Building Your Business

Retainers: How to Land (and Keep) the Holy Grail of Freelancing

By Amanda Walgrove October 25th, 2018

A world exists between freelancing and full-time employment that combines the best of both: guaranteed work, freedom to make your own schedule, and lasting client relationships. It’s the fabled retainer agreement.

“Retainers are the closest a freelancer can get to a steady paycheck,” said Andrea Emerson, a writer who also started a business advising freelancers on career development. “They help you predict your income and workload with greater certainty, and avoid the feast-or-famine dynamic that most of us find stressful.”

Retainers can be extremely valuable, but they’re not easy to land. They usually stipulate that the freelancer submits a certain amount of work each month in exchange for a predetermined fee. It can take years of building trust and a body of work before you strike these arrangements.

I spoke to six experienced freelancers about how to propose the idea to a client, draft a contract to protect yourself, and make sure the retainer lasts. Here’s what they had to say.

It won’t happen right away (and probably shouldn’t)

Videographer Ian Servin landed his first retainer four months after going full-time freelance. Writer Paul Maplesden struck his first retainer 18 months into his career. For designer Jarrod Drysdale, it took five years. And writer Yuwanda Black was writing for 16 years before her first deal.

Most agree, however, that a little time is needed to have the right kind of relationship before you enter into such a commitment. “I would not recommend retainers to freelancers just entering the profession,” said Alvalyn Lundgren, who runs her own branding and design studio. “Gain experience running a business and establishing good client relationships before seeking those longer-term contracts.”

It’s not just a matter of being ready yourself; you also need a client who is reliable enough to work this way. “Always do a standalone project with the client before pitching a retainer,” Drysdale said. “Getting saddled with a problem client or even just one who doesn’t totally trust you can cause all kinds of problems.”

Position yourself as a one-stop shop

It’s reasonable to ask clients about retainers after working on a few projects. But when you’re ready to have the conversation, don’t just talk about yourself. Remember to spell out how clients benefit from the arrangement.

“I position retainers as a way the client can save time and money compared to hiring out projects individually,” Emerson said. “Not only do they get a better deal, akin to buying in bulk, they also benefit from having a writer who’s intimately familiar with their business, goals, audience, and preferences at their disposal—requiring little guidance or oversight.”

If you can, use your pitch to position yourself as a one-stop shop for the client. Drysdale, for instance, offers design, copywriting, coding, and marketing services.

“It’s more efficient for me to handle several areas of a project so that leads into retainer work,” he said. “I’ve had retainers based on only one kind of service—for example, only design—but for me, they tend to end sooner than the broader types of retainer agreements.”

That doesn’t mean you have to learn design all of a sudden (although it won’t hurt). Consider how the experience you’ve accumulated over your career adds value for clients who are new to content.

As a videographer, Servin uses retainers to position himself as more of a consultant rather than just a one-off video creator. “That simple distinction has allowed me to price based on value, have a deeper creative relationship with my clients, and have the kinds of strategic conversations that not all creatives get to have but that often lead to better, more impactful work,” he said.

If you’re ready to start querying clients for retainers, Black offered this email template that’s worked for her SEO writing business:

“Based on the last few projects I’ve completed for you, I see you have an ongoing need for blog content. I can put this on autopilot for you by moving you into a package deal, i.e. three posts a week, including distribution to two social media sites (Facebook and Twitter). It would be more economical than doing one-off jobs, and again, you can put your content marketing on autopilot. If you’d like to discuss the details, let me know.”

What to include in your retainer contract

It’s crucial for freelancers to protect themselves when entering into a retainer commitment with a client. We’ve written about red flags and stipulations you should be aware of when drafting freelance contracts, but let’s look at retainer contracts specifically.

The key elements of a standard monthly retainer contract include:

  • Amount of work: This can be by word count, article, or hour. Emerson uses a “flex” model where she charges a flat fee for any writing projects, including articles, infographics, and social posts, but caps her availability at 20, 30, or 40 hours each month. “It’s use it or lose it,” she said. “Just like a gym membership.
  • Under- or over-usage of quota: Maplesden stipulates that if clients don’t use their entire quota, he’ll provide a credit of half the unused amount in the next month. Drysdale includes a clause for no rollover work to keep projects from snowballing.
  • Price: Maplesden incentivizes clients by discounting his regular rate by five to ten percent for a retainer package.
  • When and how you’ll receive payment.
  • Assets the client will provide: Think of research, interviews, and marketing materials.
  • Expenses: This could include travel costs or payment for online platforms and tools.
  • Revisions: “Some of my agreements include two rounds of revisions in the package fee, with additional revisions requiring an additional fee,” Emerson said. “Other times, I’ve been far more flexible with higher-dollar agreements.”
  • Content ownership: Freelancers usually have to acknowledge that the client owns the content after they receive payment.
  • Cancellation. Maplesden and Drysdale require 30 days before any cancellations or amendments initiated by either party go into effect. Lundgren only drafts contracts for a minimum of six months. And Emerson allows clients to cancel at any time.

It’s important to run any contracts past your lawyers. And keep in mind that it’s okay to change contracts for each client. “I still tweak terms every time I touch my contract template based what I’ve learned, liked, or didn’t in my last client relationship,” Emerson said.

Ensure your retainer lasts

Beyond producing great work, submitting on time, and adhering to the parameters of your contract, there are a few things you can do to nurture your client relationship.

For one, communicate regularly with your client to see if they’re satisfied. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. “Setting up a regular cadence for email updates or meetings is so crucial to staying on task and reminding the client of all the value you’re providing,” Servin said. “It’s also the best way to stay ahead of potential roadblocks and identify new opportunities.”

Another way to stay top-of-mind (and at the top of their list) is through new service offerings like extra revisions, monthly meetings, or social posts to help promote content. “That kind of personal attention is hard to put a price on, so when the next freelance writer comes along, it won’t even be a thought for them to leave you,” Black said.

Most importantly, resist the urge to walk away when the work becomes repetitive—or to let it affect quality.

“It can get tedious writing about the same thing month in and month out, so the quality can suffer,” Black said. “But these are the very clients who keep you in business, so instead of taking them for granted, treat them like the gold that they are. Bend over backwards to make their content great.”

Have questions or your own tips about retainers? Tweet us at @TheFreelancer.

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