How to Get New Freelance Clients When Marketing Feels Overwhelming

Austin L. Church
April 29, 2020
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Marketing a freelance business can be tough—so tough, in fact, that most freelancers simply don’t.

This situation may sound familiar to you: You REALLY need to drum up some new projects and cashflow. With all of the strategies and tactics available, it’s hard to know where to put your focus. Should you post more on Instagram, cruise job boards, or dig into LinkedIn? A twinge of desperation drives your activity, and like a manic hummingbird, you buzz from tactic to tactic without ever maximizing a single one.

On the other hand, when you’re flush with freelance work, your logic goes like this: “I can barely keep up with my client work. I have no time for marketing. Once things slow down a little, I’ll pick it back up.”

Surprise! Neither of these approaches is best. In this post, I will explain how to get new freelance clients. This is the step-by-step process I am currently rolling out, and you can use my checklist and templates for free.

Don’t have time to read the full post? Download the .zip file with the checklist and tools right here.

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How to Get New Freelance Clients

The long-term goal is to break out of freelance feast-or-famine, and to do that, you must always carve out time for marketing. Let me repeat: ALWAYS.

I cannot think of a single freelancer or consultant who, without any effort at all, sits on a giant pile of leads like a smug King of the Hill champion. Everyone has to work at this. No matter how valuable your expertise or skillset, you must still go get in the way of opportunity.

The first essential piece of freelance marketing advice I try to instill in my coaching clients is this: “The best time for marketing is when you’re too busy for marketing.”

Never expect for great projects to fall in your lap. Always be marketing. Despite the health crisis and economic upheaval we currently face, now is the time get out of your comfort zone and be proactive. Go find opportunities.

You can make marketing more manageable by thinking in terms of three concentric circles, nested one inside the other, and setting priorities accordingly.

Circle #1. Maximize relationships you already have.

Our current relationships often create our best opportunities. With that in mind, you can cross off these steps first:

  1. Follow up with every single lead you have.
  2. Reach out to everyone who has hired you in the last 24 months. Check in with past clients and even the prospects who didn’t hire you and say hi. If you need a creative way to get in touch, read this post about creative ways to follow up with past clients and silent prospects.
  3. Be very attentive to paying clients you do have. They may be scared or anxious. They make talk about canceling your contract. They may pause the projects you were discussing. (This has certainly happened to me.) Regardless, be kind. When the first wave of this craziness has passed, your freelance clients and prospects will remember your patience and empathy.
  4. Do your best to not slip into a scarcity mindset. I know it’s scary out there. Taking my head trash to the curb is now a daily chore. I practice gratitude each morning. If panic starts to bubble up inside of me, I have to acknowledge my emotions and feel all the feelings. I must fight for optimism. I pray, plant myself in the truth, and get back to work—not because I’m oblivious to what is going on around me but because I must focus on what I can do and control, not what I cannot.
  5. Go through the 20 Stories exercise and see if you’re sitting on some marketing strategies or repeatable processes for getting new leads.

Circle #2. Connect with agencies and strategic partners.

One of the industries that gets hit the hardest in any recession is marketing and advertising. Agencies will be doing lots of layoffs, yet they will still need help fulfilling the projects they get.

Some agency owners find it less awkward and more comfortable to collaborate with new freelancers rather than rehire their ex-employees as freelancers. Go get in the way of opportunity:

  1. Make a list of 20-50 agencies near you.
  2. Send an email or a video message to each agency principal. Structure your messages like this:
  • Introduce yourself quickly in one or two sentences.
  • State why you are reaching out and why you think the agency is cool or interesting.
  • Mention one portfolio project of theirs that you admire and why you admire it.
  • Explain how your skillset could fit into the mix, and how you could see the relationship working.
  • Ask a question: “Do you all currently have any projects where you could use someone with my expertise?”
  • End with something fun or upbeat: “I appreciate your taking the time to read this far, and as a small token of my gratitude, here is the best joke I’ve heard recently….”
  • Be sure to include your LinkedIn profile link and website link (specifically, your Work or Portfolio page” after your signature.

Circle #3. Find new prospects.

Whenever you’re not sure how to get new freelance clients, I encourage you to think of marketing as a pocket with two marbles inside of it. One marble is starting new relationships and the other is spreading the word.

When we human beings aren’t confident in our knowledge of a subject or pursuit, we overcomplicate it. Freelancers who don’t understand marketing come up with these awful contortions and conundrums for a simple concept.

When you need more freelance work, get to know new people and tell them about the problems you solve for your clients. That, my friends, is marketing.

For the sake of clarity and a smidgen of humor, these activities don’t count as marketing:

  • Sitting on your hands.
  • Hopping on Insta to see what funny TikTok videos Bachelor and Bachelorette alumni are sharing.
  • Thinking about, talking about, or researching marketing
  • Looking at marketing out of the corner of your eye and wondering where your next project is coming from

Marketing (that is, connecting with new people and telling them about the problems you solve) is something you have to go do. Here's the relationship-starting strategy I am using right now:

  1. Target a specific recession-resilient niche or vertical. For example, companies that facilitate e-learning and remote work are growing, not shrinking, right now. For my marketing and branding studio Balernum, I’ll be targeting new relationships with founders and marketing directors in the hunting, fishing, outdoor, gear, and adventure space. I enjoy doing all those things already, and as international travel slows down, my hunch is that people will spend more time (and more money) on recreation in their own backyards. I believe many outdoor and direct-to-consumer brands will grow this year, not shrink, so I’m skating to where the puck is going to be, Wayne Gretzky style.
  2. Assemble a list of 50 prospects. I'm a fan of right-sizing goals, and it's not realistic for me to start new relationships with 500 companies or brands. I'm shooting for 50 instead. I used Instagram to find brands that seem to share Balernum’s brand-first philosophy, and I also asked Facebook friends to share their favorite outdoor brands. My reasoning is that I will find it easier to sell my team's talent to companies that ALREADY VALUE what we offer.
  3. Track relationships in a GSheet. I have used Pipedrive in the past, but with this new experiment, I'm using a simple spreadsheet to track my progress. My GSheet includes first and last name, organization/company, job title, email address, LinkedIn profile link, Twitter handle, Instagram handle, notes, and dates when I have made contact. You can get the template for free at the bottom of this post.
  4. Brainstorm a bunch of different "touches" and add them to the spreadsheet. A "touch" is some form of interaction. For example, I might visit a new person's LinkedIn profile. That's one touch because lots of people get notified by LinkedIn when people visit their profiles. Another touch would be replying to a tweet. Another would be liking an Instagram post, commenting on a LinkedIn post, or even sending a private/direct message. You catch my drift. I have created a huge list of creative ways to interact with prospects, and you can also get that list at the end of this post.
  5. Put in 15-20 "touches" and track the dates in the spreadsheet. Slowly but surely, you will progress from being a stranger to being familiar.
  6. Make the ask. In this case, with starting new relationships, the ask is simply a short phone or video call. When I do eventually send an email or email a link to a video message, I'm not Mr. Random Alpha-Sales-Predator. I'm that friendly, helpful guy who has been popping up on the person's radar a lot recently. Hopping on a quick call is an enjoyable, not risky, prospect.
  7. Look for opportunities to help and create value. I'm not shoe-horning myself into a prospect's company or life. My team and I have valuable skills, and founders and online creators really need our help. One or two conversations should be enough to determine whether or not right now is a good time to discuss how Balernum may intersect with the prospect's needs and goals. If there is an opportunity and a natural fit for both of us, then that will become evident. And if there’s not a fit, or if now isn’t a good time, I will simply keep in touch.
  8. Keep in touch. If I have learned one thing about sales, it's that sales cycles vary. (“Sales cycles”? Yay! Sales jargon!) A sales cycle is how long it takes you to go from cold to sold. ("Ugh. When is this awful Austin character going to stop already?!”) How long does it take to start a new relationship, get to know a new prospect and gain trust, pinpoint needs you can fill, create a proposal, negotiate the pricing, finalize the agreement, and get the deposit payment? The timeline varies. I have closed new projects in less than 24 hours (that guy was REALLY ready), and I've had other prospects finally become clients after 24 months. The persistent bird gets the worm. So keep in touch.
  9. Treat this as an experiment. The only way any freelance marketing experiment can truly fail is if you learn nothing from it. Experiments are simply meant to teach you whether or not your hypothesis was true or false. To formulate my hypothesis, I will answer these two questions: 1) “What do I expect to happen?” and 2) “What do I expect to learn?” My hypothesis will go something like this: “I expect to form 50 new relationships over 6 months, to book 3 calls, and to generate $20,000 in new consulting work.”
  10. Measure and time-box the experiment. A prospecting strategy like this one is truly an experiment. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s okay. I’m going to pay close attention to the timeline and results. If it's challenging to start new relationships and start a conversation with a new prospect, then I may need to pivot to a new vertical or niche. Or, if it’s easy to get the conversation, but those conversations lead nowhere, then I may need to pivot. Or, if I don't enjoy the work or the freelance clients in this niche as much as I thought, then I may need to pivot. Regardless, I need to measure everything along the way and designate a cut-off date. When will I take a step back, crunch the numbers, write down my findings and insights, and decide to keep going or find a new strategy? Three to six months seems like a realistic timeframe for running this experiment.

Measure your progress backward.

Whatever you do, don’t keep running your freelance business as though nothing has changed. Much has changed. Even after COVID-19’s viral growth curve flattens, it’s doubtful that life will snap back to the pre-pandemic status quo.

Now is the time to streamline your freelance business, take more calculated risks, and learn new ways to get new freelance clients. Why not set some new goals too?

In The Gap And The Gain, Dan Sullivan shares the secret to effective goal setting: “The way to measure your progress is backward against where you started, not against your ideal.”

One last thought in closing… Getting new freelance clients may be really important, but don’t let the importance rob you of the fun. When you have fun with your freelance marketing, you will see better results.

I told you that I’d give the .zip file with the checklist and tools. To get the goods, put in your email address, and I’ll send you the download link.

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