As a freelancer in 2015, you can easily
reach clients on the other side of the world—something that would have been
unthinkable a generation ago. But that can sometimes lead us to neglect a
simple truth: the best clients may be in your own backyard.
Well, not literally your own backyard—that would be creepy. But you can find great clients for pretty much any type of freelance business in your local town or region. As a “neighbor”, you have a better chance of winning the business and developing a long-term relationship through regular face-to-face meetings. Those regular local clients could form the backbone of your business.
But where do you find them? So much marketing advice these days talks about social media, search engine optimization, online advertising, blogging, and other internet-based solutions.
Those are all good options, and ranking in search results for “[Your expertise] in [your town]” is certainly important. You can find some great tips in this tutorial on location-based marketing. But there are also more traditional, offline ways of reaching clients, and they can be very effective when you’re working in a targeted local area.
So in this tutorial, we’re going to go old-school, and look at some tried and tested techniques of finding clients in your local area. We’ll talk about writing for local publications, advertising locally, mining your social networks, and more.
1. Network Like It’s 1999
“Social networking” now means Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the like, but often the most powerful social networks are those in your own life, in your local area.
Let’s say you’re a graphic designer. It’s almost guaranteed that lurking somewhere in your circle of friends, family and friends of friends is someone who needs some professional design work done. But if you don’t talk about what you do, they may never know.
So the first and easiest way to find clients is simply to talk about yourself, in a non-pushy, non-salesy way. Let your friends know that you’re a freelancer, and ask them if they know anyone who needs work done. Show up at local events, whether or not they’re directly connected with what you do. Chat with other parents at the school gate, or with your neighbors at the local barbecue.
You may feel uncomfortable “selling” yourself to your friends, but if you do it in a light, informal way and don’t put any pressure on them, you’ll find that most people are happy to help out, either by hiring you or by referring you to another potential client. There’s nothing most people like more than being able to help out a friend.
If you struggle with how to talk about what you do, check out this helpful tip from the Envato Studio Blog:
When you ask for referrals, make sure to use the right language. Instead of saying what you do, describe the problem that the client faces.
For example, web designers won’t get much work if they say, “I’m a freelance designer. I do HTML, CSS, some PHP, and Photoshop.”
But you’ll see much better results if you say, “I help people who are frustrated with the way their website looks. If you hear anyone talking about their site, feel free to send them my way.”
2. Target and Approach Local Firms
Friends are great, but businesses tend to have more money. So when you’ve finished mining your social networks, you’ll need to reach out to some local businesses.
First, identify the kind of business you want to work for. Most freelancers can target a wide range of different types of businesses. Everyone from the local pet shop to a specialized manufacturing firm could have a need for some basic freelance services like a website, photographs, videos, software development, graphic design, content writing, and so on.
So you can cast a wide net in terms of the type of business, but pay more attention to things like the business size, its profile, how it markets itself, and so on. Think about the services you could offer: if it has an existing website, how could you improve it? If you’ve seen its marketing brochures, could you improve the design? Also try to make sure the business is doing well, so that it’s more likely to be able to invest in your services. There are more tips in this tutorial on identifying profitable clients.
Then you can set about finding companies in a variety of ways, from a regular web search to online directories, or traditional paper directories.
Also, since we’re going old-school here, why not pay a visit to your local library? They will often have listings of local businesses, and may have more information available than you can get through online sources. The Chamber of Commerce or other local business association is also a great source. Here’s a story about a freelance writer who snagged ten new clients by researching and approaching firms through her local Chamber of Commerce.
Once you’ve found some suitable companies, identify the person within that company who would be responsible for hiring someone like you, and approach them. You could do it informally through personal contact, or if you want to put together a more formal approach, then here are some tips on writing a good sales pitch.
3. Get Listed in Local Directories
OK, remember the process you used in the previous step to find local businesses? Your potential clients are doing exactly the same thing to find you (or your competitors).
Are you listed in all those local directories? If not, you should submit your details to as many of them as you can. Here’s that list of 50 local business directories to check out. Start with the major search engines, like Google My Business and Yahoo Local.
And here’s a key point: don’t forget the old-fashioned paper directories. Personally, I haven’t used one in ten years, and I don’t know anyone else who has. But surveys show that while they’re clearly on the decline, millions of people do still use printed directories, so it probably still pays to be listed there if you're looking for local clients.
4. Write for Local Publications
A key element of online marketing is establishing yourself as an expert by writing articles and guest posts for popular publications. You can apply the same principle in your local community.
Contact your local newspaper and offer to share your expertise in an article or a regular column. Pitch local radio or TV stations, offering to be interviewed about something current or timely. Comb through local magazines and blogs, and see how you could be featured. For more ideas, check out this tutorial on How to Get Journalists to Write About Your Company.
5. Advertise Locally
If you're like me, you probably baulk at the word “advertising”. It sounds expensive, and you don’t want to hand over your hard-earned money for an ad that may not even pay off.
But don’t worry: I’m not talking about a full-page color ad in The New York Times here. You can advertise your services in a variety of simple, free or low-cost ways.
For example, I had a book published a few years ago, and I used a variety of small-scale local publicity techniques to let local people know about it. I put up simple posters on pinboards in local shops, or left flyers and bookmarks on the counter (with the shop-owner’s permission, of course). I even left a copy of my book in the local barber’s shop, so that people could read it while they waited. Some of them ended up buying it in the bookshop across the street.
The techniques you use to get the word out will vary, of course, depending on your business and the opportunities in your local community. You might decide to sponsor a local event, or offer a local business a special discount in exchange for some promotion, or print up a super-creative poster and buy a cheap advertising spot to display it at your local station or bus-stop. The possibilities are endless, so get creative! As a freelancer, that’s probably what you’re good at, after all.
6. Give Away Your Services
This may seem like an odd tip in a tutorial about winning clients. After all, the whole point is that they should be paying clients, right? Well, yes, but giving your services away to the right local cause can be a great move.
First of all, if it’s a cause you believe in, it’s simply a great thing to do. If you’re a web designer, you could donate your time to build a great website for your local food bank, helping them bring in more donations and continue their important work. If you're a video producer, you could create a free promotional video for your favorite local charity. You can really make a positive contribution to your local community with a relatively small time commitment on your part.
And the side benefit, of course, is that you get some great publicity. Local newspapers, radio shows and TV stations love a feel-good story. The organization you donate your time to will feel grateful and will try to get the word out too. At the very least, your name will appear in the credits at the bottom of whatever you create. If things go well, it could raise your local profile and send new clients your way.
And even if nothing comes of it, at least you’ve done something good.
7. Team Up
There’s a phenomenon in nature called symbiosis, in which two different species help each other out—for example, oxpecker birds travel around with larger animals like rhinos, eating the ticks from their bodies. The rhino gets relieved of irritating ticks, and the oxpecker gets a free meal. It’s a win-win (unless you’re a tick).
See if there are any other freelancers or companies in your area with whom you could set up a symbiotic relationship. Maybe there’s a web design shop in your town, for example, that’s great at producing creative designs, but needs help with the sort of complex coding that you specialize in. You could offer to partner with them, so that they get relieved of their irritating coding problems, and you get free clients.
If you follow some or all of these steps, you should be able to find plenty of clients in your area. Once you’ve won some local clients, however, just make sure you manage them carefully. Whereas clients on the other side of the world tend to gravitate towards email and other forms of easy-to-manage online communication, people who work or live around the corner may become a little more intrusive.
They may call when you’re in the middle of another assignment, or drop in on your studio, or expect you to attend lots of meetings that you’re not being compensated for. The main advantage of doing business locally can also become a disadvantage.
You can easily manage this situation, though: just be sure to set some ground rules early on. For example, you could specify the hours when you’re available for clients and when you’re not. You could avoid giving out your home or personal mobile phone number and have a dedicated “work” phone instead, which you can easily switch off when you’re off duty. You could use a P.O. box or office as your mailing address, rather than your home. You could meet only at the client’s office or at “neutral” locations.
The details are up to you, but just make sure that you draw boundaries where you need to, so that you’re available to the client while also protecting your work and personal life from unnecessary distractions.
In this tutorial you’ve learned some simple, low-cost techniques to find clients for your freelance business in your local area.
The point of this tutorial is not to convince you to rely entirely on local clients, or to give up on online marketing. It’s great to have clients all around the world, and it makes sense to take advantage of the great opportunities afforded by the internet.
But while embracing the new, we shouldn’t forget the old. Using “old-school” techniques to find local clients is a great way to supplement your existing business, build your base of regular clients, and get more involved in your local community at the same time.
So try to carve out some time in the next few weeks to give some of these techniques a test drive. I’d love to hear about your results in the comments below. And please let me know if you have other ideas for finding clients in your local area.