There’s an iconic scene in my favorite baseball movie of all-time, ‘Field of Dreams’, when a voice from the sky whispers, “If you build it, he will come.” In this case, it was a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. And they did come, eventually. Dead ballplayers.
But when it comes to your freelance business, *building it* is simply the first step. That part is comprised of:
- Knowing your value/capabilities as a freelance writer, graphic designer, editor, etc.
- Surrounding yourself with the right people — a CPA, mentor, a loving partner or spouse.
- Having a dedicated portfolio to show off you and your stuff.
But now you need clients to help pay the bills. Sure, there are places you can turn such as ClearVoice that can send qualified client leads your way. But you don’t want to be reliant exclusively on third parties for your success, so you’ll need to adopt other ways of generating interest in your talent, abilities and what your freelance “business” can yield for clients in the realm of value.
That’s where networking comes in. The hustle. Targeting new clients who can become part of your success story. There are right ways to network — and wrong ways — the kind that could tarnish your reputation faster than you can click “Delete Tweet.”
In that regard, I’ve compiled a list of dos and don’ts, as well as solid examples of specific approaches that have worked for me, so you can visualize the ways to build your business — your own field of dreams — smartly without using methods that don’t work, aren’t efficient and announce you as a dinosaur, causing counter-productivity and freelancer disillusionment along the way.
5 worthwhile networking strategies that work
1. Know who your top prospects are — and where they can be found.
As a freelance “business,” it’s important to identify your top prospective clients so you know who to target for work. Is your perfect client a small business owner, or maybe it’s a creative director or CMO? In this realm, you want to define a straight line to them, if possible. Get to know everything about them. Follow their thought leadership pieces on AdWeek, Forbes or LinkedIn, comment and profess your admiration for the subject matter. One step further? Ask a mutual connection from your social networks for an introduction and get your pitch down cold.
Targeting people where they are, online, can focus your approach and exponentially up your odds for success.
2. Speaking of LinkedIn, use your network.
There’s a reason LinkedIn exists and thrives to this day as the number one career networking site in the world. It’s the world’s top repository for relationship building and professional posturing. But if you don’t use its arguably most valuable function — network connections — smartly and selflessly, you could be wasting a valuable opportunity.
Let me explain. There might a company that you’d like to work for or there might be someone in your network looking for a position at a certain company. In either case, LinkedIn is brilliantly equipped to show who you know at these desired companies. Don’t be afraid to send them a short, relevant message via LinkedIn as an icebreaker along with a link to your portfolio or website.
Make sure your profile is up-to-date first!
Additionally, if you can help someone else out, the universe’s karmic laws have a way of rewarding those who give back to the community, so consider your benevolence a worthwhile investment. You may not see the path to your prospect immediately every time (i.e., as a first-degree connection), but the path to your next freelance gig success could come via a second-degree contact.
Don’t lose hope, think creatively, and have trust in the concept of “it’s who you know.”
3. Never underestimate the value of former colleagues.
I’ve often found the hottest leads for new work reside in old colleagues, wherever they may be. In fact, I’ve worked for one client at three different companies over the years. I assume it’s because he knows what I can offer because we’ve collaborated in the past on all kinds of digital projects. This track record is invaluable since there’s trust and a mutual understanding for how each of us works. Consider working former colleagues into your networking strategy as a freelancer… It might just pay off!
4. There is no replacement for face time, not even Apple’s FaceTime.
When it comes to the successes I’ve had in my own freelance career, I’ve come to learn that there’s no replacement for connecting with friends, former colleagues or new prospects over lunch or coffee. This is when good stuff happens. People bond over life, they laugh, they connect over current events, whatever. This is when it makes perfect sense to update someone on how your work is going and offer them subtle reassurances in person that if they ever need any help, you’re the man or woman for the job.
5. Pound the pavement, as long as it’s the right pavement.
As a freelancer, it’s easy to get caught up either doing the work or relying on your keyboard or cell phone to stir up new business. But I’m here to tell you: You need to get out more. The possibilities that may exist outside your four walls, at industry conferences, meet-ups, philanthropy events and cocktail mixers are all potential opportunities to network and make good impressions.
After all, everyone with a business has a marketing need, which means they’re a potential client. So, bust out your most stylish threads, nab an Uber and nail your elevator pitch about who you are, what you can offer and bring business card that show you’re legit. Leave-behinds may seem passe, but they work — especially if you’re approaching people after they’ve walked off a panel and are getting inundated with all the latest in business card tech.
This is how you should work.
5 don’ts: Networking strategies that will probably lead to crickets
1. Don’t build yourself up by taking others down.
It may seem easy to sit behind a keyboard and take shots at people you don’t agree with on LinkedIn or Twitter to boost yourself up, but you may want to think twice. There’s enough divisiveness in the world right now and being critical for the sake of promoting yourself can backfire. Big time. Prospective clients like passion and a POV, but misguided emotions on social media are a red flag because they can come off as unprofessional and show a client exactly how you might react to them should your client/freelancer relationship go south.
Keep it classy. You’ll be better off.
2. Don’t pester prospective clients to the point of annoyance.
There’s a fine line between pitching yourself, understanding what comprises a natural follow up… and pestering a potential client to the point where they want to swat you away like a gnat on a hot summer night. Or worse, block you. Pick your spots, be respectful of a client’s time and be patient when it comes to getting a response. Trust the process. It’s true that sometimes the squeaky wheel can get the grease when it comes to getting a response, but rarely will the squeaky wheel win the actual job.
3. Don’t even think of impersonal email blasts.
Along these lines, sending a mass email that says, “Hey everyone, I’m available for work!”… and that’s it… may seem like a good idea in theory since it saves you the time of targeting potential clients individually, but don’t do it. This says you don’t care enough to write a personal email to someone with a human touch and more general care and concern for humanity.
Having said that, sending the occasional blast from your business (1-2x a month) can be an effective strategy for keeping in touch — so long as there’s something to talk about in the form of recent work samples, case studies, or a fun/relevant aside that piggybacks on something timely in the news, drawing a straight, unmistakable line to the problems your business can help solve.
4. Don’t randomly reach out without purpose.
Similar to the previous point, utilizing a haphazard strategy based exclusively on communication alone probably isn’t going to land you a whale. For example, a random phone call to “check in” or even an email or text without a purpose other than to reach out. Time is precious in this day and age, especially for people who need a freelancer most. Stay on point when you choose to communicate and your prospects will thank you for it.
5. Don’t be the person who constantly talks about work.
We get it, your business is thriving. You’ve got so much going on that you’re living on a diet of three hours of sleep and Red Bull. One thing you’ll want to be wary of, however, is developing a habit where you’re telling everyone about it. Constantly.
At the end of the day, people want to work with people they like, not just people who are busy. If you’re constantly talking how much you’ve got going on, you’ll probably actually deter potential clients from sending work your way for fear they’ll get lost in the shuffle. Keep conversations light and fun, not complain-y and self-indulgent.
When the time’s right, you can get down to business.
5 examples of times when networking paid off:
1. Be open to what the universe may bring.
Clients can appear at the oddest of times. Fun fact: My first advertising client literally walked up to me on the beach when I was gazing at the ocean in a meditative mode. I couldn’t have been expecting it less. We struck up small talk and the conversation soon moved to work pursuits. Next thing I know, we’re talking about the company he owns in the health/wellness space franchises he’s in charge of and how he needs a copywriter ASAP. His company was a freelance client of mine for roughly a year.
All from a random stop-and-chat on the beach.
2. Be strategic about who you talk to, and when.
One of the most lucrative freelance jobs I ever secured was from a company that had just laid me off. Actually, that day.
Here’s the story: An entertainment ad agency I worked for was in the process of “restructuring.” A few of us were let go on a Friday, and on the way out the door, I asked one of my former colleagues (the soon-to-be Chief Innovation Officer) about keeping me on — in my newfound freelance-dom — to write the Coke Screenplay questions I’d been spearheading at the company over the last year. He enthusiastically agreed to keep the project with me (and another colleague) and I kept this agency as a client for three-plus more years after that day. It may not have happened if I hadn’t thought to bring it up on my way out the door…
3. A little chutzpah never hurts.
ClearVoice writer Lena Katz wears all sorts of hats in her professional career as a producer, location manager and freelance writer. Over the years, she’s learned how and where to be brash when it comes to hustling for new work. Her chutzpah is legendary. I asked her about a time when she networked her way to a client. Here’s the anecdote she delivered in return:
I met my creative partner through his girlfriend at the time. She and I were on a press trip together and she was excited about the new man in her life, a producer in the exact field I wanted to break into. She, coincidentally, was on her very first press trip (my 60th or thereabouts) and wanted to do more.
In effect, I offered a win-win trade: She would introduce me to her boyfriend for me to pitch ideas, and I would introduce her to an editor I knew who was looking for some entry-level, but skilled travel writers for short posts. This kind of trade almost never works, especially since I tend to send million-word introduction emails — but insanely, it did. He and I were a great fit creatively… and she ended up writing several pieces for the web publication.
4. Put your keywords where your mouse is.
Another ClearVoice writer, Ben Beck, prides himself on his entrepreneurial spirit and ability to market himself strategically. When I asked what’s worked best for Ben over the year in terms of “networking” his way to new business, his approach was simpler and a bit tech savvier.
One of the simplest pieces of advice I would give to anyone looking to gain a new job, or some extra freelancing gigs, would be to update your LinkedIn headline (the portion that shows up beneath your name on your profile) with a few keywords that illustrate your true value. For example, when I first started working in marketing automation, I updated my headline to include “marketing automation evangelist” and companies immediately started to reach out to me offering me jobs or asking for me to consult for them. I believe that small technique is part of the reason I was able to triple my already higher-than-average income in the first five years out of college.
5. Participate in life and good things will happen.
Given all the screens in our lives and false sense of human connection that comes from social media, it’s easy to stay indoors all day and feel like you’ve been out.
But make no mistake: You haven’t.
There’s a great window of opportunity to attract clients by simply getting out of the house. Especially if you put yourself in the right place at the right time and offer something back to the community. In that realm, career coach Daisy Swan occasionally works at the co-working space Impact Hub in Santa Barbara. She once offered a free program to the community for anyone who wanted to come learn about the MBTI (aka the Myers Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment). One person signed up.
Now, one might seem unimpressive in terms of sheer numbers, except there was a snowball effect from that one person who signed up — as she eventually introduced Daisy to a professional women’s networking group that she eventually began co-presenting new programs to. Those programs exposed her to a ton of prospective new coaching clients, which would never have happened if it was not for one person.
The lesson: It never hurts to put yourself out there and in close proximity to your clients. If you do, good things could happen…
They did for Daisy.