In 2020, the world changed in ways that most people could have never imagined. The COVID-19 crisis has put stress on entire communities across the U.S. and the world, impacted the health of millions of people, and forced businesses and working professionals into tough situations that few expected or were prepared for.
But, in every challenge we face as a society, there is always opportunity. Light out of darkness. The strength and will to persevere and grow.
One such opportunity, the ability to make a living and build a sustainable career as a freelancer, is becoming increasingly real and attainable as the world continues to adjust to the “new normal.”
In the past few months, countless business owners have been forced to furlough or layoff their full-time employees, tighten their budgets, enact hiring freezes, and figure how to work as fully remote organizations.
As challenging as this new environment is for many organizations and people, it’s actually an ideal situation for anyone interested in becoming a freelancer or growing their existing freelance business.
In fact, according to recent findings from Upwork, compiled into what they call the Future Workforce Report, more hiring managers are interested and willing to work with independent contractors than before the crisis.
In surveying nearly 1,500 hiring decision makers in the U.S., they found that, “72% of hiring managers are continuing or increasing their usage of independent professionals”, and “nearly half (47%) are more likely to engage with independent talent in the future due to the crisis.”
If, due to the effects of the crisis, you now find yourself without work, if you’ve had the entrepreneur bug for a while but never really had the time or courage to pursue anything, if you’ve been struggling to grow your existing freelance business, now is the time to dig in.
This guide will give you the best tips, processes, and resources you need to get hired as a freelance marketer in 2020.
What is Freelance Marketing All About?
Freelance marketing can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For this guide, we want to provide you with answers to a few foundational questions that will help you gain a better understanding of what a freelance marketer actually does, who hires them and why, and what that engagement typically looks like.
What types of freelance marketers are there?
As you can imagine, there are a lot of specialities and skills that can fall under the big, broad umbrella of freelance marketing. There are copywriters, growth marketers, product marketers, demand gen marketers, designers, social media experts, PR professionals, account-based marketers, email marketers, app store optimizers, paid media experts/media buyers, SEO specialists, storytellers, project managers, executive-level marketers, and everything in between.
Who hires freelance marketers?
Freelance marketers are hired by companies of all sizes and across all industries. As a freelance marketer, you’re most often working with senior-level marketing employees like a marketing manager, a VP of marketing, or a CMO. If the company that hires you is really small, you may work directly with the CEO. It’s also fairly common for freelance marketers to be hired by other agencies looking to add skills or provide expertise to a client that they don’t already have on their existing team.
Why do companies need freelance marketers?
Companies typically hire freelance marketers for a few main reasons:
Reason #1: They need immediate or short-term help. Sometimes companies hire freelancers because they have an urgent, time-sensitive need. For example, a company might hire a PR specialist to help them promote a new product or to navigate a crisis. Other times, companies hire freelancers because they have a short-term project that requires an extra set of hands. For example, a company might hire a Facebook Ad expert to help them test the viability of paid social advertising for the next 90 days.
Reason #2: They have skill gaps on their existing team. Companies hire freelancers when they know they are in need of a certain specialist that they don’t currently have on their team. For example, a CMO might have a social media specialist and a copywriter on their team, but not someone who can help design and run conversion-driven email marketing campaigns.
Reason #3: Their resources are limited and they want to ramp quickly. Marketing leaders will hire freelancers when they have limited budgets, limited time, or limited headcount. Hiring a freelancer is a lot less expensive than hiring a new employee, and onboarding a freelancer can typically happen in much less time than what it takes to onboard a full-time employee.
Reason #4: They value you and your experience specifically. A lot of times, freelancers are hired because of their own reputation and personal brand. If you’re well-known in your speciality as someone who can deliver, a company will reach out because they want to benefit from your experience and knowledge as a marketer. This is why building a personal brand and engaging authentically on LinkedIn is such an important part of building a successful freelance marketing business.
Reason #5: Someone else told them to do it. More times than not, people hire freelancers because someone else told them to. Whether by an investor, a manager, a business coach, or a friend, freelancer recommendations and referrals happen all the time. This is why regularly networking with people is so important as a freelancer. You never know when someone is in need of a service you provide, and it’s in your best interest to make sure your name is the one being mentioned when the opportunity presents itself.
What does a freelance marketing engagement typically look like?
Most freelance engagements are either time-based or project-based. When you work time-based engagements, you’re typically getting paid by the hour, or you’re getting a consistent monthly retainer based on an agreed upon number of hours of work per month. When you work project-based engagements, you’re typically billing a flat fee based on the type of deliverable you’re providing.
How to Know if You’re Ready to Freelance
You know more about what freelance marketing is all about now, but how do you know if it’s the right path for you?
The truth is, there’s no perfect equation that will tell you with certainty whether or not freelancing is a career worth pursuing. There are, however, a handful of indicators that could help you feel more confident about the decision you ultimately make.
You’re ready to freelance if:
- You have deep expertise and experience in a particular area.
- You have a strong personal brand and you’re known in your industry.
- You have an active network that could refer or connect you to potential clients.
- You are comfortable working independently without much guidance.
- You can think strategically and also roll up your sleeves to do the work.
- You’re collaborative and can jump into projects quickly.
- You know what differentiates you from others who offer similar services in your industry.
- You’re willing to learn the nuts and bolts of freelancing.
- You want more freedom in your schedule.
- You want to choose the type of work you do and the people you work for.
- You have some sort of financial safety net or savings built up.
- You aren’t afraid to fail.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should get you thinking more about the possibility of becoming a full-time freelancer. If you’re still not sure, the best thing to do is to spend time reading other resources that help you evaluate your readiness. This Harvard Business Review article, for example, has a helpful questionnaire that helps you actually score your readiness. Another great way to build more confidence and decide if a freelancing career is the right move for you is to simply talk to other freelancers who have already made the jump and learn about their experiences, struggles, and wins.
Free Download: Freelance Marketing Readiness [Self Evaluation]
This 10 question evaluation will let you know if you’re ready to become a freelancer.
Setting Yourself Apart
A big part of establishing yourself as a freelancer and landing clients has to do with being able to set yourself apart from the crowd. There are two ways to do this:
First, you have to know your superpower. Your superpower is the skill or speciality that makes you unique. Your superpower is grounded in an area you’ve come to understand really well, and strengthened by your experience and your history practicing a certain set of skills for other companies and people. For example, you might be an expert at launching new iOS apps for companies. Or, you know the steps and strategy needed to 10X conversions on ecommerce product pages.
You probably already have a good idea of what your superpower is, but if you’re still on the fence, consider asking yourselves these questions that Fast Company outlined in an article about how to find your superpower:
- What feels effortless?
- How do you amaze others?
- What makes you willing to sacrifice?
- When are you fearless?
- What can you see more clearly than others?
The second way to set yourself apart once you’ve landed on your superpower is to find your niche. A niche is a focused area that allows you to serve a very specific type of client, industry, or cause. As mentioned earlier, freelance marketing could mean a lot of things. It’s very broad. Even the skill set you can provide can be challengingly broad.
For example, marketing yourself as a “freelance writer” makes it hard for you to find the right customer and hard for the right customer to find you. You’re much better off focusing on a specific niche or type of customer when building a freelance business. In our example, consider how focused things become when you position yourself not as a freelance writer, but instead as a “freelance writer serving early stage, VC-funded startups in the fitness and health industry.”
Finding your niche isn’t a perfect science, but again, you probably already have a pretty good idea of where you want to focus based on the experience you have working for other companies. If you’re still not sure, think about the following questions:
- What are you passionate about?
- Who do you want to help?
- Who is your ideal client?
- What industry or area is underserved?
- Where does the biggest opportunity lie?
- What do you want to be known for?
Landing on answers to these questions will help you focus in on the right niche, and focusing in on the right niche will make it a lot easier for you to market yourself once you’re ready to start offering your services to clients.
Knowing Your Customer
Assuming you’ve figured out your superpower and found your niche, the next step in your journey to become a successful freelancer is to know who your customer is. Knowing your superpower and niche will help you create some guardrails when it comes time to market yourself to potential clients. These guardrails will help you target a specific industry (health and fitness), a specific type of company (brand new product/service), and a specific problem (need help with customer acquisition).
Narrowing your focus in this way will help, but it won’t tell you everything about who your ideal client actually is, what they care about, or how to find them. To answer those questions, the best thing you can do is create some initial buyer personas for your business.
Marketing software giant HubSpot explains buyer personas like this:
“Buyer personas help you understand your customers (and prospective customers) better. This makes it easier for you to tailor your content, messaging, product development, and services to meet the specific needs, behaviors, and concerns of the members of your target audience.”
Buyer personas are typically built from research, surveys, and interviews with existing or ideal clients.
The goal of creating buyer personas is to first understand who your ideal clients are and how your solutions (services) align with the problems you know they have, and then formulate a plan for how to market and sell to them based on what you know or learn.
If you’ve never created buyer personas before, take a look at these buyer persona templates and best practices from HubSpot.
Building a Community
One of the biggest misconceptions about starting a business—any type of business—is that your customers will come running to you as soon as you launch. While that’s maybe possible in rare cases, like if you’re already a famous practitioner in your industry who has decided to do your own thing, it’s not the norm for most people.
Most freelance marketers have to work to attract clients, and the best way to create that attraction is by building and nurturing a community around your business.
Community is another one of those broad categories—it can mean a lot of different things in business. For the purpose of this article, here’s what we mean when we talk about building community:
Freelance marketers (and entrepreneurs) use social sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to build a community around the value they provide and the industry they serve. Building a community is a way to network with people and help them find solutions to their problems. It’s not about self promotion or selling. It’s about providing value.
There are a lot of great examples of people who have done a fantastic job creating communities based on value that you can learn from. If you’re looking for a good case study, take a look at what Refine Labs CEO Chris Walker is doing to build community with his network on LinkedIn. He makes it clear that he is not on LinkedIn to promote himself and his services. Instead, he focuses on sharing value with people and talking about real solutions to problems he knows he can help people solve, whether they hire him or not.
When you focus on building community on these social sites rather than on selling your services, you create a reputation for yourself centered on value and trust—and that’s exactly what your potential clients are looking for.
Getting Comfortable Marketing Yourself
Despite how we just ended the previous section, there is an aspect of freelancing that requires you to market yourself on some level—and you have to become comfortable doing it. Becoming a freelance marketer doesn’t just mean honing in on your superpower. It also means becoming a salesperson for yourself. You can be the best writer in the world, but it’s not going to matter much unless you can market yourself to the right clients.
It can feel uncomfortable marketing yourself to others, especially if you’re new to freelance marketing. Part of it has to do with Imposter Syndrome (which everyone deals with at some point or another), and a lot of it has to do with feeling vulnerable or afraid that you’ll fail.
Don’t let it deter you. Don’t let it distract you from building a successful business for yourself.
Get comfortable marketing the business of YOU. How do you do it? Here are a few tips:
- Be transparent about your goals and desires as a freelance marketer.
- Position yourself as a value provider.
- Get vulnerable. Talk about your wins, your failures, and your learnings.
- Know what makes you different from everyone else and tell people about it.
- Share your work and let people share your successes.
Becoming more comfortable marketing yourself will ultimately transform you into a better salesperson for your freelance business and help bring more of the right clients to your door.
Putting on the Business Owner Hat
Another aspect of freelance marketing that you need to get right from the beginning in order to be successful is the business management side of things. Most freelancers are not naturally great at managing a business (unless that’s your superpower). Most are in business because they are great at something else. As a result, it’s often the area that gets most overlooked and the least amount of attention. But managing your freelance business and doing it right from the beginning is an essential part of building something sustainable for yourself.
To succeed as a freelance marketer, you need to be able to put on your business owner hat from time to time. That means being able to do things like create proposals and contracts, send invoices, manage deadlines, file taxes, create LLCs, and more.
To make sure nothing related to the management of your business falls through the crack along the way, carve out a consistent amount of time every day or week to spend managing tasks. Put your business owner hat on, complete the tasks you need to complete, then switch back to your marketing hat. Give the right amount of time and attention to both and you’ll build a better, healthier business for yourself in the long-run.
Listening, Learning, Loving
Building a freelance marketing business is not always easy and it’s definitely not always fun. The trick is to always make sure you’re focusing on these three things:
Listen to Your Clients
Listening is crucial when you’re acting as a freelance marketer for your clients. Your clients want to feel like they are being heard and proving that you can listen and respond accordingly can help you build a stronger, more trustworthy relationship with the person paying for your expertise and advice. To be clear, listening doesn’t always mean agreeing—you can still listen to your client and come back with a different point of view or recommendation. The point of listening is to position yourself not as a transactional resource, but a strategic one.
Learn Along the Way
As a freelance marketer, you should be taking every opportunity you have to learn. You’re going to have challenging clients, you’re going to have slow seasons, you’re going to lose out on prospective clients to someone else. You can learn a lot from these situations, but you have to be open and willing to do so.
Love What You Do
Always try to see the big picture, even when things don’t seem to be going well. Try to think about what building a freelance business is enabling you to do, how far you’ve come, and how close you are to achieving your goals. It’s OK to be frustrated along the way, but don’t play in that space for too long. Be positive and keep marching forward. Don’t give up. Find the things about your business that you love, and do what you can to remember them.
Building a freelance marketing business is scary, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. You will learn more about your industry, your abilities, and yourself than you ever thought possible. If you believe it’s the right career path for you, give it a try and really go all in. You can always go back to working for someone else if it doesn’t work out, and the experience you’ll gain along the way will be invaluable to you and anyone who hires you in the future.