One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a freelancer is to ignore building and promoting your brand. Starting my freelance business in 2010, I shrugged my shoulders at the thought of branding strategy. It sounded like something that only larger businesses engaged in, not freelancers.
Over the years, I’ve learned that brand promotion is actually a critical part of a freelancer’s overall business, no matter how small. With a little effort, you too can build a better freelance business with strategic branding.
Branding promotion as we see it used by big companies (e.g. Apple, Ben and Jerry’s, or Starbucks) and branding for freelancers are similar in many ways. Essentially, branding is everything you do as a business that makes others remember you. For freelancers, however, branding takes on a very special meaning. As a freelancer you are your business. So, in effect, you are your own brand.
An effective brand promotion strategy will help you not only find the right clients and projects that challenge you as a professional and fall in your niche, but also help you rise above the competition. Branding helps distinguish you from the crowd. For example, if you’re starting out as a freelance editor, how do you convey, “I specialize in deep content editing and can help you write a more compelling book,” but also “And this is WHY I do it better than anyone else…” Well, it all comes down to branding.
And more practically, a brand inspires loyalty. Brand loyalty is the difference between you scrambling to meet your monthly rent by chasing down one-off, low-value clients, and clients chasing you down because of your reputation and the good word-of-mouth associated with your services. Loyalty also inspires fans to act as ambassadors for your work, which is really the best kind of advertising.
Buzzworthy, solid branding for freelancers can be organized into two basic stages:
- Stage 1: Defining and communicating your mission, where you learn how to set your business goals and design the look-and-feel of your freelance brand that's consistent with those goals; and
- Stage 2: Engaging and networking with your market, where you learn how to reach and communicate with your client market, while promoting your brand.
Stage 1: Defining and Communicating Your Mission
Establish a strong, compelling business identity.
Who are you? This isn’t some abstract, existential question; this is about defining what your freelance business is and how you want others to perceive you. One of the biggest mistakes freelancers make is skipping the soul-searching process of establishing who they are as a business. “Oh, I’ll take all kinds of work. I’m flexible...” is a common and frustratingly vague refrain among those who freelance without a branding strategy.
Branding starts with your mission. What’s your personal vision about the work that you do? What’s your personal pledge to clients?
Branding starts with your mission. What’s your personal vision about the work that you do? What's your personal pledge to clients? There are a lot of talented professionals out there who have similar skillsets. Will your target clients immediately “get” why you’re different from other freelancers? Branding is about expressing those unique qualities in a way that showcases not only your raw talent, but also your professionalism.
To do that, you’ll want to first define your business goals as a freelancer—both long-term and short-term business goals. Long-term goals keep you inspired, while short-term goals keep you focused. The former are broad objectives or targets to be accomplished over the course of several weeks or months, while the latter are actionable, specific tasks that keep you meeting targets on a daily or weekly basis.
Outline your goals using a tiered goal system. In the top tier are your ambitious business objectives. Below those are several smaller objectives, or specific targets that help you achieve the larger objectives. Underneath the targets, add actionable tasks with very specific deliverables that help achieve your targets.
Here’s an example of tiered goals:
- Objective: Promote my quality, affordable editing services to independent, self-published authors.
- 1. Publish two articles in a national trade publication by the end of the quarter, which discuss publishing trends and the role of editors-for-hire in turning authors into their own publishers.
- 2. Reach out to authors on reader community sites.
- 1. Devise two unique article pitches a week and submit to the editors of the following magazines…
- 2. Visit reader groups on LinkedIn, Amazon Kindle forums, and Goodreads, and answer three questions every week...
Starting off with grandiose plans is great, but it can quickly mire you down. Instead, opt for a goal-by-goal plan made up of objectives, targets, and tasks where broader goals are broken down into actionable items that you can tick off on a regular basis.
Customize your message and define your niche.
Now that you have solid business goals to keep you revved up and active, it’s time to customize your message and define what corner of the freelance market you want to conquer. That’s your niche. You can boost your freelance business by having a clearly defined niche.
Are you a freelance editor that wants to work only on book-length projects? Are you more of a long-form freelance writer who likes to dive deep into a topic rather than spin, punchy SEO-packed content? Do you straddle two different fields, say, a freelancer who can write web copy and design websites? Figure out your specializations and talents and decide what niche you plan to work in.
Other ways to stake your niche include writing out your personal mission statement and preparing two types of “speeches”: a friendly but interesting 15-second elevator speech that you can spout off comfortably at both networking events and cocktail parties, and a longer business pitch that you can use when meeting prospects for the first time. Customize your speeches for prospective clients, adjusting the details and angle.
When I first started, I wrote out my punchy elevator speech on a notecard, just a few lines that went through countless iterations and tweaks. Later, I prepared my business pitch by writing out several talking points that included a brief bio and my qualifications; a list of my services and relevant client projects I had completed over my career; the typical type of clients I work with; and finally, an overview of my work process.
Branding is about expressing your "USP," or Unique Selling Proposition, in a way that comes through without it sounding like a sales sermon. Without having a clear sense of your talents and personal mission, you certainly can’t pinpoint your USP.
Design your freelance brand around your persona.
One of the more common mantras behind freelance branding is that the “you are the brand.” Establish a professional but authentic persona as a foundational step toward building your freelance brand. Broadly, you’ll want to capture and express your interests, your areas of expertise, and more abstractly, your personality.
Evoke your personality in your messaging across your digital and print materials.
Evoke your personality in your messaging across your digital and print materials. Branding captures everything about you—who you are as a person. Be mindful of what’s written in your mission statement or on your "About" page on your website, making sure it takes into account your typical client’s needs and audience. The trick is letting your voice come through consistently and genuinely across all your branding channels, whether it’s your website or social medial channels. And whatever you do, don't write boring copy. Dynamic copy turns visitors into clients and is an engaging way of promoting your brand.
Think for a moment what happens when you meet someone for the first time and really connect. There’s a rapport there, a comfortable cadence in the conversation. How do we explain this connection? Maybe you share common interests. But really it’s the rapport you share: you just really like the person. His personality is interesting, engaging, and you enjoy his company. It’s a good feeling.
These kind of connections foster friendships. Well, building a brand is in many ways about forging similar kinds of personal connections. Because freelance businesses tend to be solo affairs, there’s a very real opportunity for you to personalize the business process and working experience with clients. I know many clients who enjoy working with freelancers and prefer it simply because they enjoy that one-on-one, personal rapport.
Create a coherent image and style.
From your Facebook page to your business card, all the visual elements and marketing copy should convey a coherent business. Work with a designer and editor to create a stylebook that defines specific design elements (such as a logo, color palette, typography, etc.), written content (tagline, mission statement, etc.), and any other elements that make up your brand. These guidelines should also include usage rules (e.g. “Use only the custom font for the business name in all materials” or “the word ‘Marketer,’ should not be used in any online or print content”).
Remember the basics of good design (the rule of thirds, balance, and emphasis) when producing your brand-promoting materials. Don’t clutter materials with content, use ample space between design elements, and use emphasis, like bold font type and special graphics, sparingly. Don’t underestimate the power of design and layout, especially on your website.
Do you want to convey a fun, whimsical tone to reflect your imaginative side? If so, you’ll want to use brighter, more playful colors. Smooth curves on fonts and logos evoke a different feeling than sharp edges and geometric shapes. More conventional layouts that compartmentalize information into columns or squares are more conventional and will portray a more formal brand. Here's a great web design questionnaire with a checklist of considerations that go into designing a killer website.
Stage 2: Brand Promotion through Engaging and Networking with Your Market
Invest in a sound content branding strategy.
“Content is king” was everybody’s mantra a few years ago with the arrival of Web 2.0. Now, the refrain is “Everyone is a publisher,” which is about how people have become empowered and emboldened to create their own content. To be a publisher though, you need to practice good content strategy.
To launch a unified content strategy, both online and offline, make sure you have a well-designed, central footprint for your business.
I have a friend who works as a content strategist and is irked every time someone mistakes her for a glorified copy editor. As an editor, I know that content strategy is much more than writing and cleaning copy. What content strategists do is establish an overarching, unifying vision of the content you produce: your website, social media platforms, blog, newsletters, and e-mails to clients. From workflow, quality, tone, and timing, your content strategy as a freelancer will be a big part of your branding strategy. Check out A List Apart, a great blog on content strategy.
To launch a unified content strategy, both online and offline, make sure you have a well-designed, central footprint for your business. As a freelancer, your “headquarters” is your website or online portfolio. A central platform for your business, your website (or portfolio) is your plot of real estate on the web that gives visitors everything they need to know about you and your work.
Your site doesn't have to be complex to make an impression. Some freelancers only have a single page as their website and provide links to other sites or networks for more information. Make sure visitors can check out your satellite “offices” on social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Pinterest.
Establish a regular publishing plan to push out content.
How active you are on blogs and public forums can enhance your freelance business brand in several ways. Many freelance businesses already have a blog as a built-in component in their broader online presence, using them as the de facto platform to advertise and promote their services. Blogging, however, can be time-consuming (I, too, am not immune to letting my blog lie fallow for long stretches).
Blog posts should be roughly 500-800 words for shorter pieces, and 1,500+ words for longer posts. Aim for a blog ratio of 80/20: 80 percent short pieces and 20 percent longer ones. What’s the key to a great blog? Write like a person, not a business. Be yourself. Readers want to read real, authentic thoughts from you. Practice makes perfect, so take some time to learn how to write an effective blog post.
Keep blogging (ideally, once a week and at least once a month), but realize that building a blog audience can take as long as several years of regular writing. For many solo freelancers, the time commitment for blogging can be overwhelming, especially with other social media channels competing for your attention.
Another option is to pitch guest articles to various online publications (or blogs) with wide readerships. By writing for established media sites (or blogs), you can reach a wider audience, draw traffic to your website, and establish your credibility as a prominent “voice” and expert in your field.
Are you a web design guru? Try pitching articles about design elements like typography, color palettes, or wire framing to relevant publications. Work as a freelance marketer? Package your marketing advice in an article and contact social media and marketing blogs. As you do your pitches, make a list of publications you read/enjoy, start small (your pitches will more likely be accepted), and pitch story ideas every week.
Another related strategy? Write timely posts that piggyback off a major event or popular trend. For example, September 24-28, 2012 has been dubbed “Social Media Week”, in which global events in cities around the world will take place. Sounds to me like the perfect opportunity to write and publish content related to social media. Photographers can write articles about Pinterest and photos. Web programmers can discuss programmer tools for Facebook and Twitter. Writers can explore content strategies and blogging tips.
Practice the ‘grandma rules’ of engagement.
Cardinal rules of professionalism and etiquette still apply with freelancing, even when most of your client interaction takes place over the cloud. Consider these old-fashioned, grandmother-approved manners for a high-tech digital world:
- Be professional in all of your communications. Starting off a post with “Wazzup, clients!” may feel more natural, but it will make you sound less than professional. As grandma says, “Tuck-in your shirt” and be mindful of how you interact with others.
- No flaming. No matter how uncouth people are toward you, resist the urge to snap back. When you’re communicating for your business, be yourself, but don’t write or say anything that you might regret later. Content posted online can be shared, re-tweeted, and generally lives on eternally in cyberspace.
- Be responsive. Respond to every e-mail or question you receive with courtesy and genuine concern.
- Practice discretion. Don’t write or post information about clients and the specific projects you did for them without their permission.
Embrace and engage your community through social media.
While self-promotional posts or tweets are fine, don’t use your social media channels only to sell. This high-tech spamming is dubbed ‘astroturfing’ and it can quickly torpedo your brand. One odious whiff of spam and no one will want to interact with you. Worse, they may leave your network completely. Instead, engage your communities on social media through quality interactions. Go beyond reposting or re-tweeting information. Add your personal views, respond to other people’s comments, and ask questions.
Be a willing expert/resource in your field. Be helpful to others and don’t be stingy about giving out advice. When I first got on Twitter, I found that tweeting useful content for my business’ core clientele (authors, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits) was a wonderful way to connect with them.
Be a curator of useful and interesting information. Also, follow people in your business niche whom you respect. Get involved in conversations and debates. Comment on their activities and share their information with your audience. As you continue to take action online, making your name visible in your niche, you’ll not only be creating a bigger digital footprint for YOU, your brand, but you’ll also be forging connections and links.
As you build up your audience—a steady stream of quality followers, subscribers, and fans—you can begin to provide more comprehensive materials, such as special reports (as downloadable e-books) and videos, to share your expertise.
Later, you can venture into more intense brand-building marketing activities, like hosting regular podcasts and webinars. Require people to get on your e-mail list to download freebies (set up a subscriber system using MailChimp or another similar service).
Keep your content informative and your brand promotions memorable, so visitors and prospects will recognize you as a consummate professional—someone they would want to hire in the future.