Lessons from Ten-plus Years as a Virtual Marketing Manager

arm in red jacket reaches elephant like the virtual marketing manager logo to feed it a carrot

Lessons from Ten-plus Years as a Virtual Marketing Manager

It was a job  I loved that was going nowhere. I was marketing a member-owned bank and its products. There were generations of rusted-on middle-to-senior management standing in my way to any further advancement. So I went full-time freelance. After almost eight years of hanging in there, I quit to freelance full-time. 

When I started, there was hardly anyone else who did it. There was only one other virtual marketing agency and they were interstate so I was no threat. Now every man and his dog offers everything that made me reasonably unique at one point in time.

I offered a set of services that could be used all together or in small pieces. They included:

  • Marketing strategy
  • Graphic and web design 
  • Social media 
  • Copywriting and content writing
  • Printing and print management
  • Public relations, specifically getting media attention

It was Dickensian – the best of times and the worst of times. Some clients brought joy. Some brought pain. All of them brought great lessons and helped me grow and become a seasoned marketing professional.


Not specialising in one industry

My clients ranged from lots of real estate agents at the beginning – high expectations and repeat business – solopreneurs, start-ups, and small businesses, and energetic new mums with business ideas. I worked my way up the food chain saying yes to everything. 

It bugged me that I wasn’t a specialist in any industry except banking, and that was never going to fly for little young me. So, at the beginning, I had to say yes to everything. Even if I wasn’t personally interested, I had to pretend. I needed the money. 

That includes clients I would have preferred morally not to serve. I’ve been a vegetarian since age 14, so a meat processor was not my dream goal. Egad… the money.

There was another challenge in saying yes to everyone. I had to cover the same terrain from scratch. What are the relevant laws? What are the market trends? What is the market size? Who are the main competitors?

If you specialise in one industry, you can do the big-picture research and set up a few Google News alerts to stay up to date. Repeatable elements like Porter’s five forces would be done once and on-sold again and again.

But I tried and failed to isolate one industry to the exclusion of all others. It wasn’t going to happen. 

The variety of clients gave me another insight though. The more you know about a subject, the more interesting it becomes. When I was researching agribusiness, it opened up another world: sustainability and farming. It wasn’t a horror client at all, but a valuable one. Other clients can be targeted using that knowledge, and they can benefit.

Does it matter if you don’t have an industry? No, it’s not a deal-breaker in my experience. Although it can be more difficult to target new clients without specialising.

If you don’t have a single industry you serve, use solid frameworks. When I say frameworks, I mean tools like Storybrand; the Brand Identity Prism; or your own briefing templates and questionnaires. 

How I managed imposter syndrome

To start with, my bread-and-butter work was graphic design. That was my gateway service to other services. I am a writer and creative, but almost no one literate in a regional area would hire a writer, so I had to have a trade. That was graphic design.

I could use Adobe software and had taught myself through hour after hour of Lynda.com and YouTube, PSDTuts, and abduzeedo. But I wasn’t a great designer in the early days, I learned by copying design I loved, so I had imposter syndrome big time.

I had done the bank’s campaigns for years and years. They were creative and plastered all over four towns in giant A0-size window posters. My work was visible. And funny. But that didn’t make me a good graphic designer, that made me a good advertising copywriter. I had a Communications degree in hand but no fancy design school diploma so I probably should have outsourced the graphic design work when I started freelancing full-time, but I didn’t. Shwack!

My advice is this:  Source the best supplier and take a small management fee. Network and use services like Upwork and Fiverr, or others in your town. Find great designers with a style that suits the brief.

Disclose this all completely in your Terms of Service.

Charge what the market will bear

To begin with, I undercharged. As jobs wore on and on, I started to feel resentment and learned the hard way to charge more.

There is no fixed rate for a lot of things, you charge what the market will bear. If you are too expensive, they can find someone else. 

Always make sure you have a kill fee in your standard contract terms of service. That way if the client changes their mind and kills the job, you’re not left out of pocket. 

When preparing a quote, consider the number of hours it will take to do the work with no changes. Then double it. Changes are inevitable. 

Include this in your Terms of Service

I’m a big fan of the Plain English movement in law and prefer a simple ten-point contract agreement that is easy to understand.

What I never included because I didn’t them (but would do now in a heartbeat) was include a Kill Fee. The kill fee is the payment a client makes if they decide to terminate the job they commissioned you to do. It is often used by writers.

It doesn’t have to be a big figure, just enough to compensate you for your planning and any work you have done so far. Alternatively, you could request a deposit (often 50 per cent) up front and that gets waived if the client kills the job.

Include a set number of revisions

Set an hourly rate with a certain number of changes included, say five. 

You can always ignore it and keep providing unlimited revisions, but you will meet a client who takes advantage. If it’s one too many changes, especially if they are tiny or go back and forth, you can point to the contract terms and offer it at the ‘out of scope’ hourly rate.

My advice is this: Set a standard hourly rate. Say $80 per hour and have a contract or Terms that state how many revisions you will make. Repeat the brief to the client at the beginning of the Terms so you’re all clear on what the deliverables will be and what the costs are if the work goes outside of the scope eg over the set number of revisions.

Discounts and freebies

Don’t spend a lot of time on it! Ever heard that? I just need a wedding invitation/business presentation/logo but I don’t have any money. 

There will be so many times when you will be asked to work for free and you might want to. I certainly did huge amounts of free work getting started. 

Think about the kind of freebies you might do and how many each year or quarter. There should always be something in it for you to make you say yes. You might want to get some advertising or a marketing opportunity or the chance to write a case study. If it’s because it’s a good friend or someone you know, ask for testimonial and to add it to your portfolio.

Just be aware of setting expectations that you’re free or cheap. And beware of the wolf – the lurking entrepreneur with a revolutionary business idea and no money. Their bites leave teeth marks. (I speak from experience.) 

Play to your strengths

A key lesson in pricing is to focus on your strengths. Show value. Using testimonials from real clients and customers to give you the social proof. Offer only what you excel at delivering and exceed expectations. That, after all, is the name of the game in business.

 I was once offered a house in lieu of payment but finally settled on a couple of hundred dollars payment instead. Never got that house, but no regrets. 

Another time a woman liked my work and asked to hire me. I met her to take the brief. When discussing rates an hour later, she offered massage therapy as payment. My fault. I hadn’t managed the expectation that I worked for whatever was offered.

Treat it like your job  

Treat your business like a job and have consistent working hours. Even if there is no work, keep working on marketing. Write a blog. Develop your brand charter. Create valuable content people can find.  It will repay you in the long run.

I had started a Master’s degree in marketing when I was still working full-time and I continued it, one unit at a time, while I was running my freelance marketing business. To help me study, I wrote blog articles. They were about fascinating research I’d read for tutorials. Textbooks I had studied, theories, and frameworks, to help me remember the content for my exams. 

But I also used my articles to showcase my authority on the subject of marketing. That was before ‘content marketing’ was a thing. I felt that knowledge and writing had to be my strength and a key plank of my brand.

Working out your target market

The small client you want to help for low cost can be just as demanding as big business or government clients. With large organisations, there are systems and processes that support everyone toward a goal. The brief tends to be clear.  The payments are better, and there are rarely issues with non-payment although it can be slow. 

It took me a few years to realise who exactly was my target market. These were my professional set of readers. They were literate, and motivated, and would often get in touch because an article hit the mark for them and gave them something valuable.

Small business is the lifeblood of the economy, of economies everywhere.  Small business is exploding with incredible opportunities as well. It can be extraordinary the difference you can make to people’s lives if you can help them with marketing, whether that’s the vision, mission, tagline, value proposition. Or delivering four times the investment made in Google Ads. Or developing the brand so it soars in the mind of customers and prospects, and delighting prospects with an authentic social media presence. I’ve seen a three-person business bring in $27 million revenue each year in Sydney, Australia with a strategy based on helpful articles, social media, and Google Ads.

The lesson is this: Try a variety of clients and get comfy. To be honest, I still don’t have one target. Your own target will emerge with experience. It could be any client you love working with, a client who appreciates your work, and who puts a spring in your step. And they have money to pay you. Sooner or later,  I trust you will find them. 

To summarise, there are so many things I have learned after years of being a virtual marketing manager, this just covers a few business items. The key take-aways are:

  • Have clear and simple Terms of Service
  • Set an hourly rate
  • Think about ‘what’s in it for you’ when it comes to freebies and discounts
  • And Play to your strengths.

If you are starting out too, good luck.  I believe in you! If you have any questions, just ask me.