What are the most lucrative freelance writing niches?
Common guesses might be website copy, direct response or celebrity ghostwriting. But time for money, I’d bet longform content at least belongs in the top three.
By longform content, I’m specifically talking about white papers and case studies.
In digital marketing parlance, these are considered “bottom of funnel” resources. That means businesses use these pieces of content to provide additional information to people who are on the brink of making a purchase.
Your case study or white paper is often the last thing someone reads before choosing whether to click away… or pull out their credit card.
As you can imagine, many B2B (business-to-business) companies take these resources very seriously. And they’ll pay a good writer handsomely to create B2B writing resources that improve their sales.
After working as a marketing manager for two years, I decided to strike out on my own as a freelance copywriter. And in the past five years, I’ve helped dozens of startups and established tech companies with their B2B copy, with a special focus on white papers and case studies. I’ve learned that if you’re a strong writer with some storytelling chops, you can quietly earn an awesome living just producing these two deliverables.
What is a white paper?
A white paper is a report that informs the reader about a technical subject. There are many use cases for a white paper. But most of the white papers I’ve written fit loosely into one of two categories: product breakdown or industry overview.
A product breakdown is exactly what it sounds like. Typically these involve explaining how a product works, describing what problems it solves and naming all of the key features and functions. For example, most cryptocurrencies include a white paper to describe the unique makeup of their blockchain technology.
An industry overview has slightly more variation. Businesses use these to discuss trends, introduce readers to their industry or list common challenges faced by people or businesses in that space.
For example, not long ago I wrote a white paper about cybersecurity in healthcare. The resource included an overview of the history of cybersecurity in healthcare, current trends and challenges and several forward-looking statements from the company about the industry.
How much can you charge writing white papers?
Many copywriters undervalue the skills they bring to the table. To an experienced writer, the ability to write with clarity and simplicity about a complex subject may not exactly feel like a top-tier skill. Not rocket surgery, right?
But to engineers working at an inherently complicated and technical company, clarity and simplicity are the surest path to improved sales.
Also, white papers are not blog posts. If you’re used to blogging, it may be tempting to look at the word count of a white paper and simply set your rates as if it’s a longer, more technical blog post. But businesses put blog posts and white papers in completely different categories.
So should you.
Most freelance writers I know charge less than $1,000 per blog post.
Meanwhile, the going rate I see for a white paper is between $3,000 and $8,000 — with the most in-demand writers charging into the low five figures. But if you’ve never written a white paper before, it might make sense to charge a lower fee. For reference, I charged about $1,200 for my first.
How to write a white paper
No two white papers are exactly alike, but here is a general outline you can borrow. This should serve as a solid foundation for most reports you’ll write:
- Cover page
- 100 – 300 word summary
- Table of contents
- This is where you’ll include all your points and research, broken down into chapters and subchapters
- Restate the core information
- Introduce next steps / key takeaways for the reader
- Call to action
- Common examples:
- “Contact our sales team”
- “Start a free trial”
- “Buy now”
- Yep, just like you remember from high school and college
Word counts vary a lot depending on the subject matter. But I’ve written white papers as short as 2,000 words and as long as 6,000 words.
But aiming for a word count matters less to me than achieving brevity and clarity.
Secret ingredient: Get new information
You don’t want someone to finish reading your white paper just to shrug and say, “I guess I could have just Googled this information.”
The foundation of a good white paper is sharing stories, stats and insights that the reader can’t find anywhere else.
How do you gather that information? Primary sources.
Start with your client. Encourage them to let you use relevant internal data, conduct a survey, or connect you with experts you can interview in the field.
Introducing a few new industry stats and stories can make your white paper a lot more powerful.
What is a case study?
A case study is the highest form of social proof.
It’s the ultimate we’ve-solved-your-problem-before signal to future clients.
Unlike other forms of social proof — like a logo bar or testimonial, which offer very limited context or information — a good case study tells a clear story: The client had a problem, and here’s how the company solved it.
Case studies are usually that simple. I believe the best ones aren’t flashy or over the top. They offer the reader a clear story of trial and triumph, with the purpose of highlighting the unique capabilities of the company.
Strategic case studies tend to showcase one of a business’s core offerings in action. In other words, they center around a time when their product or service did exactly what it was made to do.
How much can I charge writing case studies?
You won’t command the same size fee writing case studies as you do writing white papers. But the good news is, case studies are a lot less work.
In my experience (and from what I’ve seen many copywriters charge), you can reasonably earn between $800 and $1,800 per case study. Unlike a whitepaper, which might take you multiple weeks to research and write, case studies can be written in just a handful of hours.
In fact, on many occasions I’ve started and finished a case study in just one day — and that includes interviewing the customer (which I’ll discuss in a moment).
How to write a case study
The best case studies tend to have the same simple formula:
- This can be a list of services rendered, results achieved, or problems solved
- Problem (“Before working with X”)
- This is your big setup. You want to name the problem that the client was dealing with, what they already tried, and why they approached the company who ultimately solved their problem.
- Process (“What we did”)
- Here is where you dive into what the company did for the client. What solutions were implemented? If this is a product, which features did the client use, and for how long?
- The previous two sections should be a soft pitch. This final section is where you swing and knock the ball out of the park. Talk results: What did the client gain from working with the company? What were their outcomes? You should name exact figures like “reduced the average customer support call time by half” or “increased the average order value by $7.”
I like to include quotes from the customer throughout the case study. Wherever possible, let them tell the story for you. Which brings me to the secret ingredient behind the best case studies…
Secret ingredient: Get on the phone with customers
The key to creating an irresistible case study is getting on the phone with your client’s customers. Case studies are stories of shared success. If you gather all your information from the company you’re working for, you’re only capturing one side of the story.
Fill in the gaps by setting up a customer interview or two. First, this will impress the company who hired you to produce the case study. It will also make your final case study a lot more powerful, because through these calls you’ll uncover quotes and customer language that you never would have captured by only talking to the brand who hired you.
How to find white paper and case study clients
Here are three approaches for finding white paper and case study clients.
1. LinkedIn search engine
People trust their network to recommend reliable resources. When someone doesn’t know where to find a good writer, they’ll often make a post on LinkedIn. They hope someone in their network offers a strong recommendation.
When these LinkedIn posts are public, you can search them — even if the person who wrote the post isn’t in your immediate network.
Simply go to the LinkedIn search bar, type a phrase you might expect someone to use when looking for a writer (example: “looking for a case study writer”), and click search.
Now, organize the results by “Posts” and then sort them by “Latest” (as opposed to “Relevancy”). This will ensure you only see the latest requests.
Then, send the person a kind LinkedIn message or email.
2. Cold email
Yes, you’ll receive a lot of rejections by emailing complete strangers. Cold outreach is a numbers game. But there are tactics to improve your odds.
My favorite suggestion is to start local. People tend to feel most comfortable working with service providers with whom they share something in common. Geography can serve as that shared something.
You’re looking for niche B2B companies, which can seem challenging at first. After all, these companies aren’t advertising on local radio stations or sending you Facebook ads. The brands I’m talking about are quietly successful, industrial companies that you had no idea existed — let alone that they are headquartered in your city.
So how do you find them?
First, check places like the Inc. 5000 (which tracks the fastest-growing US companies) or Fortune 500 (which tracks the largest US companies) lists. You can sort these lists by city and industry and there are new versions published every year.
I also like to check local websites that report on companies in my target industry. For example, in Austin, Texas there are websites like Built In, Silicon Hill News, and AustinInno. Sometimes they’ll publish extensive roundup posts featuring the exact companies I’m talking about.
All I have to do is scroll.
3. Attend niche industry events
Yes, I know we’re in a pandemic.
I wouldn’t include this suggestion unless I thought it was the best client acquisition tactic on this list. (Which it is.)
For now, you can use this same approach in webinars and Zoom events. But once things are safe and back to normal, I want you to start attending in-person events.
I’m not talking about flashy tech conferences with renowned speakers from Uber and Google. I want you to frequent the ultra-niche industry conferences in your city (or the nearest city to you).
If you’re new to B2B, many of the talks and panels will be presented by people from companies you’ve never heard of. That’s your advantage — because your competition doesn’t know about them either.
Almost every single one of these companies know they need white papers and case studies. Many of them want help. They just have a hard time finding writers who can communicate their complex solutions clearly.
Show up to these events and just start introducing yourself to people. Meet some of the speakers. Chat with fellow attendees. As soon as you start mentioning that you write white papers and case studies, people will request your business card.
Make sure you collect their cards too. Then, follow up with everyone after the conference:
I’m the writer you met at [Niche tech conference] last weekend. It was great meeting you! I wanted to follow up on that white paper idea you told me about…”
The best part: Competition is irrelevant
I often tell new and aspiring freelancers that there are way more businesses in need of good writers than there are competent writers available to help them.
Sure, it doesn’t feel that way when you’re looking for gigs on Upwork or other job boards. But the key is to look for work in places where competition is irrelevant or nonexistent.
Think about it: What business doesn’t need regular blogs, case studies, social media posts or emails? If you only have one takeaway from this article, remember that clear writing is foundational to marketing and sales. And every business needs more customers.
If you can connect your writing to real business outcomes, and you learn to find clients in unconventional places, then I believe you’ll uncover more work than you know what to do with.