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When you're a new freelancer, it can seem impossible to get anybody to hire you. It's easy to feel like you can't get a job without experience, or experience without a job.
But you can break the cycle of being brand-new at this by marketing your budding freelance business. Concentrate on finding better-quality clients, and you can move up quickly and start earning a real wage.
Remember that every successful, six-figure freelancer out there today once started with no samples or experience. Somehow, they managed to build their portfolio and start getting lucrative assignments -- and you can, too.
Which marketing strategies work for new freelancers? Here are my 10 best tips:
1. Do Pro Bono Work
The trick to marketing yourself as a newcomer is to identify prospects who are likely to take a chance on a new freelancer with your particular skills and life experience. Focus on those gigs first. Small businesses, small local publications, and local nonprofits or professional organizations are all good bets.
Offering to do unpaid assignments is a great way to get skeptical prospects willing to work with you. This is a tricky area, though, as you don't want to end up being exploited -- this freebie gig has to help you build your career. A few quick tips:
- Keep pro bono projects small.
- Make sure the clients has a great reputation.
- The client should be in a niche where you want to find paying clients.
- Require that they refer and recommend you if they're satisfied with your work.
- You must be able to claim credit for the work -- no "non-disclosure" agreements.
- The client is sworn to secrecy that this assignment was done without pay.
Do three or four of these and bingo -- you've got a starter portfolio. From this point on, think of yourself as a pro and go after paying gigs. Remember not to get stuck in the trap of keeping on doing freebies for people.
2. Tap Family, Friends and Peers
If you think your peeps and your folks don't know anyone who needs a designer/writer/coder/etc.... consider that you might be wrong.
As it happens, I just heard this week from a freelance writer who was embarrassed that her mom was bragging on Facebook about her new freelance business...until she got a client who saw her mom's announcement.
It’s marketing 101 to begin by telling everyone who already knows and likes you that you are freelancing and looking for more clients.
You never know who your people know, or who the people they know might know.
It's marketing 101 to begin by telling everyone who already knows and likes you that you are freelancing and looking for more clients. You don't have to sound desperate.
If you have no clients yet, they don't need to know that. Just say you're a freelancer now, and you're looking to add a few clients to your roster. Would they keep an ear out if they hear of anyone who needs your kind of help?
To extend this friends-and-family network one step further, if you have editors or marketing managers you've worked with in the past who liked you, reach out and reconnect.
Let them know you'd appreciate their referrals, too. You never know who that college photography professor might hear from who's looking for help with their website.
3. Focus on Your Website and/or Blog
Short of doing pro bono work for a client, you have another option for building a portfolio: creating your own freelancer website or blog. These sites can be a showcase for your writing, design, or coding skills.
Too often, freelancers seem to slap up a half-baked site, not realizing this is a key audition piece for getting more gigs. Instead, take the time to make this a strong sales tool. Show you know how to help clients sell by taking the time to create a catchy, clean design with standout copy.
One of the most common weak points for freelancers is the About page. Many of us apparently don't like talking about ourselves...but don't make this a dull resume page.
Tell an interesting story about why you are the type of freelancer you are, what you love to do for clients, and a bit about yourself personally. The Internet is an anonymous place full of scams -- show prospects you're a real person with talent who'd be fun to work with.
Whatever parts of website setup, design, or writing aren't your strong point, hire someone or do a tradeout with other freelancers to get the help you need. You can't compete for decent-paying gigs without a strong freelancer website.
4. Meet Live Humans
Most freelancers start with local clients, so hitting in-person networking events in your town can be a great starting point. Order some free business cards on VistaPrint and think about what you offer to clients.
Hammer it into a punchy line you can give people you meet about how you solve clients' problems. For instance, I might say, "I help businesses tell compelling stories that build client loyalty."
Remember that people give you gigs -- not computers. Getting out to meet real people can quickly enlarge your personal network and help you find more clients.
The thing about in-person networking is that newbies often go to one meeting, don't quite know what to do, don't get any clients that day, and conclude networking isn't effective. That's short-sighted.
Remember that people give you gigs — not computers. Getting out to meet real people can quickly enlarge your personal network and help you find more clients.
The point of networking is to build relationships with more people and make more people aware of what you do, so they can refer you business. It's a strategy that can take months to pay off, but it's worth it because you build stronger relationships.
Try several different groups and keep going until you find one where the types of clients you like hang out. It might take going to a larger city's Chamber or LinkedIn live events, or maybe an exclusive group such as BNI, where you'd be the only freelancer in your niche allowed admittance.
Consider professional association meetings and opportunities to build your network of freelancers in your same niche, too -- they can be a vital source of feedback and referrals. I tried a ton of groups when I was starting out promoting my freelance writing business, and ended up finding MediaBistro's writer events the most useful.
I have a friend who was referred a nonfiction book deal through the group too, by another writer in his specialty who didn't have time for the gig. It really is worth meeting your peers -- trust me on this one.
5. Phone/Skype Calls
Cold calling is the terror of many new freelancers. So why do I bring it up? Because it works.
I have yet to meet anyone who was willing to put in a few hundred cold calls to a list of qualified prospects that couldn't get their business up and running.
Whenever freelancers tell me they need to find new clients "on the hurry-up," as one put it to me, I think of cold calling. It gets you out of overthinking marketing emails and allows you to make many contacts quickly.
If you meet people in social media, you might propose taking a Skype lunch or Google hangout with them to build on that connection. I personally try to take a Skype lunch at least once a week with someone I think might be a future partner or collaborator on freelance projects.
6. Marketing Emails
Also known as a letter of introduction, a marketing email simply introduces you to the prospect and inquires if they use freelancers of your type.
- Get referrals. The best response rates come from sending an email that can mention a friend you have in common or colleague of your target.
- Speak their language. Study the tone of your prospect's marketing materials, and write in that style. That says, "I get you."
- Research your target. Identify what's missing from their current marketing -- do they have visually dull brochures? Has their blog not been updated in six months? Spot the hole and propose a project to fill it.
- Give an easy call to action. End your letter with a simple, low-commitment task the prospect could do to take this further, such as viewing a link to a relevant sample in your portfolio or asking to see your clips.
7. Query Letters
OK, this one is only for freelance writers. But if you are looking to write articles for consumer publications, a well-written query letter can often waltz you right in the door, with few or even no clips.
I've reviewed dozens and dozens of query letters, and I find most writers think they know how to write one, but really don't.
A few quick query pointers:
- Research your target market to see what topics they cover, and what they've covered recently. Develop ideas that are a fit for this publication, but haven't been done too recently.
- Include a strong headline or title for your query idea that's written in the style of the publication.
- If you're a new writer, pre-interview at least one source and quote them in your query.
- Write in the style of the publication, so the editor can envision your work appearing in their pages.
- When you get to the bio line, be brief. Don't tell them your whole life story or that you got fired from your job.
- Don't tell the editor how long your proposed article should be. Let them tell you how much space they've got for it.
8. Find Better Job Boards
To steer clear of scams and start getting some real wages, stay away from Craigslist and other mass boards. Likewise, hanging around bidding on Fiverr or Elance is a race to the bottom. If you've got a few samples in your portfolio, you're ready to find better clients than you'll usually encounter here.
Instead, look for better-quality, niche job boards. How can you tell when you've found one? One qualifier is that the companies placing the ads have to pay. Another is that you have to pay a subscription to get the listings. Yet another might be the job board of a professional association in your niche.
In the community I run, Freelance Writers Den, we use some listings from the subscription-only listings of FlexJobs in our own Junk-Free Job Board. And as a business writer, I've found Gorkana alerts useful (they have alerts for healthcare and media writers, too).
These specialty job boards take a little more sleuthing to find, but it can be well worth it. Ask around your network about where people are finding better-quality job listings.
Look for work where fewer freelancers hang out, and you'll be in a stronger position to bid higher rates.
9. Social Media
I know what you're thinking -- social media is the biggest timewaster ever invented. It's true. But it can also be a great place to make new connections and find clients.
Like in-person networking, social-media networking is a long-term strategy that takes time to pay off.
Like in-person networking, social-media networking is a long-term strategy that takes time to pay off. Begin by following successful people in your niche and some prospects, too. See what they talk about. Share their stuff.
Don't be a stalker -- but once they've gotten to know your name a bit, try reaching out. On Twitter, I like tweeting something along the lines of "Are you the right editor to pitch for X magazine?" as it's an easy yes-or-no question they can answer without making any commitment to reading your query themselves.
On LinkedIn, I'm a fan of sending InMail to people who've viewed my profile (LinkedIn has a widget that can show you some of the data on who's looked at you).
Don't just consider the well-known, giant social-media networks, either. Think about where your prospect might hang out in social media -- it might be on a local listserv or Yahoo Group for your town. Then, be on there.
10. Partnerships and Alliances
Don't do all the marketing work by yourself. Make it easier by teaming up with other freelancers.
These could be freelancers in your same niche, who you might be willing to refer work to in hopes that they'll return the favor, too. Or they might be freelancers in complementary niches -- say, a web designer or graphic designer who teams with a freelance writer.
Often, freelance projects call for more than one of these skills, allowing you to refer work to your collaborators. With luck, they will think of you when they land a project that calls for your skills.
Have a Plan -- and Analyze It
Savvy freelancers don't just throw a bunch of marketing activities at the wall. Instead, create a focused marketing plan of the best techniques based on your own interests and the types of clients you are targeting. For instance, if you love shmoozing and are looking for small-business clients, in-person networking should definitely be on your list.
Concentrate on three or four strategies for several months.
Then, analyze how that worked. Where did you get the most clients? The best clients? Adjust your marketing as you discover what works best for you.
How did you find your first freelance clients? Leave a comment and add your perspective.