Knowing how to land clients is great.
Knowing how to get your clients to pay you what you’re worth is even better.
Because any freelancer willing to cut their prices will eventually find someone willing to pay bottom dollar for their services.
But only the ones who earn what they ask for will build a thriving, successful freelancing business.
And today I have something that will make you feel like you have freelancing superpowers:
The techniques I use not just to set my rates, but to have people pay them.
How to Set Your Rates – The Right Way
In order to get paid what we’re worth, we have to start by figuring out just how much we’re worth in the first place.
In other words, we have to set our rates.
This is one of the most difficult steps for freelancers just getting started.
In fact, most people get it completely wrong, and it harms their career for months or even years to come.
So don’t be like the average freelancer. The one who sees how much their competitors charge and to does the same.
Or worse, tries to undercut the competition by setting even lower rates.
Why is this a bad idea?
Because it means that, from the outset, you’re letting everybody else decide how much money you can make.
With this approach, you have literally zero influence over your pay.
If the competition says $1.00 per 100 words, you’re stuck at that rate – for better or worse. If the market drops to $0.50 per 100 words, your income is cut in half, and you’re completely powerless to do anything about it.
You require a certain amount of income to live the lifestyle you desire, which means that you have to be the sole decider of how much your writing is worth.
If you’ve stressed out about this problem before, there’s an incredibly simple technique for determining your rates that takes no more than 2 minutes to complete.
There are only 2 factors you need to consider.
1) How much you want to write per month.
2) How much you want to earn per month.
If you know both those numbers, then you know exactly what you need to charge.
Simply divide your target income by your target word-total.
For example, say you want to earn $1,500/mo as a freelance writer. This is the number I use as my gold standard, as it’s enough to travel the world on a permanent basis.
Next, you decide that you want to write 2,000 words a day, 4 days a week. You were always a fan of long weekends after all.
That comes to 17 days a month writing, times 2,000 words a day gives us 34,000 words a month.
So, to make your target income of $1,500 – you would need to charge ($1,500 / 34,000 words) = $0.044 per word.
That’s 4.4 cents per word.
Or $4.40 per 100 words.
Or $22 for a typical 500 word article.
See how easy that was? You now know exactly the minimum you need to charge for your work in order to have the business and lifestyle you want.
But maybe you don’t know right now how much you want to work or earn.
Just make your best guess and adjust along the way.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule that will be set in stone for the rest of your freelancing career. Don’t get so caught up in the minutiae that you miss the big picture: The only way to succeed as a freelancer is to set your rates yourself, and not have your competitors decide for you.
After all, they hardly have your best interests at heart.
Making Ends Meet Vs Building Your Dream Business
Once my coaching clients have learned how to set their rates properly, they typically run into the following problem:
They love the shiny new rate they’ve given themselves, but they’re not sure how to find someone to pay that rate.
Great, you want 5 cents a word or 10 cents a word. But if all the jobs you find are paying $0.02, then what happens when the pressure on you to make ends meet mounts and you have no high-end clients?
Naturally, you’ll cave in and go back to taking whatever tasks you can find at whatever rate someone’s willing to pay.
It’s the only sensible option. I’d do the same. Hell, I have done the same.
And here lies the crux of the freelancer’s paradox:
The urgency of making ends meet.
The importance of finding your “ideal” clients.
Just like the rate-setting problem, there’s actually a very simple and elegant solution:
Keep your “making ends meet” work while building your ideal business and landing ideal clients.
I actually use a variation of this concept for people who want to quit their jobs and travel: Keep their job to get by until their dream business can replace their conventional working income.
This actually works very effectively, because the impact of even a single “ideal” client is enormous.
For example, if you’re earning an average of $1.00 per 100 words in your “survival mode” gigs, and land 1 dream client at $5.00 per 100 words, you’ve basically just swapped out 5 assignments for 1.
With the time you free up, you can look for your next dream client, and your next, until the transition is complete.
This is the best of both worlds. You maintain the security of your old gigs, while building the client base that your dream business demands.
So that leads us to the question: How do we get people to actually pay us what we’re worth?
Winning Freelancers Don’t Compete on Price
One thing should be immediately apparent here:
If we want to be paid our target rate, we can’t really compete on price anymore, as that would immediately take us out of dream business territory and back into survivalist freelancing mode.
So what do we compete on?
Here’s what. And it’s one of the golden rules to successful freelancing:
Successful freelancers don’t compete on price, they compete on results.
To understand this, we have to step back and think about our ideal client.
What does our client really want?
They don’t want our article. (Or our info graphic, our our website design…)
In fact, as brilliant marketer Eban Pagan has said, “your product (article) is a barrier between your client and their desired result.”
No, they don’t care about the actual words you write. What they want is the result the content can produce for them. Something such as:
- Drive SEO traffic.
- Add value to email subscribers during a product launch.
- Capture leads.
- Drive traffic to a sales page.
- Go viral on social media.
If you can show your prospect how you’re addressing their real need (traffic, conversions, sales), you’ll be way ahead of the competition who are offering articles – which are actually a barrier in the mind of the client.
There’s a much different mindset between the freelancer who says “Choose me because I’m the cheapest” and “choose me, because I’ll make you the most profit.”
What Does A Client Want?
As someone who has hired over 100 freelancers over the last 6 years, I’ve seen pretty much all the mistakes that hopeful candidates make.
In my mind, the cardinal sin of sending an application is that they try to make close the sale in the first communication.
Sales statistics show that only 2% of sales occur upon the first contact. Most occur after the 7th or 8th, though for freelance writing it will probably be less.
Your goal with the first contact isn’t to make a sale – it’s to make second contact.
Specifically, it’s for permission to continue the conversation and find out exactly what the client wants (hint: not articles)
For example, say you’re applying for this job on the leading freelancing website UpWork:
You could do what everyone else does, and respond with:
- How great your writing is
- Your experience
- Your rate
- Your best reason they should hire you
Leaving the employer left to pick between 10-50 nearly identical resumes, and hope they grant you the job or at least an interview.
A huge committment to make when they know nothing about you.
Or you could take a single step forward – and one which requires much less committment and is easy to say “yes” to: Moving to a Skype or phone conversation.
Now, many freelancers are wise enough to put something in their applications like, “you can contact me on Skype at [their ID]”.
This is good. But we need to go one step further.
We have to make it a no brainer for them to say “yes.”
I prefer something like: “If you have 5 minutes to hop on a Skype call, I have 3 questions about the assignment that will help determine whether we’re a good fit working together. My ID is _______”
Why does this simple addition work?
Because interviewing is just as hard on the interviewer as the interviewee. On both sides of the equation time and money are on the line.
This particular approach gives 2 immediate benefits to the interviewer:
- It’s fast – only a 5 minute time committment
- You’re doing the work for them: You have 3 questions that will determine whether the fit is good.
Plus there’s an indirect benefit of sounding like a professional. You’ve been down this road 100 times. You know when an assignment is a good fit and when it isn’t.
Note that this technique only works with result-oriented clients. The ones focusing on spending as little as possible won’t be swayed by this sort of offer, as it’s irrelevant to their underlying interests.
Which is exactly what we want, really. The farther penny-pinching clients stay away the better.
On The Call
Your goal on the call is to understand the client’s needs so you can match your services to them better than anyone else.
This means less talking about how great you are and more asking about what the client’s needs and concerns are.
Remeber: The client doesn’t want your article, they want the result. This is what your conversation should hinge around.
These are some questions I would consider asking, depending on the circumstances:
- Where will the material be published?
- How will they be promoted?
- What do you want readers to do while/after reading (what action should they take)?
- Do you want me to link out to top resources to empower an outreach campaign for backlinks?
- What performance benchmarks are you looking to reach, in order to deteermine the success of the project?
*Pro Tip: Don’t refer to your writing as “articles” – this sounds cheap. You are a professional doing premium quality work (Right? Right?) Ramit Sethi from I Will Teach You To Be Rich prefers to call his writing “material” and I use either this or “piece(s)”.
At the end of your day, you want your prospective client not to see you as any old writer churning out words, but an integral part of their business process.
Showing them not only that you “get” the big picture, but showing them how you’ll make the overarching plan come to fruition will – if done correctly – make you the only candidate worth considering when a hire is to be made.
Life may never work out so perfectly – but with this approach and striving to this level of excellence you’ll start earning the rate you asked far more often than you used to.
Standing Out From the Masses
In order to land great clients and earn your target income, you have to differentiate yourself at every step of the way: from your applications/initial contacts, to your negotiations and communications, and to your work itself.
Essentially this translates into: Providing a larger benefit than just writing some material.
We’ve discussed this to the point of exhaustion, so let’s see how an expert freelancer does this in practice:
For example, take the About Page of professional freelance writer Kristi Hines. It’s a wealth of marketing gold for the up-and-coming freelancer, not to mention probably brings her more offers for work than she can take.
In one section she adds value by showing how she doesn’t just provide an article, but extra exposure through her personal social channels:
For web copy, I will create content that is optimized for search and will help convert website visitors into customers. For blog content, I will include relevant images, help you establish Google+ authorship with my profile (30k followers) or yours, promote posts on Twitter (56k followers), provide revisions when necessary, and engage with your readers through the blog comments.
-Kristy Hines, freelance writer
What client wouldn’t think that’s a sweet deal?
There’s actually another level of subtlety here too – by mentioning her nearly 100k social followers, Kristy has also established the impression as a badass marketer – not just a writer.
Already she’s put herself at a level above most of the competition, just because she’s talking about the big picture result and not about articles.
Further down, she drives the point home that her writing gets massive traffic – and provides proof:
“On a monthly basis, my content receives over 150k clicks from Google search visitors. See a snapshot of my author stats from Google Webmaster Tools.“
Now, if you’re just starting out you won’t be able to say any of this.
That doesn’t mean it’s time to throw our hands up in the air and admit defeat, it means we have to start intentionally building some of these trust signals.
At one point Kristy was also starting out and didn’t have massive traffic stats to flaunt either. She built it from 0 just like everyone else.
It’s hard to get to her level, but it’s easy to get started.
The best way to immediately get yourself such references is by guest posting on sites that receive large volumes of traffic (over 1 million monthly views):
- PickTheBrain (advice/personal development)
- DumbLittleMan (advice)
- MindBodyGreen (health)
- Addicted2Success (money/business)
Then you can simply add these pieces to your writing resume, the way Kristy has.
You can also search Google for “[YOUR TOPIC] + guest post” or “[YOUR TOPIC] + write for us” to find other sites that accept guest posts:
Say your specialty was “dog training”, you could do the following search:
This is far from the only way to stand out, but it’s a time-tested and proven technique that you’ll probably want to employ to whatever extent you’re able.
The real key is this:
Find ways to add value that go beyond the job description.
That means understanding your client’s needs better than everyone else – possibly better than they do themselves.
This is so important, that I actually have developed my own predictive metrics I use to estimate for how much success a freelancer (or any new business) will have:
- How many prospective clients you talk to every week?
- How many past clients you talk to every week?
- How many people with the profession you want do you talk to every week?
From that you can pretty much predict the success of any enterprise.
These interactions is where you’ll find all the information necessary to market and sell your services – not in marketing blogs that know nothing about your particular business.
The people who do this almost inevitably succeed, and the ones who don’t – don’t.
Note that here I don’t mean pitching to clients and prospects, but talking to them about their business needs/goals and how content creation fits into the bigger picture. What are their concerns, fears, hopes, etc.
Nothing will improve your marketing faster, or give you an edge over the competition with more certainty than this.
The Only Times You Should Discount Your Rates
I want to wrap things up by looking at a few instances where it’s smart business not to take your target rate.
These cases are few and far between, so it’s essential to know when this is helpful and when it’s undermining your entire business.
For instance, some people might tell you to start out with low rates “to get experience” or “break in” to the industry.
This is nonsense.
“Experience” and “breaking in” are not concretely achievable metrics. and this sort of reasoning is a weak excuse for having no strategic plan in place.
Acting randomly in the name of “experience” will never bring you success, unless your strategy is to get lucky.
I think we both know how that will turn out.
If you’re going to take a gig for a lower rate, you need to have a concrete reason behind that choice that will result in long-term success. Here are three.
1. Large, Recurring Orders
If you have an excellent client who wants a large volume of writing done, writing done on an ongoing basis, or even better: both – it’s okay to compromise on your rates a little.
Because as a freelancer – especially just starting out – a ton of your time will be occupied looking for new clients.
Remember, whatever your per-word rate is, you have to consider the fact that all the time spent on non-writing activities is effectively lowering your hourly-earnings.
Therefore, if a client wants upwards of 25% of your target monthly wordcount on a recurring basis, it may be better value for your total time investment to discount your rate and land/keep the client than to be unwavering about your rate, lose the gig, and have to spend hours of your time replacing that client.
However, a word of caution:
The best clients aren’t the ones focused on price in the first place, but the ones focused on results! Therefore, if you feel compelled to lower your rate to get a big gig, instead of making the sale by displaying the value you offer, this means that either:
1) The client isn’t as valuable/reliable as you’d like to hope (they’ll run to a cheaper option as soon as they find one)
2) You haven’t effectively communicated the value of your services in your marketing and educational materials.
Ultimately, you have to weigh the pros and cons of doing this. A goodway to do this is to extrapolate: If all your clients were paying this discounted rate, but you didn’t have to spend any more time looking for new clients as a result, would you do it?
If not, then don’t compromise, continue to follow your goal.
2. Portfolio Building With Authority Publications
If you get an opportunity to write for a website like The Huffington Post, CNN, or LifeHacker – would you turn it down even if the gig was unpaid?
Probably not. Your intuition would be screaming that the opportunity is too good to turn down.
And you’d be right.
Unlike taking a gig for random portfolio building – simply putting a notch in your belt, writing for an authority site gives you credibility you can leverage in all future applications, negotiations, and marketing materials.
If you approach a new client who has never heard of you, but they know you’ve written for LifeHacker and About.com, then they’re immeditely going to trust you more than if your resume had pages of gigs for unknown publications or websites.
“Great, I see you wrote for ironicbeards.com…excellent – you’re hired” is the sort of phrase you’ll never hear.
This is a strategic and logical time to ignore your rate and get the reference. If you get the opportunity – take it.
When you’re just starting out, it’s true that you’re in a place of weakness from a marketing standpoint.
It will be really tempting to take any gig that comes your way, just to “get on the board” so to speak.
I know, I’ve been there too.
One thing that sets successful freelancers apart from the majority who never make it past the initial struggling stage is the ability to grow strategically at this moment.
Taking any old gig for some vague “climbing the freelancing ladder” purpose is silly. Nobody is going to come along and tell you it’s time to get paid what you’re worth. Nobody is going to come along and give you a raise.
That’s why we started by looking at what you’re rate is.
So if you’re not going to charge that rate, you need to have a damn good reason to do so.
One such reason is to get a glowing testimonial that you can use in future marketing materials and show to future prospects.
This one I need to heavily qualify: If you do excellent work and have good clients, they should be happy to provide you with a glowing review anyway.
But maybe you’re just starting out and don’t have any great clients willing to vouch for you.
Or maybe you’re looking for a testimonial from a specific person and there’s no opportunity to get a paid gig with them.
For example, Kristi Hines, whom we discussed earlier, has done a bunch of writing for Neil Patel at QuickSprout.
Normally Neil doesn’t pay his interns, so you’d be very hard pressed to get a paid gig with him.
However, you could probably get an extremely valuable testimonial if you did excellent work over there.
Pro Tip: Like all things in business, leave nothing to chance. If you’re going after a testimonial, make it a condition of the job that you receive one!
At this point, you should have a good grasp on the mechanics of getting paid the wage you want as a freelance writer.
Now, it’s time to get out there and make it happen.
That’s why I’ve put together some resources that will put you on the right track:
- UpWork – My favorite freelancing website with a wide variety of jobs (not just writing). I’ve used UpWork (formerly oDesk) since 2010 as both a freelancer and client, and continue to do so today. They also have a resource center for freelancers who want to further develop and market their skills, and guides to help businesses find the best-qualified freelancers for their project. Check them out.
- TextBroker – One of the biggest freelance writing websites. Lots of gigs, good pay. But only open to American writers.
- 25 Websites That Pay You (Well) To Guest Post – A list of 25 sites looking for writers and willing to pay for content. A broad range of topics are covered. Hopefully several will suit you!
Do you have any other tips for getting paid what you deserve as a freelancer? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.