The first time I was invited to write for a financial services client, I turned down the opportunity. I didn’t have the chops. I’d never written much about personal finance before. It was a shame, because I knew I had the potential to get up to speed, but I didn’t want to lie and say I was an expert just to get the gig.
Turns out the client appreciated my honesty, knew my ability to research, loved my unique voice, and asked me to contribute in spite of my limited prior knowledge in the sphere. “Send me some story pitches. I’ll choose a few and we’ll get started,” she shot back.
I was elated. Here was a client that recognized the power of ideation to both develop a writer and establish a strategy. She knew a few of my ideas would be off in left field, but she also trusted herself to give feedback on which ones worked and why. In return, I swore to myself I’d never make any mistake twice. Her feedback hangs on my wall for quick reference. I owe my success to her willingness to show me what makes a good pitch.
That was 2012. Today I craft topic ideas that hit the bull’s-eye . . . most of the time.
You see, there are ways to cook up ideas clients love. The kind of ideas they want, but wouldn’t have been able to produce without you.
Image attribution: Kerry Reinking
On the other hand, if you’re not careful, it’s easy to completely miss a client’s needs.
Not every writer is engaged to push features and benefits. Scandalous, I know, but most brands these days aren’t hiring ongoing freelance writers to generate ad copy at all. Today, clients want their communications to make an emotional connection. Often, they want their stories to leave a lingering impression even more than they want them to close a sale.
Some publications are generating content to gather data or test attention metrics. A few clients will want to impart knowledge in the form of tutorials, or inspiration by highlighting fellow resourceful DIY-ers. Still others simply desire to entertain viewers with the gift of a story or game. Knowing your client’s most vital business goal changes your approach entirely, both closing off dead-end rabbit holes and opening up a wide range of potentially powerful story pitches.
Image attribution: Ethan Lofton
Another illuminating guide to steer your ideation is your client’s core value. According to Hollywood storytelling expert Robert McKee, every human experience is binary. So when a brand claims their values are freedom, honesty, authenticity, integrity, courage, and six other similarly impressive adjectives, well, they’re wrong. Those are hopes. Or character traits. Or, at best, they’re commitments. But they’re not a core value or purpose. Instead, find out your client’s one binary core value (which includes the negative counterpart, remember) that guides all communications. This way, if your client’s core value is authenticity, then you can pitch ideas that address common sources of relevant counterfeit in a consumer’s day-to-day.
Your client’s creative brief should include this information. However, there’s still a dash of curiosity that’s required to come up with the best pitches. The ones that make a client respond with a rewarding reaction like, “This is exactly what we’ve been trying to say!”
Everything changed for me the day I stopped consuming information on how to land clients as a freelancer and, instead, shifted to learning about how my clients can attract and retain their loyal audiences.
For example, as a personal finance writer, I eventually ditched courses and podcasts that teach writing and solopreneurship. I now listen to podcasts aimed at bankers who are trying to connect with neighborhood locals. I also love one show that’s geared toward investment advisers who want to communicate with teens and twenty-somethings about their first investment moves. This content wasn’t originally meant for me. But it’s my number-one source of insight into the audiences of my target client. And it’s my favorite piece of advice for other freelancers who want to know how to pitch an article that relieves a client’s heavy mental burden.
If I can get to know the end user’s pain points before approaching my client with topic ideas, I’ll have a leg up before I even begin brainstorming. In time, after years of demonstrating such an in-depth knowledge of financial marketing, one client even asked me to go from simply creating content to consulting.
Another thing you can bring to the table as a freelancer is the pulse of your network. I’m in a number of heavily moderated online forums that my clients would love to poll for free. So on their behalf, I keep an ear to the ground.
Image attribution: CGP Grey
For example, one of my clients is a luxury natural birthing center near a conventional hospital. When it’s time to propose a few story pitches, I simply search my own closed online “Mom groups” for posts with the most comments and reactions. Earlier in 2017, this technique turned up questions about the Zika virus and Lyme disease for expectant and new moms, something I wouldn’t have considered pitching on my own.
Good ideas. Every business covets that prolific generation of whizzbang ideas. The ones that would make a statement (without offending anyone), connect (without overstepping comfortable boundaries), and motivate readers to action (without coercion). These days, it isn’t enough to simply say something. A brand must convey the same message many times in tons of creative ways. When you view topic ideas from the distinct view point of a freelancer, you’ll see you have a unique position to know the audience even more intimately than the client can. And indeed, that’s a valuable perspective to offer.
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Featured image attribution: Raw Pixel