Writers Worth: Guest Posting 101

When I asked Jenn Mattern for a guest post, I knew it would be a good one. Jenn is one of my offline buddies, one must-have part of a small group of writer friends who share everything from frustration to fun stuff.

But that’s not why I knew it would be good. I knew because Jenn is a dynamic, talented writer and business owner (heavy emphasis on the latter) who has one of the top blogs and businesses in the writing space. She has mad skillz and she shares them with fellow freelancers.

For the audio version of Jenn’s post, click below. Otherwise, keep scrolling.

 

The Right Way to Use Guest Posts to Promote Your Freelance Writing Services

by Jennifer Mattern

I know. I know. You hate it when people speak in absolutes like there being a “right” and “wrong” way to do something.

So do I.

Now get over it.

Today we’re talking about guest posting. And when it comes to using guest posts to promote your freelance writing services, there are “right” and “wrong” ways to go about it.

Unfortunately I see freelancers go about guest posting the “wrong” way far too often. I want to make sure you’re not one of them.

What Are Guest Posts?
This is the fundamental problem with freelance writers and guest posts — writers often don’t understand what guest posts actually are.

If you’re one of those writers, it’s not your fault. Most self-proclaimed “experts” on the topic teach writers about bastardized versions of this tool, such as blog posts written largely as payment for backlinks to manipulate search engine rankings. Thank you internet marketers!

Let’s clear things up. We’ll start with some history.

Simply put, guest posts are an old school public relations tactic that made a leap to the blogging medium.

This PR tactic started out mostly in trade publications where executives and other industry leaders would submit free articles in order to be read by other industry insiders. This is still common practice.

These guest contributions, when handled correctly, are never directly self-promotional. But they do often include a short bio for the author at the end, or at least a mention of the author’s title and the company they represent.

These articles are about exposure. They’re about building and maintaining a reputation in one’s industry. And they’re about thought leadership, as much as I despise that buzzword.

These are experienced professionals (or ghostwriters working with them) with real insight to share with colleagues and sometimes potential clients.

They aren’t newbies. And they aren’t people who directly make their money writing this kind of content.

That’s an important point. These publications that accept guest submissions from industry insiders generally don’t pay for them. Submissions are about PR for the contributor’s company (or for them individually). It’s about reaching a niche audience or securing other media coverage, clients, book
sales, or interviews down the road.

These same publications generally do pay their freelance contributors — a completely different animal. They know the difference between industry insiders looking to get their names and ideas out there as a PR tactic and professional writers who put time into researching a topic and interviewing experts in an unbiased way before writing articles as their job or business.

This is a distinction often lost when it comes to guest posting today. It’s an unfortunate result of large media outlets exploiting writers by masking unpaid labor (serving as the backbone of the outlet’s business model) as guest post or blog network opportunities.

Lori and I chatted about this in a podcast where we explored the problems with outlets like Huffington Post, where an editor actually proclaimed they were “proud” to not pay writers.

That lost distinction is also partly a result of less-than-transparent marketers advertising freelance assignments as “paid guest posts.” But we’ll come back to the issue of “paid guest posts” later.

In the meantime, I know what some of you might be thinking. “Screw PR. Freelance writers shouldn’t write for exposure.” Or better: “People die from exposure,” you might say on one of your snarkier days (been there!).

Donning the Right Hat

Here’s the thing. Writers often have a difficult time separating guest posts from work that should be paid for. In the case of business owners and executives, visibility and thought leadership are very appropriate motivation. And publications generally give those contributors at least a little more freedom in what they write than a freelancer would have.

In the latter case, when you’re freelancing (and the publication tends to exert more control over the assignment, sources, edit requests, and other article details), exposure is not an adequate substitute for payment.

Some writers think they should be paid for every word they commit to paper (or their screen). But that’s utter bullsh*t.

You’re a business owner. And just like any other business owner, you have to promote yourself and your services.

That includes using a variety of marketing and PR tactics, many of which involve writing. And you need to learn when to wear your freelancer hat (when you should be paid fairly for your writing) and when to don your business owner hat (where unpaid writing isn’t just OK; it’s normal).

For example, as a business owner, you don’t (and shouldn’t) get paid for writing the copy for your professional website. You don’t (and shouldn’t) get paid for writing email marketing copy or query letters targeting your prospects. And you don’t (and shouldn’t) get paid for writing guest posts that
are designed to promote your services. The reward is in the paying clients you land as a result of that writing.

Can Guest Posting Really Help You Land Freelance Writing Gigs? In theory, when you write guest posts for other blogs and websites, it’s supposed to get your name out there and help you attract paying
clients.

Members of your target market are supposed to see your awesome content on these third party sites. They’re supposed to find your writing irresistible. Then they’re supposed to click your link to your
professional website (or use whatever contact information you provided in your guest post bio). Then they hire you.

In practice, writers often publish guest posts without seeing much return in freelance writing work. There are several reasons for this. Let’s explore some of them and how you can get more out of your future guest post submissions.

Guest Post Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

Here are some of the biggest mistakes I see writers make when trying to use guest posts to promote their freelance writing services. You’ll also find tips on what you can do to land more gigs with your guest posts:

1. You’re publishing guest posts on the wrong types of blogs.

This is hands-down the biggest guest posting mistake I see freelance writers make. They target the wrong blogs. Often, they target writing blogs.

Guess what. Most of your ideal freelance clients aren’t reading blogs about writing. They’re reading blogs about their own industries or types of businesses (if they read blogs at all; you should have a good grasp on their behavior before committing to any marketing or PR tactics).

The only time you should be guest posting on other writing blogs is if you have a non-freelance reason for targeting those readers, such as selling something to writers or networking with colleagues. But that’s very different than guest posting to market your freelance work.

For example, what you’re reading now is a guest post. It’s on a writing blog. That’s because I’m not looking to promote my writing services to you. I happen to run sites and a community for other writers, so it’s in my interest to help newer writers. I’m also doing it from a PR perspective because I believe in the mission of Writers Worth Month. I’m not looking for freelance gigs out of it. If that’s what I wanted, this would be the wrong place to target.

Instead, figure out what blogs your target clients read. That’s where you should consider guest posting. Let’s use Lori as an example.

If Lori wanted to land more freelance writing jobs in the insuran ce industry, she shouldn’t submit a guest post to my blog for writers for example. She should look for blogs and other publications covering the
insurance industry.

More specifically, she should target publications that reach people in the best position to make hiring decisions. That might mean independent insurance professionals, high-level executives, or marketers working within insurance companies. Big difference.

2. Your guest posts don’t have an appropriate call-to-action.

If you’re publishing guest posts with nothing but a bio at the end, you’re screwing yourself out of freelance writing gigs. Don’t just mention that you’re a freelance writer. Tell readers what you want from them.

Invite them to contact you for a quote on their next project. Direct them to your newsletter sign-up page for clients and prospects. Encourage them to download a free white paper or report that tends to convert readers into paying clients.

Don’t just link to your website. Make the ask!

3. You only target blogs with a huge number of readers.

Another common guest post mistake writers make is assuming more readers equals a better guest post opportunity. When you’re looking to land new freelance writing clients, that often isn’t the case.

The only thing that matters is targeting. You’re better off reaching 1000 well-targeted readers than 100,000 poorly-targeted ones. Again, let’s look at Lori as an example.

Lori writes about the insurance industry and risk management. There are plenty of high-traffic business blogs that would welcome a post on those topics. Lori could have her content in front of a massive number of readers. But most of those readers aren’t going to be in a position to hire her.

If Lori’s goal is to attract more freelance writing clients, she would be much better off targeting smaller, more narrowly-focused blogs that specifically target decision-makers within her industry. This would be like targeting a specialized trade magazine instead of a consumer magazine with much broader reach.

It’s not about reaching the most people. It’s about reaching the right people. Your billable hours are limited anyway. It doesn’t take thousands upon thousands of prospects to fill your billable time at your target rate (or even more).

Also keep in mind that higher-traffic blogs often publish content more frequently. A guest post there might get buried in the archives in hours to a day. A guest post on a smaller, more focused blog might keep you in a featured position for several days, a week, or even more. Always consider publication frequency in addition to audience size.

Does that mean you should never target bigger blogs? Of course not. Just understand that they might not be the best fit when your goal is landing freelance assignments.

4. You only target blogs that offer “paid guest posts.”

Earlier I brought up the issue of “paid guest posts” and how they run contrary to what guest posts actually are. That’s for one simple reason: If you’re being paid to write a blog post, it’s not really a guest post. It’s a freelance assignment. Period.

Why is this distinction important? I touched on it earlier when talking about this same PR tactic being used with trade publications. Those publications understand the difference between an industry expert submitting free content for exposure and a professional writer who should be paid for their work.

Let’s touch on two of the most important differences: motivation and responsibility.

When you’re paid to write a blog post (or an article in a trade magazine), that publication becomes your client. That means your responsibility is twofold: serving the interests of the readers you’re writing for, and serving the interests of your client. It’s not about you. Nor should it be. Your motivation is rooted in the money your client pays for that piece.

Think about any other paying client. You probably wouldn’t go to them and say “How about letting me slip some blatant self-promotion into the content I write for you?” That would be tacky, and it would be
unprofessional.

On the other hand, when you write content and freely distribute it to promote yourself or your business, your motivation and responsibility are a bit different. In that case, you still serve the interests of the readers you’re writing for (at least if you’re doing your job). But you also have self-serving interests. Even though you’ll likely have guidelines you need to follow, that fundamental truth is understood going into the relationship with the blogger or editor.

If you’re using guest posts effectively, that self-serving motivation (which isn’t a bad thing; it just is what it is); it’s going to affect the content you choose to write. But when you’re being paid, your own self interests shouldn’t be a key factor in deciding what content you’ll write.

At the same time, when you’re writing a guest post, the issue of pay also shouldn’t influence which blogs you choose to contribute to. When you allow pay to become a deciding factor and choose to only target
blogs that pay for “guest posts,” what you’re really saying is “I’m willing to put a quick buck ahead of my larger business interests.” The only thing that should influence which blogs you guest post for is whether or not they’re the best options for reaching your ideal clients.

In most cases, the blogs themselves will not be your ideal clients. And if they are, you shouldn’t be thinking in terms of guest posting anyway. You’re simply pitching them because they’re freelance writing markets (and that’s all these blogs really are). You want them as clients. Your primary interest is in serving their needs as a freelancer, not using them as a marketing or PR tool.

In this case, just understand that many of these blogs aren’t looking for regular contributors when they offer to pay for guest posts. If it would better serve your business interests to find ongoing freelance blogging clients, then that’s where your attention should be — not focusing on one-off so-called “paid guest posts.”

I see freelance writers go down this “paid guest posts only” path because they automatically assume a paid blog post is more valuable to them than one they’ve written for free. But when you know what you’re doing and you target the right blogs with the right content and the right call-to-action, you can earn far more from a well-placed unpaid guest post than you do from those one-off freelance assignments.

There’s nothing wrong with targeting blogs that claim to offer “paid guest posts” as long as those blogs are either members your ideal target market that pay your target rates or they’re the best options for reaching those ideal clients. But do so with your eyes open. Don’t get sucked in by smarmy marketing that’s all about linkbait and making the host blogger appear to be something more than they really are (which is usually just another freelance market offering mediocre pay, but with a shiny new name).

In most cases, if you only target blogs that publicly state they pay for guest posts, you’re not really doing your job as a business owner. That would be like saying you’ll only work with clients who publicly advertise gigs because you don’t want to effectively market yourself to the types of clients you really want to work for. It’s lazy. And in the long run, it’s probably not what’s best for your business.

5. You’re writing the wrong content.

Even if you’re targeting the right blogs and you have an amazing call-to-action, you might find that your guest posts aren’t attracting paying clients. In that case, look to your content itself.

Remember what I said when talking about “paid guest posts.” When you write a guest post, you have a responsibility to readers, but ultimately you’re representing your business. How is your post content doing that?

Writing general content of interest to your target clients isn’t necessarily going to make them think about hiring you. You’re not building them up to your call-to-action in your bio.

In an ideal situation, you’ll want to think of your guest post almost as a mini white paper.

  • You highlight a general problem.
  • You prove this is a problem for the specific readers you’re trying to reach (where statistics and outside sources come in handy).
  • You offer a basic solution and convince the reader this is the right option for them.
  • Your bio’s call-to-action lets the reader know you are the more direct solution to their problem.

Let’s use my early clients as an example. I used to primarily write press releases for online business owners. One of my key client groups was SEO firms. They would bring me in to write press releases for a wide variety of their own clients on a regular basis. In turn, the value I brought to the table was a genuine understanding of PR.

In other words, I made sure their clients weren’t using press releases in the same spammy ways other SEO firms’ clients were using them. That protected their clients’ reputations in addition to landing them genuine media coverage (whereas many SEO firms only used press releases for the links from the distribution sites themselves).

If that was my primary service and target market right now, an effective guest post (submitted to an SEO industry blog) might go something like this:

  • Problem / Opportunity: The SEO firm’s clients could be seeing far more exposure (and resulting links from that coverage), plus minimize any risk of Google penalties for link manipulation, if press releases are properly planned, written, and distributed.
  • Proof of Problem: Show statistics from press release sites that demonstrates the level of competition for attention. Also show quotes and data related to Google’s stance on links from press release sites. (Are sites being penalized yet? Are there signs they’re going to start being penalized in the future? etc.)
  • General Solution: Either hire a PR firm or professional to write your clients’ press releases, or consult with one and have them teach your in-house staff to do this work properly.
  • Specific Solution (in the author bio): This would be a call-to-action mentioning my PR background and inviting SEO pros to contact me for a quote or consultation. The language might go something like this (with the contact line linked to a contact page, email address, consultation request form, or something similar): “Jenn Mattern is a public relations writer and consultant with 14 years experience writing press releases for SEO firms and their clients. Contact Jenn for a free consultation to find out how your company or clients can land better backlinks and more media coverage with professional press release writing.”

The post itself has value for readers because it alerts the reader to a potential problem and gives them a solution. They can hire anyone they please, or they can learn the basics themselves. But it also serves your business interests by leading them towards hiring you as the ultimate, and immediate, solution to their problem.

Remember, it’s not enough to write general content in your niche. A successful guest post drives action. When you’re using guest posts to promote your freelance writing services, that action is to contact (and hire) you.

This doesn’t work in every freelance writing scenario. For example, if you mostly target magazines, you don’t have this same problem-solution dynamic to work with as you do when targeting businesses. So think carefully about your marketing and PR choices.

Are guest posts really your best option for that kind of market? Probably not. Spend your time writing query letters, sending letters of introduction, or networking with editors in other ways instead. In the end, you have to know your market.

Don’t waste your time writing guest post after guest post to land a few good freelance writing clients. It shouldn’t take many to line up the prospects you’re looking for. Just remember these steps: go where your clients are, write helpful and relevant content, and make sure that content leads to a clear call-to-action.

That is the right way to use guest posts to promote your freelance writing services.

Jenn Mattern is no stranger to freelance writing and promoting independent businesses. She’s worked as a business writer, blogger, and PR and marketing consultant for 17 years, self-employed full-time for 12. In addition to running the All Indie Writers community, Jenn is partnering with Lori Widmer on the upcoming launch of FreelanceWritingPros.com. This new site will offer advanced marketing and PR advice for freelance writers with five or more years of experience. Sign up today to get free advanced marketing tips in your inbox.

Writers, how many guest posts have you written? Are they for blogs where your clients are looking?

 

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Comments

  • Cathy Miller May 2, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Jenn, this has to be one of the best post I've ever read about the real value in guest posts. Love the examples and great marketing tips. Can tell you've done this a time or two. 😉

    Reply
    • Jennifer Mattern May 2, 2016 at 7:11 pm

      Thanks Cathy. I know you're well-versed in this stuff. For those who don't know, Cathy and I are both involved in these kinds of PR contributions for trade publications on behalf of clients.

      I briefly mentioned ghostwriters in the post but didn't get into details because I had to prune some things. But basically, this is a great ghostwriting gig.

      You work with industry leaders, pull information from them, then learn to write in their voice. These folks are busy, and many are brilliant in their fields, but terrible writers. That's where you come in.

      Often the client already has contacts with the trade mag, or they've already confirmed placement. But sometimes you can take that on as well, getting paid to write the queries or pitch letters in addition to the article.

      You'll often get paid far more from these clients than you would if you wrote for the trade pub directly as one of their freelancers.

      Reply
  • Lori Widmer May 2, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    I love it because it underscores the importance of guest posts. I've heard a handful of writers talking on forums and groups about how you shouldn't guest post for free in any instance. Not so.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Mattern May 2, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      Then what they're really saying is "you shouldn't guest post, and should only freelance."

      If all you care about is direct income and not some bigger business goal, that's fine. You should stick to freelance assignments during your billable time.

      Use your marketing / PR time to do something else then. Not all freelancers have to guest post.

      If anything, I see newer writers doing it too often, using it as a sort of crutch instead of learning to use them to land the much better gigs they really want.

      Reply
  • Cathy Miller May 2, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    I think the "hanging out with freelancers" is a mistake we've all done in our marketing. Nothing wrong with having trusted colleagues. But, when there's more of them than your target market reading your guest posts, that's called sharing, not marketing. 😉

    Reply
    • Jennifer Mattern May 2, 2016 at 7:31 pm

      Sharing, or networking. And that's important! But like you point out, it's not necessarily where your focus should be if your goal is landing freelance gigs.

      If you're like Lori and me and you have a site for writers to promote, that's a totally different thing. If your goal is landing gigs though, networking is ultimately about leads and referrals. And guest posts aren't the most efficient way to get referrals.

      That would instead be about building deeper relationships. You do that one-on-one.

      Networking also isn't the best way to aim for gigs when you're fairly new because you haven't proven yourself yet. Promote in other ways to do that first, and let early referrals come from clients who love your work.

      Colleague referrals come later and can help you break into new markets or income tiers.

      Reply
  • Paula Hendrickson May 2, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Nice post, Jenn!

    It's astounding to think some writers are so focused on landing paid guest posts when they could be finding real, on-going clients.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Mattern May 2, 2016 at 8:22 pm

      Exactly. I understand why freelance writers have a harder time understanding this than most business owners. When you make your money writing, you naturally want to be paid when you write an article.

      It also doesn't help when marketers using "paid guest posts" as a linkbait tactic are out there hyping them up to bloggers for their own self interests (bloggers being a group with a lot of overlap with freelancers).

      So I understand why some fall into this trap. But that's why it's so important to remember we're business owners. And when it comes to business decisions, like marketing and PR ones, that's the perspective we should be coming from.

      Reply
  • Ashley May 2, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    Not only do I love your content, I love your style of writing. I love this post not only for its explanation of the difference between paid posts and true guest posts, but also for your mention at the end that this type of PR isn't right for everyone. I've thought many times about trying the guest post route, but never did because I couldn't think of a way that it would be effective. Thanks for assuring me that I'm not crazy!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Mattern May 2, 2016 at 8:48 pm

      Thanks Ashley. It's important to remember that we can't do everything. We have limited time for marketing and PR, and we have to be strategic about how we use that time.

      Guest posting certainly isn't a wise use of time for every freelancer. So if it's not right for you, there's nothing wrong with that. And know that if you do decide to test it, it doesn't have to involve a huge time commitment (and shouldn't when you target well).

      Reply
  • Sharon Hurley Hall May 3, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    So much good advice here, it's hard to know where to start. I think many new writers start out marketing to other writers instead of potential clients. The trick is to move on and know when it's good to guest post.

    I think the bottom line is that if you are getting marketing value from a guest post, it's not the same as writing for free.

    Of course, sometimes you can get double duty from posts for clients, which is even better. Crazy Egg is one of my writing clients, but the work I do there has landed me lots of other clients who want the same kinds of posts.

    Reply
  • Anne Wayman May 3, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    Excellent… a ton of solid good info,including things I didn't totally understand… thanks, Jenn. And Lori/

    Reply
  • Jennifer Mattern May 3, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    Ack. I didn't realize the comments weren't threaded (they were on the app I was using when commenting). I would have just lumped those previous comments together. LOL

    Anne, thank you.

    Sharon, thanks as well. That's exactly right. Promotion and simply doing pro bono work are not the same things. Are there some "clients" who try to cross that line by swearing their unpaid projects will offer "exposure?" Sure. But freelancers are business owners, and as such it's our responsibility to be able to tell the difference. My basic rule is this: if they're blatantly soliciting unpaid work (especially if they're making money and not a registered nonprofit organization), that's not marketing or PR. That's being taken advantage of. (And even in the nonprofit case I don't suggest taking on free work unless you do it because you're passionate and would donate your time anyway, and you do it outside of hours reserved for business.)

    You're also absolutely right about some paying work having bonus promotional benefits. I don't advocate obsessing over bylines if you can get higher-paying work elsewhere. But it's a good point to remember you can get exposure while you're getting paid (something Lori and I talked about on the podcast recently re: Huffington Post). Writers just have to remember a boost from a byline is not the same thing as more strategic marketing and PR, where the articles or posts are directly designed to lead to paying gigs by taking readers through the problem-solution-CTA process I talked about in this post. The problem isn't taking on paid gigs. It's when writers forget to use their marketing time wisely by thinking they should never do write anything that doesn't directly pay them.

    Reply