The Online Freelance Goldmine: Write for Commercial Websites and Get Paid

by Krista McGruder
The Internet Writing Journal, September 2000
Freelance writers are notoriously persistent: it's the nature of their trade. Both the aspiring and the established stringer learn that for every ten query letters sent to print publications, only one will get a lukewarm response. And for every ten of those semi-favorable responses from a print editor, perhaps one will result in acceptance of an article that translates into a byline, and just as importantly, a check for the freelancer. The frustrations of the job, including fierce competition for limited print space and long response times from harried editors means that even the most hardy freelancer can become discouraged from an empty mailbox and an empty bank account.

Despite the explosion of "new media," freelance writers remain hesitant to submit their queries to commercial website editors. Many freelancers believe that commercial website editors, whether they are hawking butchery, baking or candlestick making, have enough content supplied by the experts within the firm sponsoring the website. Obviously, freelancers believe, the website editor will cull content for the site from the sales, marketing and finance groups in the company.

Smart freelancers will debunk this content myth and profit from it.

The truth is that most websites are content goldmines for smart writers. Website editors are hired by their firms to support the design, systems and technology of a firm's website and while their technological resources are generally well-focused, the content of the site often gets short shrift as the editor concentrates on the nuts and bolts of designing a site, rather than populating the site with content. Commercial websites, whether registered for major investment banks or the most niche small business, need interesting copy to hold the viewer's attention. The industry term for how long a site can hold a viewer's interest is called "stickiness." Sticky websites evolve because someone writes words that convince readers to click, click and then click some more into the transaction portion of the site.

Who better to write the kind of text that causes people to click than freelance writers with fiction and nonfiction writing experience?

Most firms cannot find enough competent and conversant writers internally to populate the site, and often substitute large icons and fancy graphics until they can figure out what to do with the empty page space. This is not surprising: firms hire people to develop, market, sell and distribute their products because this is how they make money. The Internet Revolution is another way for firms to distribute their products, but that doesn't mean that traditional marketing people will be able to write effective content for a text-based tool. Marketing types get paid because they can coax the customer into the sale. They do not, generally, have writing skills necessary to intrigue the customer into inquiring about the services or products firms offer.

Freelancers can write content that gets clicks. And while it's all well and good for someone (this freelancer) to pontificate on the ease of breaking into commercial websites, practical tips are necessary to get started. There are some basic ways to make contacts in the industry:
  1. Surf onto websites that you already know and use. Contact the webmaster via email and ask about the potential to submit content for the site. Make recommendations in your first email and include an attached mock-up sample. Most webmasters will forward your comments to the web editor and will probably reply fairly quickly to your emailed response.

  2. Find online versions of the corporate parents of the magazines to which you normally query. The companies that own magazines have home pages and usually, have websites devoted to the magazines that they publish. Frequently, even the freelancer that has not been able to break into the print version of the publication can get a gig with the online editor. There is usually a bit of competition between the "old" and "new" media forms of the publication and website editors may feel like the stepchildren to their print colleagues. The freelancer can capitalize on this internal tension by querying only the online editor with a strict focus/proposal for improving the website's content.

  3. TRANSACTION, TRANSACTION, TRANSACTION. The successful online freelancer will make certain his/her query stresses how the web editor is going to encourage a transaction. Transaction volume is how start-ups get more funding, and how established companies measure their performance when they publish annual reports. The web editor may be the creative person in the company, but he or she will always report to the business analyst in the company. And any content that gets transactions will get a web editor's ongoing attention.

  4. Web design firms are a great place to establish long-running freelance relationships. Companies hire design firms to develop the technology to power their new e-commerce sites. Web design firms are full of cracker-jack sharp businessmen, programming geeks, account directors and design coordinators. But very, very few design firms keep editors and writers on staff to help design the prototype of a company's content. The best favor a freelancer can do for him/herself is to look up every web design firm in the immediate area and ask for an interview with the accounts director. A freelancer that can pitch for the content business and demonstrate the ability to meet often critically tight deadlines can cash in on corporations that are flush with cash and racing to establish an e-commerce website.
Freelancers should focus their queries to commercial websites, not just based upon his/her excellent writing skills, but also with a mind to the business model of the website. There are a few basic questions the freelancer needs to answer to illuminate the nature of the business and therefore, the nature of the pitch for the job.

Does the company sell its products on the site, or merely provide information with regard to the company's products and services? If the site serves as an online brochure for the company or for corporate shareholders, the text will be more formal, especially if it is a publicly-traded company. The background of the company, bios of the officers, and perhaps even an annual report will be included. If it's a retail site, the best chance to get a gig is for the writer to stress his promotional copywriting experience. These products will need quick blurbs, just as any print media products need quick blurbs to catch a consumer's attention. If the site serves as a marketing arm of the company, the writer should point to any research or advertising clips he has in his portfolio. The style of a point of sale website will be much different than that of a corporate website; retail sites exist to sell products and/or services and snappy ad copy is essential.This sort of job usually requires more "sizzle", while corporate sites only need the "steak".

Does the site offer news, entertainment, personals, etc. alongside banner advertising or rely on e-commerce sponsorship? Most gaming, music and personals websites count on banner advertising for revenue. These websites need content that will keep the reader's attention long enough to click on a banner ad to buy a product that relates to the theme of the website. However, many sites now consider banner advertising the "old generation" and instead are using the "second generation" Internet business model. These sites, particularly youth-targeted and entertainment sites, will praise or pan different corporate products in the feature articles. Their modules on travel for example, would list the top ten travel websites and include links to the other sites. This type of "partnership" means that a writer needs to pitch his/her writing abilities with regard to specific topics. Obviously, content that describes the Internet travel industry requires a good deal of familiarity with the plethora of web options. These highly detailed content requirements are small goldmines for freelancers because most companies won't have staff writers with the time to do the research necessary to write a minutiae-filled promotional article.

The best place for a freelance writer to pick up leads for these "theme-oriented" websites are the various search engines. Google, Yahoo!, CNET and AltaVista all use boolean searches to direct the freelancer to sites that contain catch phrases. Furthermore, online research companies such as Media Metrix and Forrester Research will often publish abstracts of summaries of their reports regarding effective online media and advertising. Any freelancer pitching for business will need to become familiar with these search engines and research firms because the website editors use these companies as the backbone of their sales and marketing efforts. Editors will award business to freelance writers who know how to get the information that they simply do not have the time to find.

Of course, nothing is for free in this world and online copy rarely gets a byline. But the freelancer gets a check and gets the chance to propose ideas to editors that rarely have time to focus on the quality of the content of the site. Moreover, the website content business, unlike print publications, is an ongoing, continual business. Companies update their websites, usually on a daily basis, and need someone to write, proof and edit the text that goes onto the site. Freelancers that can establish contacts with website editors can get this ongoing business and watch their portfolio of work and their bank accounts grow.

Krista McGruder **Krista McGruder is a freelance writer living and working in the West Village in New York. When not writing, she tends to her baby bulldog, Wilbur.



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