How can you market yourself when you’re not a marketing professional?

As a freelancer your ‘specialist subject’ could possibly be marketing, which is handy, but it’s just as likely to be IT, writing, photography, design, software development or whatever. At any rate, the reality is that freelancers can’t afford marketing consultants, and if you’re not one, how on earth do you market your own services?

Every freelancer has to be a marketing manager by default, as well as doing the day job. But most freelancers hate the thought of having to ‘do marketing’, especially when what they are marketing is themselves! So the question is, what do you need to do to change yourself from someone who, on a bad day, might even consider handing out business cards at a funeral, into someone who can double their rates and still have to turn business away?

The good news is there is no such thing as a born salesman or saleswoman. Freelancers who market their skills effectively generally achieve this through believing in what they sell, and through knowing how it can benefit their clients. It does take a certain amount of resilience, but your enthusiasm and your knowledge will shine through in the end.

We’ve put together some tips to help other freelancers:

1. Choose your clients

Pave the way to easier client wins by targeting industries that you have existing knowledge of, or have had previous success in. You’re already armed with some knowledge and you can demonstrate how you’ve helped similar clients, so you’re already ahead of the game. Better still, if these clients have project types that you particularly enjoy working on, well, enthusiasm is always a client-winner! On the flip side learn when and how to say ‘no’ to a client that you don’t feel is right for you.

2. Hidden opportunities

If you need to cast the net wider, then keep your ear close to the ground on what’s happening in your local economy. Are some sectors growing faster than others? Have any local companies landed a big order they may wish to shout about? Have they made acquisitions, merged or simply moved to larger offices? All these give you a reason to get in contact and you’ll stand out if you congratulate them on their recent success and ask if you can help them with their PR, or marketing, or corporate literature.

3. Communicate

This seems glaringly obvious, but it’s still something that many people get wrong. As soon as you become aware of a potential business opportunity you need to make contact, let them know you exist and that you can do the job. If there’s more information they need and you have to go away and find out, make sure you get back to them quickly, and when you said you would. This works because clients want to use freelancers who make their lives easier, they don’t want to have to chase you. So if you are responsive and go the extra mile to provide more information than they asked for, you immediately stand out.

4. Build your case

With new clients, the ‘value’ of a piece of work is not just about the job itself and your talents in producing it. Perceived value is also in the service you offer and how you provide it - including the levels of communication, the ease of doing business with you and the benefits you can bring to the client. If the client gets on well with you from the start then they are more likely to be mentally in favour of using your services before price is even discussed.

This relationship development can be achieved by doing your homework before you meet them, taking time to ask questions about their business, listening to what they’re looking to achieve and then selecting anecdotes and examples of past situations to demonstrate how you fit their need. The important part here is to really listen, and then to tailor your response (e.g. two ears and one mouth - used in proportion!). You should elaborate not only on your relevant skills, but also on your customer service mentality, whist also demonstrating a general snapshot of how you service clients to high levels. Avoid the bog standard ‘sales pitch’ where you tell the client everything you’ve done, who you are and how you started – they’re only really interested in what you can do to benefit them.

Once you have developed that rapport, their decision will not be made solely on price but instead on an understanding of your overall value to the project. By the time you get to the fine detail, the conversation should then be more about ‘when can you start?’ rather than ‘how much do you charge?’

5. Know when to change tack

If you’re managing to get in front of the client but repeatedly failing to win immediate business, then ask for feedback. If you can keep your disappointment in check, pick up the phone and ask for pointers. Most clients are human enough to understand you need some guidance if you’re going wrong somewhere. It does mean swallowing your pride somewhat, the but by gaining knowledge of any weaker areas of your pitch, you’ll be able to put them right and turn them into strengths. This is where you will need some resilience, see ‘not getting your foot in the door immediately’ as ‘finding out which methods don’t work’.

6. Get your rates right

Millions have been spent trying to understand the psychology of pricing and one thing those researchers have learned is that without realising it, people automatically assume that if something is expensive there must be a reason for it. If you price yourself at the bottom of the market may be doing yourself a huge disservice, as prospective clients look at someone who is cheaper than their competitors and think, “they must be bad, or they wouldn’t be so desperate for work they are prepared to charge such low rates.”

Even if you win new business by charging low rates, you tend to end up with a set of clients who are more concerned with price rather than quality, who won’t value your work and who are likely to beat you down on price at every opportunity since they see you in the ‘cheap’ mindset. So, even if you don’t feel comfortable setting your rates at a higher-than-average level, be careful about going too low as well.

Finally, don’t take on speculative work – e.g. working for nothing or pitching for free. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that working on spec will give your client an idea of your skills, and they will then be happy to work with you. But instead all it does is reduce the perceived value of what you do. If you’re prepared to ‘give it away’, why should they pay for it? If someone requests speculative work, refuse politely, but tell them you would of course be willing to discuss their concerns, should there be any, after the job is done (but before invoicing) if they are not happy with the finished item in any way. Know your strengths and be ready to demonstrate them during a negotiation.

7. Getting client commitment

Closing the deal is a hard thing to do and goes right back to the initial comment about freelancers generally being bad at marketing, which can lead on to being even worse sales people! If you’ve ever had any involvement in sales training, even from the sidelines, you’ll know that the one thing which gets said over and over again is ‘ask for the sale’.

At some point in your communication, you have to ask whether you have won the business or not, and ideally this should be at the end of a meeting, assuming it went well. If you walk away and wait for the call or the email it may never come. Not because you weren’t good, but because the potential customer got distracted by the day-to-day, or even got talked into seeing another candidate because they perceived themselves to be ‘still looking’. So, at the end of a meeting, aim to agree the next stage, aim for some commitment if they can’t shake on the deal at that point.

If you’re targeting a new client, you might find ways to minimise their risk in using you for the first time. For instance, if your business model is based around charging up-front for the first project with a new client then you could offer a ‘money back guarantee’. So charging for the job as normal, but giving a written undertaking that, should they not be happy with the work immediately afterwards, you will refund the charge. It shows the client that you are willing to share the risks of a new relationship until your worth is proved, but also makes it that much harder for them not to pay you, as to get their money back they have to physically request it.

8. Nurture happy clients

Let’s face it, winning new clients from scratch is hard work, and costly. So make sure you also focus on ongoing relationship development with existing and past clients. Showing appreciation for their business in a creative way needn’t be expensive. Little things like ‘thank you for your payment’ postcards give further opportunity to showcase your work on the front, whist also appearing thoughtful.

Ask for feedback when you’ve finished a job. You could ask them to specify how you fared in different areas such as how easy, how fast or how convenient working with you actually was. How pleasurable was the total experience of doing business with you? You can also ask for specifics on the quality of the product you actually delivered, as this will identify any areas you could brush up on. If clients say you exceed expectations in several areas then tell your prospects!

Clients already nurtured are much more likely to give you repeat business. Remind them of your services, not only the ones they already know you offer, but also any other additional services they may be unaware that you offer.

But it doesn’t stop there. Existing clients will know many other people, be they colleagues, family or friends who may also need your freelance services. Word of mouth referrals come pre-qualified as they already know what you can do. So keep communication lines open with existing clients, ask if you can leave some business cards and be open about wanting referrals.

Freelance UK would like to thank Gill Taylor of for her contributions to this article.


6th December 2007

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