Self-branding and marketing basics for freelancers
By Chris Gillespie, founder of Find A Way Media
Don't just tap
Freelancers often fall victim to what psychologists call the tapping problem. It works like this.
You pair up two people and ask the first person to think of a famous song and tap out the tune. The second person has to guess the song. Inevitably, tappers get frustrated when listeners don't understand. What tappers fail to realize is that the song is only obvious because they alone can hear it in their head.
Freelancers sometimes act like tappers. They can hear the beautiful melody of how great their service is. But because it seems so obvious, they aren’t very clear in how they present themselves online. When potential clients stumble across the freelancer’s grainy, outdated website and unkempt social profiles, they pass. An opportunity is missed.
To overcome the tapping problem, you have to learn how to brand and market yourself.
Your brand is who you are
Branding and marketing are often used interchangeably, but they’re quite distinct. According to Eve Lewis, founder of the branding agency Stand Epic, “Marketing is what you say, but branding is who you are.” You can’t attract customers until you figure out your brand.
The American Marketing Association offers a few exercises to help discover your brand. Pick three companies you admire and three you don’t. What are their taglines? What do they stand for? What is their logo? Their colors? Their mission? Write down the adjectives that describe them, both the good and the bad.
Next, write those adjectives, plus 100 or so additional adjectives, on notecards. Spread them out across a table or the floor and sort them into two piles: those that describe your brand and those that don’t. Sort those that match the brand into categories. Do you see any themes? Write them down – this is the basis for your brand.
For Find A Way Media, I came up with “minimalist, credible, expert, inclusive, stimulating.” I also chose to give myself a company name to appear larger and more authoritative.
Use your adjectives to develop a branding starter pack:
- Elevator pitch - In 2-3 sentences, why should potential customers care?
- Tagline - In 2-5 words, why should potential customers care?
- Colors - For simplicity, choose a primary and secondary color that represents your brand. Look to Pinterest and Dribble for ideas.
- Logo - No need to get fancy. Many brands simply use use their name.
- A header image - It must be large enough for your website and social media accounts.
Now, instead of becoming frustrated that your potential clients don’t understand you, you can play your song loud and clear.
Next comes marketing
Once you know who you are, you can create your digital properties. Many freelancers start with a website, which is a great hub for your other marketing efforts to point back to. If you already have one, this is also a great reset.
Ask yourself: What is the purpose of my website? For most freelancers, their website won’t be driving high volumes of traffic. It will probably just host their portfolio and serve as a landing page they can direct prospects to. If this is the case for you, it’s just a digital business card. There’s no need to spend too much time or money on it. Its only job is to clearly state what you do and reassure visitors that you are credible.
The three best things a website can be:
- Professional, clean, and organized
- Low maintenance
Minimal upkeep is key. The website should require as little effort as possible. I built my first website with Wordpress and it was such a tangle of plug-ins that it broke every time it updated. I’ve since switched to Squarespace. Though it offers fewer options, I never have to touch it and it always looks beautiful.
If you’re thinking of writing a blog, remove the dates from your posts. There’s nothing that hurts your credibility like a blog that hasn’t been touched in years.
Design your website by examining others. Big brands have invested millions of dollars testing their images, buttons, and text. Visit a few sites and take notes. You’ll probably notice common themes, such as full-page header images with centered taglines and call-to-action buttons. If it’s good enough for the big guys, it’s not a bad place to start.
You may hear a lot of advice about search engine optimization (SEO). This is useful, but only up to the point that your website is the first result when prospects Google you. Most freelancers I know drive most of their business through outbound sales anyway.
Next are your social profiles. Be as consistent as possible: Use the same logo and header image across profiles. The point of a brand is that visitors always know what experience to expect from you. The more you diverge from your branding, the more you dilute your brand.
The value of your social profiles cannot be overstated. The Find A Way Media Facebook, LinkedIn, and AngelList pages rank on the first page of Google when people search for me. When you’re just starting out, you can piggyback on the high search rankings of these sites.
Find A Way Media's social profiles appear high on Google's search results.
Begin your outbound marketing
With your properties established, it’s time for outreach. Get involved in your community. Study your existing customers and find out where they get their news. If you can, submit a guest post. Ask the friends you make there for referrals or shoutouts.
Join Meetup or LinkedIn groups where potential customers are. Start conversations. Go on Quora and answer questions related to what you offer.
Learn from the responses you receive. You’ll find that self-serving comments like “Anyone need a writer?” will earn you a lot less attention and credibility than genuinely contributing to community discussions. As Teddy Roosevelt is purported to have said, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
When I post to LinkedIn groups, I always try to phrase my point as a discussion. It saves me the embarrassment of taking a hardline stance and being wrong, and encourages people to give me alternate angles on a topic that I thought I knew.
Some freelancers also run ads. These can work if they’re targeted to a niche. Narrow your audience with filters and get very specific about it. Otherwise, advertising can get pricey.
Now, sit back and relax
With clear branding and marketing, you tap a tune that your prospects can actually hear. By taking the time to condense all that you stand for into an elevator pitch, a tagline, and a logo, you’ve created a brand that accrues value over time. As you link back to your site, it builds your search ranking. And as people see you over and over in the community, the impressions will cascade into greater familiarity and ever more business.