“Freelance writers are cold pitching marketers en masse,” I posted in one of my favorite online marketing forums. “Have you received cold pitches from freelance writers who want to create content for you? Would you appreciate an unsolicited communication from a hungry writer? Or do you prefer writers knock it off?”
To say the responses surprised me would be an understatement. Dozens of marketing professionals replied, but instead of a resounding chorus of angry yeses, the overwhelming answer was, “Well, it depends.”
Turns out, unsolicited offers for help can be a welcome communication. Where freelance writers get it wrong, my community said, is the assumption that “unsolicited” is synonymous with “cold.” It’s not.
Before discussing the ins and outs, pros and cons, and the dos and don’ts of cold emailing for writing gigs, we should explore the backstory. An independent (“free”) swordsman (“lance”) was first referenced in 1820 when hired hitmen fought and killed on behalf of the highest bidder they could find. Corporate mercenaries have been on the scene since then, hawking their services—again and always in search of the highest-paying client.
But gigging workers didn’t make headlines until just a few years ago, when technology and cultural changes fueled a widespread shift from traditional employment to independent work. Suddenly, so many people were freelancing that a new industry appeared to support them.
The business-coaching industry.
Experts coached freelance writers in the art of setting up a business, learning to write, and most importantly, landing clients. Some of them, like Daphne Gray-Grant, Brennan Dunn, and Carol Tice had the decades of experience to be called gurus. The demand for information was so high, though, that even newcomers could set up shop and teach other freelance writers what to do. Their advice generated (for themselves) that oft-misunderstood, oft-coveted secret sweetness called passive income. In other words, the more advice they produced for the masses, the more freelance writers consumed. So the questionably qualified coaches were naturally motivated to generate more and more. One of the resultant subsets was a group of gurus who taught cold emailing. They postured the skill as more important than relationship-building, marketing, or even the craft of writing itself. The demand for encouragement surrounding “mindset” skyrocketed as writers struggled to gear up for the often unnatural, forced cold-contact exercise.
Image Attribution: Bruno Girin
As I watched the story unfold, I couldn’t help but see the irony. Here are thousands of businesses looking to produce quality content that’s good enough to reroute their ad spend and build an audience—an audience that comes back for more. And here are thousands of writers eager for the creative work. But instead of building a relationship with their prospects, instead of giving potential clients the gift of a professional friendship first, and instead of considering the purpose of their writing, these freelancers lead right in with the equivalent of an interrupt advertisement.
In case you haven’t gathered, I believe telling freelancers to cold pitch is complete insanity. Here’s why.
Try this: Open a new incognito tab (for unbiased results) right now, and do a Google search for “cold pitching.” Nine of the ten results on the first results page speak straight to the freelance writer. When you think of the mind-boggling number of business types out there, it should be amazing that only one type of business owner—the freelance writer—would be targeted so unrelentingly with such a message.
Content marketing agencies have already gone before and convinced enterprise clients that they need a better communication strategy. So when a writer cold calls a company to convince them quality content can help them, they already know. They’ve heard it before. Reiterating it may even demonstrate your inability to understand digital marketing.
Clients truly worth working for—the ones with credibility, vision, passion, creativity, and budgets—well, they need more than a content creator like you or me. They need editors. They need strategists. They need advisors. They need content management systems. They need measurement analytics software and industry experts to help them parse that data.
Spending time cold emailing prospects can be unfruitful at best and discouraging at worst. Instead, time could be spent creating content to build your own audience, an asset nearly all brands are interested in these days. Put yourself in your client’s position. Would you rather hire a writer who has spent months pitching hundreds of prospects, or who has spent months building something that will last?
High-quality proposals often resonate. It’s true. If you spend all day on one meaty, insightful, thought-provoking pitch, it will likely land on receptive soil. But usually, your prospect doesn’t need a writer at that moment. So on you go to the next pitch. Chances are, the slow going motivates you to look for ways to streamline. You create a template, and personalize it for each client, but after another dozen or so go unanswered, you figure you’ll need to pitch more and more, so you sacrifice the customization to crank out more letters of introduction. The cycle is a sad, self-fulfilling prophecy too many writers experience.
The number one reason freelancers should suspend their icy pitching habit is because the alternatives are more effective, more fulfilling, and more rewarding for everyone involved.
Don’t misunderstand—no one is telling you not to introduce yourself to potential clients. Polish your elevator pitch in case someone asks what you can do for them, sure, but don’t plan to work it into every conversation you have online or at events. Pitching someone on the first (unrelated) exchange is usually an exercise in futility. Reroute your own interrupt targeting with one of these methods instead.
Work on getting found by potential clients, as opposed to you scouting, finding, and approaching the best ones. How? By becoming the best at whatever they’re looking for. If you want to write for clients in the health and wellness sphere, build your brand by creating thoughtful content on your own site or for a health-conscious non-profit.
How many clients do you currently have? If the answer is anything over zero, then you already have warm leads. Learn how to upsell, cross-sell, and offer your services to complementary silos and departments.
Asking for referrals has been my number one source of new work in the last five years. I keep my pipeline warm by asking my contacts whether they know of anyone else in their circles that could use my talent. Believe it or not, I’ve never been told “no.”
If you’re still sold on hawking your work, at least consider changing your approach. Double or triple your chances of getting a response by offering the gift of a professional friendship before going in for the kill. Help your potential client by engaging on social, sharing their best posts with your own network, and commenting with thoughtful encouragement. Include at least three proposed projects you would like to complete for them, and how those assets would work in their favor.
Some writers say that cold pitches diminish or “cheapen” freelancers collectively. I disagree with that melodramatic extreme. Cold calling doesn’t injure the rest of us, but it does waste everyone’s time. Recall again my marketing forum that lit up with answers to the question of whether freelancers should stop cold emailing clients. The common thread running through every answer was that closing a sale isn’t the problem; it’s the coldness of a cold pitch that gets it dismissed. In other words, a strong, meaningful connection should always come before a pitch.
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Featured image attribution: Ian Espinosa