Like most industries, the freelance community was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Slashed budgets, nervous entrepreneurs worried about their bottom line, and clients unwilling to sign long-term contracts threw plenty of content marketers, SEO writers, and other experts into a tailspin.
Nearly a year later, many have found their footing, while some have gone above and beyond — and thrived.
8 freelancers who made more money in 2020 share their strategies
As we prepare for an unpredictable economy in the months ahead, we spoke with freelancers who made more money in the tumultuous year of 2020.
They shared their experiences, tactics, and how they intend to keep the income stream flowing — and how you can too, including:
- Remaining active and engaged in online communities
- Tirelessly searching for opportunities in your niche
- Filling in hiring gaps as a freelancer
- Leaning in to pivoting content work
- Expanding your niche and setting up alerts for gigs
- Increasing your hourly rate
- Investing in client relationships
- Consistently cold-pitching
1. “I remained active and engaged online.”
Writer, voiceover artist and content strategist Joey Held increased his income by 87 percent from 2019 to 2020, and he credits much of his success to staying engaged and active in online communities.
As an example, he says Facebook groups are a bounty of valuable information, even if you have to do a bit of digging to find the right matches for your skillset and niche. He calls them the modern-day equivalent of going to the same alma mater since your opening line can be: “Hey, I saw your post in X Facebook group” when touching base on an opportunity.
He also made an effort to attend digital-only networking events and then reach out to presenters or panelists, sharing what you learned from their talks.
“Don’t be overtly sales-y, but if the connection is a good one and it looks like there could be room to work together, there’s no harm in saying you’re available and offering a few content ideas or asking if they have an editorial calendar planned for the coming months,” he continues.
“It’s easier to fade back into our comfy chairs during virtual events, but the proactive bird gets the worm — or a potentially lucrative assignment or retainer, which is much juicier than a worm, anyway.”
2. “I scouted opportunities in my niche.”
At the start of March 2020, Coleen Hanson Smith lost two clients that represented a significant portion of her income. As the founder and managing director of Oak City Communications, she was worried but decided to double-down and figure out how she could bring in new business.
Her diligence paid off, and ultimately, saw a 41 percent increase from 2019 to 2020. How did she do it? She searched for agencies and organizations in her healthcare, hospital and physician practice marketing niche and sent them brief LinkedIn messages. And she also kept up with her personal network and took note of career moves. When she noticed a previous contact moved into a role where she could offer support, she sent a message reminding them she now had her own freelance marketing business
“These simple actions landed me two sizable new clients that I adore and have a great deal of ongoing work with,” she continued. “Later in the year, one of the clients I’d lost came back full-speed with a complete brand relaunch and tons of ongoing work. I am slammed now, have hired some help and am thriving.”
3. “I filled in critical hiring gaps.”
The pandemic resulted in many changes for Leanna Johnson Lee’s lifestyle, including her new position as the sole earner in her family. Luckily, because she was able to execute a few strategies, this content writer increased her earnings by 20 percent from 2019 to 2020. She did this by limiting her efforts to working with clients who really need a writer to take over client work or day-to-day marketing.
“With hiring gaps and companies struggling to stay afloat, it was clear there were a lot of ways freelance writers could provide crucial support,” she explained. “Once I started getting more work from clients who just really needed a versatile writer, I ended up jumping on all sorts of projects, from rewriting websites and updating blogs to brushing up content types like press releases and email drip campaigns.”
For others who want to mimic her success, she recommends going back to your best clients and contacts and say ‘Is there anything else you need? How else can I support you?’
4. “I leaned into pivoting instead of resisting.”
Erin Cafferty started her business in 2018, and through tireless work and flexibility, she’s experienced growth each year, including 2020, with an 8 percent increase.
She’s a freelance copywriter, but she’s also more than willing to pivot into other sectors with opportunities too. When the pandemic hit and quarantine happened, she saw a gap she could fill in her niche and created a low-cost global membership community for freelancers and digital nomads.
“This pivot addressed the loneliness that came with quarantine as well as the desire for people to keep their own businesses afloat, without the high cost of a 1:1 coach or group mastermind,” she explained. “I continued to work as a copywriter while I got creative with another offer. Diversifying your income is a good idea, pandemic or not.”
5. “I expanded my niche to other industries.”
Freelancer journalist, writer and editor Ruksana Hussain saw exponential growth in 2020 — with a 200 percent increase from 2019.
Yep, that’s right: 200 percent! She brought in new work by focusing on new-to-her beats that were hot because of the pandemic and strategically sought new business, as travel and lifestyle weren’t an option.
She tested all of these tactics:
- Listened for hot topics and buzz words popping up in that time — heard data security, data privacy, patient confidentiality, construction, renovation, manufacturing, etc.
- Searched those terms on Facebook groups with writing opportunities and applied for related businesses seeking content or introduced herself to some that appeared to be a good fit.
- Reached out to previously contacted outlets, companies and editors in those fields or related fields that may need assistance with content given consumption was at an all-time high.
- Set up alerts online for trending topics, looked at Twitter and LinkedIn hashtags — saw a lot about the wedding industry and entertainment industry.
- Paid attention to content creation postings, especially in those beats or reached out to editorial staff associated with brands if the companies had blogs.
- Watched for #pitchme or #bipoc and other related writing hashtags on Twitter for opportunities to connect with assigning editors.
6. “I increased my hourly input.”
While freelance writer and editor Laura Leavitt did see an 8 percent increase in her income from 2019 to 2020, more importantly, she said, she spent 20 percent fewer hours. In turn, this resulted in a big win: her hourly rate increased by 26 percent.
In March, she was busy, but then saw a drop in work in April and May. She used this time researching, rather than just writing the lowest-paid by easily available work. When she re-emerged in June, she wasn’t burnt out, but rather, ready to dive in with renewed energy and focus.
“I was able to increase my hourly output because I focused my efforts,” she noted. “I had written in any niche I could during 2019, but and in 2020, most of my work narrowed down to real estate, B2B marketing, personal finance, or food and drink.”
“The crossover value of my amassed research on my niches made every project a little easier than if I’d been trying to constantly break into healthcare or technology writing, starting as a novice with every article.”
7. “I invested deeply into client relationships.”
In 2020, Lizzie Davey, a freelance SaaS writer and content strategist, was able to increase her income by 112 percent and reach the six-figure club. She believes the most significant contributor to her success was two critical choices:
- Reaching out to all clients, past and present.
- Taking on whatever they needed, when they needed it.
“When the pandemic kicked off, I reached out to each of my clients and scheduled calls with them to discuss how I could help and make their job easier,” she shared. “In a lot of cases, we branched away from our usual commitment to creating rush content in different formats to provide increased value to their customers.”
She says by scheduling a call with clients and taking that time to listen to their current challenges; chances are, their challenges now aren’t the same as they were pre-pandemic.
“Use this information to drive your services and offers moving forward so you can be sure you’re providing value during a time of need,” she adds.
8. “I cold-pitched like crazy.”
Freelance writer and the co-founder of the Freelance Writer Academy Kat Tretina is a big believer in cold pitching. And for a good reason: she saw a 46 percent increase in her income from 2019 to 2020 thanks to this strategy. As soon as she saw clients pausing work, she began sending out future emails aggressively, and ultimately, received around 75 percent of her new work from LinkedIn.
“I stressed that I was able to start work right away and how many articles per month I could tackle, and that seemed to make people more responsive,” she explained. “In most cases, I was brought on and completing articles within two weeks of my original message.”
Another way she brought in income was by focusing on rush orders. Rather than asking her clients to give her a two-week turnaround, she moved fast — and charged appropriately.
“With so many new developments in finance, technology, and government, I realized there was a huge appetite for news-focused pieces,” she shared. “By letting clients know I was available to take on those articles — and turn them around within 24-48 hours if the client paid a rush fee — I was able to earn more.”