These workshop notes are taken from Mike Unwalla's presentation to technical writers on 24 April 2004 at Sheffield Hallam University. They were updated on 22 March 2006.
The workshop examined how freelancers in the writing business can promote their technical writing services.
Why promote your business?
If nobody knows, they will not buy = failed business.
"The strategy for survival is visibility… What have I done today to make myself more visible?" Will Kintish, www.kintish.co.uk.
Reality check on participants' situation:
- Thinking of starting a freelance technical writing business?
- Work in a company that uses freelancers?
- Already freelance? Agency v. direct contact; Limited company v. sole trader.
Do not throw money at the problem! Typically, go for low-cost promotion.
Professional image: Logo, business cards, letterheads. Vital for professional image.
Website. Not strictly necessary, but it is available all the time. Can be a useful point of access to your business. All you need is one contract, and it has paid for the time and effort you put in. Use meta tags and register with search engines and directories. (Editor's note 2006-03-22. I have changed my mind. Now, I think that every serious business needs a website. If you do not need a website, you probably do not need other types of promotion.)
Brochures, flyers. Very useful. Send mailshots to potential customers. Leave brochures in business centres. What makes good promotional material?
- Focus on key business benefits.
- You/your not I/me/my (expand this with practical examples).
Documentation samples. Very useful to say, "Here's one I did earlier". Confidentiality can be a problem with samples. Some customers are more than happy for you to distribute work that you did for them, but until you have got some customers like that, you will not have much that you can freely distribute.
Thompson Local, Yellow pages, Talking Pages. Go for all the free advertising that is available. Possibly, paid advertising is suitable, but think carefully. For example, how many professionals will telephone Talking Pages to find a technical writer? However, possibly, an advert in your local Chamber of Commerce magazine will be beneficial (you probably will not know until you try it).
Press releases. Where? Business section of local papers. Trade journals specific to your subject (much more difficult to get in to, but probably more beneficial).
Project-based CV. Usually, a CV is not necessary.
Indirect advertising. For example, reviews, articles, material for professional organizations, workshops and presentations at business network events.
Business networking organizations. For example, Chamber of Commerce, business clubs, trade organizations.
Professional memberships. Become known as an expert.
Quality Independent Authors website (www.qualityauthors.co.uk).
Qualifications. For example, MA Tech Authoring, MOUS, City & Guilds. Not necessary, but can give added credibility. And good for your ego.
Newsletter (e-mail or printed). Useful to remind potential customers and past customers of your services.
Other company's marketing flyers and mails. Respond if their services are in some way related to what you do. Possibly, their customers are your potential customers.
E-mail marketing. Be careful! Ideally, get permission first. Also, beware that although currently in EU law (as far as I know), you are permitted to send unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) to businesses, you still are breaking the terms of your agreement with your ISP! I got nailed by Spamcop a while back, although the marketing e-mail message conformed strictly to EU law.
You can use agencies or you can contact potential customers directly. Agencies typically want jobbing technical authors who will travel the country for the next contract. Usually, I contact potential customers directly.customer
Segment the market. When I started cold calling, I did not make a distinction between a sole trader and a multinational. Doh! Usually, the smallest companies cannot afford you (but one of my best customers was a sole trader—not a large contract, but 50% up front without asking, final payment in three days of sending the invoice, and no 'can you just?').
Send mailshots to potential customers. Is it necessary to follow up with a telephone call? Two viewpoints:
- Do not bother with follow-up telephone calls because there are three classes of recipient:
- They have immediate need, you were in the right place at the right time, and they will respond.
- No immediate need, but they can see the value that you bring. They will file your details.
- Not interested. Therefore, do not waste your time.
- Target potential customers carefully. Then follow up with a telephone call.
I used to use the first method, but that was wasteful (on average, one contract from 800 flyers). Now, spend time investigating a potential customer. Find out if they have a tech writing team. Get names. Sometimes speak first, then send follow-up letter or e-mail. Other times, send letter, then follow up with telephone call.
Public sector and large corporates. Difficult to find the right person to contact.
Always keep a record of whom you contacted, when, the outcome, and so on. Build your database. Contact again after a 'suitable period' (18 months?).
Who to contact?
Do some research and find out who to contact. You can contact people with different jobs. Here are some that I have used:
- Managing Director. Particularly applicable in small companies.
- Development Manager. If the technical people write the documentation, offer your technical writing services. Free the development team from writing documentation (they hate writing documentation) and let them focus on development.
- Sales / Marketing Manager. Good documentation improves sales and shows the company favourably.
- Customer Services Manager. Service desks and other support environments are at the front end of customer complaints. Show how you can decrease their workload.
- Documentation Manager. You will not need to sell the concept of good documentation! Therefore, a useful contact for when the company has a short-term need for additional technical writers.
(Editor's note 2006-03-22. I have updated these numbers to show the current state.)
Small advertisements in leading weekly trade magazines. In 2002, a series of six adverts led to a few enquiries, but no business. In 2005, a series of six small advertisements for our technical author training course for software developers did not bring new business.
Full page advertorial in a trade brochure. No observable result.
Small ads in local papers/magazines. No observable result.
Website. TechScribe's first large project was because someone searched for a technical writer and found the TechScribe website. New customers who find us by using Internet search engines account for more than 50% of business by value.
Paid website promotion. Increased visitors to site, but did not increase sales.
Cold calling/flyers. In the early days of trading, this brought TechScribe approximately 40% of all new customers. Nowadays, we do not do much cold calling, although we do still send out marketing leaflets. This causes some interest, but we do not get much business from it.
Business networking and word-of-mouth referrals. This accounts for approximately 25% of our business.
Regional press. Sometimes, TechScribe is mentioned in the local press. (That is nice, but the target market is the UK.) Not sure if this brings work, but it is good for local customers to see TechScribe in the press.
Local digital media. Occasionally TechScribe is mentioned in local digital information newsletters. No observable result.
- Be focused. Segment the market. Contact the right people.
- Show how you benefit the potential customer.
- Be persistent. Follow up. Contact again after a few months (people move on).
- Use a mix of promotional methods. Measure the results. Put time/effort/money into the ones that bring business benefits.
- Always promote yourself and your business.