Marketing can get a bad rap in the freelance community. Whether it’s downplaying that copywriting gig you took to pay the bills or that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach after you post your latest article on Facebook, it’s tempting to ignore the fact that freelance writing is a business—and that businesses need to be marketed.
I once didn’t care much for the marketing part of the job. Too many years developing communication strategies and implementing marketing campaigns for everyone else’s business left me burned out, and I didn’t take the time to develop my own strategy.
Don’t fall into the same trap. Searching for clients, pitching editors, networking, building rapport— these kinds of marketing tasks take time and thought. A good marketing strategy makes your hard work more efficient, giving you more time to write and less time spent searching for gigs.
So what can you do to up your freelance writing business? I talked with several freelancers, business owners, and marketing experts to find some best practices.
Linda Formichelli, co-author of the popular writing guide The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success, is a big fan of creating lists of potential clients.
It sounds simple, but it’s one of the easiest ways to define your target market. Ilise Benun, a marketing mentor who specializes in the creative field, said it’s a crucial step that freelancers often miss when it comes to marketing their business.
“The struggle I often see people having is thinking that everyone is their client—that everyone could be a prospect for them,” Benun said. By not defining the clientele that they want to attract, freelancers can hand over the control of their business to the marketplace. In effect, making lists is a key first step in defining your marketing strategy, or “finding your people,” as Benun called it.
Formichelli uses these lists to “plant seeds,” namely by sending out letters of introduction and queries to prospective clients. Taking the time to research and nurture a well-thought-out prospect list often differentiates freelancers who get well-paying clients from the “low-hanging fruit from content mills and bidding sites,” according to Formichelli.
These lists don’t have to just sit in an Excel file or in your FreshBooks account. They can also be adapted for social media. I make private lists on Twitter, separating prospects, clients, markets, publications, editors, and colleagues. It’s a practice I picked up from managing online communities for small businesses. Not only does it work well for networking, but it also helps when it comes to finding jobs and better understanding the market.
Build your own community
Once you have your lists, you have to nurture them. Being active on social media, writing a blog, or sending out a regular newsletter are great ways to do that. It’s about staying top of mind, explained Benun.
“If you don’t connect with someone when they have the need, they are going to forget about you,” Benun said.
Although writing your weekly blog post or maintaining your social media account for a few hours a week may seem like a chore, and an unpaid one at that, it will pay off. Linda Formichelli, for example, once landed a $3,000 assignment from one Twitter direct message. Freelancer Julie Schwietert Collazo told me she netted $14,000 in one year from gigs that originated from her activity on social media.
Sometimes your personal communities can grow into something bigger and more lucrative. Mridu Khullar Relph’s regular newsletters and blog posts from her freelance website grew an audience “substantial enough to warrant its own website,” she said. And so her website The International Freelancer was born; she’s netted $35,000 in the site’s first year alone from the site’s paywalled e-courses. Not every freelancer will go on to start their own industry website or community they can monetize, but a focused online presence is critical for building an audience and a client base.
But also be active in communities outside of your own
While there are quite a few benefits to being active on social media as a freelancer, there are also plenty of opportunities in your local community and in various communities across the web.
Isha Edwards, brand-marketing consultant and owner of the Atlanta-based consultancy EPiC Measures, strongly advocates face-to-face time. She suggests scouring local events on MeetUp.com and other similar websites to see when and where potential clients might be. When it comes to finding work, Edwards recommends going directly to industry events within your vertical of choice, rather than events meant for other freelancers.
“It’s about putting yourself where your client base is likely to find you,” Edwards said.
The web allows for plenty of virtual opportunities as well. Marian Schembari, the owner of Oh Hai! Copy, is a regular user of HARO, a community that connects writers with sources—except that instead of using HARO as a writer, Schembari signed up as a source. She said she has found numerous gigs by sharing her expertise with other writers.
According to Schembari, guest-posting in other industries is another great way for her to get people on her list and drive clients. It’s about “tapping into communities that I wouldn’t have reached otherwise,” she said.
In general, joining online communities—both within your expertise and with other freelancers—can do wonders for your business. Having work fall into your lap is a “fantastic side effect” of being engaged in writing communities, Relph said.
For example, freelancer David Geer has gotten work just from being vocal in the online writing community FreelanceSuccess. And don’t write off LinkedIn or Facebook either. There are plenty of groups on both where freelance writers share tips and potential gigs, perhaps the most high profile of which is Binders Full of Women.
Take every compliment
Although writers often get a bad rap for being egotistical, they also have a tendency to not pad those egos by using compliments to their advantage. According to Linda Formichelli, freelancers should be using each and every compliment they receive from clients and editors as a marketing tool to get more work.
Formichelli suggests adding compliments from editors and clients to websites in the form of testimonials. She also says casually dropping them in pitches and letters of introduction to prospective clients can mean the difference between a “yes” and a “no.” Of course, you should always ask the source for permission to use his or her compliments.
These compliments are also good in when it comes to asking for referrals. In fact, Formichelli advocates responding to a compliment with a referral request. Considering that referrals are often a huge—but awkward—part of success as a freelancer, compliments are a great excuse to ask for one.
Don’t be afraid to advertise
If freelancers tend to forget to use compliments, they forget about the power of advertising even more. Too often advertising is seen as something only for business and corporations. Yet, with the proper preparation and budgeting, freelancers and small business owners can be successful with a well-tailored campaign.
“It’s about going against the grain and not doing what everyone else is doing,” Edwards said.
When Schembari decided that she wanted to work at a publishing house, she placed highly targeted Facebook ads directed at company executives that eventually landed her a gig. An associate publisher of HarperStudio even wrote a post on the company website praising her Facebook ad tactic.
Formichelli also did something out of the ordinary: She sent mailers to potential copywriting clients via the standard post. Since hardly anyone sends anything via snail mail anymore, her campaign stood out, garnering an 11 percent response rate.
While there’s no cookie-cutter, quick-fix marketing plan that will automate itself and spit out work, it pays to spend time developing a specific marketing strategy that highlights your particular selling points. As Edwards said, “Don’t keep up with the business Joneses. Focus on what you’re good at. Find your audience and then go hang out there.”