This article has been contributed by John Ross.
The freelance-driven gig economy has taken off like a rocket over the past several years. During the recent pandemic, it’s become even more important.
With the government forming new protections for freelancers like the right to collect unemployment benefits, people are looking toward self-employment as a means to cut their ties to traditional corporate work more than ever.
What this means, however, is that the field, which was already tight, is more competitive than ever. If you don’t have an edge to set yourself apart from the wealth of other freelancers, you may have a hard time keeping your new career going.
Check out the 7 ways that freelancers can separate themselves from the competition and learn how you can take advantage of the strategies you need to find success in the gig economy.
1. Build a Website that Displays Your Latest Work
If there’s one single way to set yourself apart from others, it’s a portfolio. Sites like WordPress make it super easy to build a website in just minutes with minimal knowledge or upkeep.
If you’re a graphic designer, you’ve likely created phenomenal brand identities, logos, infographics, brochures and other striking visual deliverables, both printed and electronic. Your website is the perfect place to display them for prospective clients.
For brand strategists, a website is the perfect way to claim ownership of strategies you have developed to increase brand awareness for your clients.
As a freelance writer, it can sometimes be tricky. You may have hundreds of articles, but very few (if any) bylines with your name on them to prove that the work is yours, due to the propensity of unaccredited and ghostwritten work. Setting yourself apart means showing off what you can do, but many clients don’t offer bylines or credit, particularly in the world of content writing.
If you can, speak to your regular clients and those with whom you have good relationships to ask for permission, even without a byline or acknowledgement, to feature links to your published work on your website. Often, your clients may not mind because it’s additional links to their site and, as such, helps their marketing efforts. You can then link to these articles and graphics with a note that you have permission from the client to use them as part of your portfolio.
Of course, if you do have bylines and acknowledgements, you’ll definitely want to include those. You might also want to actively seek opportunities to work for credit, even if it pays less than some other clients. This will let you pursue areas you enjoy and get the name recognition you need to show off what you can do on a variety of topics. It’s vital, however, that you have an updated portfolio of recent publications to show that you’re working regularly and producing quality work.
2. Customize the Consultation
First things first, here: Are you doing free consultations for your prospective clients? If you aren’t, you should be.
Freelancing requires the ability to interact directly with clients and close a deal. You’ll need to learn to be a salesperson as much as you are a professional in your field. If that’s a skill set you don’t have yet, it’s one you should develop. People skills matter when you’re running your own business, and that’s what freelancing is.
You should never charge for your consultation. If you do, you’re putting yourself behind the competition, because everyone else is offering a free sit-down, phone or virtual online meeting to discuss the initial job.
The area where many fall apart, though, is having a rote script they follow for their consultation. Don’t just have a standardized approach and show up ready to take notes. It’s okay to have a framework to give you an anchor, of course, and you certainly should take notes when needed, but you need to do more.
Do your homework. The moment you’re contacted by a prospective client, do some research on who they are, what their online presence looks like, what their goals and company mission are, whether they have a brand voice and more.
Get to know the company as much as you can on your own before you ever sit down to meet with them. The more you know about them upfront, the better able you’ll be to tailor your offering to their specific needs. This shows not only that you’re the right choice, but also that you care about them as a client, that you’re a true professional and that you take the initiative.
3. Earn an Online Certification or Postgraduate Degree
Some sort of postgraduate education, whether it’s an online course or certification, a master’s degree or even a doctorate, will really give you a leg up on the competition.
Many people decide to dive into freelancing right out of their bachelor’s program or even out of high school, thinking it will be a way to make a living without having to push their postsecondary education further. If you come along and are sporting a respectable certification or graduate degree, it shows a number of things.
First, you’re showing that you have the commitment, drive and tenacity to achieve an education that’s greater than the minimum. Remember: Getting a certification or graduate degree isn’t just about being intelligent; it’s about proving you can run the marathon to get to the finish line. This will show the client that you’ve got what it takes to commit to a goal and achieve it.
Second, it shows that you’ve got an area of specialized knowledge that the client can use to their advantage. Whether it’s a degree in information science, business or even writing, your graduate program or certification shows you’ve got extra knowledge in your field of focus.
Fortunately, the ability to earn certifications and postgraduate degrees is easier than ever. With hundreds of institutions offering online courses, either live or on-demand, you are able to further your required education and earn your certification or degree on your own timetable.
These online courses can take anywhere from just a few hours to a couple years, and can range in price from under $100 to the tens of thousands. Online courses truly offer something for everybody these days. For working professionals seeking flexible, self-paced study, the digital content included with most online courses (many even in the form of mobile apps) provides you the opportunity to study anytime, anywhere.
If you’re really looking to up the ante in terms of furthering your career, one of the most common graduate degrees these days is an MBA, largely because it has so many different areas in which it’s applicable. From business management and marketing to organization and evaluation, this degree means a great deal. Even showing a client that you could take and pass the GRE shows a great deal of commitment and dedication. So prepare for the GRE and take it, then go on to a graduate degree or certificate. It’ll set you ahead of the pack.
4. Have Case Studies Ready to Go
Too many freelancers rely solely on their skills and ability. While your knowledge, qualifications and portfolio will take you a long way, you also need to show off that you understand content on a deeper level.
That’s where case studies come into play. After you research the potential client, research their industry and the potential problems, needs and issues that arise for that industry. Then, look for hard examples that illustrate those issues. These examples are case studies.
Very few freelancers think to show up to a meeting with a client with case studies in hand. The ability to use case studies to make your presentation not only shows that you’ve gone the extra distance and done your research and homework, but it also shows that you have in-depth knowledge of the issues that the client cares about and how they apply directly to their industry.
Furthermore, it shows that you understand how you can use that knowledge to write about their problems and offer solutions to their clients.
Putting in the extra effort almost always shows measurable results. Case studies are a valuable tool for freelancers, and they’re a valuable tool that almost no one uses. If you can adopt these into your presentation and show in your portfolio how you have used them in the past, you’ll definitely have a leg up on the competition.
5. Set Up Weekly or Bi-Weekly Calls With Clients
Once again, we come back to the need to develop your interpersonal skills. Communication with your clients is paramount to finding success as a freelancer. Many freelancers make the basic mistake of securing a job, submitting the finished product and moving on. This may be fine for small jobs at the beginning, but if you want to build a stable of regular clients that you get to know and work regularly for, you need to go far beyond that.
When you accept the job with your client, get on a communication schedule that goes above and beyond regular updates. Arrange to get on the phone or on a virtual meeting platform with them at least every other week, if not weekly. This allows you to keep up to date with where they are, allows them to get a status update regarding your ongoing projects and allows each to ask any questions and address concerns that might arise throughout the course of the work.
As much as many people might not enjoy such meetings, they offer another distinct benefit. They let you get to know your client directly on a one-on-one basis. This means that you’ll learn how to better deal with one another. You’ll get to know quirks, personality traits and preferences. In the end, this leads to much less frustration when disagreements or issues arise since you’ll both know better how to approach one another. Communication counts, and if you’re a freelancer, it’s part and parcel of what you do.
6. Find a Specific Niche
There’s something to be said for being a Jack (or Jill)-of-all-trades, but in the end, it’s going to work against you as much as it works for you. Your clients are going to want people who can operate with an expert voice and expert knowledge.
If you’re working for a real estate company, for example, you need to know all the ins and outs of the industry, from staging a house to showing houses to selling and even buying. If you’re working for an attorney, you have to know how the law works, and you have to get it right, without error.
Doing a little bit of everything makes you a utilitarian option for someone in need right away, but it also means that you probably know just enough to be dangerous in any given situation. It’s far better to develop your knowledge in a few very specific areas. This lets you build a niche.
Something else to consider: Think about branching your niche out from your areas of specific interest. Tons of people out there deal with popular culture and technology, for example, but there might not be so many working with luxury real estate.
If you can build knowledge and interest in an area of expertise that might not be widely held, you’ll open the door to companies looking for that area. Look at freelance job boards to see where a lot of people are requesting jobs but not a lot of folks are responding. Focus on those areas. Find yourself a niche and get known as an expert-level freelancer in this niche. You’ll be ahead of the competition right from the start.
7. Network, Network, Network
This last one shouldn’t come as any surprise. We live in a world where, if you’re going to be successful, you need to build a network of contacts in your chosen industry. As a freelancer, this becomes more important than anywhere else. The more contacts you have and the greater your net reaches, the more capable you’ll be of getting new jobs and holding on to more — and higher-quality — clients.
Many people are terrified and confused about how to get started building a network, but in truth, it’s not rocket science. It all comes back to developing those people skills. When you get a client and things go well, keep in touch with them. Talk to them outside of work and develop a relationship. Ask them to hook you up with others (not necessarily their competitors, but maybe their vendors, their subcontractors and the like). When they do, build relationships with those folks.
Anytime you get a chance to attend a trade show or convention in your niche, go. Take business cards with you and include a link to your online portfolio on your business card. Visit those with whom you’re interested in working.
Be careful, though, as conventions are busy places and potential clients may not have time to talk in-depth. Deliver an elevator pitch, make an impression and leave your contact information. Get their contact information, too, so you can reach out to them after the convention. That’s all networking is. It’s reaching out and building relationships.
Set Yourself Apart
In the end, distinguishing yourself as a freelancer is all about setting yourself apart and making yourself stand out in someone’s memory. Have a portfolio, customize your presentation, get your education, use case studies, have scheduled communications, work in a niche and network. These tips may sound daunting, but if you can find a way to implement a few of them, your freelancing business will surely prosper.
About the author: John Ross is a Certified Learning and Development Professional and the founder of Test Prep Insight.