How can you build a portfolio - and find your first clients?

This page explores some of the puzzles that surround the need to build a portfolio when most clients want to see your portfolio first.

On this page:

How to find potential clients
Who could be your first client?
How to contact potential clients
Make an offer to a potential client
Non-paying clients are still clients

Introduction

Finding clients is the hardest part of freelancing.

And when you're starting as a freelancer, the challenge is hardest. In time, when you have more experience and more clients, opportunities may become easier to find.

Whether you are starting with a portfolio of work, perhaps garnered during your time as in in-house copywriter, or starting with no copywriting experience, the challenge is fundamentally the same:

  1. Find people that hire copwyriters
  2. Convince them to hire you.

Clearly, it’s going to be easier to convince people to hire you if you have a back-catalogue of copywriting work, but you still need to be persuasive, and you still need to find willing clients.

Should you charge your first clients?

This is a big question – and the short answer is that you may want to offer your services for free, particularly if you have little or no experience or portfolio.

Once you have one or two ‘live’ copywriting experience, you should probably start charging.

Recommended rates for freelance copywriters

How to find potential clients

For all the hundreds of tactics that you can use to find clients, they can all be boiled down into two categories:

  1. Outbound marketing – wherein you reach out to your target audience
  2. Inbound marketing – which involves you creating pathways so the target can come to you

Outbound (direct) marketing – making contact with potential clients

Direct marketing is perfect for new freelancers because it’s quick and effective. Want to know if someone will hire you? Just ask them!

Inbound marketing – helping clients find you

One of the wonders of the web is that it makes it easy to find what you need. And there are people out there who need you. So a key challenge of inbound marketing is making sure that those potential clients can find you wherever they may look.

Copywriting clients look for freelancers in many different places:

  • Google (search)
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Google+
  • Job sites
  • Freelance marketplaces (People Per Hour etc)

Marketing for freelance copywriters

Who could be your first client?

How can you persuade someone to be your first client?

Firstly, you need to focus on what you have, rather than what you don’t have.
So put aside your lack of experience and portfolio, and focus on your talent, your interest and your hunger to succeed. These are all great strengths.

Potential first clients:

Friends and family – Look around you. Do any of your friends or family run a business, club or charity? Who do you know that would value some free support with their communications or marketing?

This is something to ponder.

Spend some time thinking about everyone in your network of friends (and friends of friends) and your extended family.

Anyone who has a website, blog, newsletter, adverts, employees, products or services is a potential first client. Many business owners struggle to communicate clearly; having an external perspective is immensely valuable.

Clubs – You could help make the club’s website copy more friendly, easier to understand and easier to find through search engines. You could help to rearrange their content into a logical structure, give them a new tagline, or produce a newsletter that people actually read.

Charities – There are countless small local charities that operate on a shoestring. Writing for charities is a brilliant way to practice your persuasive writing – all while doing good.

Local businesses – There are millions of businesses that need help communicating, marketing and advertising. You could check out your local chamber of commerce – and maybe contact new businesses who could well be grateful for your help.

How to contact prospects

However you choose to make contact, remember to be confident, direct and polite. Remember that you are, to some extent, intruding on someone’s time.

It’s good to be mindful of that, but also confident in the knowledge that you are doing something good – and offering something of value.

Prepare to explain yourself – and the benefits you offer

Marketing yourself – and selling your own services – is some of the best experience you can get.

As a copywriter, you write to sell, persuade and inform, and these are all things you must do for yourself. And don’t worry if you get this wrong the first time. Marketing is all about trying, learning and trying again.

In some cases the organisations you approach will not know what a copywriter is – or what you do. It’s your job to help people understand what a copywriter does – and why your services are valuable. And you should know by now that a copywriter’s job is not to get rid of typos and grammatical errors; copywriters are salespeople who sell to those they can’t see. Copywriters get paid to sell products, ideas and services.

Anyone who hires a copywriter is not paying for words. They’re paying for leads, sales, traffic, conversions and results.

Your clients will not hire you because you write nice. They’ll hire you because your words get results. Your words make things happen. Your words make a difference.

That’s what you’re offering.

If someone asks ‘what does a copywriter do?’

You could answer, ‘copywriters write stuff that helps you sell. We write adverts, websites, emails and brochures – really anything that might persuade your customers to choose you. We understand how words can intrigue, attract, inspire, persuade and drive your prospects to act. People hire copywriters when they want better results from their written marketing and communications.’

Make a proposal

Before you approach anyone, decide what you want to offer. Instead of saying, “I can help you with your copywriting,” define the precise terms of your offer – or at least provide some suggestions.

Example offers:

“I’m just starting out as a freelance copywriter and I’m offering to write three blog posts for you – for free. This will help boost the performance of your website so more customers can find you, and you can get more business.”

“Do you ever struggle to communicate with your customers? I’m a freelance copywriter – just starting out – and I specialise in writing clear, compelling copy that helps businesses turn prospects into paying customers. Would you like me to re-write your brochure?”

“I can help you reach customers on your website on social media. Are you interested in finding new customers?”

Non-paying clients are still clients

If you find someone in your circle of friends and family who wants your copywriting services, treat them as a client – even if you’re working for free. This means you should be explicit about the terms of your arrangement.

Get the essentials in writing:

  • What you’re offering – and be precise (how many pages, words etc)
  • Who will do what (you might write for a website, but will you also upload the copy?)
  • Timescales (when you’re going to do it)
  • Assumptions (clarify things like how you will deliver copy, how many amends you will accept)
  • Liability (who is responsible for the accuracy of the copy?)