Lately I’ve noticed a lot of questions about retainers — some posed to me, others popping up in freelance discussion boards.
I’m not surprised.
Retainers are the golden geese that enabled me to build my freelance writing business and quit my corporate job within 4-5 months.
Just like a subscription model, retainers bring you a steady income and workload each month, which means you’re not scrambling to secure a new client or gig before work runs out.
It’s the freelancer’s steady paycheck.
In this post I sum up how retainers work, a couple of scenarios you can choose from, and how I sell it to clients.
What retainers look like
A retainer is essentially a flat, recurring fee for a service you provide to clients on a recurring basis. That fee is typically billed monthly.
I’ve experimented with a couple of retainer scenarios:
- The resetting block of hours
In this model, I’ve charged a flat fee for any writing projects, capping my availability to 20, 30, or 40 hours each month. Anything goes as far as assignments, as long as we remain under that monthly hour limit.
One month my client might want 4 blog posts and an infographic. The following month they might request a white paper or email autoresponder series. Then they might want a section of their website rewritten. Again, it’s all good as long as we stay within our monthly limit.
This is the only time I feel ok tying my income to time (I’m not a fan of hourly rates otherwise).
In this scenario, I tell clients I expect our workload will fluctuate somewhat from month to month: some months will be heavier, and some lighter. That workload should even out over time, so neither of us sweats it if we don’t match our time limit each month.
Why this is important: If my clients drag their feet and only use 10 hours of my time one month, I don’t want to be held responsible for that. (This is very common client behavior, by the way.) Rather, our time block resets every month. It’s use it or lose it, just like a gym membership.
Conversely, if we exceed our time limit slightly one month, I’m ok with that too. Exceeding that limit only becomes a problem if it’s frequent or excessive, in which case I’d tell the client we need to either adjust our agreement or some projects need to wait until the following month(s).
- The deliverable-specific
In this scenario, you have a clear, specific set of deliverables you’re expected to produce each month. It could be something like:
- 4 blog posts
- 10-20 social media posts
- 1 long-form content piece (free guide, case study, white paper, feature article, etc.)
It’s a pretty straight-forward arrangement with very clear, well-defined expectations.
The downside, as I see it, is that if one or more of those monthly deliverables doesn’t get done because the client’s been slow or focused on other priorities, you’ll likely have to double-up the following month, which is never fun.
Weighing your options
Which scenario is right for you? It’s a matter of personal preference, really.
I currently have clients on both retainer types: the time block and the deliverable-specific. Each has its pros and cons, but I do like the fact that in the time block agreement I’m not penalized when my client is the one holding up projects.
“I’m a big fan of the ‘use it or lose it’ retainer,” says Sarah, “but that only seems to slide when you do it with time,” she points out. “When I do it with tasks or posts, clients definitely expect them to roll over from month to month” when those items are delayed, even when delays are their fault.
By contrast, Gina prefers task or deliverable-based agreements. “I’m not a fan of time-tracking!”—she shares. A typical retainer agreement for Gina entails a weekly blog post or monthly profile showcasing a success story.
When to pitch it
Retainers are best suited for clients who have a recurring need for content (for obvious reasons).
Companies who need help maintaining a blog, feeding their social media presence, running email promotions, and/or producing long-form pieces on a monthly basis are great candidates.
While you’re free to pitch retainer agreements to any prospect that fits that description, I’ve found it’s a good idea to wait until you’ve completed a successful assignment for a client.
Two reasons for this:
- After a successful project, you’ve gotten a taste of what the relationship will be like with that client. If they’re unreasonable, unreliable or unpleasant, it’s best to know that before you enter into a long-term relationship.
- Similarly, the client’s had a taste of your work and what it’s like to be your client. If everything went well with that initial project, you have built-in rapport and a much greater chance of getting a “yes” to a retainer model.
Gina, who’s upsold 2/3 or her writing clients to retainers, has a slightly different take. “I actually started looking for retainer writing clients from the get go,” she shares. “I wanted to be able to predict my income on a monthly basis (and see it grow overall) and knew that retainer clients were the way to go. I didn’t spend much time pitching one-off pieces for that reason.”
There’s no right or wrong here. Experiment, find what works for you, and adapt as needed.
How to pitch it
When I sense a client has a need for ongoing content, I reason with them them that a retainer arrangement would be more affordable than pricing projects individually. Plus, they’d have a writer who’s already familiar with their business, goals, positioning and preferences at their disposal, ready to go.
I don’t push. I just make that suggestion. Some clients go for it, some don’t, and that’s fine. (Many will still come to you for new assignments; they’re just not ready for a monthly commitment yet.)
Sarah points out retainers also work well when you’re doing regular work for a client but always have to wait to find out what’s next the following month. In those cases, she advises your conversation might go something like this:
“For the past X months we’ve done Y. As my schedule continues to fill out, I want to make sure I can reserve time for you and prioritize our work together. Tell me what you think of doing a regular monthly retainer of X posts. You can cancel at any time, but this will help me make sure your work stays at the top of the list.”
Which brings me to a common term Sarah, Gina and I have in our retainer agreements: we allow clients to cancel anytime. If things change for them (or they change their mind), they can easily end the agreement. (I also mention this in my pitch to relieve any anxiety the client may feel about making a long-term commitment.)
Termination terms are up to you, of course. I only require payment for work completed, but you can write in a “kill fee” in your contract, require a 30- or 60-day notice, or some sort of no-refund clause.
Have questions? Bring’em on.
What questions, fears, or sticking points remain for you about retainers? Or securing high-paying clients in general? Drop your questions in the comments below.