Marketing for freelancers is the art of attracting clients to do business with you.
For new freelancers it is the step before pitching a freelance project where the client discovers that you exist and the two of you explore ideas and opportunities together.
Most advice about marketing for freelancers suggests that we need to
- Create business cards
- Build a website
- Open a Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, etc. account
- Do blogging
- Do SEO
- Buy ads
- Share everything on social media
- And so on…
The list is long. Each of those items could work incredibly well for your freelance business but honestly, how do you feel when you see a long list of things that you “should be doing”?
Personally, I feel overwhelmed.
The reality is that each one of those items is popular because they work. But by doing a little bit of everything, you will see little results because you are competing with people that spend more time focusing on just one of them.
I’ve made that mistake over and over again.
In this article, I’ll share a different approach. We’ll focus on the things that will help you earn money first and ignore as many of the rest as we can.
That way, it is easier to stick with it when we are in the trenches week after week. This has worked well for other readers and I’m sure it’ll work well for you too.
Before going any further, you should have a basic idea of which service and type of client you’d like to work with. If not, read this first.
The “secret” of authentic marketing for freelancers
Of all the things you could be doing, can you guess what the single most important thing is?
If you stripped your business of everything else — and this one thing was great — you would still earn good money?
The problem you are solving.
If there is an end-all-be-all, this is it. For every project I have worked on, it has always been halting when I wasn’t clear enough on exactly which problem I was solving and for who.
It will make or break your business, so even though it is part of the idea-stage for your freelance business, I have to bring it up. It is that important.
When your idea is crystal clear, your marketing tasks will be clear as well – and your life is much easier. There is nothing worse than switching back and forth between a bunch of things, working a lot and never making any progress.
Okay, maybe the lack of world peace and hunger is worse… but you know, one step at a time.
If we have, say 10 of our clients telling us about the problem they have and what they want, we know exactly what we need to do.
If they told us that they all visit chrisfakeblog.com, we know that we better get exposure there. The challenge is often not that we don’t know the solution but that we don’t know the problem well enough.
Marketing is not rocket science. In fact, authentic marketing is all about being human and I bet all of us know how to be that. Yet, when it comes to putting ourselves out there, we somehow turn into this sleazy, boring, marketing-person.
Now here’s the fascinating thing. Most of us already know that, yet we still feel like we don’t need to talk to our clients and understand them better.
Marketing isn’t the discipline of “get an amazing idea and your clients will love you”. A more accurate way to describe how it really works is “ask your clients about the problems, help them solve it and get paid”.
It’s not as sexy as Mad Men but it works damn well.
Most of us have heard about a customer avatar and we know how important it is. Yet, when we create it we often tend to do it based on how we imagine clients are and which problems they have – not their actual, real-life, problems.
That works remarkably well to solve imaginary problems for imaginary clients. For other things, not so much.
It tends to send us on the wrong mission and when we try to persuade potential clients to work with us, it doesn’t quite seem to work.
Confused, we go back to the long list of marketing ideas and tell ourselves that we must have chosen the wrong place to do our marketing: Facebook wasn’t right. Blogging is probably better.
And we get stuck in this lovely marketing circle of hell. The point is not which channel we are using but that we are working to solve problems that potential clients actually care about. Not those that we think they care about.
If you want to make freelance life easier for yourself, grab the email script later in the article and reach out to businesses and do real customer research.
I’m doing it too.
It’s the difference between getting a client every now and then because they fell into your lap or if clients will come to you and say “take my money”.
It will help you get clients more than anything else because you’ll understand what’s challenging them and how you can get paid to solve it. Most people focus too much on the solution rather than understanding the problem.
The quick and dirty way to get started is to speak with businesses that are like a business you’d like to work with.
I prefer phone calls or in-person coffee meetings but you can get started even faster by connecting with them on websites like LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.
Ask them if they have hired a (your service) freelancer before and how their experience was. You’ll get an idea about what pitfalls to avoid.
You’ll also benefit from asking them about their targets, what their challenges are, and how they have tried to solve them.
Here’s a script you can use but don’t copy-paste it. Tailor it to your personality and make it your own so they don’t think the person sending the email and the one speaking to them on a call are two different people.
I’m NAME and I help businesses with (freelance service). I don’t have anything to sell but I’m researching businesses like yours and I’d love the opportunity to ask you a couple of quick questions.
I imagine you are busy, so it doesn’t have to take more than 10 mins and I can work around your schedule.
Would it be OK if I send you a few different times that might work for a call?
When you have spoken to a few businesses, you’ll start to notice some type of answers coming up again and again. It might be with their challenges or targets and it’ll give you an idea about what you can go after specifically.
If not, it is likely because the businesses you are speaking with aren’t that similar.
So, what do you do with this research?
When you see the same responses over and over again, you’ll have a great indication of which challenge most of your potential clients have, how they think about it and what kind of bad experiences they have had working with freelancers similar to you in the past.
That will help you know what to avoid. You’ll also be able to use the words they use themselves to describe their targets or challenges and connect with potential clients, they will feel like you understand them even better than the other freelancers out there.
You might even want to consider focusing on just one of the challenges they describe and see how they react when you reach out to them.
The easiest authentic marketing plan for freelancers
Freelancers have a bad reputation for being flaky and unreliable, so we can win greatly by doing the opposite. In fact, it could even be a part of your marketing to show reliability, great organizational skills and good communication.
With all the different things we could be doing to attract clients, let’s look at perhaps the simplest and easiest marketing plan you can use to land new clients for your freelance business while still being authentic instead of salesy.
Keep in mind that I am separating marketing and pitching into two different “buckets”. This way you can casually connect with potential clients without having to sell to them before you know that they are interested.
When I tested this, I connected with 247 businesses this way and a ton of great responses.
The first step is to brainstorm a list of twenty businesses you’d like to work with based on your freelance idea. (if you need inspiration, search on google…)
Then go to LinkedIn and find the right person to speak with at each company.
Instead of sending them a salesy pitch, use the script above to get in touch with them and simply ask research questions to understand their business.
If you want to make it even better, you can even add a personal note at the beginning of the email, where you mention a point in an interview that you liked or perhaps an observation about the company.
Most people think that means you just have to say “I like your work”. That isn’t good enough, though. Instead, do it like you would in real life and point out specifically what you liked and why you liked it e.g. if you’ve had a similar experience in your own life.
This is the authentic part. If you act like you would offline, the person you contact will notice it in a positive way.
It’s important that you don’t try to sell them on the call because it will be breaching their trust. Simply ask your research questions, listen and learn.
Some of them might be interested in you already and you can offer to suggest ideas for their business.
If not, no problem. The insights you’ll get from the call will be so beneficial for your freelance business because people don’t hate ads, promotions or pitches — they hate irrelevant pitches.
Imagine a lady walking by a store window seeing her dream shoes on sale. You know she is going to go try them on.
When you have done your research, instead of emailing businesses with a sort of random, irrelevant hit and miss message, you can send them one that is actually interesting for them to receive.
Briefly explain who you are rather than spamming them with salesy stuff.
On top of that, to make sure you don’t come across as spammy, you can again write a personal note in the introduction of the email. For specific examples of the email script go here.
Freelancing is a people business and this is a perfectly good way to connect with potential clients without coming across as salesy because clients want to work with people, not robots and you aren’t selling them anything yet. You are just connecting with them.
Sure, you could promote your services on Twitter, Facebook, and write a blog but it takes forever to get traffic to get exposure to the right clients. So you have to pick the trade-off you prefer. Do you want clients fast this way or do you want clients half a year from now?
Both options work.
Anyway, after the first email, if they are interested in exploring potential ideas, share ideas with them.
A part of doing authentic marketing is staying true to yourself. Put yourself in a situation where you are comfortable turning down the project if it isn’t a good fit or you don’t agree with the direction.
This is key to having a good experience freelancing and in order to do that, it is important not to be desperate for the project or money.
Everyone is hella busy finding the best channel to get clients (Upwork, Facebook groups, etc.) but on all platforms, you’ll need to weed the good from the bad so the “secret” becomes
1) how to recognize good/bad clients (which trigger points they use e.g. asking about pricing early)
2) not needing the money so you can say no to clients you don’t respect/don’t want to work with.
Freelancing is less transactional that it can come across and by connecting with businesses you’ll become familiar and they’ll become comfortable with you.
Clients often fear the unknown and are comfortable with what they know. So even if a freelancer delivers a project just fine, clients are concerned that if something happens in the future and they need help updating something, you might not be there and they will have a headache fixing it or finding someone who can.
By treating them like a human rather than a paycheck or another number in a sheet, we build that long-term trust that lands us long-term income. And perhaps the best part is that by definition you have to avoid being salesy.
Where freelancers earn the most
If you’ve been freelancing for a while, you might have discovered that doing marketing to your existing clients can be profitable as well.
When we think about marketing, most of us think about getting new people in the door. That’s why most businesses are running discounts labeled “only for new customers”.
With freelancing and the relationship-based businesses that it is, the most profitable marketing I’ve experienced in my own business is that to existing clients.
(No, your mom doesn’t count.)
Let’s begin with our earnings. Many of us focus on completing the client’s project and move on to the next one in an almost transactional manner. Sometimes we might even add an upsell.
But if we run the math, we’ll quickly notice that it is more profitable to get more work from existing clients than going after new ones.
Let’s imagine that our hourly rate is $30/h and that it takes 15 hours to land a new client.
If we spend 20 hours helping a client with a project and it takes 15 hours extra to get the project, we’ve spent a total of 35 hours.
Rather than our expected $30/h and $600 for the project ($30*20h), our “real” rate was $17/h ($600/35h).
It might just take one hour to get a new project from an existing client and our hourly rate is now at $29/h ($600/21h) instead of the $17 we started with.
If we don’t cater to that we have a leaking funnel. Because freelancing is built on relationships, many clients tend to like working with the same freelancers on multiple projects, so that means we are leaving money on the table.
If we can earn more from the same clients we can spend much more time earning money instead of pitching new clients that we aren’t paid for.
Imagine if we know that every client we pitch will offer us five projects instead of one on average. Assuming that they are similar in size, we’ve just moved 5x of our time from non-paid pitching hours to billables.
All of the sudden, it makes a helluva lot of sense to persuade clients to collaborate with us on more projects. Jay Abraham calls this the Trusted Advisor technique.
The point is to become a client’s trusted advisor instead of simply someone who carries out tasks as a contractor.
The easiest way to get started is by thinking long-term and work towards, say, their fourth project instead of just the first one.
The client will love the experience because you don’t hustle them for your own immediate benefit.
You might even recommend something where you’ll earn less but with greater benefit for the client. It helps build trust because you are sacrificing your own immediate gains for their success.
Few freelancers do that, so you’ll immediately stand out like a sore thumb.
You don’t need the perfect plan for all the future projects for every client but having a rough idea for which other problems you can help solve after the current project for each client is a great idea.
- The point is to pick fewer things to avoid confusion down the road and keep the focus. That’ll move the needle in your freelance business over the long term instead of just feeling like work with no results
- Customer research as the essence of marketing for freelancers. If you feel confused about what your clients want, it’s usually because the customer research isn’t deep enough. When you have enough information, you’ll know it because the solution is crystal clear