Freelance Marketing — Moving Beyond Job Boards

This article is a part of a five post series for Demand Media Studios writers and others interested in leaving content mills and other low paying freelance writing jobs behind. 

In our last post we talked about marketing your freelance writing services and how you should focus on basic market research, specialty target markets, and creating a marketing plan instead of aimlessly trying new ways to market your services. In other words, don't just send pitches to anyone who might want to hire a writer. Narrow it down a bit. Figure out exactly who you want to target and find out what works and what doesn't when selling to that audience by seeing what the competition is up to.

Now let's talk about tactics -- all of the things you actually do to land new gigs, from query letters and cold calls to increasing referrals from members of your network.

Freelance Job Boards Aren't Enough

One of the most common questions I get from freelance writers is this:

Where do I find the high paying freelance writing jobs?

These individuals get frustrated because they spend countless hours on freelance job boards, classified sites or bidding sites (like Elance). Most of the writing jobs they find offer very low pay. They see other writers talking about better opportunities, but they aren't sure where to find them for themselves.

That's the inherent problem: they're thinking about where the better jobs are. They're asking the wrong question.

If this sounds like you, it's time to rephrase. Instead ask how you can land these high paying freelance writing jobs.

Most of them are not found on job boards. I mentioned it in a recent post, but it's worth repeating. The best freelance writing jobs are usually obtained in the following ways:

  1. Repeat work from past or regular clients
  2. Referrals from clients or colleagues
  3. Clients finding you as they search for a writer for a specific project
  4. Directly pitching clients you want to work with

Let's explore these four things in more depth to explain why (and how) it might be time to leave freelance job boards behind.

Land More Work With Repeat Clients

Some of you may have only worked for content mills. If you don't have any past clients, this section doesn't yet apply to you. You'll want to focus on the other tactics discussed below.

If you do have a stable of past clients (or existing clients) that pay better than content mills, it's important to keep those connections alive. If they needed to hire a writer like you in the past, chances are good they'll need you again. But if you don't pop into their minds when that situation arises, they might give the gig to someone else.

What can you do?

  1. Blatantly ask past clients if they have any upcoming projects you might be able to help with.
  2. Pitch specific projects to them. For example, if you helped them with a holiday newsletter last year, send them an email and ask if they could use your help again this time around (maybe they forgot to plan one and your email will encourage them to get on it).
  3. Offer a limited time, one-order sale for past clients who come back. This can be a great idea if you added a new service to your offerings and you think previous clients would have an interest in it.
  4. Just be friendly. Get in touch. Maybe wish them well as we approach the New Year. Ask how things are going (and actually have an interest in what they have to say). Socialize with them using social media tools.

All of these things can help you stay on past clients' radar so your name comes to mind the next time they need a writer with your specialty.

Be a Referral Magnet

Keeping in touch with past clients as mentioned above can do more than land you new gigs with them. When you become their go-to writer, they're also more likely to refer you to others.

Just as you probably network with other writers (despite many of them being the competition), your clients do the same. They have their own industry contacts. And when people need referrals for writers or any service providers, they'll turn to their trusted network.

It isn't enough to stay in touch with past clients though. You can come right out and ask them for referrals; ask if they know someone else in the industry who could use your talents. Some won't want to share you. Many are quite happy to refer you to their colleagues. You could even offer referral incentives (such as 10% off their next order for each referral they send your way that results in an actual contract).

Speaking of colleagues, don't neglect your own. Whether you keep in touch via email, have local get-togethers, comment on each other's blogs, or use social networking platforms, stay active in your community of writing colleagues.

Freelancers often get inquiries from prospects they can't take on. Maybe the gig is out of their specialty area. Their time could be fully booked. Or maybe the gig just doesn't feel like a good fit to them. If they think you might be a better fit, they'll refer you for the job.

Giving referrals makes a lot of sense. I refer gigs to about a half dozen writers every week, and sometimes much more. Why? Because it makes you look good to the prospect when you put their needs first, even though you can't directly work with them. On many occasions, prospects I've referred elsewhere have remembered that and come back to me for other gigs down the line when I could work on their project.

So get to know other freelance writers, especially those in your specialty area who are landing the kinds of gigs you really want. Let them know if you accept referrals. And send referrals their way when appropriate.

The referrals I give usually go to the writers I know best. That's because if someone asks for a certain kind of service, I refer the first competent person I think of in that specialty. Those who stay in touch and build a professional relationship as a colleague come to mind quickly. If I only know someone in passing, chances are good I won't even consider them.

In the end, referrals are about two things:

  1. Trust
  2. Presence

If you stay visible by maintaining an active presence in your community and your colleagues (or past clients) trust you to do right by their prospects, you'll get more referrals. And remember, the more you give the more you'll get over time. People remember when you do something nice like that for them, and it can make them much more likely to return the favor.

If all else fails? Ask. There is nothing wrong with mentioning that you have some openings in your schedule if anyone has a referral to send your way.

Helping Clients Find You

If a prospect needs a writer fast, they might not have time to ask for referrals. They certainly don't have time to post job ads, wait on applications, compare those applications, and eventually hire someone who happened to see the ad.

Instead they visit Google or their trusted search engine of choice. Or they visit a community they're a part of and search there for service providers (such as forums or social networks like LinkedIn). If they find you and you feel like a good match, they'll contact you. If they don't find you, well, you're out of luck.

We live in an instant gratification world. If a client wants someone now, they'll find someone now. But if you aren't easy to find, you'll miss out on these potentially great freelance writing gigs. This is why I push the concept of building your writer platform so much. Your platform influences your level of visibility.

Here are some things your writer platform might include:

  1. Your professional website (well-optimized for search engines)
  2. A niche or industry blog
  3. Free e-books or reports
  4. Your articles strategically placed on other sites (such as through guest blogging)
  5. Your social media profiles

In other words, these are places clients might find you on their own, and tools that would encourage others to tell prospects about you (like free e-books naturally attracting links and therefore helping your site rank higher in search engines).

There is a lot to writer platforms, which is why I'm finishing an entire book on the subject. What you need to know early on is that they're designed to help clients find you instead of you having to actively seek out every freelance writing opportunity.

When you're visible in your specialty area, rank highly in search engines for terms your prospects will likely search for, and you're recognized as an authority source, you can have more inquiries than you could possibly handle.

If you want more examples of things you can do to build your writer platform and help clients find you more easily, check out this post from our archives:

30 Ways to Build Your Writer Platform

Teaching you about all of the basics of search engine optimization (SEO) is beyond the scope of this article. There are entire sites dedicated to it. For example, you might want to check out Michael Gray's SEO Blog.

Hand-picking (and Pitching) Clients

While I'm a big fan of query-free freelancing (letting your writer platform and network handle the heavy lifting), you can't always wait for gigs. Don't get me wrong. Query-free freelancing doesn't exactly take forever to benefit you. But setting up a website now won't likely bring you a new gig tomorrow. And that's exactly what some of you moving away from content mills need.

How can you attract great prospects with barely any wait at all? You can pitch them directly.

  1. Decide what kinds of clients you want to work for.
  2. Better yet, choose specific companies or publications you'd like to write for.
  3. Evaluate their website or publication and come up with story or project ideas to pitch.
  4. Contact the company and offer your services (in as non-spammy a way as possible).

This is the traditional way of landing new freelance clients, and it's still popular (and effective). Here are three types of direct pitches you can use:

  1. Traditional query letters
  2. Email queries
  3. Cold calling

Why do direct pitches work? Sometimes it's just about following standards (like queries for magazine writing gigs). Frequently though clients don't realize they even need your services until you pitch them. They'll never advertise because they aren't officially hiring. They don't know they're missing out on awesome opportunities (like launching a company blog or getting help crafting social media profile content).

Just like I said about referrals above, if you want something sometimes it's best to come right out and ask for it.

Want to learn more about writing queries or making cold calls? I highly recommend Peter Bowerman's The Well-Fed Writer which offers a lot of information on cold calling, as well as Linda Formichelli's and Diana Burrell's The Renegade Writer's Query Letters that Rock. These books go into far more detail than I can here in a blog post, and both are worth having in your professional library.

As you hopefully now understand, freelance job boards are not the best way to find new gigs. You certainly won't find most of the high paying opportunities there. Does that mean you have to completely ignore them? Of course not. You get to choose the ways you'll seek new gigs. Hopefully you've found at least one new method here that you're interested in trying though.

Do you have other ways of attracting clients? Share your tips and ideas in the comments below.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

Subscribe to the All Freelance Writing newsletter to get freelance writing updates from Jenn in your inbox.

7 thoughts on “Freelance Marketing — Moving Beyond Job Boards”

  1. You are writing some of the most comprehensive posts for beginners that I’ve seen in a long time. I hope people reading them realize that you are basically giving them step-by-step instructions for long- and short-term success. It does NOT get any better than this. For anyone looking to get out of content mill writing or start over, this is exactly how you do it.

    This is like new love hand-holding without sweaty palms.

    • I hope so too Yo. Yet a lot of this information can already be found on the site. Some pick up the info and do something useful with it. Many others will not. If it helps even a few, it’s worth it.

      And no. Not hand-holding. You know my anti-cooties policies. 😛 I try to think of it as more of a kick in the pants. Sometimes we all need one, myself included. (That’s what you’re for.)

  2. here’s a marketing freebie I’m giving away to your DS readers:

    I still do use job boards to find one time projects to round out my work (2-3 ongoing clients). But a lot of the time, I’m finding jobs that are full time, office-based editorial jobs. What I do is NOTE those down, and in about 4 weeks, I’ll send an email or snail mail to that new employee, asking if they have freelance work for writers. Much of the time, they’ll be in the process of building up their own stable of favorite freelancers. Now, I’ve never got a “YES, here’s some work, bill me in a couple days!” but what I DO get is 6 months later, they’re digging up my email and sending me something to the effect of “Remember when you sent this? Well, I need writers now. Are you still available?”

    If you’re going to be on the Boards/LinkedIn listings, anyway, it’s a good way to mine those.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post because I am a newbie and have been working relentlessly at trying to find clients in a part of the world where cold calling for freelance writing jobs just doesn’t render great results since the market is so small.

    However, I was glad for the reminder about “Pitch specific projects to them. ” because, in the past, I did get the interest of a potential client by doing this and so I am going to try it again. It has been an arduous journey for me but I know it’ll all pay of soon.

    Your post has been a great boost for me since my checklist does have some of the same items as yours but I think the key here is ‘perseverance’. Yes, I would love to land a client tonight but it may not for a week or a month – I must just keep truckin’..

    • Just keep at it. At least you’ve had some success and know that a certain tactic can work well for you. That’s a good start. 🙂 And you’re right. You might not get answers tomorrow. Or even next week. But if you want to succeed you have to take risks and take failure in stride. Just keep getting back up, learn something from each experience, and don’t give up. 🙂

  4. I have been preaching direct marketing to a group of writers in a forum I found for weeks. It’s like they don’t hear me. The very next post will be something trying to help others find clients, but it’s a list of job boards. Then someone will post asking if anyone has ever heard of cold emailing or calling for writing jobs. Whaa? I just said that!

    As for anything I can add…hmmmm. I have done several email campaigns. None of them involved an actual sales letter, although most copywriters I have followed and read advise doing more salesy queries. Basically, all I did was introduce myself, told them my specialty (catalog writing), and then asked who I should speak with about freelance opportunities. Some of my email campaigns got up to a 25% response rate. Many of those responses became paying clients. No one got mad that I asked. The few times I did use a more salesy approach, the response was much lower. So my advice would be to keep a cold email as short and sweet as possible (when you’re writing to companies, not publications). Roughly 150 words-200 words max.

    And obviously targeted emails are better, but I honestly have sent my fair share of emails to and gotten lots of helpful customer service professionals who forwarded my message to the right person. Some of those “right people” responded pretty quickly to those generic messages. I once even got a message from the webmaster of the site. He managed the email accounts and said he had lots of clients who could use my services. You just never know until you ask!


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