For a freelancer in any discipline, finding new clients is usually top priority, and potentially the biggest challenge you’ll face.

This is especially true when you’ve just started out. Finding clients — and importantly, ones that pay well enough, on time — will ultimately determine how long you last as a freelancer.

For those with years of experience, retainer work, a brimming portfolio and well-established reputation, things get a bit easier. But don’t forget, everyone was in the same boat at some time in their journey.

“History is written by the victors.”

An oft-misattributed quote, it doesn’t hold true in historiography. When it comes to freelancing however, it’s certainly easier to find success stories than failures. Which brings me to the reason for this post.

I was recently contacted by a fellow freelancer in the US. She’d read my 6-month progress report and got in touch to ask for a few tips, as well as sharing her own experience (it’s an honest and engaging read — take a look).

When starting out, finding enough work to hit my minimum target income each month was a challenge. So far, I’ve only missed it in one. But don’t get me wrong, if I’d had a couple more bad months, the writing would’ve been on the wall.

I’d be back in an office, working for someone else.

Deciding where to focus your efforts isn’t easy, and I doubt many of us nail it from the get-go. Learning from mistakes is important, but when you’re a freelancer, you can’t afford too many.

There are plenty of people out there offering advice on how to make your business successful — but which do you take, and which do you ignore?

With all this in mind, I thought it would be useful to talk about what’s worked for me, and also find out what’s worked for others.

What’s Worked for Me

So far, I’ve gained new clients through networking (existing professional contacts and referral), social media and my own website.

My first port of call was pitching to people within the network I’d built up in previous employment. Telling people what I’m up to now, and keeping in touch. Word spreads, and this brings referrals.

I also focused on my website and SEO. I’m now generating organic enquiries (primarily local, which is more achievable for a new business). They’re mostly good quality, and a small number have become clients.

Here’s a breakdown of my sources of work:

  • Networking and referral 71.4% 71.4%
  • Own website 14.3% 14.3%
  • Social Media 14.3% 14.3%
With a couple of big projects currently underway, I’ve got enough work to keep me going until the new year. However, this isn’t the time to slack off — far from it!

Finding new clients to fill the void after these projects finish is something I need to think about here and now. I don’t want to rely too much on one source of work either. This is my plan:

  • Stick with and improve my digital marketing strategy, to keep leads coming in through my website.
  • Networking so far has been confined to my existing contacts and via social media. I need to get out there and show my face at some local business events.
  • Get better at using LinkedIn, and expand my connections beyond the industry I used to work in.

Anyway, that’s enough about me. How about all those other lovely freelancers out there?

What Works for Other Freelancers

What works for one freelancer might not work for another. There are a lot of factors at play. For this reason, I decided to do a survey.

Firstly on Twitter:

Secondly, on the Freelance Heroes Facebook group.

As an aside, if you’re a UK based freelancer and you’re not a member of the group, do yourself a favour and join!

It’s a fantastic little (ok, not so little) community of freelancers from all sorts of backgrounds, doing loads of awesome stuff. If you’re looking for a bit of advice and support, or feel you can offer either, it’s a great place to be.

Facebook offers a larger range of polling options (you can only choose 4 on Twitter), but here are the results:

I’ll save you the mental arithmetic — the percentages for the Facebook poll worked out as follows:
  • Networking and referral 81.1% 81.1%
  • Own Website 2.1% 2.1%
  • Social media 13.7% 13.7%
  • Directories and job sites 2.1% 2.1%
  • Externally published articles 1% 1%

We Have a Winner…

Although it’s a relatively small sample, there is a pretty clear winner across the board – networking and referral.

Technically, this category could be refined further. Nonetheless, I’ll have a stab at the reasons I think it won:

  • Freelancers, by and large, are offering services B2B. Networking has always been one of the most powerful forms of B2B selling.
  • When you started out, just like I did, you’ll have tapped into your existing professional network to get jobs.
  • If you do a good job, your clients will recommend you to people in their network. Word of mouth and referral — again, a very powerful form of B2B marketing.
  • Freelancers don’t have big marketing budgets. Digital marketing requires specialist knowledge (the time to learn it), or the money to pay someone else. Otherwise, it’s less likely to succeed.
  • Job sites and directories (think bidding platforms like Upwork) attract high competition for low-paid work. They can work (here’s a great example), but not for everyone. 

Clearly you should consider all your options to win new work. Having a variety of sources for new leads and clients will put you in a strong position.

Because digital marketing is what I do, it makes sense that I put these skills to use on my business, not just for clients.

Networking requires skills too, but of the social variety. It’s not necessarily easy, but everyone can do it.

The results suggest by focusing on networking, you’ll be on the right track.

Won’t you?

What’s Stopping You?

Even if you find prospective clients using any of the methods listed above, it’s no guarantee of success.

When I quizzed the freelancer I mentioned earlier about what was preventing her from winning new clients, she highlighted two issues; confidence and rates.

I’d be willing to bet that these are common to many freelancers, especially those new to the game. I think there are a few other obstacles to overcome too.

So, I’ve racked my brains, reflected on the issues I’ve faced, and thrown in a bit of experience from my time in sales for good measure.

Here’s a list of tips that might help if you’re struggling to find — and win — work from the kind of clients you need:

Know yourself, and be confident.

This is much easier said than done, but…

Be crystal clear about your offering and the type of clients that require your services. The more clear you are, the more believable you’ll be.

If you’re going to specialise in a niche, you need to know that there is demand, who your competitors are, and exactly who you are targeting — do your market research.

If you have a range of skills that can form a wider offering, that can work too. But, don’t spread yourself too thinly, or water down your message.

You need to be confident blowing your own horn. Trumpeting someone else’s product or service is easier than selling yourself, but as a freelancer, you’ve got to get comfortable doing it.

Beware of imposter syndrome. I’m sure most freelancers will experience it. Sure, there will be someone out there with more experience than you, or that might do a better job. It doesn’t mean you aren’t the right person for this client and their work.

Self-doubt is what keeps me on my toes. It makes me focus on providing good value, and motivates me to keep learning and improving. Embrace it and use it as a positive force.

Always be networking.

We’ve already seen (according to my admittedly non-scientific sample) that around 70-75% of freelancers see networking & referral as their main source of new clients.

Sure, some people are very good at making the other methods work. However, if you’re spending 10% of your marketing efforts networking; 40% on social media; 50% bidding for jobs on People Per Hour — and struggling to find clients — I reckon you might need to reassess.

Networking can be in person, or via social media (from my experience, LinkedIn and Twitter are best for this). All it requires is a willingness to engage with people.

You never know when a simple conversation might lead to an opportunity for work. Without a big marketing budget, it’s the most effective way to get your name and your business out there.

Network with potential partners, as well as clients. Instead of seeing other freelancers and small businesses as competitors, maybe you can learn from or support one another.

Often freelancers will pass on work if it doesn’t quite fit with their expertise or workload. Perhaps you can partner with someone that offers a different, but complimentary, service.

The bottom line is, you have to get out there. Not everyone is an extrovert, but the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

Go to events, join a group, speak to people you connect with on social media. You’ll probably find them supportive and friendly, and that they feel exactly like you do.

Get comfortable talking about money, then talk about benefits and value.

A burning question for most freelancers is — am I charging the right price for my time? It’s quite personal. The right number depends on your experience, the value you offer, and the demand for your work.

Once you understand the scope of a project, one of the first conversations to have with a potential client is about money.

Do they have a budget in mind? Do they gasp in horror when you tell them your day rate? Do they only offer 60 day payment terms to their suppliers?

There will always be someone willing to do the job for much less. The sooner you accept this, the better.

If you believe that your pricing is fair, and offers value to the client, stick to your guns. If you prefer to price a particular job by project, daily or hourly rates, explain why. Talk about your process, and why they will get a better result.

For example; think about £50 versus £350 for a page of web copy. If the latter massively outperforms the cheap option for web traffic, conversions and sales enquiries…well, you don’t have to be an entrepreneurial genius to see the value.

“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em.”

Following on from above, if the difference in your price and the client’s expectations is huge, or they don’t value what you do, walk away.

Far too much time and emotional energy can be invested in chasing lost causes. In sales lingo it’s lead qualification. In a bigger business, you might have someone else doing this for you. If you’re a freelancer, you need to recognise when to invest your time on a proposal, and when not to.

You’re better off sending out fewer quotes to well-qualified leads, than spending ages on loads of proposals you were never going to win in the first place.

If you don’t hear back from a client after you’ve quoted, don’t hide behind emails. Give them a call. When you can actually hear someone’s voice, you’ll pick up on a lot more than you would in an email.

Inevitably, setbacks are more emotive and prone to be taken personally when you are selling yourself. 99% of the time it won’t be personal. Don’t dwell — learn from it, and move on!

BUT (and this is a big but), never burn your bridges. Sometimes, they’ll come back.

Hopefully, you found some of this useful, interesting, or even better, both. If you’ve got any tips for finding those perfect clients and landing that dream project, feel free to add them in the comments.

Make Your Website Work for You — Digital Marketing Consultancy

Your website should be helping you to find new clients. If it isn’t, I think we can change that.

Drop me a message using the form below, and I’ll be in touch for a chat.

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