(Image credit: Yuriy Kovalev via Unsplash)
A question landed in my inbox recently.
“Do you have tips for amazing proposals?”
And I do! An obnoxious smart-ass like yours truly has an opinion about everything. But here’s the thing: even if I told you right now how to write a persuasive proposal that seals the deal on a freelance job, my advice will do nothing for you.
That’s because a proposal is something your client sees at the very end, before you start on a project. At that point, it’s almost a triviality, because the client already knows they want to hire you.
I said as much in my response:
So the real issue is: how do you get that far? How do you attract your client’s attention, and stoke their interest enough so they want an actual proposal?
To do that, you want to write a great cold email pitch. And that’s what this week’s post is all about.
When you’re finished reading it, you will walk away with a proven process to write two kinds of pitches:
- A prospecting email… with brain hooks
- A competent, confident project pitch
But first, let’s address what the hell I am talking about. What’s this “two kinds of pitches” nonsense?
“The ‘two kinds of pitches’ nonsense”
When you reach out to a potential client, there are two possible contexts:
- You want to offer them a specific service, have a good idea about their needs — but don’t know for certain if they are open to hiring a freelancer. A situation like that calls for a prospecting email, which serves as a conversation starter.
- You know they are looking for freelancers. Maybe you saw a project posting somewhere, or someone else referred you — or maybe you have a magical fortune-telling wombat that points you to good prospects (and if so, would you get me one of those?) If that’s the case, you can send a project pitch.
Both are similar, but different in several key ways. Now, let’s dig deeper and talk about how to write the damn things, shall we?
The prospecting email: your nuclear-powered icebreaker
If you’ve never heard of nuclear-powered icebreakers, they are a Russian thing.
Those are huge fucking ships designed to navigate through ice-covered waters of the Arctic and Antarctic. Nobody but Russia builds these, because Russia is insane. But hey, thanks to that, I can hijack this term and make a bad analogy!
When you cold email a potential client, you will inevitably stir up all sorts of questions, concerns, and barriers in their mind. Things like:
“Who the hell are you?”
“Do I need this? What’s in it for me?”
“Do you understand my goals?”
“What if you suck?”
“Can we talk about this?”
Before they even considers hiring you for a freelance job, you will want to bust through those concerns right then and there — in your prospecting email. You want to forget about getting hired, and focus on getting the client’s attention and building trust first.
Now, before I get any more Zen master on you, let’s dissect an actual cold email pitch — and see how a prospecting email actually looks.
Here’s one of mine from forever ago:
The first thing you’ll notice is, this is not the most well-thought out prospecting email ever. For starters, it has at least one typo. It’s also a little over-saturated with jargon (23-year-old Oleg thought he was very clever).
But it does a few key things right. So much so, that the client not only replied in 5 minutes, but also told me later:
“I answered your initial cold email — something I have never done in three years of business — is because of the custom effort you put into it.”
So let’s talk about what’s going on with this email script! We can break it down into four main components.
1. Make a relevant connection
“I came across your interview at [Website] recently…”
As your first step, you want to explain to the client why you’re reaching out. How do you know about their business? You want to convey the impression that this isn’t just a copy-and-paste cold email.
Even if the connection is flimsy, like in my case, it still works. And the more specific you get, the better — you’ll notice that I included an explicit reference to what exactly the client was talking about in the interview:
“…and read that you said how difficult it was [Who talks like that? Damn you, Past Oleg! – Oleg] for an “software-as-a-service” B2B-oriented company to gain traction and virality.”
Making a connection is critical, if you want to separate your prospecting email from dozens, if not hundreds, of other pitches that never bother with being personal.
2. Introduce yourself (very briefly)
“I have been working as a freelance writer for 4 years, specializing in B2B and B2C online content marketing.” [GAH, so much jargon. Double damn you, Past Oleg! – Oleg]
Next, let the client know who you are — but be quick about it.
Now, I didn’t handle that part very gracefully. I didn’t say, “I’m Oleg” or anything like that. I immediately started with a reference to my expertise. That’s great, but I should have managed to pack both my name and my credentials in the same sentence.
3. Address the “What’s in it for me?” question
“I’d like to help you saturate your blog with solid articles and suggest a few ideas on how [Company Name] could gain more brand exposure.
You’d appear more professional to both partners and clients; also, good marketing content and strategic exposure will lead to increased visitor conversions and more revenue for the company. Sure, you’re already “playing with the big boys” like Marriot and Subway [You misspelled Marriott, you little shit! – Oleg], but there’s always plenty more potential for growth.”
There are two steps to this element. First, you explain what you’d like to do for the client — and then immediately follow up with what it will mean for them in tangible terms. If you just do the first step, the client is going to ask, “So what?” — and you risk losing their interest
Note: notice that I’m not pitching generic writing services here. You don’t want the client to think, “Hmmm, what do I need? Nah, I’ll decide later” — and forget about it. You want to do the same in your prospecting emails — be reasonably specific about the kind of service you want to provide.
4. Slow down and ask a question
“We can discuss the details whenever you want to, I just wanted to make sure if it’s something you’d be interested in.
If so, would it be OK if I sent you a few ideas on how I could help?”
Finally, even at the very end, a good prospecting email never screams, “OMG HIRE ME I’M SO AWESOME YOU WILL LITERALLY SHIT BRICKS THE MOMENT I DO A NANOSECOND OF BILLABLE WORK FOR YOU”
Let the client down gently. Ask them if they’d be interested, and then offer them something that’s hard to refuse. I mean, who would ever say no to free ideas?
After that, you can sign off and send out your prospecting email. Easy!
Note: this is a personal thing, but I like to let mine sit in “Drafts” overnight, or for a day. Then I give them a quick once-over in the morning, and hit Send.
And that’s how I write prospecting emails. Now, let’s talk about the project pitch — a slightly different beast.
The project pitch: your Gandalf moment
As we mentioned before, a project pitch is something you send in response to a specific opportunity: job posting, referral, prediction by your magical wombat (I still want one), etc.
The thing is, you’re not the only one.
Your project pitch finds your client at a dark time. They are wading through a sea of shitty pitches that aren’t remotely at the level they want. And then you appear on the horizon, ready to save the day. Just like a certain White Wizard:
You want your project pitch to cut through the mountain of bullshit your clients are definitely digging through. At a glance, it needs to show to the client, “Hey, I understand what you’re after — here’s how I can help.”
But a script is worth a thousand words of Oleg trying to explain something with way too many pop culture references. So let’s look at an actual project pitch — this time, from a true master.
Breaking down a cold email by a real-life Pitch Master
My friend Lisa is a veteran freelance writer and content marketer. She writes the best cold email pitches I have ever seen. Every time I compare one of her project pitches to mine, it’s not even funny — mine always look like I just tap-danced them on the keyboard.
For this post, I asked Lisa for permission to feature one of her project pitches — and she over-delivered, as always.
The email I’m about to show you got Lisa hired for a year-long retainer contract. And it’s glorious. There’s so much going on with it. So I’m going to stop gushing, and we’ll dig in.
Right away, you’ll notice that Lisa’s project pitch follows the same structure as the prospecting email I described before.
1. Make a relevant connection
First, she mentions that a friend referred her:
“A friend just forwarded me your ProBlogger listing”
2. Introduce yourself
Then, Lisa introduces herself, managing to name-drop four big clients she has worked with before — and show that she’s familiar with the client’s brand.
“I’m a professional writer and blogger who’s written for national print magazines like Parenting and Pregnancy & Newborn as well as top parenting websites like Mom.me and Red Tricycle (and by the way, congrats on winning RT’s Most Awesome Pinterest Board Award!).”
3. “What’s in it for me?”
When you’re writing a project pitch, “What’s in it for me?” becomes more like, “Prove you can help me with this.” Here, you can see that Lisa does something very few applicants for that job would have done. She doesn’t just tell the client how great she is — she shows them what kind of content she has in mind for their website:
“As a sample of the types of posts I’d write for you, here are a couple of ideas for your blog:”
That’s a powerful custom sample of Lisa’s work. It answers a big, hairy question the client definitely has: “Sure, her other work is good, but what if I don’t like her work for my site?”
And then, Lisa does something else that most people would never bother with (that’s why they’re not Pitch Masters). She describes all the extra value she brings to the table… and backs it up with proof.
Just for fun, I’m going to go through Lisa’s cold email pitch, and count all the references to her formidable skills, experience, and personal enthusiasm that she’s dropped in there. (Is it just me, or is there a drinking game opportunity here?)
Here they are, with my emphasis:
- “I’m always following the latest trends on pregnancy, birth, and baby gear — all of which is great fodder for blog ideas.” [“Lisa has ALL the ideas!” is an actual thing I and other people say – Oleg]
- “This could be a recurring column for the blog;” / “This could also be a series of posts,” [Way to increase perceived value of her custom samples! – Oleg]
- “I’d also love to promote the [website] blog by interviewing product owners and designers (like I did in this post) and soliciting guest posts.”
- “I’m obsessed with social media and SEO, I’m a WordPress guru, and I know enough HTML/CSS and Photoshop to be dangerous.” [Not a fan of the word “guru”, but hey – Oleg]
- “Here’s a post from my blog that did well in social media:“
- “I really wish [website] had existed five years ago, because I needed you then … I’d really love to help other moms find your site now. I’m pretty sure a lot of them need you as much as I did!”
Finally, Lisa also links to a few samples of her past work — but only the ones directly relevant to the project:
“Finally, I’m linking to several samples of my work.”
4. Slow down and ask a question
“I’d love to hear more about your content marketing needs and your strategy and vision for growing the blog. If you agree that we might be a good match, write me back. I look forward to talking with you!”
At the very end, Lisa just asks (but not out loud), “Do you agree we might be a good match?” — and asks the client to write back. Which she knows they will — because if I were the client and got this pitch, I’d be screaming, “Shut up and take my money!”
And that’s how you write an amazing project pitch! Now, I’d love to hear from you…
What’s the BEST (or WORST) cold email advice you’ve ever received?
Leave a comment below and let me know!