Top 3 Types of Retainer Gigs (and How Copywriters Can Get Them)

Freelance writer inks a retainer gig contractAs a marketer who hires and trains dozens of freelance writers every year, I’m a big fan of working with writers on retainer.

To me, they’re the true win-win.

As a writer, you get peace of mind knowing you have steady work (and a steady paycheck) month-after-month. And as a marketer, I save a ton of time on every project and typically get better results.

So, what are the best types of retainer gigs? In my experience, these three deals are the ones most often overlooked by writers. (Which means great opportunity for you!)

1. Social Media

Social media is a top pick for two reasons.

For starters, most businesses have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to social media. They know they need to have a presence. But they don’t understand why.

But more important, it gives you an inside edge on other writing assignments that are necessary for an effective social media marketing strategy. Which means you’ll be able to develop a list of other assignments you can pitch your clients — from landing pages and email campaigns to online content and Pay-Per-Click ads.

The writer’s role includes:

  • Managing their social media communities
  • Writing updates
  • Writing ads to grow followers and increase engagement
  • Leading discussions

Fees:

  • Upwards of $2,000 a month
  • New content is often priced separately

How to land:

  • Get involved in their social networks.
  • Identify how they’re using them (customer service, sales, etc.).
  • Research and join similar groups to see what their competition is doing.
  • Present the client with solutions for achieving their goals and taking advantage of missed opportunities.

2. E-newsletters

E-newsletters provide an inexpensive way to develop a relationship with prospects, and they allow a company (or service provider) to position itself as an expert in the industry.

But here’s the catch: Once a business starts sending out an e-newsletter, their prospects and customers expect it to show up on a regular basis.

Which is great for you. Because it means they’re going to need good e-newsletter content written on a consistent, ongoing schedule.

The writer’s role includes:

  • Researching the industry
  • Developing an editorial calendar
  • Writing the e-newsletter content
  • Developing a single voice for the company
  • Managing the list and disseminating the e-newsletter

Fees:

  • $900 to $2,000 per issue (length is typically 1,200 to 1,500 words)
  • Plus thousands to set-up an e-newsletter from scratch

How to land:

  • Focus on a particular niche.
  • Review newsletters in the industry.
  • Put together a few sample issues.
  • Prepare two Project Proposal templates:
    • taking over an existing e-newsletter,
    • and starting a new e-newsletter.

3. Online Content

Companies spent more than $118.4 billion on content marketing in 2013 — yet many writers don’t think of online content as a retainer deal. They approach the projects piece-by-piece.

But companies need content on an ongoing basis!

Google now insists that a website have quality content (and an ongoing stream of it) or its search engine rankings will suffer.

Content marketing is essentially “selling without selling.” Instead, businesses educate their readers with stories, metaphors, and simple advice in the form of new articles, blog posts, emails, and so on. Then, when the reader is ready to make a purchase, they are open to the company’s product and ready to take action.

The writer’s role includes:

  • Researching the industry
  • Writing blog posts in the voice of company executives or experts
  • Conducting interviews for case studies, press releases, or articles
  • Developing different pieces that will move the prospect through the sales funnel (emails, video scripts, slide shows, etc.)

Fees:

  • $100 to $500 per piece, depending on length and complexity of topic

How to land:

  • Read content on websites of interest.
  • Determine who their audience is and what they’re trying to ultimately sell.
  • Create a list of relevant topics.

Remember, retainer deals can be put in place whenever there is an ongoing need for a particular type of content or copy.

Ready to get started? Here are some best practices to follow.

Talk about retainers with every client

If there’s an ongoing need for copy or content, pitch a retainer.

The key is to understand their need/volume before pitching. Take the time to learn how much copy or content they need and determine where retainers could fit in.

No retainer deal is too small

It may seem silly to set up a retainer with a company who only needs one article a month. But hey, it’s still one more project you can count on month-after-month!

Plus, it could very well be a way to get your foot in the door. You can always increase the retainer at a later date, and it will set you up for other projects that arise in the company.

Evaluate retainer deals regularly

Any time you set up a deal, you’re basing it on what you both “think” the scope of the project will be. Then plan to evaluate your retainer deals at 60 days, 6 months, and then annually.

When evaluating, look for ways you can provide additional value. Then, propose a new deal that shows how much more value the client will receive.

Sell benefits other than cost savings

Clients expect to save a little money on retainer deals. So you shouldn’t focus your pitch on the savings.

Focus on the bigger benefits:

  • You’ll know their products and services deeply.
  • You’ll understand their target audience inside and out.
  • You know how they operate, and therefore can turn things around faster and on schedule.
  • You’ll be able to offer up other ideas that will make their business more successful.

Be mindful about what you charge

Pricing is often a challenge for writers. When pitching a retainer deal, make sure you’re thinking of the big picture.

  • Your time — both spent and saved.
  • What the regular rate would be if each item were contracted individually.
  • The value to the client (the return on investment).
  • How much the client saves in exchange for guaranteeing you work every month.

At the end of the day, retainer deals are usually good for both the writer and the client. As long as you’re happy with the fee for the work you’ll put in every month, and the client gets the return from the monthly expense, it’s a win-win.

Got questions about getting retainer gigs? Ask in the comments below.

Rebecca Matter is a copywriter and president of American Writers & Artists Inc. (AWAI), the world’s leading trainer of direct-response copywriters and web writers. She speaks and writes on topics ranging from getting and working with clients to successful marketing strategies.

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48 comments on “Top 3 Types of Retainer Gigs (and How Copywriters Can Get Them)
  1. Nataly says:

    Great great post! Very helpful! Thank you very much for the information. 🙂

  2. Pratik Solanki says:

    I require a retainer presentation for monthly client, How can I do it, pls
    help or give me some idea…

  3. Is there anywhere to find an example of what a retainer agreement looks like? Want to be sure I’m sending my potential client something professional and legally sound. Thanks!

  4. Stacey says:

    I’m only really getting started on my path as a freelancer and would really like to have regular jobs on retainer.

    Thank you very much for your post and for everybodies comments. I got a whole lot out of it!
    Stacey recently posted…Put your loved ones at ease about your travel plansMy Profile

  5. Oludami says:

    Already smelled AWAI from the beginning of the post. So glad to see one of my great teachers here. How AWAI has changed my life!

    Thanks for bringing Rebecca here, Carol 🙂
    Oludami recently posted…How to Write an Online Advertorial that SellsMy Profile

  6. Valuable tips here (and great comments, too). One thing that stands out to me is the strong implication that a retainer involves a quantity discount by default or definition. That is absolutely not the case. In fact, providing ongoing content for a client often involves fine-tuning industry expertise, reading industry publications on a daily or weekly basis, keeping up with current events relevant to the industry, and so on. In other words, a great deal of time and effort to do a great job. More work does not equal less effort (more often the opposite is true). I do not give quantity discounts. There is no savings to ME that I can pass along to the client as if they are a shopper in the bulk food aisle. If the client “expects to save money” by offering a stream of income, I try to diplomatically educate them as to my role and value as a content creator.

    Admittedly, this works best for writers who have a full calendar at satisfactory rates. But I caution all freelancers to beware the quantity discount and use it very, very sparingly.

  7. Shahrukh says:

    A good article to read, thanks Carol for this information. Keep doing this good work.

  8. It seems many writers struggle with the concept of retainers. Simply put it means you and your client agree to do X for $Y … EVERY MONTH. The client is contracting you to deliver a fixed set of services/value etc for a fixed fee.

    A little of 40% of my monthly income is retainer based … I’m working toward 80% and with a little luck and persistent – I’ll get there.

    For example I have clients who we bill on the 1st of each month (to their credit card so there’s no receivables waiting!) varying amounts from $500 to $1500. This is for social media updates, articles and other online content.

    We work on a monthly cycle and deliver the content to the client at guaranteed times. The client has essentially “out sourced” or “contracted” this job to me and my team. It’s all very simple really and not as complicated as some would think.

    If the client wished to cancel the retainer we simple request a month’s notice to ensure we can all wind things down properly. My cycle goes like this:

    1st of the month – we bill client (for NEXT month.)
    15th of the month – deadline for cancelling NEXT month’s retainer.
    20th of the month – we send content to client for *NEGATIVE OPTION APPROVAL
    30th of the mont – we upload, post and schedule NEXT MONTH’S content.

    Rinse and repeat …

    * Negative option approval is KEY because we don’t wait for clients to approve our work. We explain we publish unless they tell us NOT too. It’s a spin on the old “book of the month idea” where you get a new book unless you tell them to stop. We deliver content and publish unless the client tells us to stop.

    And yes it’s a VERY popular way to approach it (when you and the client are past the first 30-60 days … hey, you do need to earn their trust.) I have some clients with whom we’ve been providing services and I’ve NOT spoken to them in more than a year! And in many cases barely an email … we just keep on keeping on!

    Cool huh?

    So yes … I’m a big fan of retainers 🙂
    James Burchill recently posted…#Free #Book #Friday – Thanksgiving Gift For YouMy Profile

  9. Kimberly says:

    Good question Daryl, I am curious about this as well. My guess is that being certified would help you get the gig, but I’m not sure how it affects pay, if at all.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Honestly, I’ve never heard a client ask me, “Do you have a certification in writing case studies?” Or white papers, or whatever it is. They just want to see ones you’ve done. Clients are completely ignorant of what training programs are available, how good they are, etc.

  10. Perry Rose says:

    AWAI–UGH.

  11. Thanks for defining that for me!

  12. Andrea says:

    Thanks so much!
    Andrea recently posted…10 Famous Advertising QuotesMy Profile

  13. Hi Rob S – sounds like you have some steady work, which is great! As to the fee ranges, pricing is a whole other discussion, as the size of the company and revenue that your copy/content may impact matter greatly. I’ve actually written quite a few articles and done webinars on the topic – it’s a big one!

    My recommendation to writers is always to be proactive with your marketing and go after the clients who value their marketing – and therefore their writers. You’ll be in a better position to ask for more money.

    Also picking an industry niche can help increase your fees (since you’ll market yourself as an expert in the field), as well as make it easier to research clients you want to write for.

    Good luck!
    Rebecca Matter recently posted…Writing Self-Promotion MaterialsMy Profile

  14. Awesome Penny! (and sorry these replies aren’t threading under each comment – Carol is looking into the cause – but I swear I’m clicking reply) 🙂

    I’d love to hear back on how things go – and what you learn from the change in your own marketing. I’m always adapting my presentations and content based on feedback I get from writers.

    Thanks for the note!
    Rebecca Matter recently posted…Writing Self-Promotion MaterialsMy Profile

  15. Awesome Kris Windley – glad the timing was so perfect. Good luck with the new proposals!
    Rebecca Matter recently posted…Writing Self-Promotion MaterialsMy Profile

  16. Hi Andrea – once again, I 100% agree with Carol. Try to set up deals based on the project, not by the hours. Of course you’ll want to take into consideration how much time you’ll be spending when setting up the “project fee.” But if you set up the deal to be something like 2 newsletters, or 4 articles per month – you won’t have to worry about going over or under. Now I notice you said the client doesn’t have a set need every month – one idea there is to create the need. Figure out what they SHOULD be publishing every month to achieve the goals they want to hit, and then present the proposal that way … “By posting 4 articles a month, you’d be able to .” If you choose to go the hourly route (xx hours per month) than just add in a review of the deal at 90 days and 6 months, and adjust if necessary. Good luck!
    Rebecca Matter recently posted…Writing Self-Promotion MaterialsMy Profile

  17. Janice that’s awesome news!! Thanks so much for sharing it here with everyone. Hopefully your success will encourage more writers to ask for retainers. They sure make life easier! 🙂
    Rebecca Matter recently posted…Writing Self-Promotion MaterialsMy Profile

  18. Hi Donia – thank you so much for sharing the details of your deals. I’m happy to hear that your pro bono clients saw the value, and that you asked for the deal. Another win/win! Lots of lessons for all of us to learn there.
    Rebecca Matter recently posted…Writing Self-Promotion MaterialsMy Profile

  19. Excellent Cathie! And since you’ve learned so much about the industry, you should definitely leverage that to companies who would benefit from all that knowledge. Creating a niche for yourself can make it much easier to market yourself – you’re immediately portrayed as having more value, and clients will expect that they need to pay you more. Good luck securing a few more retainers!

  20. Best post on copy writing, Rebecca.your data and insights are helpful to me to consider these sort of work.thank you very much.
    venkatesh i khajjidoni recently posted…Every Writer’s Book “The Elements of Style”: A ReviewMy Profile

  21. Rob S says:

    Almost all my steady work is “retainer” work. I write X articles per month for 3 clients. They don’t pay nearly as well as what you apparently make, but even at $40/350-500 words, I can make $60 an hour. Occasionally I get a gig that pays higher rates and am looking for more, but as yet no ongoing work.
    Rob S recently posted…Who Sells the Best Brainwave Entrainment Product?My Profile

  22. Andrea says:

    You’re right, thanks!

  23. Ronn Jerard says:

    Great post, Rebecca. It got my attention as a strategy to follow.

  24. Andrea says:

    Thanks Carol! For an hours-based retainer agreement, does the client typically expect one to carry over “unused” hours or do they go by the wayside?
    Andrea recently posted…10 Famous Advertising QuotesMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think the whole point of the retainer is they’ve committed to pay for X, and they have to do it whether or not they end up using you. Otherwise, why have a retainer agreement? The concept is that you’re reserving that time for them, and they’ve committed to paying for it.

  25. Thanks Daryl! I personally don’t factor in certifications when deciding to hire a writer or not. I look 100% at the quality of their writing, their knowledge of the topic, and if the tone/voice is a fit for my audience. I do think certifications can be valuable when dealing with more technical stuff – like maybe SEO. But for writing jobs, it all comes down to the writing for me.

    • Keira says:

      Testing the Reply button!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I was curious what you’d say here, Rebecca, because my experience is that certifications mean nothing to clients. Take a training if you need the skills, and then use them to make more, but clients have no idea what these courses are, if they’re any good or not, etc. They just want to see your results and your portfolio.

  26. Willi – I second what Carol said, it’s always a good idea to get 50% upfront when starting out with a new client. As for the length of the deal, start with at least a 3-month engagement out of the gate, with the understanding that the deal will continue in perpetuity until one of you cancels (with notice).

  27. Excellent Katherine! Sounds like you’re off to a very good start.

  28. Penny Hawes says:

    Great post, Rebecca – thanks for breaking it down. I’m in the first few months of growing my freelance writing business from strictly part-time work writing articles for regional magazines to this being my full time work. I’m now focusing more on pitching (and landing) copywriting work, and love the retainer approach.

    Ideas from your post are going into my marketing calendar now!

    Thanks!
    Penny Hawes recently posted…Don’t Try This at HomeMy Profile

  29. Kris Windley says:

    GREAT breakdown of retainer-work! I am *as I type this* printing it to put in my PD binder for product development. I’m only writing for clients on a piece by piece basis now, and this would be SO much better, for everyone involved, I think. Thanks for the great info!
    xo
    K

  30. Excellent ideas. Thanks.

  31. Andrea says:

    This is very valuable advice! I have a client I am about to put on retainer but it’s my first so I am uncertain of how to draft an agreement. I want an informal agreement but one that solidifies the deal. This client does not have a set amount of work each month. And so, do I estimate a number of hours each month and convert it to dollars? Then, if the client goes over or under in a particular month, what do I do?

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m not sure what an ‘informal’ agreement is — either you have a signed contract in writing, or you don’t, Andrea!

      If the amount of work varies, you’ll have to define a baseline amount that the retainer covers, and then what it would cost for additional projects or hours. Try to define it by the project if you can instead of by hours — you can earn more that way.

      Hopefully Rebecca will weigh in with her thoughts as well!

  32. Janice says:

    I’ve been sold on making retainer agreements for a while, since this is the absolute best way for a freelancer to make consistent money (besides having passive income from book or program sales). Any time I work with a new client, I always try to sell them on the benefits of an ongoing working relationship. So far, I’ve been able to develop four retainers from the five new clients in the past year. Yay!
    Janice recently posted…Bounce rate: the evil force stopping your site trafficMy Profile

  33. Amy says:

    Great advice Rebecca. I love how you’ve showed how to position retainers as a win-win. I’m going to add the option to my proposals.

    Thanks
    Amy recently posted…How to Drive Results with a Content Writer BriefMy Profile

  34. Donia Moore says:

    Great advice. I have been using retainers for both small and large clients. Another advantage of a retainer for the client is that they will know exactly what they will be spending per month. They will often be amenable to putting you on a retainer when you show them your hourly rate vs your retainer rate for a project in your proposal. I have several small clients that are non-profits and I was doing a lot of pro-bono work for them. When I needed to cut down on the free work I was doing, I simply explained that I needed to charge a small monthly retainer that was within their budget for a limited amount of work. They all opted for the retainer. I also usually offer a retainer for a minimum of a 3-6 month period based on a signed letter of agreement, which can then be reviewed at that point. I do include a clause that with 30 days written notice, either of us can terminate the agreement. I haven’t had anyone terminate an agreement.

  35. Thanks for the nudge, I do and should pitch more online content and I’d like an enewsletter client or two, too, for all the benefits you mentioned,

    I have one client I do 3 blog posts a week for their CEO for the website. I have learned so much about their industry that I am able to easily suggest post ideas. And as you said it is nice to have that money coming in regularly. As I do my monthly bills I think “oh right!” And add on another $xxxx to my monthly total for them.

    With another client I do off-and-on content, but I wanted to under score the value of your name out there. She regularly gives my name to her colleagues in other departments when they need a writer.

    One of my goals will be to find another content gig. It’s the monthly project I love the most!

  36. Daryl says:

    Great suggestions Rebecca. My question is – have you found that getting certification (I recently became Huubspot certified) is useful in getting retainer contracts, particularly for something such as social media management, which is addressed in the training?
    Daryl recently posted…August 2014 Freelance Writing Income ReportMy Profile

  37. Willi Morris says:

    For purposes of this blog, what would you consider a retainer? 50% One month? Or does that vary per project?
    Willi Morris recently posted…Three Ways to Drive People Away from Your WebsiteMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Willi, a retainer is an ongoing contract where the client commits to pay you X amount for X amount of work each month. I think you’re thinking of an up-front deposit. Personally, I do 50% up front the first month and then just bill at the end of each month with ongoing clients, but maybe Rebecca has some other tips.

  38. Lois Harris says:

    This is fantastic advice Carol. Per usual. I will definitely go after this in the ag and food industry. I love the idea of newsletters – used to put out an 8-page monthly all by myself in the old days when layout was a bit of a computer nightmare. Cheers and thanks.

  39. I’m VERY interested in specializing in this sort of work in the mental-and-behavioral-health niche. I already have individual article samples and a small social-media retainer agreement ($200/month) with a nonprofit counseling organization.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…Getting Into the Right MindMy Profile

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