“Where do I find white paper clients?”
This is the most common question we get asked by new white paper writers.
And it’s the toughest to answer because every established writer has a different story about landing their first client.
While we’ve shared some tactics in the past, the reality is there’s no guaranteed step-by-step process we can outline for you.
But we can share some real-life experiences that offer some key lessons.
Here are three:
- My own story of starting my writing career from a phone booth
- How Gordon, That White Paper Guy, used a touch of humor to break the ice with prospects
- And how one of our subscribers, Beverly Matoney, is developing a new niche with a proven but seldom-used approach
There’s a common link through all three stories. See if you can spot it.
1: Ask for what you need
I always wanted to be a journalist.
Through a combination of focus, hard work, and lucky breaks, I found myself in that world.
As a teenager, I wrote a newspaper column. Then I had a summer job as a cub reporter. At my student newspaper, I was the features editor.
I loved every minute of those gigs.
And then in 1995, I became an intern at Canada’s largest newspaper, The Toronto Star. I wrote stories on everything from the trial of an accused Nazi war criminal to the national Spelling Bee finals.
Then I burned out. Badly.
To recover, I took a job at a summer camp chaperoning a gaggle of 14-year-old girls.
As that gig (thankfully) came to a close, I knew what I wanted to do: Get back to Toronto and get writing again, this time as a freelancer.
So I started using my mid-day breaks to line up at the camp’s one payphone with my address book in hand.
When I got to the front of the line, I would call one or two friends (depending on the lineup!)
I told everyone I was coming back to Toronto and I needed two things:
1. A place to live
2. Some paid writing work
Then I’d call my answering service to see if anyone had called back.
Near the end of the summer, I got a voice message from a university friend, Kira Vermond.
Kira had taken a job as editor at a magazine publishing firm.
She was putting out 60+ trade magazines on everything from trucking to the latest in green roofs.
She’d just lost one of her key writers. AND the upper floor of her two-story house was going to be vacant for my first two weeks back in Toronto.
So… I became Kira’s “writer in residence” for two weeks, while I continued to hunt for an apartment.
It was a frantic time: bashing out articles, calling up landlords, and pounding the pavement.
But that break gave me the start I needed to re-settle in Toronto, rather than heading back to my parents’ couch in Northern Ontario.
To this day, when I think of that, I’m proud I had the guts to make those calls and clearly ask for what I needed.
2: Don’t be so damn serious
In the old days before the Web, every creative type had to put together “a book” to showcase their work.
Then they lugged it around in-person to meet with prospects.
Writers, designers, photographers, illustrators: They all spent weeks fussing over their portfolios.
They went back and forth on questions like:
- Which samples should I include?
- Should I put in the originals or just copies?
- What order should I arrange them in?
- Should I walk every prospect through all my best work?
- Or should I flip to the most relevant sample?
And how were you supposed to answer that dreaded request from a prospect: “Can I keep this to look at overnight?”
Many horror stories made the rounds about the sloppy prospect—or their child—or their dog—who spilled coffee/milk/beer/red wine/mustard/ketchup/dog food on that precious book and ruined all those one-of-a-kind samples.
Gordon Graham, long before we ever started That White Paper Guy, fussed over his portfolio like everyone else.
And like everyone else, he had a honking big, shoulder-busting case he lugged around to show magazine editors and corporate marketers.
Then one day on a trip to Edmonton he met a cartoonist drawing caricatures of people on the street. So he asked her to draw up one for him to add to his portfolio.
It might have cost $10 in 1985.
He still has it…
“That drawing would always get a chuckle,” he recalls.
“It conveyed that I was approachable and light-hearted. Lots of prospects told me they’d never seen anything like it in anyone else’s book.”
That touch of originality helped Gordon land dozens of magazine articles, a couple of regular columns, and his very first corporate client in 1990.
The point: Don’t take yourself so seriously.
When you’re pitching, a little self-deprecating humor can help break the ice and defuse the tension for both sides.
3: Get creative with your chosen tactics
Ok. We get it. Our stories are ancieeeent. The landscape is different now.
So here’s what one of our subscribers is doing today.
After being a homeschool educator for 16 years, Beverly Matoney launched herself as a copywriter for mom-and-pop curriculum developers seeking to reach homeschoolers.
That transition worked and she developed a following in that niche.
After two years, she decided to branch out to a new, potentially more lucrative, market: AgriTech.
Her new goal is to help marketers seeking to reach big farm and ranch operators with case studies and white papers.
She also signed up for relevant trade publications and did some preliminary research on LinkedIn.
Then she took the organizations she found, narrowed those down to 162 companies that fit her criteria for “most desirable prospects” and hunted down the relevant contacts.
Now Matoney is creating a hand-written letter for her contacts at each company.
In each letter, she praises the recipient and the company for their latest achievements, followed by a soft introduction and an explanation of how she could help them achieve even more.
“The hand-written letter is my signature prospecting tool. I’ve been sending them for a couple of years now,” she says.
Matoney notes about 30% of the people she sends her letter to have become clients. “And that doesn’t count prospects on my follow-up radar.”
What a fabulous conversion rate!
Even though her new niche is more corporate, Matoney is still betting on the unique charm of a hand-written note.
“Letters are a novel marketing approach that not many people use,” she says. “I’m hoping to stand out from the rest of the crowd.”
Now that everything seems to be happening on the screen, getting an old-fashioned letter is an event that makes people sit up and take notice.
What’s the common link in these stories?
What do you think is the common link between these three stories: one from the 1980s, one from the 1990s, and one from today?
If you said anything like grit, guts, persistence, resilience, or courage, I think you’re right.
Do you know Brené Brown?
She’s a leading voice on the topic of courage and one of our favorite authors here at That White Paper Guy.
In other words: To be brave, you have to handle being a little scared.
Here’s her TED Talk, viewed more than 50 million times.
Looking for work is one of the most vulnerable times of our lives. It can feel like our survival and the fate of our family hangs in the balance.
It can seem like we’re in someone else’s hands and they can easily say, “No.”
That feeling hasn’t changed since the 1980s. And long before.
To successfully find clients, you must allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to ask for what you need, share a laugh, or do something out of the ordinary.
Throughout your client-finding process, keep reminding yourself that those gut-clenching feelings of vulnerability are a normal part of the process.
Cherish this time
We will never fully answer the question “Where do I find white paper clients?” because every person’s success story is different.
But for everyone, this is one of the most vulnerable times in our freelance careers.
We want to challenge you to cherish it. Right now, you’re living the events of your own story.
Breaking your own trail to find the ideal clients for you—your skillset, your temperament, and your lifestyle—is nothing short of heroic.
Relish in the lessons you are learning, the beautiful coincidences that happen, and even those cringe-worthy moments. They add humor and tension.
This is the story you’ll draw on someday when a slightly awkward newbie writer approaches you and asks, “Where do I find clients?”
So show up with the willingness to ask for what you need, along with your sense of humor and creativity.
You’ll be a better, stronger person for it.
How did you get started writing for clients? Where do you find clients? Do you have any tips to share? Please leave a comment below.
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