July 17, 2001
Case Study

How to Get More Business Online as Freelance Marketer or Copywriter

SUMMARY: Thousands of marketing and advertising professionals have lost their jobs due to downsizing and layoffs this year. Some of the most talented and experienced among them are viewing this not as a tragedy, but as a heaven-sent chance to start their own businesses. We interviewed Karon Thackston, who's been successfully working from home as an independent copywriter and marketing consultant since 1999, to learn her proven tactics for winning accounts online.  Plus, links to three more inspirational articles about entrepreneurial marketers are included. BTW: We highly recommend that ad agencies and PR firms also read this Case Study because Thackston reveals some clever tactics that could apply to your Web sites as well.
Thousands of marketing and advertising professionals have lost their jobs due to downsizing and layoffs this year. Some of the most talented and experienced among them are viewing this not as a tragedy, but as a heaven-sent chance to start their own businesses.

Therefore, along with our regular articles on how larger agencies and interactive marketing technology providers can market their services to marketers, we're now adding more tips for independent entrepreneurs to our editorial mix.

Karon Thackston has been marketing her copywriting and marketing strategy services successfully online since 1999. So, she's this week's poster child for former big-agency marketers who are now making it on their own!

Back in 1999, Karon Thackston had been working as an advertising and marketing pro at agencies and client-side for about 16 years and she was ready for a change. She says, "I was tired of doing what everybody else wanted me to do. I'm an independent spirit with my own ideas about the way things should be done."

Despite her experience with big brand-name companies, Thackston decided to target small businesses. She says, "I've worked for lots of big boys, it got very boring for me. I wanted more of a challenge. I think the small businessperson needs more help than the huge P&Gs."

So, she set up an office in her home in South Carolina, whipped up a quick Web site and hoped for business to come her way. But things weren't easy at first. During her first four months in business, Thackston made a total of $39.

Although Thackston is a strong copywriter, she's self admittedly, "not the least bit artistic." She figured a big part of her problem getting new business was due to the "awful, horrible, nasty Web site that I designed myself originally."

Thackston joined various Internet marketing-related discussion groups, such as FrankelBiz, in order to ask for Web designer recommendations. Leads from these groups led her to Mount Evans Design, who immediately revamped Thackston's site so it would be a much more effective selling tool. The elements that help this site generate sales leads and shorten the sales cycle include:

- Long copy on the home page: Ignoring the old rule of 'don't make people scroll', Thackston's home page prints out to about three pages of copy. She explains, "The home page is obviously what gets the majority of hits. That copy is my salesperson. I looked at it from the point of view of needing to provide enough information to give them an idea of what I do, how I do it and how it's going to do for them."

She continues, "There are certain things that will dictate whether you need long or short copy. One of those is how much of an investment -- either psychologically or monetarily -- will your customer make. Small businesses are money-orientated. You have to do a lot more persuading with a small business than a corporation. They look at it and say, 'This much per hour? I'll have to sell this many eBooks to pay this check off.'"

One of the cleverest sections of her home page is a chart showing before and after sample copywriting, followed by the headline, "Can you write this kind of copy?"

- Highly explanatory rates page: Many of Thackston's potential clients have never hired a professional copywriter before, so they aren't aware of how much good copy should really cost. Thackston overcomes price objections up-front with her online rates page that explains all the steps she goes through to write copy. She says, "It helps them understand there's more involved than just writing." Her customer testimonials and portfolio page also help support her pricing.

- Contact us form with few required questions: Unlike many companies' lead generation forms that require visitors to fill out their complete name, address and other details, Thackston's form asks for fewer data points, with very few required fields. She says, "It's based on my pet peeves of going to other sites. I didn't want to put customers through something I myself couldn't stand to do." The form includes a comments field with no limits on the amount a visitor can type into it, plus a question asking how many years the visitor has been in business.

- Thank You bounce page that asks people to contact Thackston again if they don't hear back within 48 hours. Thackston discovered she was losing a small, but important, percent of her sales leads because visitors typed in incorrect email addresses in her form. So she added a warm note to the thank you bounce page that comes up after visitors submit a contact form. She says, "It says we really appreciate the business, but we do get some returned emails. So if you don't hear from us within 48 hours, chances are you put a typo in your email address."

In order to drive new traffic to the site, Thackston began writing a regular marketing how-to column that she's syndicated across the Internet, complete with her photo and hotlink. She's careful to make the articles evergreen, instead of newsy, so they can be posted ad infinitum. She says, "I've had people email me asking for permission to reprint articles from last year." Currently her articles are distributed with free reprint rights to webmasters worldwide through ParentPreneur Group, Web-Source.net and Digital Cement. (See links at end.)

Thackston also encourages current client referrals by running a note at the bottom of every invoice that says, "Our business is based on referrals. Please share us with your associates." The note includes a hotlink to a page on her site that shows the work she's just done for the client.

After starting out slowly in 1999, Thackston made a healthy living in 2000 and has grown her sales 1000% in 2001. She says happily, "I'm looking around going 'What recession?'"

Thackston adds, "It still takes time to grow a business online, you have to do a lot of the same things a brick and mortar does. If you can hang in there -- the more time your articles have to circulate, more referrals from happy customers, more people to add to your network of resources -- it just snowballs."

About 50% of Thackston's new business currently comes from client referrals. That little note on her invoices with the hotlink to a live sample works like a charm. Thackston explains, "People are excited about the change in copy for their brochure or whatever. They email all their friends, 'Take a look at my stuff!' and there's a chain reaction type of thing."

An additional 25% of new business comes from visitors who found her site by clicking through on one of her syndicated articles. Search engines account for another 20%. Thackston isn't sure how she got the remaining 5% of clients, but it's not for want of asking. She says, "I'm maybe too persistent in asking people how they found my site! But some people are just bound and determined not to tell me."

Thackston also generates a large percent of her revenues from previous customers. She notes, "I'm very blessed to have a lot of repeat customers."

What's worked for her site? Here are some details:

- The long-copy home page has made sales. Thackston says, "I have gotten customers who absolutely went no further than the home page, clicked on contact us and sent an email." Her copywriting page and article archives are also popular pages.

- A surprisingly high percentage of visitors who fill out the lead generation contact-us form take the time to answer all the questions and write additional notes in the comments field. Thackston says, "It's probably to do with the fact that I make it optional. Whatever you feel like giving me, that's what I'll take." She's also found the 'years in business' question has been a big help for sorting leads. People with fewer years in business tend to need more hands-on help and know-how in basic areas than other leads.

After some initial email conversations, Thackston is able to close a sale on more than 50% of leads within a week or two. She notes the sales cycle for small businesses is substantially shorter than for larger companies because there are fewer decision makers involved.

- The thank you bounce page requesting follow-up email has also been a success. Thackston says, "When they are in a hurry people will reverse letters when they're typing and my reply email won't go through. I've definitely had some people email me back saying, 'I didn't get your reply so I'm emailing you again!'"

- Thackston's explicit details on what clients get for their money on the rates information page has saved her from the dickering that plague many other freelance marketers. She has only had three people question her pricing the entire time she's been in business.

One last note: We asked Thackston how she handles potential clients who want endless consultative questions answered for free (a big problem for many freelance marketers starting out.) She says, "Depending on the detail, I'll answer one or two questions. If it seems like it wants to continue along the same route, I'll send an email back saying I have some information or insight, however this is my business, how I make my living. If you would like to develop a marketing plan or get a consultation, I'll be glad to help and the price is such and such. Most of the time they don't email back. Either they are not willing to spend the money or they don't have it."

She adds, "For some reason, especially at first starting out it seems to be a magnetic thing. They [people wanting free consulting] come from all over the place!"


Thackston's site

Mount Evans Designs

FrankelBiz Discussion Group

ParentPreneur Club

Web-Source Net

Digital Cement

Here are two more inspirational articles on marketing entrepreneurs who've been successful, despite the economy:

1. Marcia Yudkin Calls Her Marketing Minute Email Newsletter "A Method of Minting Money"

Yudkin's been marketing her copywriting services online since the early 1990s. Her successful tactics include a "Virtual Seminar" and her "Marketing Minute" newsletter. Learn more about how Yudkin gets new clients at:

2. Start-Up InternetVIZ Lands $15,000 Corporate Accounts with Clever Guerrilla Tactics

InternetVIZ, a company that produces email newsletters for corporations, launched at the worst possible time economically, February 2001. The two-person founding team didn't have loads of money to tide them through. Since InternetVIZ is a bootstrapping effort, they needed to think up guerrilla marketing ideas that would pay off fast. Learn more at:

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