If you’re anything like me, or just about every other freelance writer I know, you’ll have the occasional slow day when there are no pressing deadlines and you’re all out of pitches.
When you set out on your grand freelance adventure, you probably thought times like this would be spent on the golf course or reacquainting yourself with the works of Shakespeare, but in all likelihood, these non-earning days hover over you like a Harry Potter Dementor, threatening to suck the joy out of what can be a rather pleasant job. Well, I had a Dementor day a few weeks ago.
Normally these down days—which occur at least once every couple months—begin with existential questions, lots of tea-drinking, and then, with a sigh of dejected finality, a one-man brainstorming session from which mildly useful ideas eventually bob to the surface.
But this time, I just couldn’t get the words of a friend out of my head: “Haven’t you ever used LinkedIn to get work?” he’d said. “I just bang out a few mails to connections and—boom!—something always comes up.”
I’ll be honest: I was baffled. Don’t get me wrong—when it comes to LinkedIn, I was a pretty early adopter and trundled past the all-important 500+ connections barrier a while ago. But for me, LinkedIn has only ever been an accessory, a place for potential clients to see I really exist and then, bowled over by the riotous trumpetings of my gold-plated CV, hire me for assignments. Could LinkedIn be more than just a fancy shop window for freelancers?
Well, my pal’s barefaced boasting got me thinking. And so, on this downest of down days, I decided to find out just what LinkedIn can do for a freelancer looking for work.
Selling yourself to existing contacts
The idea: I know, or at least claim to know, a mammoth 600 people, many of whom work in media. A lovingly-crafted message sent via LinkedIn—a novelty compared to regular email, will yield some results, right?
The truth: I spend about 40 minutes trying to straddle the line at which confident, available, and fawning intersect. Too cheery and I just sound desperate. Too aloof and I come across as the drunk on the bus. Anything along the lines of “I love your mag/agency/newspaper” seems a bit fresh-out-of-college. Eventually, I feel like I hit on the perfect tone with this template: “I know we’re connected, but perhaps you didn’t know this about me, and this is why I think we should work together.” Is it brilliant? No, but it’ll do.
Next, I scroll through my long list of connections to pick out the lucky souls who will be on the receiving end of this merry missive. The big surprise is I genuinely know a lot of them. And the thought of sending these acquaintances an email that even hints at the fact I’m not busy makes me a little uncomfortable.
In the end I just can’t do it. Instead, I narrow the list down to 10 connections I don’t really know but might be in a position to throw me a bone. Any other day of the month, you understand, I would be snowed under with well-paying work. This, I keep telling myself, is an experiment.
Using LinkedIn search to find possible contacts
The idea: LinkedIn’s advanced search function lets you filter people by job title. It’s a bit like being a really dull amateur detective, during which you get the occasional frisson of excitement when you see your search term (“travel editor,” “features writer”) show up for a publication you actually know.
The truth: I get off to a very promising start and begin to think that within hours I will have sent confident-sounding emails to dozens of important new contacts. The weight of impending riches is almost overwhelming.
Sadly, I am broadsided by two unforeseen things related to the site’s search function: One, it is necessary to go hunting for contact details on Google—a task which can take forever and doesn’t always work—and two, LinkedIn prevents cheapskates like me who don’t have premium accounts from seeing more than 100 results. Still, I manage to send out emails to 10 more people I find via search.
Using LinkedIn jobs to find a cheeky way in
The idea: With my enthusiasm quickly waning, I do some research to see if more industrious people than myself have other LinkedIn tips. A nice lady mentions there’s a chance to pick up writing gigs by sending emails to people looking for staff writers. She seems to think a well-timed message offering your services as an interim freelancer could land you work until a new staffer comes on.
The truth: With renewed vigor, I leap into LinkedIn Jobs and start looking for “staff writer” and “journalist” positions. But I just can’t shake off the rising feeling this method puts me in close company with ambulance chasers, like I am trying to cash in on someone’s desperation. The feeling doesn’t last long, however, as I rapidly discover the number of staff jobs is only a shade higher than zero. I’m not kidding.
Results and conclusions
Admittedly, this has not been the kind of scientific test that would rival something Elon Musk might sponsor, but my LinkedIn experiment has taken the better part of a working day. I decide 48 hours is a reasonable amount of time to wait for any responses before analyzing the results.
The results: From the 10 LinkedIn mails I sent to people I was already connected with, I get two responses. One offers to have a coffee in London, which is of little use since I live many miles away. The other asks me to send some work samples, which I do, unable to shake off the feeling that after decades as a writer, I have surely hit rock bottom.
For the 10 randoms I found on LinkedIn search, I also score two replies: one from a pleasant young man who seems to have overstated his position on LinkedIn and apologetically excuses himself for being something of a junior, another from a lady who says I’m “just the kind of person that we use” and asks me to send her some ideas, which I do, thinking she’s a good contact to have. There might be something in it.
The verdict: It has been, in all truth, a rather deflating exercise. Though content might be king, journalistic supply today seems to vastly exceed demand. There are a million writers out there, and throwing darts at the LinkedIn dartboard just doesn’t feel like a constructive way of trying to outshine them.
But I’d like to make a distinction. If I had a LinkedIn Premium account, which uses the more exclusive InMail service, I expect the results would have been more promising. And even without paying extra, is there room to build an important network and eventually land paying work from digital networking? Without a doubt.
For me, what it all boils down to is time. Eight years as a full-time freelancer has taught me that a day spent coming up with story ideas and crafting a tailored pitch to an editor I know is a more efficient use of my resources. LinkedIn clearly can bridge a gap between those with work to offer and those on the hunt for it, but its features don’t quite line up with the needs of a freelancer. And because of that, it’s probably not where I’ll be heading the next time I spot tumbleweed drifting across the office.