I remember that winter night like it was yesterday. “I’m never going to write again,” I bawled. “Nobody is ever going to commission me for anything.”
Just before the holidays, a big-name multinational had promised me a string of 12 stories, which would have kept me busy all through January. I thought I was heading into 2016 with a bang. But I made a rookie mistake: I assumed the assignment was set in stone.
When all I heard from the potential client was crickets, I embarrassed myself and emailed the assigning editor every day. He ghosted me. I finally did receive one measly project from the company—10 months later. By then, I was firmly in the driver’s seat and had decided I would do everything in my power to avoid a repeat of that January.
Marketing your services may not be the most fun part of freelancing, but it’s an important step to ensure steady work—and avoid putting all your eggs in one client’s basket. Luckily, you don’t need to develop CMO-level skills to get the word out about your business. Adopting “soft marketing” techniques—i.e. the indirect, “soft sell” side to marketing that experts recommend for building up a strong customer base—can help diversify your client roster.
Halt the hustle
The first step is to free yourself from the mentality that freelancers must exist in a “feast or famine” ebb and flow. Melanie Padgett Powers, a freelance writer and editor, owner of MelEdits, and host of the Deliberate Freelancer and Association Station podcasts, said she avoids this cycle by following a simple rule: ABM, or “Always Be Marketing.”
“I hate the word ‘hustle,'” she said “We can create systems and goals to get to a place where we don’t have to [live and work that way].”
“I hate the word ‘hustle.'”
Jonathan Green, a digital marketing expert, likens looking for freelance clients to farming rather than hunting. “When you approach client acquisition like hunting, it’s very active. That isn’t sustainable,” Green said. Instead, “you want to plant seeds everywhere… and then wait for them to grow.”
When it comes to marketing, be a Steady Eddy
In the early stages of my writing career, work looked like a roller coaster—I had either too much of it or too little. When assignments came in, I forgot to market or told myself I was too busy. When work was slow, I would engage in a full-blown marketing blitz for a week or two while shelving all other projects. Such a process might be a recipe for burnout, Padgett Powers said.
“If you use fast marketing strategies to hunt for clients, you’ll have to wait until you have time again to pursue new clients. This can lead to a financial roller coaster or a feeling that you always have too many clients or not enough,” Green pointed out.
To fill my pot consistently, I had to bury the marketing blitz.
I soon realized that slow and steady wins the race. To fill my pot consistently, I had to bury the marketing blitz. Instead, I simply checked off one small marketing task every weekday. Doing this over the long term, regardless of how many projects I had on my plate, evened out the troughs in my workflow.
What’s more, a slow and steady approach “means your seeds will keep growing, even when you’re busy with your current crop of clients,” Green said.
Soft marketing for freelancers: Quick steps you can take today
I realized I had many preconceived notions about what marketing means. It doesn’t have to be a hard sell. Pretty much any easy task that raises your visibility helps.
Here are a few actions that qualify as “soft marketing”:
- Uploading a clip to your portfolio
- Sharing a clip on LinkedIn
- Commenting on a contact’s post on LinkedIn
- Sending a letter of introduction to a content director
- Sending a pitch to an editor
- Taking a discovery call
- Following up with an editor/client
- Attending a webinar in your writing niche
“Because many of us grimace at words like networking and marketing, I like to reframe it as ‘relationship building,'” Padgett Powers said. In addition to nurturing ongoing conversations, she promotes her work on social media platforms—mostly Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook groups.
On these platforms, she might share a link to a recently published article she authored or talk about a presentation she was invited to give. “In this way, I’m showing my value, my expertise, and my skills, without hitting people over the head with straight marketing copy,” she said.
Make soft marketing into a game
In order to make marketing feel less like work, I decided to gamify the process. I picked up two small jars and threw 100 beans in one. For every marketing-focused task I did, I transferred one bean over. When I netted an assignment, I moved three beans over. Keeping an eye on the jars, I moved all 100 beans (and no more) in any given month.
Such a method has helped me modulate my marketing pace. Since every assignment bagged is worth three beans, I can pipe down the volume on months when I’m flush with new work. If, toward the middle of the month, very few beans have piled up, I know I need to pick up the pace.
Here were my bean jars on the last day of June:
By sticking with this strategy, I have a steadier stream of work—and fewer reasons to bawl my eyes out.
With slow and steady soft marketing, freelancing need not be a stomach-lurching, feast-or-famine ride—unless, of course, that’s your preferred jam.
*A couple of quick caveats: I am a technology writer, so work is usually easier to find in this or tech-adjacent fields. I am a believer in consistent marketing, but I also understand that there may be times when mental health or other challenges derail the best-laid plans.