When the economy is humming, so are things for freelancers: budgets are fat, resources mighty, and gigs, they are o-plenty.

But when the shift hits the fan, the freelance world can become instantly unhinged.

Be it a global recession due to a health crisis or an industry shift over time that threatens the demand for freelancers (like A.I.), when times get tough, it’s easy to get discouraged, adopt a self-defeating attitude and indulge the voices in your head that say…

How am I going to compete in this market?

Who’s going to hire me now?

Do I have what it takes to land the gigs that will become available?

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to look at that last part: making sure you’re doing the things that matter to stand out amid market uncertainty. Not just to stay afloat (although for some, that always helps), but to position yourself so potential clients take notice. People who can hire you in a market that’s suddenly that much more competitive, when the squeeze is on.

When the labor market suffers, budgets tighten and freelancers get thrust into bigger pools of prospects. That’s when survival of the fittest kicks in; when it’s time to get creative — to do the things that can help you thrive when others think only of survival.

For some, that means launching your own freelance business due to challenging work conditions. For others, it means getting involved with a resource — like ClearVoice — to up your odds of finding freelance work from one of hundreds of paying clients.

But there are a lot of other things you can do as well in your quest to stay busy.

Here are 10 tips for freelancing success in a shifting economy

Tips for freelancing success in a shifting economy: Be strategic about your approach

1. Be strategic about your approach

A smart first move is to touch base with the people you’ve had success with in the past. Those ex-bosses, supervisors, and former colleagues now in a position to hire. They’re the ones who know your track record for delivering results and will be most apt to bring you on (or send project work your way). Let these qualified leads know about your interest/availability — and do it quickly.

Just make sure you do it without sounding desperate. Desperation lacks general appeal and can shift dynamics from the start.

Check in, send a brief email asking about possible freelance opportunities, and show people recent samples of your work. Essentially, remind them why you’re awesome. This simple step will vault you into that pricey real estate known as top-of-mind.

2. Know your differentiating factor — now more than ever

When things have shifted in an economy leading to layoffs, you now find yourself going up against people who might not have needed a job just weeks ago. That’s why it will behoove you to know exactly why you are the woman or man for the job.

This is achieved by knowing the true value of your talent when times are tough. The special skills that will be in demand given the sudden shift in your industry. How your skills measure up against other people vying for these positions — and where you differ.

Identify the best possible way to convey that to the people whose ear you have — ’cause you may not have it long. Maybe it’s something as simple as the fact that you’ve been a successful freelancer for years — whereas newbies might not be set up for it. Make sure the people you need to impress are impressed. Do that by portraying your skills in a way that can’t be denied.

Here are a few tips:

  • Do your research. Always learn as much as possible about the company — and person — you’re approaching. Read the trades, scan their LinkedIn page. The more you can show you’ve done your research, the more impressed they’ll be.
  • Nail your elevator pitch. Figure out how to express who you are, what you stand for, what you’re looking for, and why you’d be a beneficial hire in just a few short sentences. It’s an art form, get good at it.
  • Pitch results wherever possible. Freelancers aren’t always privy to the success metrics of the projects they work on, but if you do have any that could paint you as someone who works on projects that perform, mention them where possible. 

What if you don’t have the metrics for the work you’ve done? Then politely ping a former colleague or supervisor who may be privy to such data. They’ll be happy to hear from you and it’ll go a long way to boosting your portfolio and pursuit for more work!

3. Set daily (or weekly) goals for yourself

When you’re set on landing new gigs, especially when it isn’t going well, the days can seem long — the pursuit an uphill climb.

Set goals for yourself with actual numbers, make lists. Tell yourself you will target X amount of people before the week’s end. It’ll keep you focused and accountable to the pursuit and will keep your mind on what you need to do in the realm of prospecting.

Once you hit your goal? Treat yourself to a reward such as an hour or two away from the computer.

All goals deserve some degree of recognition… but then get back to work!

Tips for freelancing success in a shifting economy: Network like you've never networked before

4. Network like you’ve never networked before

There’s an upside to every downturn. When the economy is in the tank, people have more time on their hands than ever before. It may seem counter-intuitive to network when uncertainty is flowing into many sectors of the economy, but that’s precisely the time to do it. When people are out of jobs, looking at themselves and re-evaluating things, there’s a window of opportunity.

Not only are people more apt to help out during challenging times (because they may be in the same boat), but there’s potential to collaborate with people who might be starting entrepreneurial projects such as a startup or a new business.

Make sure your network knows you’re actively looking and here to help. Whether you’re surfacing tips in your LinkedIn activity, or reaching out to specific prospects via direct message, you’ll want to go on offense to stir up new leads and potential new gigs.

But know this: There are smart ways to approach people and things you should avoid. Know the contents of both these lists.

5. Position your online portfolio for success

No matter how hard you network, someone’s eventually going to want to see samples of your work. It’s one thing to keep your website or online portfolio up to date with the latest samples. It’s another to make sure that portfolio is looking pristine and has your best work leading the way — not just your most recent.

As someone who has worked as a creative director in advertising, I’d like to share three things you should be thinking about:

  • Lead with your best: If you do get someone to view your body of work, don’t expect they’re going to spend hours — or even minutes — poking around. Put your best work upfront and don’t make someone fish for it. There’s a saying: Your portfolio is only as good as your weakest sample. That’s not true every time — but there is something to it.
  • Use punchy descriptions: Describe the work and role you held in the process of creating it in quick, punchy fashion — including the team you worked with, if the concept is yours, and what it won in terms of awards or client satisfaction.
  • Give metrics: Always share successful metrics for the performance of a piece or campaign you worked on if available. It’s the best way to show you’re not just interested in creating work, but ultimately, how it affects your client’s business.

Once that portfolio is looking strong and adhering to best practices, make sure you know how to drive online traffic to it. You know the old saying: If a portfolio lands in the forest but nobody is around to flip through it, did it even make an impact?

I think you get the point.

6. Along those lines, know how to promote yourself on LinkedIn

When the job market tightens, freelance gigs are harder to come by. That’s why you need to use all the resources available to get the word out. In that vein, the No. 1 career platform for people to connect with prospects and potential employers is here to help.

LinkedIn’s also where you can get a sense of the hiring climate in your particular industry, track trending topics, and connect with former colleagues within the context of something that matters — not randomly. I say “context” because the updates that flow from your network offer insights you may’ve never considered around trends and lively discussion around things that matter.

A few angles of approach include:

  • Posting thoughtful comments: By commenting on a relevant topic posted by someone in your network, you’re not only connecting with the poster, but you’re showing everyone in your network (who track your activity) how your mind works.
  • Writing thought-leadership pieces: Whether it’s LinkedIn or Medium, there are publishing platforms in place that let you speak to your network as an expert in your area. It’s a great way to win favor online and a reason to promote yourself at strategic times. Just know what you’re talking about — make it bulletproof, useful, helpful to your network.
  • Give back, be helpful: By offering to help someone in your network by making an intro, writing a recommendation or elevating their content, you put good energy into a LinkedIn eco-system where selflessness can go a long way.

Tips for freelancing success in a shifting economy: Use the downtime to update your skillset

7. Use the downtime to update your skillset

When things aren’t looking so rosy for the economy, the pool you’re swimming in is much deeper with qualified prospects. That’s a good time to look in the mirror and give an honest assessment about the things you know — and what you don’t.

Take advantage by expanding your skillset through online courses you might find at MasterClass or Coursera, which actually expanded its free course offering during the pandemic. There’s also LinkedIn Learning to help give your skills a refresher.

Not sure what to focus on?

Read a job requisite to see what you could be brushing up on. What are the required skills for your pursuit? Maybe you’re a writer who could add a layer of qualification by learning new digital skills to build presentations in PowerPoint or Keynote. Or a graphic designer who wants to learn more about project management or CRM systems to expand your offerings to clients.

Use the downtime to update, refresh, enhance. Don’t let pride get in the way of you advancing your skills in order to accommodate clients who might hire you — and keep you on — because an invaluable freelancer is a working freelancer.

8. Stay abreast of trends in the news

In a changing economy, employers and hiring managers can be reactive to news and forecasts. Be it news out of the stock market or company closures, those with the power to hire keep an eye on the climate to know how things are going.

You should too.

Stay atop the latest news, industry trends and companies that might be apt to expand when other industries are contracting. Read trades like Ad Age or AdWeek if you’re in marketing. This will keep you focused on agency news, accounts landed and where the growth is happening. All this will help you tailor your approach and keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on.

Save time by being smart. Stay smart by being informed.

9. Be sensitive of the general climate

When layoffs are happening and companies are faced with difficult decisions that affect friends and colleagues, there’s a grueling element to it for all. Not just for the people who’ve lost their jobs, but yes — even the people responsible for cutting them loose.

If you’re trying to land work from an employer who’s been downsizing, consider adopting a level of sensitivity — a tone — that matches the moment. How do you do that? By adjusting your communication style in a way that recognizes the climate — but still skillfully shows off your personality, your breadth of experience and your infectious positive spirit in the face of doldrums. Not your ability to be outright tone-deaf.

To that point…

Tips for freelancing success in a shifting economy: Remember: It's all about people

10. Remember: It’s all about people

No matter how you might be feeling on a day-to-day basis (and it can get challenging), keep your head up. Don’t let a little rejection get you down in the form of ignored messages or emails. These are just people at the end of the day. Like you.

Showing proactivity and an intelligent mindset in how you choose to communicate with the people who have the power to hire you is a great way to yield work. The more you can master this, the more success you’ll have in the long run.

Just keep in mind: Not everything happens at once. Think of yourself as a gardener, planting seeds along the way…

Eventually, something’s gonna pay off.

Good luck!

Want to position yourself well for the freelance future? Consider diving into the ClearVoice talent pool.