There is a certain romance associated with being a freelancer. Often we conjure images of working from remote, exotic locations; the freedom from a 9-to-5 job; the ability to create our own destiny; and doing work that is engaging or meaningful.
According to a 2016 survey of the freelance economy, the number of freelance workers is growing quickly. Currently, there are approximately 55 million freelancers in the United States, up from 53 million in 2014. This represents about 34 percent of the total workforce and is expected to balloon to 50 percent by 2020.
But, as many of those entrepreneurs can attest, running a freelance business is hard work. From day to day operations, managing clients, and juggling cashflow, freelancers often pull double duty as both pseudo-employees and business owners.
Perhaps the hardest job of all when it comes to freelancing is how to find clients.
Understandably, finding clients as a freelancer is a critical and important part of running the business. Without clients, work dries up pretty quickly.
There are a few tactics that I’ll outline that will hopefully inspire you and provide actionable way to find those new clients.
Two Types of Attracting Clients
I want to start with the two methods of attracting clients to your business: Inbound and Outbound. You may have heard a lot about inbound marketing, it has gained a lot of popularity in the last 4 or 5 years as companies like HubSpot have preached it’s power. Inbound marketing is an extremely efficient form of marketing, often undercutting outbound marketing efforts several times over in terms of cost and efficiency.
The other type of client attraction is outbound marketing. That is, marketing in the traditional sense; think cold calling, billboards, and other outreach efforts. There is certainly a place for outbound tactics, keep in mind, they are typically more expensive and less effective, but effective nonetheless.
Inbound marketing efforts typically result in a more qualified lead. One who is more likely to buy faster, and for a higher price point when compared to outbound marketing. That said, outbound marketing is generally faster at producing results than inbound, which can take upwards of 3 to 4 months of consistent work to generate meaningful returns.
What is my advice to freelancers looking to find new clients?
Do both inbound and outbound marketing.
A healthy mix of the two will result in quick (but expensive) leads while inbound efforts take hold and start producing long term (and more efficient) results.
So what are examples of inbound and outbound methods of finding new clients?
Types of Clients
“Finding new clients” – if only it were that easy. We have to backup again to discuss another stumbling block for freelancers: defining their ideal client.
Not all clients are the same. And you don’t want all clients.
To address this, we must explicitly define who you want as a client and who you don’t want.
- Do you want to work remotely? Or only with local businesses?
- Do you have a preference as to which industry you will work in? Often times, the more you niche you are, the higher your freelance rate can be.
- What services will you provide? What won’t you provide?
Without knowing these answers ahead of time, you will forever deal with “scope creep” – the idea that a client will ask for more, and more, and more (and more) often without additional compensation. Many freelancers justify this by thinking, “Oh, I can do that” because they have the technical know-how and ability, but the request falls outside of their true passion.
Another note on scope-creep: a client will not necessarily fire you because you say no. Know your boundaries.
Additionally, when it comes to choosing the clients you want to work with, there are red flags to watch out for. For example:
- A client that does not value your work
- A client that does not listen to any advice you offer
- A client that is slow to pay or does not operate within your agreement
- A client who is obviously price shopping, looking for the lowest possible financial outlay
- A client who bad-mouths every freelancer or contractor they have worked with previously
- A client who does not communicate well
Note: nearly all of these can be overcome, and none should be an automatic reason for turning down work from a client, but you need to be aware of these indicators.
Types of Work
Not only do freelancers need to be aware of types of marketing and types of clients, but types of work are important to understand. Some successful freelancers will choose clients in one category or the other, or choose to float between the two. Let me be clear, there is no “right way” or right approach, simply the need to be aware of both.
The two categories for freelance work are:
In the service-based, the freelancer is hired to complete a specific task. For example, a freelance website developer is contracted to make a website. The freelance wedding photographer is contracted to provide wedding photos.
The knowledge-based freelancer often plays more of a consultant or advisor role. They listen to the what the client is asking of them, then ask insightful questions to dig a little more to discover the real need.
Why is it important for freelancers to understand these distinctions? Because finding new clients depends on it!
More often than not, prospective clients think they know what they need to solve their problem (a new website, for example) and come to the freelancer looking to have that solution built to spec. Usually in that circumstance, the underlying problem is actually something very different.
Again, using the example of our website designer who is contracted to make the client a new website. The client is probably suffering from a lack of sales leads. In other words, a poor lead generation process – they don’t have the right content on their existing website to garner new leads. A knowledge-based freelancer will help the client define those goals (more leads) and offer a process (improved lead gathering techniques) while providing the solution (a modified website design).
This is critical because, once a freelancer finds the client, both parties are best served when the client gets the actual result they are looking for.
How many freelancers have been “fired” by a client or have taken on a client who has complained about the previous freelance contractor? Usually, this stems from a misconception of the root of the problem. The first freelancer gave the client exactly what they asked for, but neither took the time to understand the exact problem.
Think of a patient suffering from chronic migraines. Fed up, she makes an appointment with a well-known brain surgeon. At her appointment, she tells the doctor that she has headaches and wants him to perform brain surgery to make the headaches go away.
A service-based doctor would simply do the brain surgery because that is what the patent wanted.
A knowledge-based doctor would slow down the process, ask questions to better understand the problem, then prescribe recommendations to stop the headaches. Brain surgery may still be a viable option, but the knowledge-based doctor is not simply taking orders from the patient.
As a smart freelancer, you can now use this to not only find new clients, but also win over the ones you’re already working with.
Now that we have covered how to attract new clients, the types of clients, and the types of work, we can look at how to find new clients:
I classify referrals as an outbound sales and marketing tactic. This could be argued, but let’s set that aside and agree on its effectiveness. Referrals generally convert at 14.7% compared to other tactics such as paid search (6.9%), their own websites (5.0%), and events (1.0%). Additionally, referrals from other customers result in a shortened sales cycle, meaning getting paid more quickly. But many freelancers are ineffective at utilizing it! The excuses are many:
- I don’t have time
- I forget
- I don’t want to be “that guy”
- I don’t want to bother my existing clients
- I don’t know what to say or how to ask
If you produce quality work, and your existing clients are happy, ASK THEM FOR A REFERRAL. I have an entire post about how to ask for a client referral. Check it out if you need some encouragement or inspiration.
The idea of using content to find new clients is squarely in the inbound marketing category. It is extremely effective at generating high-quality leads for your business. The basic premise of content marketing is to use original content to educate prospective buyers and establish yourself as an authority within your industry. When a prospective client is looking for a solution to their problem, your content (perhaps in the form of a blog, video, podcast, ebook, or report) serves as the answer they are looking for. This is a very “not-salesy” approach because you are adding value to them by answering their problem and asking nothing in return. Eventually, this plays on the human emotion of reciprocity where they feel that they owe you for something you did and become more inclined to do business with you.
In this post, I share a more detailed explanation of content marketing.
You have probably come across a number of references to outsourcing sites like Fivrr, UpWork, People Per Hour, or SimplyHired. Generally, I am not a fan of these services as they tend to grossly under-value the contractor (that’s you) and set unrealistic expectations in the eyes of the customer. Further, it sets you up for a career of managing bargain-basement, coupon-cutting clients who will forever fail to see the value you bring to the table.
That said, finding gigs on sites like this can serve as a springboard for freelancers who are just starting out. These platforms offer access to a lot of clients quickly. You can use this as a way to quickly build a portfolio of work to show off your skills or creativity, gather feedback and client reviews, and optimize your own internal processes.
A spin on the content marketing bit is to tell captivating and engaging stories surrounding your work. If you are a wedding photographer, sharing your past photos in a gallery is good. But telling the story of having to hike through a ravine and traverse a raging river to end up at the foot of majestic waterfalls captures the mind of a soon-to-be bride. If you are a website developer, share a story of how your client originally came to you for a website redesign and how you dug deeper and proposed a creative solution to increase the number of website visitors who converted to trial customers for your client. When it comes to standing out and finding your own new clients, it is up to you to explain what makes you different from countless others in your industry fighting for the same projects. Often, sharing how you provided a solution is far better than describing the nuts and bolts of what you did (Service-based vs Knowledge-based).
Similar to content marketing, social media has become a powerhouse for freelancers. But perhaps not how you have seen it used in the past. Social media is a wonderful “spoke” in your marketing plan. It should give a sample of your work to entice your followers to come back to your website where you can really shine. Use social media to engage with your existing clients and provide solutions or ideas to your prospective clients. Make it more about them than about yourself.
A word of caution about using social media to find clients: don’t feel like you need to have a social presence on every platform out there (it is a good idea, however, to make sure your brand name is secured so no one else can use it). Instead, think of which social media platform your ideal customer is likely to “hang out” on. Be there.
Side note: I use KnowEm to quickly assess social platforms and username availability for clients. It is not uncommon to register these usernames on their behalf.
Earlier I mentioned galleries. Your portfolio should accurately reflect the type of work you do and the quality of which you do it. I have seen freelancers fail to update their portfolios in years. Not only does this signal their lack of attention to detail, but it often doesn’t show their best work. I assume they have gotten better at their craft in 3 or 4 or 5 years. Right? Highlight this! Show off your best work and the work you are most proud. Incorporate this content into your social media sharing, your proposals, and your storytelling. Make sure people can easily see what you have done.
Nurture Your Own Network
Think of your network as neighbors. There are countless entrepreneurs and professionals in industries that do not directly compete with you, but are very complementary. For example, home stagers and real estate agents are not in competition, yet they target the same group of consumers. Graphic designers and freelance web developers are not in direct competition, but offer complementary services. Further, a website developer needs a good freelance copywriter. Seek out those partnerships and establish a relationship before you need one. Be open to referring each other business, exchange ideas, and partner on projects. The power of a network is often underutilized.
When we are in the trenches of running a business, it is easy to become inward focused and forget about the population that we can help. This unknown group “lives” somewhere, but we are slow to “go find them.” Fortunately, the internet has made these connections extremely easy to find. By using Question and Answer sites (like Quora), it is remarkably easy to find people asking questions in any number of topics. Find questions in your area of expertise and answer them. For free. Without asking for anything in return.
This is both an abused tactic and extremely effective (perhaps why it is so abused). Genuine answers (meaning: helpful, authentic, original, factually correct, and non-promotional) result in additional views, which results in additional exposure, which results in more viewers, which increases your chances of being seen by someone who had a similar question, but had not asked it. Approximately half of my consulting clients in 2017 came from sources where I had publicly answered a question for someone. More interestingly, none of the folks who originally asked the question reached out to me or became clients. Only viewers of the original question and my answer converted. These are folks I have never seen or have likely never seen my name before. But by publicly helping someone, I gained enough credibility in their eyes to move them to action.
Existing Watering Holes
Sometimes we get stuck in our own head, we approach finding clients from our perspective instead of thinking like clients in need. To combat this, take a moment to think like your ideal customer. If you are a wedding photographer, think like a bride. What would she type into a search engine to find what she was looking for? Now, type that into Google and look at the to results. Wedding Wire, The Knot, Find a Wedding Photographer, etc … these sites may be a starting point for brides. They also offer listings of vendors – are you on the list? Research the terms of these services to see if they add value to your own freelance career. If so, sign up. If not, scope out what the competition is doing. What can you learn? What do you think they are doing well that you can duplicate? What holes in their strategy can you spot by looking at their online presence?
Don’t Neglect Your Past Clients
Did you know it is 7 to 10 times less costly to retain an existing client as it is to acquire a new one? Don’t waste time, money, and effort to constantly keeping your sales pipeline full while ignoring business right under your nose. Think of ancillary products or services that your clients may need over time. For example, a freelance photographer may track wedding anniversaries to offer couples sittings; a website developer can offer on-going updates, maintenance, or security improvements. A freelance calligrapher can follow up with other monumental life moments (birth announcements (partner with a doula), 50th wedding celebrations (partner with an event planner), or graduation announcements (partner with a photographer). When handled correctly, you’ll find that past clients become acquaintances. Who become advocates. Who become friends.
A consultant friend of mine, who became a client after hearing me speak at a business conference, called me hours after his father-in-law died. This would be unheard of in a traditional vendor-client partnership; but we do not have a traditional business relationship. We have nurtured our relationship over 10 years. That relationship alone has accounted for tens of thousands of dollars of business we have helped each other acquire.
How Do You Find Clients as a Freelancer
Finding clients as a freelancer is usually not a quick solution. There are ways to do it (third-party sites and services) but those do not generally lead to the fulfilling work you imagined when starting as a freelancer. Instead, finding quality clients starts with the understanding that it is a long process. A rewarding process, no doubt. But one that requires intentionality; an unwavering focus on the needs of your ideal client and helping them understand the ideal solution. Not just what they think they need, but one that solves the underlying problem they are trying to get rid of.
Go get ‘em, smart freelancer! Your next client is out there, frustrated and seeking an answer.
Also published on Medium.