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How to Negotiate Better Copywriting Fees

After reading some of my articles on how to find copywriting clients, one of my coaching students, Jeff, asked me an interesting question.

He's an aspiring copywriter and wants to build his own freelance copywriting business. When he read that I wrote copy for free when I started my career as a copywriter, he told me he was thinking about doing the same.

However, he wondered if he should ask for money. Here was his question…

“Mike, my friends have a very small business, and they have asked me to do copy for them. They say they can't really pay me that much. I have told them I will do it for free as long as I get rights to the copy and can use it for a reference and in my portfolio. I think this is a wonderful opportunity to get more experience, but my wife wants to see some money on the table. I value your opinion. Can you help?”

Here was my answer.


Asking for a concession in exchange for offering one is always the way to do it. While I believe your trade-off is good in principle, it's still meager. I would consider some money — or some larger concession on the part of the client.

Here's why…

Writing copy for free (specifically, without asking for anything in return) is not always good. I know from personal experience. What you should be looking for is a return on your “investment” (because writing copy for free is indeed an investment on your part), for two reasons:

  • You want to stop potential nibbling, grinding away your time and resources. If getting such a valuable service for free was that easy, they are left wondering, “What else can get for free?” It's illogical, but they feel cheated if they don't get more. So they'll keep asking.
  • And you want to add value to your services. Because doing something supposedly of high value for 100% free paints a low perceived value, and it makes you, or the services you provide and especially the final product you create, look cheap.

In essence, there's a disproportionate balance between the value of your service and the value of your concession, which will inevitably harm you.

So the goal is, you want to take the focus away from a trade-off based on the copy you're offering for free to the one based on a concession you're willing to make: apples to apples, or value for value, in other words.

Otherwise, it can lead to problems once the service is rendered, which will be more difficult if not impossible to resolve than they are to prevent.

For one, the person could ask you for more, and more, and then more, slowly nibbling away at your time, your money, your resources, and your goodwill. They feel they can get more since it was so easy. Again, it seems paradoxical. But that's how your clients will react.

(It's a form of manipulation. While some will do this conspicuously, others will do this indirectly, nudgingly, and very subtly, often even without your knowledge — especially if they're friends of yours, since your willingness to help will also make it easier for them to do so.)

I know this from personal experience.

Early in my career, I've written copy for free for clients who, after delivering it, kept asking for small tweaks here and there. I never got paid for the extra work. The worst part was, this happened more often with clients whose copy I wrote for free or at a substantial discount after they haggled with me on price.

Even when there was a signed contract, they still found ways around it, and continued to ask me for more concessions after the copy was delivered.

Trust me. I've been in these situations too many times.

One of my favorite speakers is Larry Winget, author of “Shut Up, Stop Whining, and Get a Life!” and “You're Broke Because You Want to Be.” On his program, “Success is Your Own Fault,” Larry quotes the Sanborn Maxim, which goes:

“The customers who are willing to pay you the least will always demand the most.”

(Re-read it. That statement is profound. It certainly was for me.)

Nevertheless, the problem is that there is a “concession mismatch.” Stated differently, the perceived value of each concession is not equal to each other.

It's not because the copy is free but because it is free and what you're asking for in return is meager when compared to the larger concession you're making — the concession being a finished, completely written piece of sales copy.

Look at it this way: offering copy for free is like a marketing investment. But if you offer copy for, say, $2,000, would you spend $2,000 on a single ad to market your services just to get that one client? Of course not.

Psychologically, by writing copy for free you are not adding enough value to your concession. More importantly, you are literally taking value away from your product. You're shooting yourself in the foot.

Think about it. By making your end-product the concession itself, then the perception will be that the end-product will be of low value, too. Why? Because the concession they are making, in exchange, is meaningless in comparison. You get what you pay for, right?

Sure, building your portfolio is important to you. But giving you the ability to add their copy to your portfolio is worth how much to your client? How big of a concession is that to them? What are they really giving up in return? In many cases, not much. So the trade-off is less than fair.

Not asking for a significant concession in exchange for your concession, then you're not only devaluing what you offer but also yourself.

So always ask for a tradeoff. Every time. It adds value to any concession you're making by always asking for something in return.

Never make a concession, even if it's as simple as a discount, without asking for something else in exchange. Call it a “counter-concession.” This is nothing new. Most of the top negotiating experts out there, like Roger Dawson and Herb Cohen for instance, teach this.

An important concept to grasp, friends of yours or not, is this: the perceived value of the service depreciates immediately after the service is rendered.

Why is this important? For one, if the copy doesn't do as well as expected, who cares if you did it for free? (Your client certainly won't.) In their minds, they dodged a bullet. And you still get the blame for doing poor work.

But it goes further than that.

If all you had were rights to the copy and it did perform well, and if anything should happen between you two, would you ever consider stopping your friend from using your copy? Even to the point of sending them a cease and desist letter or taking legal action? Would you sue your friend?

Friendships notwithstanding, would you be willing to work twice as hard trying to satisfy an insatiable client when you could be working on other, better, paying clients? That's a huge opportunity cost.

It's something to think about.

Asking for a larger concession before the work starts helps to stop or prevent any potential grinding-away process after the copy is delivered. If they try to grind at you, then each time they ask for a concession you in turn ask for one. Always ask for a counter-concession. Always.

Plus, by asking for a substantial concession in the beginning, you also increase the perception that each counter-concession you ask for will be just as large, which will force them to think twice before nibbling for more.

If they are demanding (and cheap clients usually are), ask yourself:

“Am I prepared to do two to three times the work, possibly deal with a high-maintenance client, and divert my attention away from other, paying clients (or away from marketing my services in order to find better-fit clients), for a mere addition to my résumé or portfolio?”

On the other hand, making a balanced concession — giving a discount instead of doing it for free, for example — will increase your perceived worth. And a good way to do this is to raise your fees. Raising your prices is not just about increasing perceived value.

By raising your fees and giving a more substantial concession will allow you to ask for a larger concession from them in return.

So ask for something upfront, even if it's little. Say: “I understand this may be out of your budget range. In exchange for a special consideration (a discount), may I suggest (whatever concession you want them to make).”

Even better, let them make their counter-concession for you. They might surprise you, as it might be a lot more than you anticipated. Say something like: “In exchange, what can you do for me?” Then let them tell you what they're prepared to offer you in return.

(Incidentally, doing it this way also gives you a pretty good idea of what they think of you, and how much value they place in your services and your copy.)

Ultimately, your copy no longer becomes the object of the tradeoff. Your consideration — e.g., a discount or whatever concession you're making — is.

Apples to apples, in other words.

Also, don't limit yourself to a discount. You can offer a bonus or ancillary service, such as an extra revision, a free consultation, an extended guarantee, an add-on service (such as formatting or ideas for testing the copy), and so on.

That's why the key is to breakdown and denominate each component of your service — from research to revisions. In other words, give each component a price tag. Sure, give a flat rate for the whole project. But break the project down into individual parts, with individual values.

Not only will each element have a price tag, which can be used in the negotiation, but also it will help to justify your higher fees. It will seem less “pulled out of thin air.” Everything has its own price, if you will.

When a prospect sees the value of every component, they also get a better appreciation of what you do, how you price your work, and how much they are truly getting if you were to ever concede on any one of those elements.

For example, if a client asks for a discount, you can say: “As you can see, your project includes one post-delivery revision, which is worth $1,000, absolutely free of charge. Here's what I can do. I can throw in an extra one. Fair enough?”

In the end, you add weight to your tradeoff, and your copy thus retains its value.

On the flip side, your client's concession doesn't have to be just to add to your portfolio, which is minimal at best. (Adding your copy to your portfolio should be automatically included in your agreement with any copy you write, anyway.)

Remember, you want to match their concession with yours. Better said, you want to match the perceived value of both concessions. Perceived value is key.

So here's another option. Ask for royalties or commissions. You can offer your friends a significant concession in exchange for a percentage of gross sales your copy produces, for as long as they use your copy if not for a predetermined period of time.

If royalties are not an option (particularly if you're new, or you don't know the client or their business well enough), you can ask for other things. For example, bartering is often the most overlooked negotiation strategy.

Or have them write a testimonial about you, give you quality referrals, or promote their endorsement such as sending a broadcast to their lists of clients or subscribers promoting you. The trick is to get this in writing, and to ensure they deliver their end of the deal within a specific period of time.

Remember, the perceived value of your service — and of your concession — depreciates immediately after the service has been rendered. The longer they wait to comply, the less meaningful your concession becomes.

That's why this is best specified in a written agreement before work begins.

If they fail comply within a specified period of time, then you can charge your full fee — or the amount of the concession if they already paid you (have an agreement in place before work starts, so you will have legal recourse to do so).

In fact, having a written agreement prior to commencing any work is essential. Get it in writing, even if it's a simple letter of understanding. It doesn't have to be overly formal. Also, when it's written down, it's more than just for legal reasons. It's also a psychological commitment.

Finally, remember that it's better to negotiate on a concession than it is on the entire copy itself — such as by offering it for free. If they want apples, stick with apples. Not oranges. And certainly not the orchard.

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