I've mentioned my opinions re: when and where it might make sense to write for free a few times. I am an advocate of article marketing for freelance writers specializing in online content and I also think that bartering content for services can also make a lot of sense under the right circumstances. Writing for exposure on a website can have value in a few instances (but not that many), too.
I just finished sending an email to a potential customer when I realized there is another justification to do a little free writing. It isn't something I do across the board, but it has been a successful way of convincing prospects to hire me over the competition. I will, occasionally, write custom samples.
In many cases, a prospective buyer will ask a writer to provide samples of past work. A writer may direct the interested party to a few URLs where past work appears or may have a handy sample .zip ready to go for such instances. Many writers will have a few pages of sample materials available on their websites. That's one way to handle those requests, but it isn't always the best way, in my opinion.
There are shortcomings to relying on that kind of sample material.
- The buyer may not be able to fully grasp how you would handle their unique subject matter.
- The buyer has no way of being certain you were even responsible for writing the samples.
- Depending upon your arrangements with previous customers, you may not really have the rights to those samples. Even if you do, if those words were written for another customer, they might prefer it if you didn't use them.
- Those samples won't pack the persuasive punch of an on-topic sample.
That's why I will sometimes write a small free sample, from scratch, that is directly relevant to the project under consideration.
Today, I was corresponding with a prospective customer who is interested in commissioning an ebook on a specific topic. Understandably, he wanted to see some samples of my work. I maintain a strict confidentiality with my clients and don't usually share ghostwritten work with third parties without the purchaser's expressed consent. Even then, I try not to work that way. That still leaves me with a lot of potential sample material, but none of it was reallly "spot on" with respect to the product we were discussing.
I felt like the best way of making my pitch was to write a small segment about his topic from scratch and to supply it as an indicator of what he could expect from my handling of the topic. I've done this in the past, with great results.
The prospective buyer gets a chance to see part of his or her vision brought to life and has a tangible example of what they can expect for their money. It also erases all concerns regarding originality and authorship of the sample. Meanwhile, I don't have to share even a snippet of previous work-for-hire projects.
The individual to whom I sent the sample hasn't responded yet, so it remains to be seen whether I was wasting my time with the free work. History tells me, however, that it's likely to help me land the gig. If it doesn't, however, I took steps to cover my back. The sample is relatively self-contained, allowing me to sell it elsewhere if the chance should arise. In a worst case scenario, I could toss it to Associated Content or somewhere like that for a few bucks. If I don't get the job, I could decide to use it as part of my "generic" sample package for other prospective clients.
I don't think this kind of free writing makes sense for every potential project. The prospect has to appear to have a sincere interest in me and the project. The overall value of the project, to me, has to be relatively high to warrant the extra (potentially unpaid) work. Under those circumstances, however, I am willing to roll the dice and write a few hundred words without a promise of payment.
I don't know how other writers feel about that strategy or if it is something they would be willing to do. It has worked for me, though. I'd be interested in hearing what others think.