Forget the Big Fish: Go for the Guppies to Get More Work

By Stacey Freed May 28th, 2020

While pounding the keys at the paragraph factory, who among us doesn’t harbor the dream of landing the big fish—The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, whatever your personal white whale is. But with COVID-induced layoffs, budget cuts, and the subsequent competition from newly hatched freelancers, finding work of any sort has become more difficult.

Some years ago, I weighted my goals more heavily toward making money rather than making a name. I could still pitch to the big fish, but I could count on bigger paydays by going for the guppies—the “smaller” outlets like content providers, trade publications, and non-profits that pay well for writerly expertise.

Today I count a dozen guppies on my 2019 client list. They made up two-thirds of my $77,000 revenue. And, I continue to go back to them. During this pandemic, I sent out letters, not just letting people know I was available, but just seeing how they were doing. I’ve established good relationships with these clients and when they have assignments, they get in touch with me.

You can do this, too. Here’s how.

Track down content providers in your areas of expertise

I stumbled on content providers seven years ago when I interviewed a spokesperson at the National Federation of Independent Business and asked who wrote the pieces on their website. He said they used a company called Imagination, a Chicago-based content agency. I searched Imagination’s web site, looked for a fit on their client list, found a contact person and pitched myself as someone with expertise in the remodeling, construction, and housing industries. Eventually I heard from an editor and after some back and forth, I began writing blogs for their client, Sears Home Services. The pay was $1/word, and the topic was close enough to my wheelhouse that I could easily put pieces together.

There are other content providers with great clients, including Contently and MSP-C, both of which I have relationships with. Here’s how to find others:

  1. Go to the Content Council website. The organization is a non-profit that represents content marketers all over the world.
  2. Click on the members tab.
  3. Search by name, services, or industry. For example, I found “industrial, manufacturing and construction.”
  4. Make your selection. The system will spit out a list of members in that sector— along with the name of a contact person.

Jennifer Goforth Gregory, a B2B content marketing writer and author of The Freelance Content Marketing Writer, suggests looking at the Content Marketing Institute‘s site. “It has a list of nearly 500 agencies big and small who may have large clients,” she said. “Agencies have clients whose company names you don’t know but who are important in their industry and will pay well.” Along with an agency directory CMI has educational resources and research.

Gregory also suggested Googling “marketing agency [subject you write about].” Then approach those agencies with your expertise. They’ll have clients of various sizes. Gregory adds that you can leverage the names of your more well-known clients to find work with the lesser-known set: “I can go to a medium sized tech company and say I’ve written for Hewlett Packard or Adobe.”

Find trade associations that trip your trigger

Pretty much every trade association has a print publication or at least an online presence, and there are hundreds of them. There’s even one for snack foods, if that’s your thing. Do a bit of digging at Marketing Mentor, or go to the Directory of Associations and scroll through the category box to compile a list. “Construction” yields 131 different associations; “export/import” yields seven.

Another big arena for work is non-profit organizations. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics there are 1.56 million nonprofits registered in the United States. Many have magazines and websites that are waiting for your expertise. At TopNonprofits you can find the top 100 organizations ranked by their web traffic.

Jen A. Miller, author of How I Made $135,000 in One Year of Freelancing and writer whose work appears in some of the aforementioned big fish, says that a large part of her work comes from trade publications covering supply chain and laboratory science.

She also suggests taking a deep dive into university or college websites. “Think about all the material a college produces,” she says. “Not just the alumni magazine. There are email updates for news, internal and external publications, development publications, medical school and hospital magazines, research magazines.”

Miller is deliberate in tracking income from her bread-and-butter clients. Twenty-five percent of her writing in 2019 was for universities; 19% for research institutions/hospitals; 9% for associations. She had some other sources of income including teaching, but consumer pubs—the big fish—only accounted for 18% of her income.

Go out on a limb and introduce yourself to editors

Now that you know where to look, take action. It’s time to reel in an editor. Send a short letter of introduction. “Really just the basics,” Miller advised. “My name is X and I write for these folks. Here are clips and if you need a writer let me know.” Miller said that a few years back she sent out 500 cold intros in a short period of time. “Once you get the format down it doesn’t take long. I sent one to a healthcare system in Utah and they are one of my biggest clients.”

Today, with the pandemic rippling through the economy, Miller and Gregory stress the importance of establishing a wide base of relationships—and returning to old ones—to build a resilient pipeline of commissions. With any luck, outlets will send you assignments, rather than asking you to do the heavy lifting of pitching a story.

“A lot of what I write about in trade publications, like supply chain and lab science, is affected by COVID,” Miller says. “Their advertisers still want to advertise, and they haven’t cut their freelance budgets.” While her niche seems a particularly good fit for our current situation, every industry is affected in some way and many are in need of service pieces. “All day we’re reading about COVID. For better or worse, someone has to write about it.”

There’s no need to give up on the big fish, but you can make yourself less crazy by dividing up your goals and your time so you can actually earn money while chasing down stories that might land in the New York Times or Vogue. Just keep your rod and reel handy.

For nearly a decade, Stacey Freed was a senior editor at Remodeling magazine. Since 2013 she has been writing for national trade and consumer publications, content providers and marketing firms. Her writing is regularly featured in Better Homes and Gardens and USA Today special interest publications; Realtor magazine; Professional Builder and online at OneZero;; AARP; House Logic, Sears, and Trulia.

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