At the start of last year, I was in a tight spot. I’m a freelance writer, and my steady flow of work had slowed down and dried up. In February 2014, I made just over $7,000. In February 2015, however, I made just under $2,000. That’s a 70% pay cut when compared to the previous year’s earnings. With my income declining rapidly to the point at which it was well below my cost of living — one of the tricky aspects of living in Tokyo is that it’s one of the most expensive cities to live in — I was forced to take action. I did what most freelancers did: I sent out email after email to my old clients.
The results were weak, one small project and a one-off gig. So I decided to try something a little different and turned my shortage of work into an interesting marketing experiment. From my own experience, and speaking with other freelancers, it seems like the typical freelancer’s response to a shortage of work plays out like this:
- After a few weeks without a project, begin to worry, and start contacting old clients.
- If that doesn’t work, start sending out cold email after cold email to new prospects.
- If there’s no response, go for low-budget jobs on sites like Upwork or Freelancer.com.
- Panic. Offer a huge discount to the prospects you meet, trapping yourself in the low-pay/low-reward freelance cycle that so many talented people end up being stuck in.
Basic analysis of this strategy shows that it doesn’t work. I know because I’ve experienced it myself, as have many of my friends who also freelance for a living. The truth is that low rates don’t sell.
At least not with the type of awesome, high-quality clients you want. A far stronger approach to getting more work and increasing your income is to focus on getting high-quality clients by selling to them really, really well. It’s the “more wood behind fewer arrows” approach.
Market your service to fewer prospective clients, but put much more effort into each one of them. I learned this concept from entrepreneur and business-growth advisor Bryan Harris (founder of Videofruit) who used it to market his video creation service to tech companies. The main idea is to offer so much value that it’s impossible for any prospective client to ignore you.
Sending Out Handwritten Letters
Here’s what I did to get my freelancing business going again. Instead of sending cold emails, which are effective in bulk but have a terrible response rate, I snail-mailed handwritten letters to all of the companies I wanted to work with. The letters were mailed to design and digital marketing agencies throughout the U.S.
In total, I sent out just over 100 letters, half of which were hand-addressed, and half of which were written entirely by hand. All of the letters contained this exact same message:
Hi [person’s name],Do you work with freelance writers at [company’s name]? I ask because I am a freelance writer from New Zealand and I would love to work with you.
I write for big tech companies like [mention one of my previous clients], as well as small to mid-sized agencies. I can write press releases, blog posts, articles, website content, landing pages and more. My content is extremely good and very modestly priced.
I understand you’re probably suspicious of letters you receive from strangers, so to ease your concerns I would be happy to write a few custom samples for you, free of charge. If you’re interested, just send a letter to my return address. Just kidding!
You can email me at [my email address]. That’s definitely more convenient. Looking forward to working out how I can help you in your role at [company’s name].
Best, Nick Gibson
Along with the letter, I also included:
- My business card
- A page containing testimonials from my existing clients
- Samples of my work
To find the right people to contact, I manually went through the Google results for search terms like “digital agency in [some city]” and found the person in charge of content and public relations. I tracked down their LinkedIn profile to check that they were the right person to contact, then wrote the letter and mailed it to them. Since I was sending the letters from Japan, they were packaged in Japan Post envelopes with a Japanese postage stamp.
I’m sure the novelty of receiving a hand-addressed letter from another country was one reason for the campaign’s success, since it instantly inspires curiosity.
All in all, I received 14 responses from the slightly more than 100 letters I sent out. It cost me about $200 to ship out all the letters, so it ended up being roughly $14 per lead.
Of the 14 responses, one made a significant 5-figure order and two others made small 3-figure deals with me. The 5-figure client has grown into one of my most important clients today. I also followed up over the phone with the clients that didn’t respond to the letter.
Almost all of them reported that they were amused and surprised about receiving a letter from a writer on the other side of the world, and many said I would be first in line for any extra writing work they had available in the future.
As a writer, letters are a great strategy. For designers, I think they’re even better.
Imagine if you could put your favorite portfolio items right in front of a client on beautiful card paper instead of emailing them a link to your online portfolio or Dribbble account, hoping that they’ll click through and browse through your work. If I were a freelance designer, I would try mailing out pop-up books with website layouts, cards with sample logos and testimonials from happy clients. As a developer, you can use the exact same strategy I did, but mention your previous development work instead of written content.
The point of all this is that sometimes it’s better to use “old fashioned” technology to market yourself, especially in an industry like design and development where the vast majority of marketing is done online. Simply by doing something different, you can stand out in a very good way. Since I started doing this in early-2015, I’ve had a steady flow of clients from the letters I’ve sent out.
My rates are back to where they were before, and on occasion even better than before. If you’re ever short on project work and can’t get a response with the typical way of cold-emailing prospective clients, give handwritten letters a try. It’s old fashioned, it’s unique, and it’s exactly what you need to do to get the attention of great clients and give your freelance business the push it needs.
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