You’ve connected with a prospective client and you’re at your first meeting!
It’s an exciting time in the life of any freelance marketer or copywriter.
Unfortunately, this is also the moment when the seeds of disaster are often sown.
Instead of having a detailed discussion about the project at this initial meet, hungry copywriters often slump into desperation mode. At the first mention of a payment of any size at all, you’re sticking out your sweaty hand ready to shake on any deal you can get.
Remorse sets in later, when you figure out the project requires ten times the workload you imagined.
If you accepted a flat project fee — always preferable to naming an hourly rate — you realize you’re earning less on an hourly basis than you’d get working the counter at McDonald’s.
Avoid this unpleasant scenario by learning all you can before you agree to take a project. There is a lot to know to really nail down what a copywriting assignment will entail.
Here is my list of 40 questions to ask a prospective copywriting client:
1. Can you please define your project? You might imagine a company that’s called in a copywriter has an idea what they want. Much of the time, you would be wrong. They’re hoping you can help them figure out whether their best new piece of content would be a white paper, a revised landing page, or eight blog posts a month. If they can’t figure it out even with your help, try to find a small initial project they’re willing to greenlight to get things moving.
2. When will you be ready to get started? If the answer is “next fall,” you know this is just a meet-and-greet. This client isn’t ready to assign anything, so politely wrap it up as fast as you can and ask if you can stay in touch.
3. When do you need this project completed? Between question two and this one, you learn the timeframe — how long you’ll have to do the work from start to finish. This is one of the most important metrics I use in setting my bid. If the timeframe is short, remember rush work should always pay a premium rate.
4. Is there a hard deadline by which materials must be delivered? For instance, if what you’re writing is to be handed out at an upcoming trade show, there won’t be any wiggle room.
5. Have you worked with freelance copywriters before? Pray the answer is yes. Training a client who’s new to the whole process will be time-consuming.
6. What is your budget for this project? Try to get the client to name a figure, or at least a range. Getting them to speak first on price will help you avoid radically over- or underbidding. If they won’t bite, mention a broad range and say, “I’ll be able to deliver a more precise project quote once I know more about your needs.”
7. Who will be my editor? This is the person you’ll spend the most time interacting with, so try to meet them and get a sense of whether you’re compatible.
8. How many people at your company will be involved in this project? Many executives or departments on board can mean an ugly scenario in which your work is reviewed by multiple managers or department teams. This is usually the enemy of good copy, and can make consensus on a final version hard to achieve.
9. If multiple executives or teams are involved, who has final approval? Push to define where the buck stops. Otherwise, it may stop with no one, or you may find yourself enmeshed in a power struggle may between several executives who each think the project is theirs.
10. Will I be interviewing people outside the company? If so, find out whether the company will provide contacts or you’ll be expected to dig them up yourself.
11. Who will come up with the topic(s)? A corporate blogging project where you need to generate a dozen ideas a month takes far longer, and should cost more, than one where you’ll be handed a monthly topic list.
12. May I see your existing marketing materials? One of the best ways to cut the time you spend on a copywriting project is to read existing materials to learn what their marketing team likes.
13. Oh — you hate your current marketing materials? If current materials are loathed, it’s even more important to get a look at it. Ask managers what’s not working for them, so you can avoid putting more of the same in your copy. Also, identifying crappy existing copy opens the door to negotiating additional project work.
14. Will what I’m going to write be used with your existing materials? If your brochure is going to have one of their existing fliers tucked inside, you’ll want to know that from the start.
15. Who, specifically, is the target audience for what I will write? If the company doesn’t know, beware.
16. How much can you tell me about this audience? Extract every detail you can, down to what brand of coffee their customers drink. The more developed your picture of customers, the easier it will be to ‘talk’ to them in your copy.
17. What are the most important problems facing this audience? If the company is fuzzy on this point, talk to sales staff about what they hear from customers, or arrange to spend a day going out on sales calls.
18. Have you done any market research on your customers? If there’s a study sitting around, get it in your hands.
19. How, specifically, does your product or service help solve their problems? The answer to this question may deliver an instant outline of the points you need to cover.
20. Can you provide me with five descriptive words that define the values you’d like me to convey about your company? This little exercise is invaluable to get prospects to crystallize their corporate values so you can clearly communicate them in the copy.
21. Who are your major competitors, and how is your company different? This is your chance to learn that essential element your copy will need to highlight — the client’s unique selling proposition.
22. How will this material be distributed? Online content has a distinctly different format than print, so find out if links need coding.
23. Are you looking for a graphic designer on this project? If so, stand out by offering to tap your rolodex, and possibly also score a project-management fee.
24. Do you have any multimedia needs for this project? In today’s interactive age, you may need to integrate QR codes, video, slideshows or other interactivity into what you write. Understand all the moving parts up front. If you have experience with these tools, you should think about raising your fees.
25. May I show you some of my writing samples? Bring a portfolio or tap your website as a way to stand out in the client’s mind compared with other writers.
26. What is your preferred method of communication? If the answer is IM or Skype, be wary. Customers with a fondness for IM may want to message you instantly — around the clock.
27. What is your expectation of my availability? This is another way of teasing out whether 24/7 communication is expected. If you cherish your weekends off, make that clear and set your boundaries now.
28. Are you looking to lock down my time exclusively? Some clients want you to drop everything and work only for them until their project is completed. You may or may not be able to clear those decks. This question can also bring up whether the client might put you on an ongoing retainer if they like this first project.
29. If my piece will be published online, may I get a credit that’s a live link to my writer site? This is especially relevant if you’re blogging or writing articles for a company. Those bylines can be a great source of new referrals, so it’s worth asking.
30. Does this project require a nondisclosure agreement? Get clarity about what’s top secret, so you don’t screw up and blab something confidential.
31. Will I be allowed to use this piece as a sample in my portfolio? If you’re ghostwriting for team members and the company wants that fact kept confidential, it costs you a sample — so the assignment should pay a premium.
32. Are there any restrictions on who else I can work for in your industry? Especially beware of any noncompete clauses that extend beyond the term of your project.
33. What is your payment method? PayPal is increasingly common — but that service charges a fee that can be nearly 3 percent. If a company can pay through PayPal, in my view, they can pay via direct bank transfer at no cost to me.
34. How soon can you get me a 50% up-front payment to get started? Maybe you could accept 30 percent if you really love the project, but don’t start work without an up-front payment.
35. Let’s review the payment terms for the rest of my fee. Don’t leave this one vague, or the client may pay you six months after you finish work … or never. Right here is where a lot of cash-flow headaches are born. Ask for net 30 days from when work is turned in, or better yet, net 15.
36. My fee usually includes two rounds of rewrites. Does that work for you? I know many copywriters who stick to this rule, and any additional desired edits are extra. I personally take an “I work until you’re thrilled” approach. But it’s worth considering how to structure your contract, especially if you’re smelling a “gang edit” scenario.
37. Let’s determine the time limit for this project. Sometimes, a first draft gets turned in and then you never hear from the client again. In this scenario, your final payment will never trigger unless you’ve built a cutoff date into your contract, at which point all work is considered finished and your check is due.
38. When do you need my bid? If the project is complex or some questions remain unanswered at the end of the first meet, put off bidding until later. Go home and think it through, wait for the rest of the facts to trickle in, and then give your quote.
39. Are you meeting with multiple writers? This company might be thrilled to find you and ready to hire — or they might be emailing a list of the first 50 writers they saw on a Google search. If it’s a cattle call, you may want to put less energy into trying to land the business.
40. If you’re considering turning me down based on price, could you let me know so I can consider rebidding? If you’re worried about whether you’ve bid too high and you really want this client, this question could keep you in the running.
What are the questions you consider crucial for your clients? Do you have a varying version of one of mine? Leave them in the comments below and let’s talk!