Let me clear something up before we get started.
This isn’t another “6-figures in sixty days” blog post promising a “winning formula” to “make money while you sleep.”
I know the online world is filled with entrepreneurs who have achieved an automated revenue stream. And I ain’t knocking that. But I’m not there yet. And that’s not what this post is about.
Today, I’m giving you real insights from the POV of a freelancer who, in the span of 12 months, went from the worst possible place – that is, earning pennies per word (shudder) – to a pretty great place: reliably earning thousands per project.
I don’t sell eBooks, courses or webinars.
I don’t wake up to find new affiliate income in my PayPal account.
My email list is woefully underutilized.
My strength as a freelancer isn’t squeezing cash out of my website.
My strengths – and what Joanna’s asked me to tell you about today – are in:
- knowing precisely the type of work I’m passionate about,
- focusing like a hawk on attracting only the kind of client I want to work with, and
- being where my target customer can find me the instant they need me.
If you’re a freelancer, creative, remote worker, consultant or coach, I’m going to give you ideas on how you can immediately add strategy to your self-promotion. So you can keep your pipeline full – and, hey, sometimes overflowing – with work you get paid well for. So you can stop stressing about winning your next project or client.
But first: a little story about Wonder Woman. Because of course.
One of the most exciting things to emerge from this year’s annual celebration of Geekdom known as ComicCon is the trailer for the new Wonder Woman movie:
The video immediately went viral on Facebook. As I eagerly clicked the link, my inner eight year-old crossed her fingers and prayed: “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please don’t suck…”
I held my breath as I watched Diana, Amazon Princess, discover the world of men.
And then she discovered the world of office work.
And that was when I stood up at my desk, pumped my fists and yelled “YAAAAASSSS!”
What prompted me to such a triumphant outburst?
Diana (Wonder Woman’s alter ego, for the non-fanboys/girls in the house) – who has never lived in a patriarchal society – asks a 1940’s secretary what she does.
After a quick explanation that it’s the secretary’s job to do anything her boss asks her to do or she’ll get fired, Diana says:
“Where I come from, we call that slavery.”
If you’ve ever felt the need to do pretty much anything an employer or a client asks you to do out of desperation to keep your gig, gimme a “YAAAAAASSSS!!!”
Whether you’re a freelancer, a digital nomad or a remote worker, feeling desperate to please your client/boss – despite your professional reservations – is a sign that you don’t have mastery of your career yet. If you’re feeling concerned about where your next job is coming from, it’s a sign that you don’t have mastery of your career yet.
It’s a sign that you are one of the 42 million skilled workers that love self-employment or location independence… but live in financial uncertainty.
It’s a sign that you’ve yet to join The Freedom Economy.
This article, my friend, is your invitation to stop living gig-to-gig…
…and start making a career in response to the growing demand for freelancers, consultants, coaches and remote knowledge workers. But first:
WTF Is The Freedom Economy?
As defined here, The Freedom Economy is:
“a growing movement of self-reliant, creative, and ambitious women and men of all ages – freelancers, entrepreneurs, artists, and contract workers – who’ve declared independence from the corporate world.”
Other publications, like Fast Company and Forbes, have described this change in the workforce landscape as “The Freelancer Economy.” But that term doesn’t take into account the 27 million entrepreneurs in the U.S.
If you want to distinguish the difference between freelancer and entrepreneur, look no further than freelancing philosopher Seth Godin, who says:
“The goal of a freelancer is to have a steady job with no boss, to do great work, to gradually increase demand so that the hourly wage goes up and the quality of gigs goes up too. The goal of the entrepreneur is to sell out for a lot of money, or to build a long-term profit machine that is steady, stable and not particularly risky to run. The entrepreneur builds an organization that creates change.”
Whether you consider yourself a freelancer or an entrepreneur, you’ve made the decision to be an independent worker instead of an employee.
You’re not alone in your decision by a long shot: as more tech platforms support remote work and as demand increases for independent workers, less people feel the need to anchor themselves to a corporate overlord. At last count, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 15.2 million Americans describe themselves as self-employed – and that’s not including the millions of side-hustlers who run their own business or freelance part-time. Freelancers Union reports an astounding 53 million Americans are doing freelance work.
And we’re just at the beginning of a Hustle Tsunami. A study by financial software giant Intuit predicts that, by 2020, over 40% of the workforce will consist of contract workers.
Over 40% of the workforce.
(Your mom may not believe in your “job” today. But soon her friend Sue’s spectacularly clever daughter will go freelance – and won’t you look smart?)
If you’re not living the freelance life yet, chances are high that you will be a free agent or run your own business in the next five years, like these folks:
And if you know how to proactively respond to the increasing demand for independent workers by laying down the basics of an inbound marketing strategy, this could be a Very Good Thing.
How The Freedom Economy Overthrows the Slavery of Gig-Dependent Work
In a recent report by Spera (which you can download here), over 120 freelancers, entrepreneurs, and digital nomads surveyed described their motivations to leave (or never join) the corporate world. Here were their findings:
“Contrary to what some may think, independent workers are making an affirmative choice to enter the Freedom Economy. This decision is not a response to job challenges or a lack of options. They are choosing when, where, on what, with whom, and for how much they will work. They enjoy calling their own shots, and having more control of their own financial destiny. “
When you’re a part of The Freedom Economy, you become “gig-independent.” That is, as an independent worker, you aren’t waiting for the business to come to you, nor do you feel obligated to produce unpaid “spec” work to vie with competition for a client (a la 99designs or UpWork): you create your own work and go after the clients you want to work with through strategic positioning and super-targeted marketing.
How to Stand Out In the Freedom Economy
It’s all well and good to talk the talk, but do I walk the walk? Listen to my story and decide for yourself:
I started out as an anonymous copy mill worker who scribbled out cheap SEO content for 2 cents per word while my kids slept. Oh, and don’t forget the commission the copy mill took on each sale of a project.
Luckily, I had a few happy clients who let me know that I was worth more.
Once I realized that there were freelance bloggers who made AT LEAST $100 per post, I knew I had a career to build.
So I studied the marketplace.
I subscribed to the best digital marketing blogs I could find (including Copy Hackers – thanks, Jo!) and followed their advice on social media, influencer outreach and content marketing strategies.
From my decade of B2B sales experience, I understood the importance of defining one’s Unique Selling Proposition (USP). So I developed mine:
“story-based copywriting for B2B”
By the time I launched my website, I had already booked my first client: a digital marketing strategist who found me on Twitter because of my “storytelling for B2B” content. And he taught me that I was charging waaaaay too low per hour for what I did. No, seriously: my client told me to charge him more per hour.
Then came my first startup client, who found me through targeted Google ads. I learned that I LOVED working with founders. I wrote a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign for them, and it ROCKED.
Then came my first social enterprise client: Shereef Bishay, founder of Dev Bootcamp and Learners Guild. (Editor’s note: Shereef is the ultimate giver. He’s the entire reason Copy Hackers was born.) Shereef came to me thanks to a post I wrote for Copy Hackers. I discovered that while freelance content writing was my calling, content writing with a mission to change the world was my passion.
In the past year and a half since leaving the copy mill, I’ve never had a dry spell, and I’ve never had to pitch for work.
My work has come to me from paid ads, social media, discussion groups and referrals – but never from a job site
And I don’t take every client who comes to me. In fact, I now have a pre-written email for potential clients that I don’t think would be a good fit.
So am I living in the Freedom Economy? YAAASSSSS!
Is it because I’m an extraordinarily talented writer or incredibly lucky?
Well, I’m sure talent has something to do with it. But there are multitudes of writers more talented than me out there right now who struggle to get work. I consider myself blessed to have worked with some amazing clients, but trust me: I’ve had my share of jerk clients, too. (I call them learning opportunities.)
No, it’s not because I’ve been sprinkled with magical talent dust. It’s because I knew:
- What I loved to do,
- What made me different,
- Whom I wanted to work with, and
- How to be where they were looking for help.
Now it’s time for you to start living in the Freedom Economy, too. (There’s plenty of room!)
Here are some steps you can take to seize control over the direction of your career – and enjoy the liberation of choosing who you want to work with.
1) Identify Your Core Offer to the T.
Read this Upwork profile to see if you understand why you should hire this fellow:
So. What does he do?
What makes him different from the 10,000+ other designers on Upwork?
Name one thing that makes him different. Just one. Just one.
He doesn’t seem to know what makes him different. And, as a result, we sure don’t. As well-intentioned as this chap may be with his profile, it seems he does everything and nothing at all.
When you’re telling people why they should hire you: Get. Specific.
(I’m really passionate about this, so forgive me if I get a little all-caps-y in this section.)
Unless you have an ENORMOUS marketing budget and can afford to buy every Google Adword related to your field, being a jack-or-jill-of-all trades doesn’t cut it anymore.
There are 94 kajillion people out there who describe themselves as web designers or copywriters or jewelry makers or life coaches or financial consultants. What’s your THING? Once you know what your thing is, then you communicate your thing.
First let the client come to you for a specific project because YOU’RE THE GUY/GAL WHO DOES THAT THING.
Then let them discover how versatile you are as you further nurture your relationship with them.
Lemme show you why.
Here’s what a Google search for “freelance website designer” looks like:
The top unpaid spots are mostly from job posting sites.
So if you describe yourself as a “freelance website designer,” you’re in competition with every web designer in the universe. And the big ol’ bizzes with teams dedicated to ranking better than you do for everything you’d love to rank for.
Now let’s get a bit more specific with our search. We’re looking for “freelance wordpress designers”, and we get:
Okay, so the first couple of paid spots are job sites again, but whatevs.
Look at number 1 and number 3 in the organic results: those are individual human beings.
It’s easier and more affordable to compete against individual human beings than enormous companies like Upwork. But it also takes time and volumes of tightly optimized content to get those spots at the top of your industry.
More on that in a sec.
2) Identify Your Dream Client… and Put Them Front-n-Center in Your Website Copy
Here’s the good news: Jay Halfling and Tracey Rickard – as individual human beings – can only take on so much freelance work.
Once their project schedule is full, they’ll have the good fortune to turn potential clients away… which brings those potential clients back to a Google search. Since said client hasn’t had luck booking the first two results under “freelance WordPress web designer”, they use even more specific keywords.
They’re getting more specific.
So you should, too.
You’ve already described what you do. Now it’s time to describe whom you want to work with. Specifically.
Who’s your ideal client? Figuring this out can be a fun exercise, especially if you’re not prone to negative self-talk (e.g., “I’d love to write theatre playbills, but those jobs are already taken, I’m sure”).
These guys know who they want to work with and aren’t afraid to let the world know about it:
You could focus based on:
- The geographical area you serve – maybe you wanna stay close to home?
- The type of business – B2B, ecommerce, government, education
- The age of business – “early stage” or funded or mature
- The industry – health, beauty, fitness, tech, online training, adult diapers
- A preferred zodiac sign
Whatever the descriptor, it’s something that ultimately describes the client you want to work with. The more detailed the better. And you can express it as a keyword phrase, like:
Look how Upwork-free this search for “freelance wordpress web designer for B2B” is.
This is the point when someone typically asks me,
“But won’t I turn other potential clients away if I’m too specific?”
Push fears of alienating potential clients to the side: you can’t be all things to all people.
Trying to serve the masses is a waste of energy. And you need that energy. You need it to attract work you love – instead of scrambling to grab gigs that just pay the bills.
When I started out, my business card said, “Alaura Weaver, Freelance Writer.”
And sometimes I got projects that I felt excited about.
Now my business card says this:
And every project I take on makes me feel like I’m part of something I actually want to be part of.
If being too specific has alienated jerk clients who were looking for a cheap, copy-slinging order-taker, then I’ll take being too specific every time. And if you need help identifying your target client, here’s a guide to creating a laser-focused Customer Profile that will act as a springboard for the rest of your marketing efforts.
3) Research Your Client’s Influencers and Follow Trends (Without Being Too Trendy)
As an expert in your field, you probably keep up with all the biggest blogs and latest trends in your industry.
But when was the last time you delved into the world of your client?
I’m not talking about running an ad in a trade magazine or putting up a booth at a trade show or vendor fair. I’m talking about the everyday interactions your client has with the digital world: their Facebook groups and other online discussion boards, their favorite blogs and social media hangouts.
I’m not saying you should stalk your client, I’m just kinda saying you should… stalk… your… client.
- Read, Follow & Join – Finding the most popular blogs and communities in your niche is a Google search away. You can also use BuzzSumo to find the most-shared content and most-followed social media profiles according to keyword. For example, I pretended I was a wedding planner who specializes in “theme weddings for geeks”, so I searched for “geek brides and weddings” and here are the BuzzSumo results:
- Don’t Promote, Listen – This isn’t the time to start pitching your wares as a blog commenter or sending cold DMs on Twitter. As a member of several Facebook groups for women business owners, I can tell you that having someone random busting in on the convo to peddle her Jamberry party is not only unwelcome – it’s grounds for banning. This is the time to understand your target client’s needs, wants and problems so when they finally find you, you’re going to offer exactly what they’re looking for.
- Collect Common Questions and Phrases – When you see phrases that keep coming up as your target clients seek advice, copy and paste them into a Google Doc, and presto: you’ve got material for great blog topics and sales copy. (Joanna shows you how here.)
Take a look at this to see what I mean:
If Valentina K has this question, chances are more people will have the same one. And that makes for a perfect opportunity for you – if you’re a freelance accountant or small business attorney – to write up a blog post on taxes and business structure in Washington state, post it and share it with the world… and with Valentina.
4) Create & Curate Valuable Content That Speaks To Your Client’s Needs
As mentioned before, the keyphrases and questions you can swipe from blog comments and discussion group convos are ripe for content generation. But don’t only promote your own content. Share articles and videos from influencers that will be of genuine value to your client.
Delightfully salty copywriter/business coach Ash Ambridge of The Middle Finger Project has content curation down to a science. Every Monday, she sends out a tally of her favorite links along with hysterical commentary that makes them irresistible to click. It’s like having a kooky BFF (with a gutter mouth and a fondness for hard liquor) that you’ve never met sending awesome stuff you can’t wait to post on Facebook or Twitter.
The thing is, Ash GIVES and only asks for little things from her subscribers every so often: a share here, a click there, a couple downloads sprinkled in…
..and when something big happens, like getting a book deal, you can’t help but feel like you’re along with her for the book-publishing journey, so you can’t HELP but want to buy the book when it comes out.
Use the 80/20 rule: eighty percent of the content you share should be curated from other sources, twenty percent should be self-generated.
If you need help finding tools so you can easily find and post the most relevant content for your clientele, our buddies at SumoMe have put together a handy-dandy guide to content curation. My personal favorites from their list:
- Using YouTube as a content curation tool. Video is the most-opened content format on the intertubes. So sharing the hottest and latest vids in your niche will immediately boost clicks to your content.
- Testing a small target audience. I love this tip because it helps you identify *one* person you know within your target market and focus on sending that one person links that they would love. That’s something that you should do with every bit of content, be it curated stuff or blog posts you write. (FWIW, I’m writing this post to my friend who’s dipped her toes into the world of freelance blogging but needs a hand jumping in – Hi, Megan!)
- The keys to commenting on the links you share. Just pasting a link to a tweet won’t get followers to click. You have to put your personal spin on why you dig the content and how you think it will help your audience. You can go short and to the point like Hiten Shah. Or go long and detailed like Maria Popova, nerd goddess of Brain Pickings.
- Choosing where to share your content. Finding your audience and suiting your content to the platform is a skill unto itself. Twitter, for example, is an easy platform for shooting out quick links to content you love – and building your expertise within a subject. If you’re just blurting out random retweets from Kanye West and you’re trying to build a following of holistic wellness enthusiasts, you’re going to have a hard road ahead. The key is to stay consistent and on-brand with the content you share.
5) Pitch for a Content Presence on Top Sites
I mentioned earlier that there’s a way to finagle yourself into the top spots on broader search results within your industry, and here’s how…
Contact your competitors and offer to write killer content for their blogs in exchange for a link to your website in your bio.
Some may consider this to be unpaid work. But I consider it to be an investment in marketing:
- You’re increasing your SEO,
- You’re being introduced to the thousands of subscribers your competitor has already done the legwork to earn, and
- You’re increasing your brand authority.
But because this person has worked hard to attract their audience and because you want to maintain a great relationship with this person, only pitch and write your best stuff.
Quite a few authority sites, like Copy Hackers, offer compensation for top-notch original content.
Do you know why I contribute to Copy Hackers? It’s not only because I yearn to enlighten the masses about my story-based approach to copywriting. It’s also because of this:
Copy Hackers is the first (and second) website that comes up when my target clients – startup founders with a social cause – search “copywriting for startups.”
Since my website isn’t in the top spot, I might as well do the next best thing: make sure I have links to my website on Copy Hackers. And when my target clients find themselves in need of copywriting help and surf their way to the Copy Hackers blog, I’m right here, responding to their emails.
Here are some steps I’ve taken to grab the attention of the top competitors in my industry and earn a spot on their sites:
- Start contributing comments to competitors’ blogs. Remember, use the 80/20 rule: keep most of your comments focused on contributing to the conversation, then occasionally sprinkle in a link to your own blog for reference.
- Share relevant content you’ve published elsewhere for your competitor to curate and share in their own social streams. Once you’ve established a presence within their community, you can reach out with a helpful link you think would contribute to their content curation.
- Let your competitor know when you’ve used them as a resource. Give them a Twitter shout-out or email them a quick 3-5 sentence message giving them a heads up that you just published a post for your blog that linked to their content.
- Send a quick pitch for a post. Email your competitor a 1-2 paragraph message to let them know you have an idea for content that you haven’t seen on their blog yet and that you know their readers would value. Make sure to use an angle that’s different from what you’ve seen on web searches for the same topic. Ahrefs has a great breakdown of how to write blogger outreach emails that don’t suck.
- Keep your bio super-targeted to the kinds of clients you like to work with. Once your post gets accepted, you’ll be asked to send a short bio. This isn’t the time to be meek. Your bio should say these three things:
- I’m exactly the person you were looking for when you stumbled onto this site
- Here’s how I can help
- Here’s how to find me
Here’s an example of a fantastic guest post bio by parenting coach Cate Scolnik that not only accomplishes all three, but also leads readers to a lead magnet landing page created specifically for her post.
6) Have a superb LinkedIn profile
The top – and most often neglected – resource for earning new clients is LinkedIn. Every time someone Googles your name – and you know that your potential clients will do it the moment they want to learn more about you – your LinkedIn profile will show up as a top result.
Here’s what mine looks like:
Treat your LinkedIn as your personal web page:
- Grab prospects with your headline
- Entice them with your summary
- Impress them with your experience section
- Cultivate trust by including testimonials
Here are some quick tips on turning your LinkedIn profile from “meh” to “ERMEGERD.”
1) Headlines are value propositions, not job descriptions. There’s no rule on LinkedIn that says you have to meekly list your job title in your headline and that’s it. Grab attention: let your prospects know how they’ll benefit when they work from you. Here’s a great example from digital marketing strategist Ana Hoffman (whose entire LinkedIn profile is stellar):
2) Your summary is your story. Just because it’s professional doesn’t mean it has to be impersonal. So many LinkedIn summaries read like they’re written by a robot – they don’t even use pronouns. Don’t be afraid to use the first person and share: talk about what inspired you to quit the office world and go into business for yourself. What is it that wakes you up in the morning and keeps you going through the rough spots? These are the personal details that your client needs to understand about you so they can determine if you’re the kind of person they want to work with.
3) Professional experience doesn’t have to look like a resume. Remember, you’re not using this LinkedIn profile to apply for a job. You’re using it to let your potential clients know more about you. If you think your past work experience is relevant to your journey and expertise as an independent worker, discuss them in that context.
4) Keep a separate portfolio. As for recent client work, don’t list every gig you’ve done as a freelancer: create a link to a separate portfolio or about.me page. Web designer Robby Leonardi has blown minds with this amazing tribute to 8-bit video games:
You’re getting the picture right? To stand out in The Freedom Economy – instead of hiding in an ocean of Upwork – you need to be where your ideal client turns for help, whether that place is in search engine results, in a community, a Twitter feed, on a popular blog or on LinkedIn.
The challenge is to use the same inspiration that fuelled your leap from office drone to independent worker to craft a message that will inspire others to hire you.
I’m turning this over to you: what’s one thing you’re going to do today to make yourself stand out?
(Hint: leaving a comment on Copy Hackers would be a wise step in the right direction…)