If you’ve been freelancing for more than a year or two, there are two big, untapped opportunities you might be ignoring.
One of them is dead leads—prospects who expressed interest at some point but never hired you.
The other is dormant clients, or clients with whom you’ve worked but haven’t engaged with in a while.
These two groups may not award you dream projects. They may not pay you record fees.
But they can help you generate cash quickly, boost your self-confidence and buy you some time to find even better opportunities.
Plus, when it comes to prospecting, this is an easier group to approach, because all it takes is sending a simple nine-word email.
The Nine-Word Email
The nine-word email is one of the most effective email prospecting strategies you’ll ever use. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another email structure that will generate a higher response rate.
Conceived by marketing legend Dean Jackson, the nine-word email is designed to mimic the kind of conversation you would have with someone you know if you ran into them at, say, the grocery store.
It touches on something that’s relevant to the prospect or client. The message makes it patently clear that this email was written specifically for them (in other words, it feels like a one-to-one email). And it asks a question at the end that begs for an answer.
Before we get into actual examples, it’s important to understand the psychology behind the nine-word email.
Imagine you strike up a conversation with someone at a friend’s party—someone you just met that evening. Her name is Jill, and during your conversation she mentions that she and her husband are thinking about visiting California wine country.
You immediately get excited because you’ve been to wine country half a dozen times. So you give Jill a list of recommended wineries, quaint inns and excellent restaurants to consider.
Jill is ecstatic to talk with someone who knows this much about the area. She thanks you numerous times for the tips and recommendations.
A few weeks later, you run into Jill at the grocery store. And after greeting her, you ask her a simple question:
Are you still thinking about going to wine country this summer?
Did you book that trip to California wine country?
Doesn’t that sound like a natural question to ask? You’re bringing up something relevant from your conversation at the party. So it feels like a sincere way to start a new conversation.
Do You Still Want Those Sweaters?
OK, let’s take another example. This one’s a bit out there, so bear with me.
Say you work in the men’s department at Nordstrom. A customer comes in (let’s call him Mr. Smith) looking for a brown sweater. You help him select a few options. He tries some on in the dressing room and sets two sweaters aside by the register.
“I’m not sure which one I want,” he tells you. “Let me look around a bit more and come back.”
“Of course,” you reply. “Take your time, Mr. Smith.”
You turn to help another customer. And an hour later you realize that Mr. Smith never came back. The sweaters he tried on are still sitting by the register.
Later that afternoon during your lunch break, you run into Mr. Smith at the food court.
“Hey, Mr. Smith! Great to run into you here,” you say.
If you were to ask him a question, what would that be?
How about: “Do you still want those sweaters?”
Again, I know this is a silly hypothetical example. But can you see how such a scenario might play out in real life?
Essentially, here’s what happened in both of these hypothetical situations:
- You had a conversation with someone.
- You discussed X but nothing came from that.
- You ran into them later.
- You asked them about X.
Start a Conversation Instead!
What does this have to do with prospecting for freelance clients?
Think about how you might typically prospect online. Maybe you send out a monthly newsletter that includes a plug about your services.
Or maybe you send “emails of introduction” explaining what you do and whom you serve.
Or maybe you post a blurb about what you do on one of your social networks, hoping to attract some prospects who might need these services.
In all these cases, you’re sending a broadcast. A “one to many” email (one message to many people).
We all know how these methods work. It’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall. Throw enough spaghetti and a few noodles might stick.
But what if you took a different approach? What if instead of taking a one-to-many approach you instead tried to start a conversation with one prospect at a time?
That’s where the nine-word email comes in.
Here’s The Template
The nine-word email is one of the most elegant conversation starters you could ever use.
Let me first give you an example. We’ll then break down the components and discuss the different flavors you can deploy (and when each flavor is most appropriate).
SUBJECT: White papers
Are you still thinking about hiring an outside white paper writer this year?
Why does this email work so well?
First, let’s point out the obvious. This particular script is longer than nine words. And that’s perfectly fine. Because the nine-word email is more of a concept than a literal formula. The idea behind “nine words” is to keep your email extremely short.
So short, in fact, that you’re going to feel uncomfortable sending it at first.
But it’s not just about brevity. What makes a nine-word email incredibly effective is that when done right, it follows Dean Jackson’s “SPEAR” formula:
- A Reply
The personalization in the example above is obvious when you understand the context. In that example, Joan had expressed interest in hiring a writer for some white paper work.
She and I had some email dialogue about it three months ago. We also got on the phone to discuss her project.
But then she disappeared. I followed up a few times but never heard back. (Darn it!!)
Bottom line: she’s now a “dead lead.”
Now that a few months have passed, I’m touching base again. But rather than going into a long and drawn-out follow-up email, I’m getting right to the point. I’m pointing to the “thing” about which she had expressed interest.
The sweaters are still sitting by the cash register.
In fact, in my mind I’m pretending that I just ran into her at the food court. I’m imagining what that conversation might look like in real life. Maybe something like:
Me: “Hey, I know you! Joan, right?”
Joan: “Yes, hi! What a surprise to run into you here, Ed. How are you?”
Me: “Great! Business is good. Just wrapped up a great year. How about you?”
Joan: “Oh, crazy as always. Never enough hours in the day! You know how it is.”
Me: “I hear ya! Hey, that reminds me: are you still thinking about hiring an outside white paper writer this year?”
Doesn’t that sound like a very normal and natural conversation?
Yes, I realize that you’re probably not going to run into a prospect at the food court or the grocery store. Especially if you live in Los Angeles and Joan lives in New York.
But just pretend for a second that this actually happened.
Wouldn’t this “flow” feel natural?
It pretty much mirrors a conversation I would have if I ran into someone I haven’t talked to in a while.
Now, think about the last question I asked Joan. The, “Are you still thinking about hiring an outside white paper writer this year?”
Can you imagine a scenario where Joan would abruptly walk away without answering the question?
No, that would be weird. I can pretty much guarantee that she’d answer the question if she were standing in front of me. Because the question begs to be answered.
That’s the “expecting a reply” part.
OK, back to the previous email script sample:
SUBJECT: White papers
Are you still thinking about hiring an outside white paper writer this year?
Note the following in this email script:
- There’s no fluff and no wasted words. I’m getting right to the point.
- I’m also not “warming up” the prospect with small talk, which is what everyone does! (“Hope you’re having a great summer so far …”) Subconsciously, this shows the prospect that I respect their time.
- Sometimes you have to add some context so the prospect recognizes you. But it’s best to do that later as a P.S., or by including a previous email thread in your email.
- I’m not dancing around the issue or using meaningless follow-up (“… I’d be happy to discuss your needs …”) or “let me know” language (“… Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you with any writing projects …”).
- I don’t need this email to do all the work. I’m not trying to land a project. I’m simply trying to restart the conversation. The selling happens later, but I need to rekindle the dialogue first!
- Finally, note that the subject line is very direct. That’s the opposite of what we’d normally use in a marketing broadcast, where we’re trying to arouse curiosity with the subject line.
Other Uses to Consider
Don’t have a specific project you can point to as a follow-up? That’s fine. There are many ways you can rekindle a conversation with a dead lead or dormant client via a nine-word email.
Here are just some ideas:
You can bring an idea to the table. Maybe a marketing approach or idea you used effectively with another client. Or a creative way to repurpose or reuse content they may not have considered.
Have you considered repurposing some of your blog content into podcasts?
You can announce a new service you’re now offering and ask if they’ve ever considered doing something along those lines.
Do you publish e-books as part of your lead gen efforts?
Ask them about something they were doing last time you had contact with them:
How did your Harmonix product launch go?
Tell them you’re already booking for next month and are curious if they are still thinking about writing that _______________.
I’m scheduling projects into October. Wanted to see if you’re still thinking about doing that website copy refresh.
Reach out to a new contact in the organization:
I worked with Milo Durant last year on a series of articles and case studies. Are you still publishing customer case studies?
Put It to the Test!
As you can probably see by now, there’s great hidden potential in your list of dead leads and dormant clients. And the possibilities with these nine-word emails are endless.
But don’t let their simplicity fool you. These emails are very powerful. But they require some thought before sending.
Take the time to think through each prospect and client before drafting your script. Think through your history with each specific prospect or dormant client. And come up with a message that feels natural and begs for a reply.
Finally, remember that these short emails are conversation starters—very reliable ones. Most of them will not generate immediate work on their own.
But that’s OK. I’d rather have a system for sparking numerous conversations than an unreliable system for generating work quickly. Because I know that every great client relationship starts out as a simple conversation.
By the way, I’m about to work with a handful of writers and copywriters to help them develop and deploy their own customized prospecting plan.
If you’d like to join us, send an email to ed at b2blauncher dot com with the words “Prospecting Plan” in the subject line and I’ll get you all the details.