
Outsourcing the writing, content creation and marketing to a freelancer takes the heat off the startup founders, and (importantly) brings your professional skills to bear on the company’s digital marketing and content output.
From the startup’s perspective, they get:
- An experienced content professional on the team – giving them access to a specialist with the skills, content know-how and resources to really kick-start their content marketing.
- Support in crafting their brand and strategy – so the founders can create the best possible foundations for their digital marketing and can sketch out a longer-term strategy for their brand strategy.
- Top quality content to feed their channels – helping them raise the overall perception of their brand in the marketplace and be taken more seriously as a startup business.
- None of the hassle of a full-time employee – as a freelancer, you’re an outsourced resource. That means there’s no salary, sick pay or costly holiday pay expenses to factor in. And no commitment for the startup to engage you any longer than is needed.
Building a productive working relationship
Once you’ve found a startup or small business to work with, you’re really going to want to hang onto them – and that means putting some serious thought into the working relationship.
5 years’ of freelancing has taught me one thing very clearly: never assume that people will do what you expect them to. The freelance road is a twisting and turning one, where unexpected clients can appear out of nowhere, and trusted customers can quickly disappear overnight.
To combat this, there are a few key things you can do to stabilise your relationship and keep the lost clients to a minimum.
- Be professional and timely – you may be able to work from home in your creased pyjamas as a freelancer (yes, really) but this doesn’t mean that you can be sloppy and unprofessional in your work. Deliver work on time, hit the brief and exceed client expectations.
- Be friendly and sociable – you get out of a relationship what you put in. If you reply to emails with one word replies and never interact properly with your clients, it’s unlikely that they’ll see you as ‘one of the team’. Contact your clients regularly, ask people how their day is going and generally make yourself a pleasant presence in their lives.
- Get contracts in place early – a verbal agreement might be fine at the very start of a relationship, but it pays to create contracts and get your clients to sign them. By formalising what’s expected, what you’ll deliver and your prices, you reduce any headaches further down the line if things get messy.
- Where possible, get on a retainer – ad-hoc work is good, but a retainer is the ‘golden ticket’ as a freelancer. If a customer trusts you and values what you’re bringing to the table, they’ll be happy to pay a retainer (paying a regular, repeating amount for an agreed amount of work). This ties you in, provides a regular income and gives you some stability as a freelancer.
- Make yourself invaluable – the more a client comes to rely on your content, the more invaluable you become to their business strategy. If you deliver top-notch work, meet their briefs and get good engagement from posted content, you strengthen your position in the working relationship – always good when it comes to discussing retainers, fees and long-term commitments.
Telltale signs that you’re about to be sacked
If you become an invaluable member of the client’s team, that’s an excellent position to find yourself in as an outsourced content creator. But, eventually, the business is likely to outgrow you.
However good your relationship is, and however sexy you’ve made their content, eventually your startup client is going to grow into a more established business or ambitious scaleup. And as the client expands, their reliance on your solo outsourced support is likely to wane.
So, how do you know when the writing’s on the wall?
Here are a few telltale signs to look out for:
- In-house marketing headcount increases – when a business gets serious about ramping up its marketing, its likely to hire more in-house marketing talent. Once that happens, it’s very likely that your outsourced support will be either scaled back, or will be completely surplus to requirements.
- A bigger marketing agency appears on the scene – if you’re asked to ‘work with our new agency’, that’s usually a good clue that the client is looking to upscale their digital marketing. And, in most cases, the agency will have its own content creators who can do exactly what you do, at scale.
- Bills start to be paid extremely late – when payment for work begins to get late, that’s a pretty good sign of cashflow issues in the client’s business. And if money is tight, cutting back on their outsourced marketing expenses will be one of the first actions.
- The client goes silent – if a customer goes from sending three emails per day to complete radio silence, there’s generally a very good reason for this. It may be that they’re busy, but it’s more than likely that the client simply doesn’t need your services anymore.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course. There are a million reasons why a customer may decide to call time on your outsourced content relationship. So, it pays to be proactive, nurture the partnership and keep your eyes open to any unexpected changes.
Staying positive and sourcing new customers
It’s disheartening to lose a valiued client – no-one likes to be ‘dumped’, after all. But, ultimately, attracting, retaining and losing customers is all part of the freelance cycle.
Don’t take it personally when a client phones to say they’d like to ‘Scale things back a little from next month…’. If you’ve done the job well, you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of and the client is probably more than happy with the content that you’ve supplied – they’ve just outgrown the need for your services at this point in time.
The key is to keep the customer cycle moving, looking for new opportunities, new work and new customers to work with. If you can keep the pipeline of early-stage startups filled, and help them grow into successful established businesses, then you’ll always have new work coming your way.
So, be proud of your role as the Content Emergency Services. As a trusted and highly valued content creator, you’re making a tangible difference to the evolution of the companies you work with – so, keep feeding the pipeline and adding your own unique brand of value for these clients.
How To Write Killer Content For Your Startup
If you want to brush up on your content writing skills, there’s plenty of content marketing advice in my book – How To Write Killer Content For Your StartUp.