Who ya gonna cold call?

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Hello Doc: I’ve enjoyed reading your cold-calling tips for freelancers, but wonder if you would break it down even further for newbies like me. For example, who are you calling? No, I don’t want phone numbers, but what I mean is, how do you decide who to call? What do you say?—Trying to think outside the glossies but baffled about where to start

Dear TTTOTGBBAWTS (whew!): You’ve asked an essential strategic question that’s vital to cold calling and sales success. The good news is that a freelancer can construct a high-quality cold calling list with some old-fashioned sweat equity, a bit of sleuthing and minimal expense. But first things first—you need to decide, in a broad sense, what types of clients will provide the best success rate. So, that means:

  • Which industries are the best match for my skills? A prospective client is going to want to know that a freelancer speaks their language. My corporate career included magazine stints in sports, healthcare, small business, banking, and hospitality/travel, so those were logical areas to target from the business side.
  • Which types of creative firms use freelancers the most? Graphic designers (solo or agencies), web firms, ad agencies, printing companies, etc. The benefit here is that they already know the benefits of using a freelance writer, so you don’t have to sell them on the concept, just on your skills and experience.
  • What are my favorite subjects to write about, including areas I’d like to “break into”? This is a matter of distilling the items from the first two bullets, plus adding some dream jobs. You can’t get lucky unless you give it a shot, right?

Once you’ve compiled a list of your best-bet markets, here are the two places I’d recommend starting for cultivating names:

  • Yellow Pages and DexKnows directories. You can use the hard copy, but the online versions are more useful, since you can search by business type and location, and they even have links to websites for quick research. Keep in mind, you won’t have a contact name and you’ll still need to be resourceful about finding the right person at the company, such as a marketing director at a business or creative director at an ad agency. At a mom-and-pop graphic design firm, you’re talking to the owner.
  • Your city’s “Book of Lists” or equivalent. BizJournals has a Book of Lists in nearly 70 metro areas across the country. (Here in Phoenix, it’s the Phoenix Business Journal Book of Lists.) You can save money by purchasing the hard copy, but I’d suggest spending the extra for a CD or electronic access. The benefit with these databases is that everything’s organized in a spreadsheet (for easy tracking of results and follow-up action) and you’ll have better contact information. (Warning: It’s not always current, so you need to be nimble as you negotiate the phone maze!)

That’s where I started, and that’s where I’d recommend you start. Don’t overthink it…you’ll get more confident as you make more calls. I see I’ve gone over my usual 500-word limit, so I’ll need to address “What to say on a cold call” in a future post!

Any other recommendations from cold-calling freelancers out there? Please share in the comments!

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  1. says

    Although I do a bit of freelance writing on the side, my primary gig is website development.

    One of the things I’ve learned about cold calling is that leads lists are *everywhere.* And, after three-plus years of pounding the phones, I have yet to pay for one.

    What really excites me about a name that’s on my list? An ugly website, that’s what!

    Why? Well, in my field, an ugly website presents an opportunity for me to turn it into a beautiful swan.

    I don’t go calling people to diss their existing website. I give them my little freelance designer pitch, and then, if they’re interested, I’ll e-mail the link to one of my clients’ beautiful swan sites.

  2. Dr. Freelance says

    Thanks for commenting, Martha. You’re right that there’s an amazing amount of leads out there, you just need to do a little digging.

    And you bring up a good point about not insulting someone’s existing site or materials. Your subtle approach is a far better bet!

  3. says

    Another good place to find names is associations or conference attendee lists. When I first got started I thought I wanted to write for solar and geothermal companies. I live in the eastern time zone and didn’t get off work until after 5pm. So I searched for alternative energy associations on the west coast and made cold calls after work. I never got any jobs from it, but it was because I had immediate success in an entirely different market so never made more than 10-15 calls.

  4. Dr. Freelance says

    Dava, good suggestion. Every time I’ve left corporate jobs, I’ve always kept a copy of directories and whatnot—you never know when they might come in handy.

    Very clever of you to use the time zones to your advantage! In 2009 we lived in the Atlantic time zone (New Brunswick, Canada), and I felt like I had a 4-hour head start on all my Arizona and California clients. Now that we’re back here in AZ, I have to be vigilant about calling my East Coast peeps early in my work day.

  5. Aline says


    Thanks for the detailed response to my question and thanks also to Martha and dava for chiming in. I’m feeling brave enough to dive in and have a better sense of where to start now.

    -no longer baffled

  6. says

    My favorite line in the post was: “Don’t overthink it… you’ll get more confident as you make more calls.”

    Now if we change that to: “Don’t overthink it… you’ll get more confident as you (fill in the blank),” we have perhaps the greatest bit of advice you’ve ever given to freelancers of any stripe.

    See?– you’ve done it again!! Thank you, Doc Freelance!!