Gosh, who knew time could fly this fast? It’s been almost two and a half years since I started freelancing and living this solo-preneur life. Two and a half years since I pulled the rug out from under me and dove head-first into the murky world that is freelancing in Ghana and Africa. I’ve already shared some tips on what one needs to do before opting for the freelance life, but what about those who have already made the (crazy?) decision to swim against the tide? How do you find clients, stay afloat and steer your ship on what is sometimes very rough waters? Better yet, how do you let people know you’re the best person to get them from point A to point B?
If you’re just starting out, it might feel like rocket science trying to figure out what marketing options and tools can work for you – but that’s what I’m here for; to share some insights on what has worked for me and, hopefully, help guide you to what could work for you. These tips are geared at freelance consultants, but can be adapted and applied across different professions. So let’s get into it, shall we?
Deliver, deliver, deliver (results)
About 80% of the consulting jobs, opportunities and gigs I have undertaken since 2015 have been through referrals – sometimes from people I have never had a conversation with, much more met in person. I’m a big believer in the value of quality work. In making sure that you not only meet but exceed a client’s expectations. And not just for “new” or “first-time” clients; as much as is humanly possible, it’s important to deliver every. single. time. For good reason. Word of mouth and referrals are still the number one avenue for getting new business and clients. It goes like this: You wow a client. They meet with a friend / colleague / acquaintance sometime down the line. Friend mentions needing X service. Client remembers how great of a job you did. They make a referral: you. New potential client contacts you. The rest is history. It may read like magic, but it takes doing the work to gain that kind of credibility that makes you the first person someone thinks of when they need a specific service or resource. And it’s something you really shouldn’t compromise on, because in many instances you may not actually have done work for the person referring you. They may simply have heard of you or seen the results of work you have done for others. All it takes is knowing your work ethic and the quality of the results you deliver for someone to go out on a limb for you.
What does this mean? Take your work seriously, be professional – especially as a freelance consultant working from home or remotely. The fact that you don’t have anyone monitoring or evaluating your progress doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be creating the systems to do that yourself. Take time to understand your client’s needs and check-in with them from time to time to make sure they are happy with how things are going so far. Communicate. Goodness, I cannot stress this one enough: communicate. Especially when things are going wrong, behind schedule, not working out as planned. The worst thing you can do is leave a distressed client in the dark about something they are paying you to deliver on. Make that money, the best investment they’ve ever made in a consultant by going the extra mile for your clients, and I promise you, they will remember you. Long story short, deliver excellence and let your work speak for itself. How’s that for a 24/7 marketing machine?The worst thing you can do is leave a distressed client in the dark about something they are paying you to deliver on. Click To Tweet
Use and get creative with social media and digital tools
In my previous job, I had the pleasure of scoping out young African leaders, initiatives, and entrepreneurs who would add some substance to the various events I was spearheading. One thing that always struck me was how the same people kept popping up in search results. In the rare instance of finding a possible participant who was not or didn’t seem to be on social media, I would realise, quite sadly, that there was no way of actually contacting them. By deciding not to have a digital presence, for whatever reason, they automatically disqualified themselves from the numerous opportunities that could come their way through social media, yes, but also through discussion forums, email mailing lists, or even more basic, their email address. This realisation is partly why I organise digital skills trainings and offer one-on-one personalised coaching, write about career development and occasionally go on Twitter rants about the level of entitlement some of us have when it comes to opportunities for self and professional development. As a freelancer, you are your own executive officer, marketing department and sales team rolled in one. You owe it to yourself to figure out where your potential clients might be and to give them snippets of what you have to offer. Does this mean you should hit everyone up with a “Hello, I need a job” like one guy did to me on LinkedIn some time back? No. As social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk puts it, ‘give value, give value, give value, then ask’. Of course, there are websites like upwork.com, where you might be able to find jobs.As a freelancer, you are your own executive officer, marketing department and sales team rolled in one. Click To Tweet
However, if you’re looking more long-term – building credibility and a brand – you need to consider more non-traditional routes, to think outside the box.And no, you don’t (immediately) need a full-fledged website to get started. Think easy to manage, cost-effective, and creative: getting social. For starters, you can join an online community dedicated to freelancers to share your experiences and learn from other freelancers. If you do this consistently and meaningfully, people will get to know about your breadth of experience and skills, and when the right opportunity crops up, guess who they’ll think of? You. You could – and should, really – also consider how you can use your Twitter profile to effectively brand yourself and interact with other freelancers or potential clients. The goal in all this is to share your expertise in a non-invasive, non-spammy, and non-braggy way. The golden key for unlocking the door to opportunity? Quality, valuable, and useful content. Whether it’s a blog, your tweets, your WhatsApp status, LinkedIn account or just your Facebook profile, people get a sense of who you are, what you do, and why you do it, by what you share. We subconsciously assign specific words and labels to people based on what we perceive their interests to be. Besides sharing valuable content, take things a step further by creating authentic and original content. And not just in text format either – switch things up with visuals. So, I guess the question you need to ask yourself now is: how am I currently marketing myself and what do I need to do to improve?
Nurture your network
Not ‘connections’. Not just networking. Nurturing your network. Many newbie freelancers struggle with where to find new clients, easily overlooking one valuable resource: your existing network. “But I don’t really have a network…do I?” You most certainly do. From your work colleagues, to your former classmates, to the neighbour down the street, your professor or boss, and even your family and friends – any of these people could be the link to your next client. The thing though, is they won’t know you’re looking, unless you tell them. They won’t know what skillsets you have, unless you show them. Ergo, review points 1 and 2. Beyond getting the word out however, it’s important to tend your network the way you would a garden. What do you think will happen if you ignore the people you’ve had the opportunity of encountering and only call them up when you need a favour or your next job? Your guess is as good as mine: they will not only assume you’ll let them know when you need something, they might also feel a tad ‘used’. How are you adding value to them? Have you taken an interest in what they are interested in? Have you passed on an opportunity they might find valuable? Networking isn’t just about going to events, listening to a panel of experts, chewing on some bites, and heading on home. Nor is it a one-sided relationship where they do the giving and you the taking. It’s how you treat other people on the daily in the everyday spaces. It’s going out of your way to provide something of use to another person; because we all have something to offer, however small we imagine it to be. And as we’ve already established, you never know who is going to be that link who will set you up on your next freelancing job, client or opportunity. From my experience, it’s quite often the person whose face never even came to mind.
So to recap: beyond scouring freelancing sites for jobs, every freelancer needs to learn the art of hustling while you wait. Make it undisputed that you are great at what you do by delivering stellar results every chance you get; find and use digital tools to enhance your brand and share your expertise or interests; and once you make those connections, don’t leave them untended. Do these well and consistently, and you’ll find over time that the African freelance sphere isn’t as murky and you won’t have to hit the panic button each time some client work is coming to an end.
Got other tips to share on how to effectively market yourself as a freelancer or consultant? Leave a comment below.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.