What is a retainer?
“Retainer” refers to an agreement where a client pays you a fixed amount of money each month for a certain set of deliverables, amount of time, or slice of your availability. Right now, I have six monthly retainers, including three at $6,000, one at $1,750, one at $1,500, one at $1,000, and one at $500.
Retainer agreements are quite common in some professions like law and accounting, as well as with other types of firms and agencies—everything from SEO and paid ads to public relations and consulting. It’s more convenient for a client to “retain” a share of someone’s time, attention, and expertise than to have to go through a proposal process for each new need.
Even so, I avoid the word “retainer” when I can. Some freelance clients still don't know what I mean by it, and I’ve come to prefer the word “subscription.” Everyone already has one of those: Netflix, Disney+, gym, magazine, coffee, meal delivery, you name it. Given the choice, I’d rather a prospect know instantly what I’m talking about.
No matter what you call it, you can and should have some kind of continuity offer as a part of your value ladder:
- 6-month coaching program
- Content marketing subscription
- Monthly fractional CMO engagement
If you’re not familiar with a “value ladder,” Russell Brunson uses his experience with a dentist to explain the concept in Dot Com Secrets. His company got new health insurance that came with free teeth cleanings. Brunson scheduled a cleaning, and the dentist persuaded him to get custom teeth-whitening trays, and then new retainers to straighten his teeth. The “free” cleaning led to $2000 worth of upsells.
Brunson was happy about it:
“Because I had received value, I naturally wanted to move forward and get additional value from him. He then found another way that he could provide value to me—the retainers—and again, I naturally took him up on that offer as well.”
Each offer or rung on a freelancer’s value ladder moves clients up, and as the price increases, clients get more value.
One of the first projects I ask the freelancers I coach to tackle is defining their four offers, including a freebie, Trojan Horse, core, and subscription:
- Freebie – We can start our potential clients out with a free audit, initial assessment, or consultation. Or even a long-form blog post, video series, or podcast episode. You can earn people’s trust by giving value to them for free. One way I do that is by appearing as a guest on other people’s podcasts and sharing some of what I know. I also offer a free brand scorecard on my homepage.
- Trojan Horse – You have what I call a “Trojan Horse” offer to help you in the door. In terms of price, it will cost 10-20% of your core offer. The smaller price tag generally means a lower barrier to entry and easier yes for your new clients. They get a chance to work with you. You get a chance to vet them. That is what I do with my Custom Business Roadmaps, Clarity Sessions, and Wayfinding Workshops. If you structure your core offer well, you can actually get paid to scope out new projects and put together proposals.
- Core – You can step your clients up to your core offer, which is the bread-and-butter offer you want to be known for. I’m a fractional CMO, so my core offer is 6-month engagements where I serve as a part-time marketing leader.
- Subscription – My core offer also happens to be subscription. Subscriptions help freelancers maximize the lifetime value of each client and make monthly recurring cash flow more predictable too. If you’ve got several subscription clients, you don’t have to hustle quite so hard every month to pull together enough one-off projects to hit your income target.
What you include in your subscription depends on the type of work you do.
Bet you saw that coming.
Here are some examples:
- Ad management retainer where a freelancer specializing in Facebook and Instagram ads charges $3,000 per month to set up, optimize, and manage ad campaigns
- Content marketing subscription where a freelance writer charges $1,500 per month to research keywords, write two blog posts, and publish them on the client’s behalf
- Website management retainer where a freelance Webflow designer-developer charges $975 per month for 10 hours’ worth of website maintenance, fixes, and add-ons
Though I don’t recommend you fall into the hourly trap, selling a block of your time does provide an easy onramp into subscriptions. You track your time and take note of what you did with it. When you submit an invoice for next month’s block, you also send your timesheets.
I sold $100,000s of time blocks both in my early days freelancing and later when I had an agency. This pricing model is the least risky option with clients who have lots of projects going simultaneously or those who are disorganized, forgetful, or likely to request loads of changes. “Can you please change that period to a semi-colon?”
The first subscription I sold in November 2009 was a $2,900 marketing retainer that consisted of certain projects and responsibilities, not a guaranteed number of hours. Even back then, I preferred this approach because, as long as I got my work done, how long each task or project took me was inconsequential. I liked being in a position to reward myself for my skill, expertise, and efficiency.
11 Steps for Creating and Selling Your Freelance Retainer Offer
If you don’t already have a strong subscription offer, you can follow these steps:
- Think about your “best” money. The projects that pay the most don’t always pay the best. Which projects typically give you a high effective hourly rate (EHR)?
- Think about your clients’ recurring needs. Out of all the outcomes and deliverables in your wheelhouse, which ones do clients need most frequently? A designer won’t be creating an all-new visual identity for her startup client once a month, but the client will likely need other types of design assets—for example, simple illustrations for their blog posts or branded graphics for social posts. Content marketing is a hungry dog always begging for more scraps, so content writers have ready-made subscriptions just begging to be sold.
- Think about your clients’ desired outcomes beyond whatever stuff you deliver. Most creative projects are supposed to do something. They’re supposed to move the needle on a bigger marketing or business strategy. Lots of clients aren’t consistent with tracking, measurement, or drawing out meaningful insights, and they’ll pay you to help them analyze results and unearth new experiments or meaningful improvements that can improve results. For example, a writer could dig into his client’s competitor’s content and find gaps and promising opportunities.
- Think about the work you most enjoy. After over 14 years of freelancing, I can tell you I’ve taken on lots of projects that quickly lost their luster. I call them “payroll” projects because they get the bills paid, but they’re not “portfolio” projects that I’m proud to share. We do our best work when we’re working with our curiosity and enthusiasm, not against it, so the enjoyment quotient is something to consider in your subscription offer.
- Create a 12-month roadmap. Imagine a dream client came to you and said, “We want to work with you for a full year, and we want you to pull out all the stops. How can we maximize your expertise?” Notice I used the word “expertise” and not just “skill.” One of my coaching clients, Andy, is an e-commerce consultant, and when he comes on board with a new client, there’s a ton of stuff he can do to help them increase sales—everything from building a custom reporting dashboard to new segmenting and email automations in Klaviyo to Shopify optimizations. Where his expertise kicks in is helping a client prioritize their easy wins, high-impact projects, and valuable opportunities. Show a client a roadmap, with all the possibilities mapped and organized across a year, and you’re much more likely to sell a bigger, longer engagement, as opposed to a small, one-off project.
- Make a Venn diagram. Draw a circle for higher EHR projects, frequent client needs, and the work you most enjoy. Where is the overlap? What type of project is the most obvious candidate for a subscription?
- Make a bullet point list. What are the key deliverables and outcomes?
- List out any functional and emotional end benefits. In terms of functional, what happens for the client as a result of this subscription? Maybe they’ll get 3 meticulously researched and well-edited thought leadership posts for LinkedIn each week. And how will they feel? They’ll feel confident and optimistic because they’re no longer sitting on their best ideas, stories, and lessons, but getting them out into the world. You catch my drift. A bullet point list of deliverables or “features” isn’t enough. You need to wrap them in the salty, mouth-watering packaging of benefits.
- Slap a price on it, yo. It may be obvious to you that you can have subscription packages at varying price points. If you can sell a content marketing subscription at $1,675, why not one at $3,425? Go for it. Just be sure to demonstrate commensurate value at those higher price points.
- Write a page about this new subscription offer. Not 5 pages or 250 words: 1 page. Explain what the client gets, explain the benefits, and add the price. Sprinkle in any testimonials, case studies, or other proof you’ve got.
- Put the dang thang in front of at least 10 people in the next 2 weeks.
Sidenote: If you don’t already have your own strategic, step-by-step process for creating new, then grab my Juicy Offers Playbook. Here’s what Fatima, a branding consultant, had to say about it: "I decided to go with the Juicy Offers playbook, and I'm mind blown. I finished reading the 20 pages, and I wanted to say THANK YOU. Thank you for sharing amazing advice and bringing value!"
As we close, I want to give you one sales tactic, one tactic for helping make your subscription offers juicier, and one tactic for navigating scope creep.
Regarding sales, start by pitching your new subscription to current and past clients. For all you know, they wanted more but didn’t realize that you would or could deliver it. Why not see if they want to work on a monthly basis with you? Can’t hurt to ask.
Regarding extra-juicy subscription offers, think beyond your “hard” creative skills like writing, design, and dev. What other competencies and aptitudes do you have? What should clients be doing to extract maximum value from your creative work? These days, my subscriptions involve more strategy, brainstorming, thinking, analysis, planning, and ongoing “thought partnership” than actual writing or brand development.
The point is, don’t sell yourself short, friend. The subscription that best fits your target audience’s needs may be a mix of a skill (writing), deliverables (blog posts), retroactive analysis (what’s working, what isn’t), expert advice (recommendations for slightly different content strategy), and planning (what topics to pursue next). If you were to only sell the blog posts, you’d be settling for lower fees at the same time and be denying the client 50% or more of the value.
Finally, regarding scope creep, an ongoing relationship with clients is bound to turn up needs, opportunities, and projects that fall outside of the monthly scope. Some clients will ask what kind of “credit” from the subscription they can apply to the bigger project.
Meanwhile, due to the nature of the work, some projects are inherently difficult to price and scope. The time required to make a seemingly straightforward addition to a website—say, integrating a third-party app—can balloon. Oopsie… the app’s API doesn’t have the right calls or maybe the amount of custom coding, troubleshooting, and testing required—the sheer effort—would consume the entirety of the subscription’s scope and leave nothing for the regular work already committed to.
You don’t want to charge hourly, yet the unpredictable nature of some freelance work seems ill-suited for subscriptions.
I agree, and I’d propose a relatively simple solution: a point or token system. A $5,475 per month website or app development subscription would give the client 18 points to spend each month. Adding a new page based on an existing page mockup costs 3 points. Creating a new page template costs 8 points. Investigating a problem or bug and proposing fixes costs 2 points. The client can then choose between short-term Fix #1 (3 points) or long-term Fix #2 (10 points).
A point system like this can work for any type of freelancer wanting to accommodate larger requests within the “container” of a subscription without getting stuck trading time for money.
I’ll close with a list of benefits of subscriptions, and you can decide if now’s the time to launch one:
- Helps you stabilize and regulate cash flow without closing new projects every single month
- Makes budgeting and forecasting easier because accounts receivable are predictable
- Makes time management, marketing, and sales easier because
- Enables you to plan your production queue and spend more time doing the actual work
- Gives you a clear incentive to create well-defined processes, checklists, and cheat sheets
- Increases efficiency, due to completing recurring tasks faster
- Raises your EHR because you complete the work in less time
- Puts you in a position to hire other freelancers and delegate certain projects and tasks
- Gives you first right of refusal for any new projects that come along
- Rewards clients’ loyalty by giving their projects and needs first priority
- Having limited availability makes you more attractive to new clients
- Guaranteed availability means less risk of paused / delayed projects for subscription clients
- Increases the lifetime value of each client
- Develop deeper expertise through frequent exposure to certain types of work, tech / apps, and industries
Don’t be surprised when stacking up several subscriptions gives you a different, more optimistic perspective on this thing we call freelancing.
When you’re ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:
- Freelance Fixes. This short guide walks you through 6 small but important “fixes” that you can make to raise your income without working longer hours. People really seem to like it.
- Morning Marketing Habit. This course will help you build an “always be marketing” practice, become less dependent on referrals, and proactively build the business you want with the clients you want. My own morning marketing habit has enabled me to consistently make 6 figures as a freelancer.
- Clarity Session. It’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I've done well over 100 of these 1:1 sessions with founders, solopreneurs, and freelancers who wanted guidance, a second opinion, or help creating a plan.