My project had failed.
The three months and thousands of dollars I had dedicated to media buys turned up negative.
I had absolutely nothing to show for it and it was time to call it quits. In stories, it is typically at a time like this, that something magical happens and luck falls down from the sky.
Not for me though. Not in this case.
My contract with the agency was up. I had been there a year or so and it made no sense to renew it as there was not enough work to challenge me.
I had a bit of savings left. Not much, just enough to last me a couple of months.
While I had already planned to start freelancing again if I ended up in this situation, it was nerve-wracking. Until you get going, you never really know.
I opened Upwork and started looking at projects for a few days while wondering where to start.
The last few times I freelanced had been via other sites but by now Upwork had become the biggest freelance platform online, so it was worth a try.
Then I stumbled upon this project…
..And I decided to go all-in. I spent a couple of hours researching their online presence and politely ignored their final question “are you based in the US?”
I was based in Vietnam with an almost 12-hour time difference but I knew that while they probably had not worked with a freelancer that far away, I had worked with several clients in the states and it is totally doable if you frame it the right way.
And sure enough, that turned into a $5000-project. It worked.
The first thing I notice whenever someone is talking about Upwork is that the projects are terrible and the clients just want cheap work.
While there are many of those clients, there are also plenty of clients that have interesting work, pay well and like the client above, are great to work with.
Freelancing is plug and play- it is here for you when you need it.
When you have learned the skills of finding and landing clients it stays with you forever and you can use it, leave it and pick it up again as you feel the need.
Some people use freelancing to consistently earn money on the side, some make it their full-time gig and others use it in-between other projects.
As friends started reaching out to me for advice, I started writing. This guide covers everything you need to know to land freelance clients and earn money with your digital marketing skills.
Who am I?
I’m Chris and I started out knowing absolutely nothing about freelancing and earning money on the internet.
Six years ago, on a quest to figure out how to turn a potential long-distance relationship into something better, I discovered that people can freelance online.
I’ve been freelancing on and off ever since.
Usually, we’ll see photos of how people earned $100,000 doing only one hour of work with some ‘magic’ system.
To be honest with you, that wasn’t the case for me. It took a lot of hard work.
A part of that was acknowledging that I could actually provide value to other businesses, just like I’ve done in my full-time jobs.
After a while, I cracked the code to landing great projects and dodge bad ones. Some were through referrals, emails, and others via online platforms like on Upwork.
This guide is focusing on Upwork and online platforms but if you’re curious I’ve also written an in-depth case study on landing a copywriting project that pays $500/article through cold emailing.
This guide is dedicated to helping you land amazing clients whether you prefer to work with copywriting or other types of digital marketing projects.
Readers have used the material to get their own freelance-career going. One reader said:
He went from earning $0 to more than $1300 a week in about 10 months! He even learned digital marketing from scratch WHILE learning how to freelance!
His ‘trick’? Selling ethically and doing amazing work for his clients!
He shared his story on earning $30,000 in his first year freelancing.
Another reader reported earning more money with just a few hours per week outside of her day job.
Who this is for
This guide is written for beginner freelancers in digital marketing and copywriting who have had some projects and are ready to earn more and land great clients.
It requires hard work to master these skills but by doing a little extra, we can stand out from the competition and get disproportionate results that more than justify the extra work.
Let’s take a look at what’s coming…
Table of contents
- Freelancing on Upwork is not for everyone. Is it right for you?
- The roadmap to your first year of freelancing success (incl. free work tracker)
- The first 3 months – Earning your first $1000
- You don’t always need a portfolio
- Landing your first clients
- 3-6 months – Earn more by specializing
- 6-9 months – Landing a game-changing project
- 9-12 months – Scaling to more great clients while avoiding bad ones
- The first 3 months – Earning your first $1000
- Picking the road to your dreams and keeping score
- Finding your profitable idea
- Pricing your services to win the game
- Get clients without being a cheap freelancer
- When is your Upwork profile good enough?
- Find amazing projects (even if you’ve only seen cheap clients)
- Attract clients with unique proposals (incl. a successful $1200-project case study)
- Closing the deal (even if you are nervous)
- When clients ask about your past experience and portfolio
- Negotiation, pricing, and discounts
- Closing and next steps
- Declining the project
- Turning one project into more work
Let’s first compare freelancing to other popular online business types for digital marketers, so you’ll know if you are in the right place.
Freelancing on Upwork is not for everyone. Is it right for you?
There are many ways for you to leverage your digital marketing skills to earn money on the side. Some of the popular options are:
- Affiliate marketing
- Selling ads
- Dropshipping/ecommerce stores
- Online courses
Frankly, they all work. The difference lies in the amount of money you can make and the amount of time it takes to see results.
Usually, there is a direct correlation between the amount of money we earn and the time it takes to make it.
The biggest challenge is that people get demotivated along the way, change direction too early and then never accomplish anything. That’s exactly what happened to me… Like 50 times.
A typical example is to create a blog and either earn an affiliate commission or ad revenue from visitors.
It’s a perfectly good way to earn money. However, it takes a long time to see any results which also mean there is a high chance you’ll feel demotivated and abandon the project before you earn anything that is meaningful to you.
As I’m sure you know, it takes a while to get consistent traffic to your website if you are starting from scratch.
It also takes a long time to get the commissions into your bank account because most affiliate or ad programs have a minimum threshold you need to reach before they’ll pay you. Not to mention the costs of getting started.
In contrast, with freelancing, you can earn money by sending an email to your client and they will wire the money to your bank account.
In most cases, we need to do more work than that but from time to time you’ll feel like that’s all you did!
Everyone wants passive income.. and preferably yesterday. So did I.
I have since learned that it makes more sense to learn how to earn the money first and then learn to make it passive second. It requires two very different skill sets.
Below is an overview of the most popular online business models for digital marketers.
As you might notice, most of the options require a long time frame to get results because they require you to focus on finding a niche, build a website and bring traffic to your site.
What you sell and how, is the main difference between most of the options above, except freelancing.
Fortunately, with freelancing, you don’t need a website. All you need is a client to pay you, a way for them to send the money and a way for you to deliver the work.
For many, it is an excellent way to feel autonomy and getting the confidence that they can earn good money online.
Since the key challenge for most people ends up being motivation in the early stages, typical website businesses are better to do when you are ready to wait a couple of years to see results.
When I first started out, I let my heart run away with me, instead of my mind.
I built a few blogs, and while I do consider them successful projects, it took way longer than what I wanted because I had to learn a ton of new skills that I actually didn’t need.
They have since become useful but it would have been much better to learn them at a later stage when I actually needed them.
In reality, it took me about a year and *MANY* of hours of work to make money off of a blog whereas when I was freelancing I made twice the amount of money in a couple of weeks.
My dream was to build a second income stream online which I could have done by freelancing. If I had done that, I would have reached my goal much faster.
The roadmap to your first year of freelancing success
Freelancing-websites typically recommend us to do a million things to get clients; get business cards, a website, a Twitter-, Facebook- and of course an Instagram account.
That has not been necessary, in my experience. It is very distracting and frankly, it feels overwhelming to balance all those things at once.
When I first started freelancing, a guy helped me figure out what was important starting out, what to avoid, and what would be important later. Basically, a roadmap for what to focus on at which stage of your online freelancing business.
Figuring this out is a common challenge for freelancers, especially if you are just getting started. There are so many things to focus on and people are constantly talking about some shiny new tactic.
I learned to only select a few things as my core focus at any given time. When you have a whole list of things you could be doing, how do you pick what to spend your time on? How do you know what will move the needle the most?
This road map is divided into four stages – one for each quarter of a year. For each, I’ll share the core focus that will be the most important thing to focus on.
Adding more things than those will likely cause your focus to be too scattered, so keep that in mind if you are feeling ambitious and want to take on more things than those described at each stage.
Let’s look at what typically happens in the real world of your first year freelancing as a digital marketer…
The first 3 months – Earning your first $1000
The first three months are typically the hardest since there is a lot to learn if you have only had a few freelance projects before.
The first step is to set aside time for yourself to freelance each week. If you are serious about it, 20 hours should be do-able besides your day job.
To make it easier you can ease yourself into those 20 hours by doing it over a few weeks.
For example, start by spending one hour before or after work each weekday (5 hours). Then add another 2.5 hours on Saturday and Sunday and you’ll end your first week at 10 hours.
Then the next week you follow the same schedule on weekdays but go from 2.5h on Saturday/Sunday to 5 hours each of those two days. Now you are at 15h/week.
Then you might want to add either more hours on the weekend or more on weekdays (or both) depending on what you prefer.
One of the best things you can do is focus on building this habit as your motivation will come and go but the habit will stay (just think about how good we are at brushing our teeth after practicing since childhood).
Some people prefer to use a time tracker to help them figure out if they are hitting the number of work hours they need, and which time they actually prefer to work.
You can download this time tracker free (no optin, click FILE > MAKE A COPY). You simply fill in when you worked and what you worked on and it will show you how long each of your sessions is.
Next, you’ll need to plan what you’re going to do with the time you’ve now set aside for freelancing each week. In the beginning, it is simple because you don’t have any steady clients so you can focus on putting together your portfolio and pitching clients.
You’ll do yourself a favor by writing down the specific times you are working each week and what you’ll do in each session (e.g. Monday 7am-8am: research new clients to pitch, Tuesday 7am-8am: send a proposal to one client, and so on).
When you are in the thick of it, it is easy to get confused about what to do and if you are doing what is most important – especially if people offer you suggestions, so it is easier for you to follow your direction if you have it written down as a clear plan.
You don’t always need a portfolio
In copywriting, some say you can just write small samples for each project. That can work if you are unsure about the niche you prefer to work with and want to try a bunch of different ones first.
For me, it worked well to have articles on my website but even better to have them on other people’s websites (guest posting).
Remember we need to keep it simple, so if you don’t have a website, don’t build one yet. Use previous projects from your day-job or other projects, or simply write 2-3 samples for the niche you have decided on and put it in Google Docs (e.g. if you want to help businesses write 2000-word articles, you could prepare a few of those as samples).
If you happen to have some friends with websites targeting a similar niche as you, you could ask them if you can write an article for them.
If not, don’t worry about guest posting just yet. It is a great skill but still a skill you would have to learn if you haven’t already – another distraction at this point.
For other subjects in digital marketing (ads management, emails, etc.), it has worked well to show screenshots of the results along with testimonials if you have any.
Interestingly, I’ve found that if you are good at explaining things and building trust with your leads, you often don’t need case studies to get clients.
Some argue that if you don’t have any results to show you should take on a free project at first to get a case study.
That is one way to go about it. Though when people don’t pay for work, they often feel like they can abandon the project half-way (often without telling you) so, if you go down this road you have to be ultra-careful about who you bring on.
At least, charge them a small symbolic fee for setup or something (e.g. $50), so there is a small barrier for them to overcome.
If you don’t have any case studies, results or testimonials you are proud of showing off, while not ideal, you can lower your hourly rate and focus on getting clients that offer training and wants to you help with implementation work so you can learn.
This guide is for people who already have experience in digital marketing, so we won’t dive into what to do if you want to learn digital marketing from scratch.
Landing your first projects
You’ll want to set a goal for yourself: getting your first three clients and earning, say, your first $1000 from freelancing will be a great, realistic, goal (we’ll dive into the specifics in a later chapter).
As you get more used to freelancing you’ll quickly be able to turn that into consistent extra income each month.
Your core focus during this period is getting your habits right and sticking to sending proposals out.
From 3-6 months – Earn more by specializing
Assuming you’ve landed a couple of clients and are near the $1000-mark, you’ve now got yourself an online freelancing business. While it might be small, it is still a business and it is now time for you to grow it further.
If not, simply spend more hours practicing.
Some of you will be very clear on what you’d like to help businesses with while others will want to sample different clients, projects and services to offer.
It is time to consider niching down to a specific, smaller niche. That will allow you to be an expert and when you speak with businesses, they will often feel that you will be the right fit because you only work with businesses like theirs.
There are many different ways to niche down: to a specific type of client personality, business industry, business size, service or skill or geographical location to name a few. I’ve covered how to find your idea in more detail in the link above.
At this point, you’ll feel more comfortable pitching new projects and in case you’ve started with a very low fee, it might be time to increase it slightly on new projects.
The most important thing in this period is to figure out who you’d like to help, with what and focus on getting more of those projects. Towards the end, you should be around the $1000/month-mark fairly consistently.
Your core focus during this period is picking a niche and learn everything you can about your clients. Then you will better understand how you can tailor your services specifically to them and earn more.
From 6-9 months – Landing a game-changing project
This is typically the most interesting period, as things start to come together. I’ve noticed several readers reporting their earnings starting to take off around this stage.
You are probably starting to notice how it is getting “easier” to land clients but in reality, it is not getting easier, you are getting better. You should have a much better grasp of how long projects actually take, so you don’t underprice yourself.
At this point, you should start to feel like there is something here followed by the confidence that “I can do this”. During this period is when I see most of my readers land a major, game-changing, project.
This period is really all about getting more and bigger projects, and getting better at the whole process so you become more efficient all-around from finding leads to getting paid.
Around this time, you also run into a backlash that makes you feel like you are not as good as you thought. It’s will happen from time to time.
When it happens, consider if you recently changed something drastically that could have impacted your business. Such as rising your price too high but not tweaking your service-offering or pitch to fit the new price. It could also be that you don’t feel confident in charging this new price.
Whatever it might be, you may need to revert the change temporarily so you don’t get stuck while you figure out how to transition the right way.
Your core focus at this stage is to get a steady flow of clients, getting used to finding and closing them. This is where your consistency will pay off.
From 9-12 months – Scaling to more great clients while avoiding bad ones
You’ll begin to notice a difference between good vs bad clients. Clients are not created equal and what you might have learned at this stage is good clients often are easier to work with and will pay you more at the same time.
It doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface but it’s a common characteristic. At this stage, you’ve probably had a few great clients among a sea of mediocre or bad ones.
It is a good time to reach out to the good ones and build on top of the relationship you already have.
Even if they don’t have any projects for you right now, you might eventually be able to get more projects from them without having to pitch from scratch (assuming things worked out well on your first project).
You can steal this sheet to keep track (no optin, click file > make a copy). Send them a monthly update with something you think will interest them.
It typically takes much longer to land a new client than initiate a new project with an old client. Eventually, you’ll have a Rolodex of great clients that needs your help regularly, and you can turn most of the time spent pitching into billable hours.
Your core focus will be understanding the difference between good and bad clients and lean towards exchanging mediocre clients for better ones.
At this point, you should be reaching 15-20 completed projects (less if their value is higher) on the side and with an average project value of $500, you should now be at $10,000 or more for the year.
As you look back at your earnings throughout the year, you’ll probably notice that you earned most of the money in the last few months.
You’ll typically earn a few hundred dollars during the first few months and ending the year by turning that into several thousand a month.
Keep in mind, that many will earn a lot more in their first year. I’m sure you will too but the focus here is to build a great foundation so that you can safely leave your job behind and move a major step closer towards your dreams.
Unfortunately, many who have been rushing the process will come to realize that they don’t have anything to build upon, they mostly have bad, transactional-type clients and might be forced to go back to their jobs.
To avoid this, I strongly recommend you to build a war chest of savings that can support your living cost for at least six months.
That means you’ll have six months of living cost and a proven, working online freelancing business with happy clients that you can now free up more time to focus on building even further.
The next step is not necessarily getting more clients but better, higher-paying ones. You can also do that with platforms like Upwork but for many, it also means building a flow of leads that can express interest in your services day and night via your website.
The difference is that you’ll want people to come to you. With most of my readers, pitching new clients is what takes the longest time in the freelancing process, so minimizing that will both give you more time and allow you to earn more.
Build a way for them to find and contact you in your sleep will allow you to skip the outreach-part and with a steady flow of leads, you can be more selective in which projects you take on, how much you charge, etc.
Depending on where your clients are online, you’ll want to get them from there and onto your website. To do that you need to create and share content.
If you clients watch a lot of videos, you might want to create videos on YouTube, if they are on Pinterest you might want to create photos and share them there, or if you prefer to write articles you might want to guest post on other websites or focus on SEO traffic.
Picking the road to your dreams and keeping score
Through the roadmap above you’ve gotten a better understanding of the first year of freelancing. It is now time to set a goal for yourself.
To avoid becoming demotivated, I’ve seen good results adding a quick win to the goal.
Personally, I felt a whole lot more autonomy when I started freelancing – I couldn’t believe I was able to cover my living expenses after just a few months of freelancing.
A quick win for you might be buying a new computer or travel to a new exciting country.
I recommend starting with something that costs a meaningful amount of money but not so much that you feel like it’s overwhelming.
For many of us, that could something like $1000. Great examples are:
- A new computer, phone, drone, etc.
- Flight + hotel to an exciting country
- New sports gear
- An awesome present for someone you care about
The idea is to reward yourself with something cool once you have achieved the first and most difficult part of your new adventure.
When you’ve decided on something to reward yourself with, it is time to pick your freelance idea. Most of you reading this guide will already have an idea. If that’s you, you may want to skip this chapter…
Finding your profitable idea
If you don’t have an idea, start by writing down a list of things you’ve done in the past where you’ve gotten good results or testimonials that you can show.
Pick one of those or ask a few friends what they think you are good at (your mom doesn’t count).
You can also go to Upwork/Fivrr/Freelancer.com and search for projects and check what other freelancers are doing to get ideas.
If you already have had some clients, you know that they will pay for your service. If not, it is key to figure that out. Some businesses will want help solving some problems but don’t want to pay for it.
Or worse.. they can’t.
While there are always exceptions, as a rule of thumb the closer you are to the money (revenue) the more you can charge.
For example, you can typically charge more for a direct-response sales page than you can for a blog article.
And you can typically earn more by build ad funnels that drive sales than manage social media content on a fan page.
It doesn’t mean that you should specialize in ad funnels but it is important to be aware of since you might find the ceiling of your service and market.
If you are not happy with the maximum you can earn, it might be worth considering a different service or selling the same service to a market that values it more.
At this stage, you shouldn’t worry too much about it – it is more important to get more clients and do a good job for them.
Typically, when clients trust you with one part of digital marketing, they will be happy if you can help them with other areas of digital marketing too.
That will give you the opportunity to earn more while sampling other types of projects and building case studies in related areas that you might want to move into later.
Specializing in a skill, niche, problem or not?
I’m sure you’ve heard about niching down before. Loads of people talk about it, and it typically allows you to command more money for projects while doing less work because you can position yourself as a specialist and re-use the same templates, etc. with multiple clients to speed up your workflow.
There is plenty of room for most types of freelancers. Facebook ads specialist in X niche is a popular example. Taking on those types of projects work pretty well if you like to do implementation work. For many of these, it is plug and play- you have a funnel or two that you replicate for most clients.
Others prefer to work on more high-level projects like as an external marketing manager. Here you might be helping with the direction, strategy, and some implementation work. You’ll typically help a certain type of business go from one stage to another.
If you know a bit of email marketing, Facebook ads, content marketing, and the other disciplines, you might want to take on broader digital marketing consulting projects early on to figure out which market fits you the most.
Doing broad digital marketing consulting has given me some of the best clients on Upwork. Clients looking for this type of help typically don’t know too much about digital marketing and want someone who can also help them understand which platforms to use, when and why.
This is an excellent opportunity to provide more value by helping them understand when to use e.g. Google search ads rather than Facebook ads, helping them set it up and manage it over time.
Pricing your services to win the game
In the beginning, it is all about moving fast and getting projects, so you can learn fast.
The quick solution to pricing is to start somewhere between $15-$50/hour at first, and then adjust it once you have 5-10 projects under your belt. The exact number depends on what you are comfortable with.
If you haven’t already, go to Upwork and search for freelancers that are doing something similar to what you are (and has earned money) and start with a rate similar to what they are charging.
That way you know that other freelancers are making similar projects work on those rates.
You simply click the little carrot next to the search bar to switch between freelancers and jobs and start searching.
Below is an example. I could only fit a few freelancers into the screenshot but as you go through the list yourself, you’ll easily be able to get an idea about what to charge as you compare their price with their profile and specialization.
One thing that I like to use for my own research is the green filters button at the top (see below).
It allows us to see which proportion of freelancers is charging what kind of hourly rate, and in which industries, based on how much they have earned in total.
There are many ways to play around with this. In this example, you’ll see that most people who have earned $1+ in the sales and marketing category are charging less than $10 (the gray number next to the specific rate is the number of freelancers in that group).
This also shows us that more than 5000 people have earned money and are now charging $30-$60/hour.
As you are browsing you might feel like you are not as good as some of the freelancers out there when you see their portfolios.
Don’t get demotivated though. While many are legit, great freelancers, it is easy to fake the screenshots or have ad accounts track revenue incorrectly and conveniently not change it.
There will always be some clients that connect better with you as a person rather than other personalities- clients choose their freelancers based on trust. Sometimes case studies help build trust but that is not always the case- and they aren’t always needed.
Generally, I’ve found that the lower your pricing is the more your projects will be focused on execution and the higher your pricing are the more you focus on strategies and communication in digital marketing.
It might be challenging to go for a project with a large payout unless you have some credentials to show (they can be from other projects or your job too, as long as they are relevant).
Generally, it works better to do hourly rates at first because you’ll understand how long it takes to do different projects. Upwork has a software tool that helps you track the time worked and it is mostly projected by an Upwork guarantee to help you get paid.
While you are probably familiar with how long it takes to e.g. write an article or build a Facebook ad campaign, freelancers typically underestimate time spent understanding the brief, updating the client, etc.
Then as you become better at freelancing, build systems and templates for your work, it makes sense to move onto a retainer or a fixed project fee.
Contrary to what I expected, I found it to be much more motivating to do hourly rates, rather than as a project fee.
Using Upwork’s tracking software, I’ve noticed I immediately had the feeling of earning money while working as I was able to see exactly how many hours I had billed (and hence how much I’ve earned).
When you’ve decided on a good price, it is time to get clients!
Get clients without being a cheap freelancer
Once you have settled on your goal and a niche or skillset you’d like to work with, it’s time to get clients.
This guide is focused on using online platforms like Upwork, so I will not be covering how to get referrals, do cold emailing or finding clients via other tactics.
Finding clients outside popular online freelancing platforms work well. The challenge is that there are a lot of skills you need to learn, so as a beginner freelancer you’ll learn much faster using a freelance portal where the whole aspect of finding clients and getting paid is somewhat taken care of for you.
I’ve found it to work well to start out using an online platform and then move beyond as you feel confident in landing clients and helping them.
As a platform, I personally like Upwork the best because you can’t see other freelancer’s bids as it is the case with e.g. Freelancer.com.
I’m sure there a few platforms out there that I don’t know about but for using your digital marketing skills Upwork is a reasonably good place to start.
On other forums I often see people talk about how Upwork is a race to the bottom and you can’t earn any good money. As you’ve seen at the beginning of this guide, it is just not the case.
It might be if you focus on being the cheapest freelancer but you can also choose to sell a premium service and only target clients that want that. Upwork has plenty of both types of clients.
When is your Upwork profile good enough?
When writing your Upwork profile, I like to look at the market and demand for the skill or niche I’m looking to serve.
Let’s say I want to help small businesses with Facebook ads as an example.
Then I’ll search around for a couple of hours to see if other freelancers are doing something similar. I like to pull up some of their profiles and check if what they earn, and the type projects they work on, are something I’m interested in.
Note of caution: you will find a TON of people that are earning pennies making you think you are about to make a terrible decision with no real money to be earned.
That is normal. You’ll often see a few profiles here and there doing much better than the rest. These are the ones you’ll want to focus on.
When you find those, analyze their profile text, what they charge, etc. and imitate it. That does NOT mean you should copy it.
I like the strategy of first imitating and then innovating. What that means is you scope their profiles to find the overarching structure and use something related.
For example, if you notice several profiles talking about how they can increase a client’s revenue or conversions, that angle will probably be a good place to start.
Starting out, I’ve found it to work well to:
- Put testimonials at the beginning your profile text
- Followed by a few brief examples of things you can help with along with a few sentences describing what each is about (e.g. setting up ads, manage them day-to-day or perhaps build a chatbot using ManyChat)
- And at the end, add a few sentences about you as a person, your work ethic/how you work and how it benefits the clients
- A CTA (e.g. contact me now)
That is a perfectly good starting point – again, the key here is to move fast and tweak it as you go.
You might not have any testimonials you can add, but don’t get stuck there.
Some clients will look at your profile and some won’t but generally, you’ll want to spend more time searching for the right jobs and writing good proposals rather than perfecting your profile text in the beginning.
Below is an example from my own profile.
It could be better but it gets the job done. It clearly displays what I do, and I’ve added social proof through a few features on other websites which are available in my portfolio and by adding real testimonials right at the top.
Then I’ve outlined things that my clients typically want help with, to give people browsing some ideas on how I can help.
This profile text could be improved but the point is that it works. At this early stage, you want to keep moving forward. Focus on the clients’ core challenges (in digital marketing that is often: getting sales, revenue, leads, etc.) and how you can solve them.
Then return to upgrade the profile text later as you learn more about your clients.
Some will be concerned if the text is too long and think people will never read it. I am not.
Some clients will only read a little bit and if they are not a good fit, they’ll leave. That is a good thing – I don’t want to attract everyone, just the right clients.
For your profile photo, use a simple photo of your face where you look neutral, smiling and friendly.
The Upwork tests have not made a difference in my experience.
Find amazing projects (even if you’ve only seen cheap clients)
When getting freelance projects using Upwork there are two main options:
- Invitations to private projects (invite-only)
- The general market with projects everyone can apply to
We will cover invitations (the holy grail) another time as that is a more advanced step.
So let’s talk about the general market with projects everyone can apply to. The process is simple:
Someone posts a job on Upwork and a freelancer (you) send a proposal and get the job. The best process I’ve found for digital marketing projects is:
- Search for a project
- Send a proposal
- Speak with the client on the phone
- Start the job
- Finish the job and get paid
So let’s start from the top: searching for a project.
I find this to be an underutilized skill- often readers will complain that they can’t find any good jobs on the platform after a while.
When we work on the skill of searching for projects, they usually get jobs again pretty quickly and realize that they are probably just searching for the wrong keywords.
Upwork has several filters that can help you a lot in your search. I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to land a client is by focusing on writing proposals that are as relevant to the project description as possible.
We can do that by writing a better proposal with more specific details to the exact project you are applying to.
Most freelancers write one or two proposals and spam them to every job – that’s why you’ll often see the project descriptions asking you to mention a code word to make sure you’ve read the whole description.
In comparison, more experienced, successful, freelancers will have a number of templates and they reuse parts of each to get a good balance between sending proposals for many projects and make them personalized based on what has worked for them in the past.
This is a good process to adopt as you get more experience but as you are starting out you need to focus on learning what works.
Right now, in digital marketing, there are generally three different types of projects that pop up again and again:
- The project with too little info
- The ad agency
- The blog that wants cheap SEO articles
This is a current trend and it will (of course) change over time. Fortunately, there are many other projects but since these three categories appear, again and again, we can use them to explain the following framework.
Typically, it won’t work to use the same proposal for all three project categories.
You’ll want a few templates for each and you’ll slowly build them up over time as you apply for jobs and save the successful proposals you send to build up a small library of proposals that work.
In the beginning, it’s easier to pick one category and focus on making that work. It’s very similar to the approach of niching down your services.
For the sake of the example, let’s say you decide to start by helping agencies with Facebook ads.
As a digital marketer, we want to test different proposals for this type of client.. so we first figure out how to land this client type and then only after succeeding, we will crack how to land other types of clients.
This is a pretty common example of a project description:
As you browsed other freelancers earlier, you probably noticed that most people in digital marketing on Upwork are highly focused on conversions.
If you want to send a proposal for this project, you’ll want to have something to say about conversions to cover what they will hear from everyone else and then pick a way to take it to the next level or by adding something more depending on what is important to this type of client.
Since we KNOW that other freelancers will mostly be saying the same thing, we can address that in our proposal e.g. by saying “[…] while many other freelancers will be focused on showing you screenshots of conversions and how many good campaigns they have launched in the past, I focus on not only that (see attached screenshots) but also A, B, C […]”.
If you know it will happen, address it! The project owner will feel like you can read their mind.
If you don’t know exactly what to do to be different, don’t worry. You’ll become better and better at that the more you speak with your clients and leads. Getting on the phone with them, while it might feel uncomfortable, is a great way to do client research.
Until you are able to do that, list down a number of things you think they would value in addition to conversions and test each one with a few proposals.
- Friendly and easy to work with
- Speaks the same native language and is great at communication
- Can help them upsell other services in your skillset e.g. email marketing or search ads
Side-note: You’ll be surprised how many clients value being friendly and easy to work with above being the best at your hard skill assuming you are still great and get results.
Five proposals for each angle is a good place to start because generally half the projects in the digital marketing category never have a hire.
Many because the client changed their mind or wasn’t that serious after all, so accept that some will just go down the drain.
Pro-tip: Try searching for projects in your native language or with clients from your home country and using that as part of your pitch.
It works even better if you are not from an English speaking country as competition will be a lot less and you generally connect much better with those from your own country.
The smaller the country the easier it should be. If you are from a huge country like India you might wanna narrow it down even further!
You might want to add other filters if the search gets too broad, such as the broad project category “sales and marketing” to narrow things down a little but you’ll need to play around with that and explore for yourself.
Personally, I prefer to look through 85% of the best projects in 30 mins and maybe miss a few here and there – instead of looking through 100% of the projects in 2.5 hours just to make sure I didn’t miss a single thing.
Upwork has this brilliant “save search” feature so you can search every day by just the click of a button. After browsing around for a few hours, you’ll like have found some good search filters you can save for later.
I’ve found that the search filters that show good projects, can change fairly frequently because of the keywords clients use. So it is great to do a little research for new search filters on a monthly basis.
Otherwise, you might feel that all the good projects are suddenly gone after a while.
When looking for jobs, I like them to have as much information as possible because it helps me write a more personalized proposal which in turn makes it much easier for me to stand out and get the project.
This is a great example of a job with no chance to send a personalized proposal for.
In the beginning, readers have gotten good results spending 1-2 hours per proposal and applying to fewer projects than the average freelancer.
That’s because it is very obvious for clients when someone has really taken the time to write a good proposal in a sea of vague template-proposals.
Generally, I’ve found it to work well to consistently apply for 2-3 jobs every single day.
That’s because there are always new jobs coming and I’ve found that jobs that are more than a few days old or have 20+ proposals tend to be much harder to get.
Another thing I like to look at is the number of projects the client has hired for – if it is less than 35% I’m generally reluctant to send a proposal unless it’s a very cool project since there is a high chance they won’t hire.
Of course, you can increase the number of proposals in the beginning if you want to move faster as long as you still spend the same amount of time on each proposal.
Often you’ll see a bunch of projects you are interested in. If you know you’ll only apply to 1-2, you’ll force yourself to pick the ones you think are the best fit which in turn will make the quality of your proposals better.
In this game, consistency is king.
When looking at projects, I always use this quick rule of thumb: does the job description give enough information for me to write a highly personalized proposal?
If not, then I skip it immediately. If yes, then I consider if it interests me and I start writing.
You can generally ignore the budget put on the project as most clients simply don’t know what to put and because they are afraid of overpaying they just put something random like $100.
In fact, I’ve found this principle to hold true for many of the features Upwork allows clients to add – another one is when they have to pick if they want a freelancer that is entry-level, intermediate or expert.
It seems kinda random what people put there and often you’ll see those that want an expert but only want to pay $5/hour.
When you’ve created some saved searches that you are happy with, it is time to send proposals…
Attract clients with unique proposals (incl. a successful $1200-project case study)
Let’s start with another example. Below is a client’s review of a previous project I completed, along with the project description and the specific word-for-word proposal that landed the project.
The client’s review
The project description
The proposal – note that the client will see the cover letter last and the first question at the top on Upwork.
So, what is going on here?
Note that since the client will see the first question first, that’s where I’m writing “Hi…” – I then scrolled through his previous reviews to find his first name and added that.
I started out by sharing my experience helping a different business in the same industry to show relevancy along with generalities about similar types of businesses based on my general experience.
Then I shared two other examples from my experience and show why they are relevant (different business but targeting the same audience).
If the examples you show are not 100% relevant, it is key that you show the client WHY they are relevant or what part of the projects that made them relevant enough to bring them up in the situation.
Towards the end, I talk a little bit about my interest in language learning since he mentioned that in the project description specifically along with a testimonial from another client and set the CTA as a general question to learn more.
The goal of a proposal is not to get you the job although that would be nice. Rather, it is to get you the phone call. That’s the only thing that matters.
And the first few lines at the top of the proposal has its own unique purpose: to get the client to click “read more” and actually read the rest of the proposal since each proposal only shows the first few lines in the client’s dashboard (see screenshot below).
Generally, a good starting hook is something very personal or unique to the project. This is where your project research comes in.
I like to keep the hook to 2-3 lines and then add 5-10 lines more with further explanation followed by a 2-3 line at the end that tells them you have attached screenshots and testimonials.
Particularly the 5-10 lines in the middle can be expanded as I show in the example above.
It really comes down to how much you are able to show that is relevant along with how many questions they have added to the project description. The more questions they have added the more they probably want to hear about.
You don’t have to add the part about testimonials if you are just starting out though I’ve found it to help. You’ll want them to be related to the project or talk about how you are good at reaching deadlines, reliability or have good communication skills.
Some people are scared of giving away too much advice. I am not, I prefer to work with clients who, even if they could figure out how to do it, are too busy and want a premium white glove-service.
I always like to keep the proposal short because I assume that they are busy and have many proposals to go through.
I’d much rather get them on the phone because it allows me to get a feeling for how we communicate together and from that if we’ll be a good fit.
For some reason, Upwork moves things around as you saw in the above screenshots. Strange but great for us because not everyone knows about it so we get a small edge 🙂
Since I know the cover letter is last I’ll usually use that field for the last bit of the proposal; the part about testimonials and the CTA.
Rather than get tempted to send the perfect proposal and fall in love with a certain project, you’ll benefit more from a consistent system.
It will give you a perspective of how different clients are, which in turn will allow you to faster learn which type you prefer to work with and how to spot them through their project descriptions.
I highly recommend that you track your proposals at least for the first while to see how you perform. You can copy my template sheet here. Just click File > Make a copy (no optin).
I’ve seen readers feeling bad because they felt like they were sending out a ton of proposals and only getting very few jobs.
When you track your proposals you’ll probably feel better noticing the same as I did: that around 50% of the projects in the digital marketing industry never got hired for. It sucks but at least it is not our fault since no-one got hired.
And of the remaining portion (besides the clients we land), they typically hire a much cheaper freelancer meaning that the client would never be a good fit anyway.
Another benefit of tracking your proposals is that you’ll build your intuition about which project descriptions will be a good fit for you, and which types of proposals work.
I like to track the performance in batches of 20 proposals meaning I’ll run the numbers after I’ve received an answer for 20 of them (no reply is also an answer).
I generally wait around 10-14 days before logging the result of a proposal to give them time to hire – that also allows me to find the person hired via the project description itself and check which pricing they go for.
When you’ve sent out 10-20 proposals you’ll usually get some leads interested and writing you back.
The writeback is when a potential client replies to your proposals which allows for both of you to communicate via the Upwork chat system.
This part is more art than science and depending on the CTA in your proposal you generally have two options:
- Schedule a time for a phone call
- Ask 1-2 questions to vet them if you are unsure about their project
For the first one, you’ll want to assume they are busy, so all you want to do is make it as easy as possible for them.
I like to propose two different times (in their timezone) and give them the option to suggest others if none of them work. That’s it.
For other projects, you might want to know more about the project before deciding whether to go ahead and schedule a phone call or not.
I’ve found that too much messaging back and forth at this stage kills things, so I like to carefully ask 1-2 basic questions to understand if they are in the right niche and will be a good fit.
Again, these questions should only need a quick answer from the client before you move the conversation forward towards the call.
And they should either be related to the call or be something that can show you a red flag that might make you not want to get on the call at all (e.g. if they want to start the project three months from now).
Example questions are:
- What do your products typically cost?
- What is the most important thing for you to accomplish with this project?
- When are you looking to get started?
When you are ready to jump on the phone with a potential client…
Closing the deal (even if you are nervous)
The phone call isn’t needed for all types of digital marketing projects. I’ve found that for things like content marketing it is less needed compared to ads management.
While you might not need it, I still prefer to do them rather than not. It allows me to get a better feel for if the client and I might be a good fit. At the very least, I’ll learn something about what is important to the client that I can then use in my next proposal to another potential client.
I can’t cover every possible phone call situation you might come across, so I’ll cover the most common ones my readers and I have experienced in the field.
Occasionally, I’ve moved forward with a client despite my intuition of it not being a good fit. This can be so difficult to judge without a phone call, that it has to be a unique situation for me to take on the client if we are unable to meet in person or get on a call.
There are exceptions: my perhaps favorite client to date hates phone calls, so if I had not been lenient we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work together.
The key is that you both get your questions answered and make sure you are on the same page in terms of the work needing to be done.
It is a red flag if the client is being evasive and doesn’t want to answer your questions. It is a recipe for a bad project down the road.
The call is a powerful way to get them to trust you and most importantly allow you to provide more value and show them how good you are (meaning more dollars to you).
It is much easier to ask questions to learn more about their business, how you can provide value and to make them feel special rather than guessing these things.
Ultimately, the call will help you verify if the client will be a bad fit for you and it will help you avoid most of the bad clients.
Spend some time with them and write down what they say. You can always tell them that you might respond slowly throughout the call because you are taking notes.
That will usually give you an instant win and clients will like you. It is great because you can later refer back to the things they said when evaluating results and proactive ideas you might have.
I’ve found that most phone calls tend to last around 45-60 minutes which is a good amount of time for the most part.
I often notice people cutting themselves off around that time which helps you not spend too much time with them before they are paying you.
If someone tries to drag it out (it happens from time to time) to learn from you rather than hire you, you might want to let them you have another meeting about to start and tell them that you’ll follow up with them after.
This is a mix of science and art, and the only way to get good is by practicing. It is normal to get nervous before the phone calls – many people don’t like talking with strangers on the phone.
What worked well for one of my readers was reframing this to be a casual coffee meeting (which it actually is) similarly to if you are meeting with a friend of a friend about a potential job or to learn about a new sport.
The nervous feeling will go away after a while and you can literally train it to go away by simply doing more phone calls.
I overcame it myself by setting a goal of having the first 10 phone calls within the first month. That helped a lot.
When clients ask about your past experience and portfolio
As you get more experienced, you’ll know where to direct the conversation, so for now, I’ll help you get started and you’ll want to tweak it to your own style as you go as we all have different personalities.
I like to lead the conversation by preparing some questions and focus on getting the client to talk 80%-90% of the time.
I do that by using follow up questions when they have told me something and sprinkle my related experience or knowledge in as I see fit, so they don’t feel like it’s an interrogation.
Generally, you are looking for ideas where you can give the client a quick win and a way to turn that into a bigger win down the road.
If you want to do things like manage ads for clients, they will often ask for proof of your previous work e.g. screenshots of an ad account that shows performance.
I have rarely seen that happen with clients at startups or “real companies” – and, what I’m sure you are used to, is that you probably won’t be able to provide that from your day-job due to NDA’s.
However, there are many small business entrepreneurs that like proof on Upwork.
You are much less likely to be asked about your past performance if you focus your proposal on showing expertise and giving very specific recommendations – they will usually be so blown away because no one else bothers to do it.
If it does come up during the call and if you don’t have some case study to throw at them, you are probably best off talking about what you’ve done at your current/previous jobs.
Below are some sample questions to give inspiration for your calls. You’ll want to tailor these to your specific service or niche as you move forward.
1) Who are your best customers?
2) What is your business goal?
(besides ‘sales’, force them to be SPECIFIC. If they don’t know or don’t know how to calculate e.g. conversion rate, that is another added value you can give them either right on the call or afterward in an email.)
3) What have you tried before? What worked and what didn’t?
4) Do you have a timeline in mind?
(What kind of budget are you looking to spend on the project? – some people don’t want to share this as they are afraid of being overcharged, so you’ve got to feel out the situation. Though, if you manage ads, you’ll definitely want to know how much they are willing to spend)
5) When are you looking to get started?
(If the answer is more than 10-14 days in the future, I like to tell them that they can get back to me when they are ready – unless they want to pay me to do some preliminary research. Often something happens during the time period and the project never gets started or is delayed. Write them off unless they are paying you already.)
Negotiation, pricing, and discounts
Often they will want to confirm the price. It is a bad sign if they focus on the price upfront instead of learning about how you can help them solve their challenges.
The best way is usually to talk about value first and pricing last, so I like to divert it as much as possible but if they keep asking you should tell them.
Starting with an hourly rate helps you avoid getting into a project where you later kick yourself because you realize the number of hours is much more than you expected – or even worse they try to add more to the scope of work.
If that happens when you are on hourly rates, you’ll just open up the Upwork tracking software and bill them more hours! Win-win.
Personally, I almost never change my pricing – it has to be a really amazing client or project before I’ll even consider it.
And I never (ever) do it during a call with the client just like that. You’ll want to strategically use it – not on a whim.
Negotiation is a dance and unless you are experienced in it, if they ask you to lower your price, you could tell them “I understand it might be challenging to pay the fee I ask – I am sure there are many other qualified freelancers out there who can help you”.
Alternatively, you can tell them that you are happy to send a proposal with a different price for a different scope of work and that you can send them one after the call (that gives you some time to think about it without committing to something you haven’t thought through right there on the phone).
A note on discounts: If you lower your price or give discounts, you’ll start to see yourself as someone who does that. It leads to being easier for you to do the next time and the client gets used to getting discounts.
Eventually, you’ll think of yourself as someone who gives discounts and it can be difficult to recover from.
Closing and next steps
You’ll be talking about when a good starting date is. Normally, 2-3 days in advance is good.
I usually decline anything earlier as I don’t want to come across as someone without work (even if I have work but would have a bit of time to look at their project) – this has served me well to keep a healthy power dynamic in the relationship.
Starting later than a couple of days from now might make the client interested in choosing someone else – you have to be the judge in each situation. This also gives some time for you to get access to whatever accounts or information you need on their side.
I like to close the conversation talking about next steps.
Something along the lines of “All you have to do is click ‘hire’ on my Upwork proposal to get started. And I’ll send you a summary of our talk within the next 2 hours along with the next steps for us to move forward” (be specific and stick to it!).
If you’ve had a good conversation you’ll want to keep the momentum going and have them hire you right then and there before they get busy with other things.
I usually mention two hours because it gives them enough time to hire me and if they haven’t yet, I write that in the email.
I once had an awesome call with a lead from Upwork and even though I followed the things outlined above (and he totally agreed), he never clicked the hire button – even after I followed up with him several times. In fact, I never heard from him again.
My point here is that you should never assume anything unless they’ve technically hired you on Upwork – if they ask you to do anything before, tell them “sure, I’ll take care of that as soon as you have hired me on Upwork”.
If they try to push the project off of Upwork don’t play along. Tell them you’d like to focus on the project and this makes it easy for you to do.
If they are really pushy you might wanna tell them something like, that you’ve had a bad experience doing that in the past, so you may be open to it in the future but not now.
I strongly recommend that you don’t take projects off of Upwork. Besides it being bad taste (Upwork got you the lead), you have so many things to learn that you don’t need any headaches around getting paid on top of that.
Upwork doesn’t take care of it 100% but pretty much which is as good as it gets. I’ve never had any problems with payments from clients on the platform.
The reality is that there is a reasonably good chance some of the clients will try to scam you if you work with them off of the platform.
Upwork is great at offering security to both you and your client, so focus on learning the whole process and I’ll share with you how to get leads using other sources, another time.
Declining the project
Sometimes you’ll want to decline projects perhaps because the client is just not a good fit.
You can simply write them on Upwork saying thanks for the opportunity but you don’t think you’ll be a good fit because XYZ (e.g. you are moving away from their niche, that you only work with clients who spend min. X dollars on ads monthly, etc.).
If you feel more confident, do it right on the call and watch what happens. Often times, the power dynamic switch completely and they try to figure out how you could still work together. It’s can be a fun experience 🙂
Of course, if you go down this road you better stick to your guns or you’ll lose the power you’ve just built up.
Either way, I like to leave them with a good experience by trying to refer them to someone else they can work with.
Turning one project into more work
When the client has hired you, besides focusing on the goals you spoke about on the phone, you’ll want to focus on two core aspects: reliability and communication.
This basically comes down to simply doing what you say you are going to do.
I’ll repeat that: if you say you’ll do something at a certain time, do it!
Seriously, this single thing will put you ahead of 80% of other freelancers. Freelancers are notorious for being flaky and terrible at communication. Particularly on Upwork.
When you focus on offering a premium white glove-service with excellent communication and reliability you can certainly charge accordingly.
On top of that, you gain a client’s trust a lot faster and it will be much easier for you to upsell other projects you can help them with, which is much easier than onboarding a new client.
What I see out there, is that clients would rather have someone who isn’t the absolute best in their field if they are friendly, reliable and communicative rather than the absolute best freelancer who isn’t.
Obviously, that still means you need to be at least decent at what you do.
With my clients, I always set the target of making them happy and focusing on our second project (and I tell them that).
Specifically, that means you’ll make a lot more money getting more projects from the same client – or getting referrals to other clients who want your help.
Not only does it save you a ton of time in terms of sending proposals but approaching someone ‘warm’ rather than ‘cold’ makes things much easier.
Besides building up your habits and confidence in freelancing is the real target you should aim for.