How freelance writers can find leads via the internet
First, become your own CEO
So, you want more leads, do you? First, let's talk about what happens if you're actually successful at finding them.
Building a freelance writing business for yourself is, well, a full time business. Amidst the obvious joys of being your own boss and working from home, there’s also a lot of administration, cost, and activities that don’t actually involve writing. To make it all work you need a plan, and it all starts with thinking of yourself as CEO of your own company.
Being the CEO means that everything is on you. Clients aren’t liking your style? You’ll have to edit. Need more clients? You’ll have to find them. Need to get your finances in order? Better hunker down and make more coffee.
That said, no one would argue with the statement that attracting new clients is oftentimes the most brutal part. Many liken it to dating. It’s extremely humbling to put yourself out there to get rejected, and to have to do it several times a week. Make no mistake however, for these trials will make you so much stronger for the wear. You’ll overcome the rejection-flu, you’ll learn to maneuver through prickly client expectations, and you’ll gain one of the most valuable life skills of all: knowing how to ask for money.
Learn to do all of that well, and there's nothing that can stand in your way. (except perhaps writer's block)
How to set about attracting new clients
Not all writers have to look for clients. Many that I've interviewed have hardly ever picked up the phone because they found theirs through contacts gained during corporate employment. There is no question that that is the most painless way to do things but for those who aren't as fortunate, or, who want more and want to build up enough income for financial freedom, you'll have to do some outreach sooner or later. This guide is for those writers. (like me)
Finding clients is a marathon, and like all marathons, you’ll do the best if you pace yourself. If you push too hard up-front hoping for a quick payout, you’ll just burn out. If you’re already tired of sending emails after the first month, buckle in because it could take six. Whatever the maximum amount of business building you think you can handle, back it down a notch and leave yourself some room for enjoyment.
In terms of attracting and landing the right clients, the best thing you can do to make yourself attractive is to specialize. I can speak to both being a writer and being an employer and I've observed that portfolios that look like a collage of writing samples from every possible industry aren’t impressive: they’re a turn-off. As an employer I want to know that you know your topic at least as well, if not better, than I do. Otherwise, I’ll have to spend more time bringing you up to speed than it would take me to simply write the piece myself. As they say, a jack of all trades is a master at none.
Take the time to find out what your speciality is and make sure that that message is consistent throughout your outreach, sample work, and portfolio.
And of course, when in uncharted waters, do as the locals do and take tips from the people whose full time specialty it attracting new customers: salespeople.
it's The sales funnel, but for writers
There’s a lot that freelancers can learn from salespeople. Salespeople know how to start conversations, where to find mutual value, and how to set up a process to keep those opportunities flowing in. I do understand that that’s a lot to take in all at once, so if you take only one page from their book, adopt their sales funnel.
Here’s how a funnel works: Leads (what you call your potential clients) move through from top to bottom (see diagram below). Each descending stage represents an increasing commitment towards doing business together. Because of budgets, timing, and the general friction of everyday life, many prospects from each stage won’t progress to the next. That’s a good thing: you’re qualifying each lead to see not only that they want to work with you but that you too want to work with them. It’s a dating process, it really is.
The real value of the funnel is that it shows you how much more work you have to do. If you're tracking how many of each of these activities you're doing and how many leads move between stages, it fully quantifies your sales effort and makes it more manageable. Once you’ve used it for a month or two, you’ll know that perhaps only 5% of leads that enter the funnel actually turn into customers, and that if you want to bring on 2 new customers, you’ll need 40 new leads. Simple as that.
It also helps for troubleshooting: If you find that you’re doing a ton of work hunting for clients and producing very little, look at how many leads are progressing through your funnel. Where do most of them get caught up and not move forward in the process? That’s where you need to focus and improve your efforts.
Now that you’ve got your funnel system and you’re feeling motivated, here’s how you can find those leads to fill it up.
4 SUREFIRE ways to find writing leads using the internet
#1: Don’t use the internet
Really? Well, sort of. You should use email, LinkedIn, and Facebook to spread the word, but asking for referrals is both timeless and by far the highest payoff for the lowest effort. Referrals are more effective because you start out highly recommended and generally get to skip most of the sales process.
Plus, everybody in your network already wants to be helpful. The only barrier to them helping, of course, is them knowing. You’ll have to spread the word. This takes more than a one-off LinkedIn post (likely less than 5% of your network will see any given one). Instead, you should run an ongoing campaign and post weekly. Make your posts short, sweet, and to the point. Tell people how they can help and thank them in advance. Make a shortlist of those who are the most likely to know someone, and message them directly. Have lunch with old coworkers and get back in touch with old friends and family and let them know what you’re doing now. Once you have clients, ask them for referrals as well. My first client referred me four others.
#2: Freelancing sites
Referrals will get you started but alas, they’re not always enough. The next place you should go is to create profiles on freelancing sites like Freelancer, UpWork, and Fiverr. Of those three, pick one. I chose UpWork because of its former reputation but it seems to have gone downhill as of late
Freelancing sites require their own and unique strategy, and they require some thick skin. They’re awash with hustlers, lowballers, and cheapskates. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy ever.” And yet, buried within their depths, you can find actual companies posting actual projects that you want to work on. I found my first true client here through a post that didn’t look all that credible.
Focus on filling out your profile as effectively and impressively as possible so that once you get things rolling, this will become a passive stream of leads. You want people reaching out to you and the less time you have to spend on the platform, the better. I highly recommend creating a business profile as well, which allows you to peek at the profiles of top freelancers who command $100 per hour or more. There’s an acronym for what you do next: CASE, short for "copy and steal everything." Kidding. But seriously. You want to model your profile after the best, including a high quality photo. (but not their photo)
With all of this set up, go forth and search for jobs. Be highly discriminating in your filtering, but also know that beggars can't afford to be choosers. The best way to get the leads flowing is to take any short-term project on which you can be sure to exceed expectations. Once you have high ratings from several low paying clients, you’ll then want to start raising your prices and finding real clients.
- Lead with saying that you’re a native English speaker. Most applicants aren’t, and it’s your killer advantage.
- Hand-write every note. It’s obvious when it’s copy-pasted.
- Include relevant work, always. If you don’t have relevant work, write something yourself on LinkedIn Pulse and reference it.
- Take clients offline. While highly discouraged, take clients off the platform and have them pay you on PayPal. These sites' fees are too high to be worth your time.
#3: Content marketing (aka free advertising)
Once you have leads flowing in from referrals and freelancing sites, it’s time to start building your business in earnest. Content marketing in this case simply means getting your writing in front of the people who you want to hire you. Pick a shortlist of publications relevant to your field which your prospects will likely visit and start reaching out to the editors introducing yourself and asking to collaborate on some projects. Send some pitch ideas, and find your way into getting published with a byline. The first two words of your profile bio should say “Freelance writer” and should include a link back to your portfolio where there’s a way for them to get in touch with you.
Here are some examples of articles that earned me new leads:
The same process works on LinkedIn Pulse, Medium, or niche forums, but unless you spend a lot of time cultivating a huge following, you’re mostly just broadcasting to people who already know you. Publications will give you much wider reach.
#4: Donate your writing
This is one that you’ll only have time for once the money is already coming in, but it’s an excellent strategy for winning higher value clients. The idea is to create relationships by giving your work away for free on a limited basis. This gets your foot in the door, and leads to fruitful paid partnerships.
There are two ways to go about this: Either you can donate your writing to non-profits, or your can donate your writing to for-profit publications. For the non-profits, you demonstrate high-value altruism by offering to write for them and (hopefully) will attract the attention of the non-profit’s board of directors. You see, any writing you do for them is going to be customer facing and thus highly visible and will probably be reposted by the company’s executives. If they notice you, it’s highly likely that they also serve on the boards of other for-profit companies that also need writers, and doors will open.
On the for-profit side of things, you’re essentially giving away free publicity in order to make friends. You’ll want to come up with some pitches for articles that relate to clients that you’re interested in. For example, if you want to write for a travel app, devise pitches on how technology is changing international travel. Pitch these ideas to a publication like Outside Magazine (this is often the longest and hardest part of this process) and when they give you the thumbs up, reach out to executives at the travel app and ask for an interview. Explain that you’re a writer and contributor to that publication and that you’d be happy to mention them in a favorable light. It’s rare for them to turn down free publicity, and you get an uninterrupted half an hour or so where you can hopefully cement a relationship.
Putting it all together
So what have we covered here today? Quite a lot:
- Freelancing only works if you realize you're running a business
- Successful businesses use a sales funnel
- To find the leads to fill your sales funnel, look to:
- Freelancing sites
- Content marketing
Together, these are the nucleus of the strategy that I used to build my incipient media company and if I can do it, heck, anyone can.
Was there anything that I missed?