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The 3 reasons why I don’t write for small businesses anymore

By October 17, 2018 June 29th, 2019 12 Comments

There’s no doubt that many small businesses need freelance writers, and I know some freelancers who specialise in creating content for smaller organisations. When I started out full time freelancing in 2017 I actively pursued small businesses as part of my marketing strategy, but over the last 18 months I’ve learnt that probably wasn’t the wisest decision.

The 3 reasons why I don’t write for small businesses anymore

I’m not saying that writing for small business is a bad idea or that you shouldn’t go after these kinds of organisations, it’s just that for me, I don’t think it’s been worth my time or energy.

Let me explain.

Often small businesses (I’m talking about companies that have fewer than 10 employees) are juggling competing priorities and don’t have enough time to do everything, and that’s often where writers come in.  

I’ve had small business owners contact me via Linkedin, get in touch after seeing an article I’ve written about a similar business or in a related field, or I have reached out to them with a letter of introduction or after they have viewed my profile on LinkedIn.

But regardless of how I’ve come into contact with them, I’ve found the same issues crop up over and over again.  

1.    Small business? Small budget

Not every small business has a little budget, but my experience has been that finances are a (big) consideration.

If, as a freelance writer, you’re charging $280 for a 600 word blog post (around 40c/word), that’s likely to be a big chunk of change for a small business.

Now, I know there are loads of businesses out there offering to pay $25 for a 600 – 1000 word blog post (that’s a WHOLE other conversation), but it’s hard to imagine how that’s a viable income for any length of time for a writer. And those are not the businesses I’m talking about here.  

To give you a sense of what I’ve charged small businesses for blog content, it’s usually around $250 – $400 per post.

Of course, this depends on lots of factors such as the number of revisions, interviews, depth of subject area and so on, but it gives you an idea.

My corporate clients, on the other hand, pay around double that.

Why the disparity? Well, more often than not, small businesses just can’t afford to pay the big bucks. They don’t have the turnover, enough income generating products or the budget set aside for content creation.

If a small business is outlaying $1000 every month for four blog posts, they are going to want to see some kind of return on that investment. They’re in business after all.

So while it is about money, it’s also about getting results.

Which takes me to my second point.

2. Often small business owners aren’t clear about why they want to produce particular content

It’s been pretty common for owners of small businesses to get in touch with me because they want someone to create content for them.

Usually they want blog posts or case studies written up or articles that can be ghost written and shared on LinkedIn.

So far so good.

I’ve found that in general, these business owners have been able to articulate the kind of content they want, but not the kind of results they’re after.

When I ask small business owners about the results they want and their content strategy, often they don’t have an answer.  

I have an intake form that I send to anyone who is interested in working with me. It asks for some information so I can get an idea of the scope of the project.

But I’ve found that it’s often very hard to elicit answers to these questions.

I’ve worked with a financial planner who came to me via LinkedIn wanting to capitalise on his email list and strong LinkedIn following. He knew that he wasn’t a great writer – most of his “articles” were written in dot points and had incomplete sentences – and needed someone to pull his expertise into engaging content.

When he filled in my intake form, he told me he wanted to grow his authority.

That’s fine, but I wanted to know how he was going to measure that.

If we looked at where he was right now and where he wanted to be (when he’d ‘grown’ his authority), what did that look like? How would he know that the content I was creating was doing its job?

He couldn’t answer.

Because he was focused on the idea that the content would be enough. He thought that the content alone would grow his authority.

We had a couple of conversations where I spoke about the importance of having even a basic content strategy and editorial plan, but in the end, he just wanted me to produce an article each week that he could share on LinkedIn.

So that’s what I did.

I wrote weekly blog posts for him for about three months that got great traction and comments, but in the end, he asked to drop the posts down to monthly and then it stopped.

He was outlaying all this money on blog posts, and while they were getting great engagement, he couldn’t see whether they were converting to sales for his business.

Not that he had even had that as a goal in the first place, but that’s really what he wanted.

Yes he wanted to grow his authority, but he also wanted to drive more people to his business. And as we hadn’t set up any way of measuring or tracking that, we couldn’t see if my content was doing that for him.

He’s now back to writing his bullet point articles on LinkedIn.

I probably didn’t push him as hard as I should have to elicit the reasons why he wanted to create the content, but I also think this often means people need to do lots more work and thinking, and they simply don’t have the time or inclination to do it.

Which … takes me to my third point …

3. Small business owners are super busy

I know it will come as no surprise to you that small business owners are flat out.

A few months ago I received a lovely message from a man who owns a busy agency and was looking for some support with content creation.

He had the funds (check) and the strategy behind what he wanted (check) but from the time he first contacted me it took him nearly two months to schedule a phone call with me.

After the initial phone call I sent through a summary of what we had discussed, but it took him another three weeks to get back to me to confirm and agree to my proposal. He said he’d get three blog post topics to me by the end of the week for me to start work on.

Four weeks later he emailed to say that he hadn’t had time to write up the content topics for the blog posts and asked if I could I do it.

By now, we were about weeks and weeks behind where I thought I would be.

Of course I could propose topics for blog posts, but I knew this would take even more time to get it approved and while I would charge for this time, I knew that any questions I had would go unanswered for at least a couple of weeks.

It made me wonder about how promptly I would be paid and whether I could rely on any agreements we had made.

So in the end I let him know it wasn’t the right time for me to take on this opportunity.

I did ask if he’d like me to refer him to any other writers and (not unsurprisingly) he didn’t get back to me.

In the past two years I’ve written for over a dozen small businesses and I must admit there have been lots of stops and starts with them. I’ve had a good run with some before they change direction; go silent or run out of funds.

It’s made me realise that I don’t think it’s the best use of my time to be pursuing these kinds of clients.

Instead, with regards to the content marketing work I do, I’ve chosen to focus on much bigger organisations and a couple of agencies who pay well and have very clear content strategies in place. What about you?

 Do you write for small business? What has your experience been?

12 Comments

  • Ellen Hill says:

    While I agree with every single word you have written, Lindy, what I love about working with small businesses is exactly that. I love helping people create a plan and getting organised. I love alleviating the pressure on them to do everything (Leave it to me'',I’ll handle it” – the relief on their faces is beautiful). I love sharing the story of an individual or a unique brand and celebrating their difference. And I love how excited they get when results start trickling in. While big corporates pay well, often they don’t have the colour and idiosyncrasies that make for a great yarn.
    The downside is a lot of ad hoc work, constantly having to educate clients new and old, disorganised clients, endlessly chasing payments and the occasional “divorce”.
    Good idea to have a client intake form, though – thanks for that tip.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Hi Ellen, thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’re right, when it works, it’s SO rewarding and you do get to make a big impact on their business. I found that the intake form was a really great way to cut through lots of the initial conversations (and waffle!) and really focus on what they wanted and what the deliverables would be.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I’ve actually had the exact same experiences working with small businesses and startups that you’ve described here.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks for your comment Elizabeth – it’s interesting that you’ve had similar experiences with startups – I haven’t worked with any before.

  • Hi Lindy,

    I don’t have that many experiences with small businesses, but I have one that has been satisfying all along… with real estate friends of mine. I know them very well, adhere to the values they bring to their work, have even bought real estate with them, and it’s a pleasure to write content that corresponds to the way they do business in their agency ("celebrate their difference", as Elizabeth put it!) . They usually know exactly what they want, which helps a great deal.

    They are very reactive – about what they want, want modified, too – and about paying me as well. And although I do not make huge amounts – because the projects are usually rather small – I get a real satisfaction from working for a local business and having my writing skills valued.

    I’d love to see your client intake form. I love the way you have thought things through – sure we can write just about anything the clients want, but which purpose will that serve?

    Thanks again for this post, Lindy! A useful one in my week as a freelance writer…

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks so much for your comment Anne-Liesse, how lovely to read about your great experience with your real estate friends. I think the fact that they know exactly what they want, pay well and are reactive makes them the exception rather than the rule! And I love your point about working for a local business – that’s such a great connection to have.
      I’m really happy to share my client intake form – I’ll schedule it for another post!

  • Naomi says:

    Hi Lindy, I can relate to so much of what you’ve written here. On the one hand I agree with what Ellen said – I like being a part of helping small businesses grow. On the other hand – basically everything you said! The owners take a long time to respond to emails because they’re so busy, they can have unrealistic expectations, you start off doing content marketing and suddenly they’re asking you to do PR work… and budgets are often low. Plus the setting out of deliverables, managing expectations, trying to get answers to small things… it’s really time-consuming, and I need to earn a living!

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks for your comment Naomi. Yes! The PR aspect often creeps in doesn’t it … it’s a tricky balance for both us and them I think.

  • I’m a copywriter and I’ve had to cut lose 2 clients that were small businesses recently. The reason why is because 95 % of them really don’t get it. They think if they get YOU to keep writing for them, you’ll somehow be able to transform their business into a success.

    One of the reasons why I had to cut them lose was the money was not substantial enough for a copywriter to make it long term. I’d rather get 2 or 3 $5000 clients that I can work with long term than 50 $200 clients. ( I don’t charge by a standard rate, I’m just using this as an example.)

    Managing small potato clients is not only a financial stress but it is a managing nightmare. You’re constantly looking for the next 20 to 30 clients and navigating all of them will drive you crazy.

    Another reason, which you touched on, is that they don’t have a means to measure their success. I like working in direct response copywriting more than writing blog posts. The reason is because it is so simple to track our success with client’s projects.

    Blogging relies on metrics, and a host of other things that are difficult to track. If you’re not making money and are able to measure exactly how it is coming in, you’ll have a very difficult time correcting problems.

    Anyway, great blog post, I really liked your observations on this and look forward to reading more of your posts.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Hi Mark, thanks so much for your reply to my post and for sharing your thoughts. I think you hit on a really important point about doing more for less clients, which ultimately means that you’re doing less admin/chasing/navigating, which in the end makes you/saves you time and money. Thanks so much for your comment – it was great to read about your experience.

  • J says:

    Interesting. I’ve just returned to freelancing after a couple of years away. I previously focused on business excellence, which I fell into when one of my first jobs was a business excellence award submission. I found it the perfect fit for me. I also found that when a business won an award, the client quickly recognised the value of the spend, and was keen to return for repeat jobs. My first client I actually worked with for 6 years.

    Business award submissions led to various other supporting materials, from business plans to staff handbooks to social media and media responses to interview questions. Another bonus was that businesses with a focus on excellence generally pay promptly. Particularly this client I worked with for 6 years – always paid same day the invoice was sent. Doing good in business pays in many different ways.

    Now trying to start again with finding clients, I’m finding exactly what you’ve written, and am reminded to keep the focus firmly on business excellence. Cheers!

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