Marketing Rules and Principles for Freelancers

About The Author

Jeff Gardner is a business nerd. He loves spreadsheets, graphs and helping companies figure out how to perform better. He also enjoys writing, photography and … More about Jeff ↬

Email Newsletter

Weekly tips on front-end & UX.
Trusted by 200,000+ folks.

Freelancers have it hard. I mean, really hard. In theory, the idea of working for yourself, of being able to choose who you work with and what you work on, sounds like the perfect job. In practice though, it’s a lot more than just working on amazing projects for amazing clients from the comfort of your own home.

Freelancers have it hard. I mean, really hard. In theory, the idea of working for yourself, of being able to choose who you work with and what you work on, sounds like the perfect job. In practice though, it’s a lot more than just working on amazing projects for amazing clients from the comfort of your own home.

There is a tremendous amount of competition out there, and a lot of it is willing to play dirty, cut-throat and underhanded to beat you to the clients. How are you supposed to get ahead of those guys? Is it even possible to earn an honest buck? Thankfully, it is possible and can be a lot easier than you think.

Be sure to check out our previous articles:

Marketing is a brand game

Marketing and its in-your-face division Advertising are all about one thing. Building brand equity. If you take away only one concept from this article, please let it be this one! In this internet fueled economy, brand strength is everything! But brand and brand equity are often misunderstood concepts, the easiest way to think about brand equity is that it’s the sum total of feelings people get when they think about your business or service. And it’s important to remember that brand equity can be positive or negative. A company like Kiva has copious amounts of positive brand equity – their business impacts the world in a positive way and they are nearly universally liked because they are fair and pleasant to work with.


On the other hand, negative brand equity (like Mr. Madoff), is that horrible, sinking feeling that people get when any mention of your name is raised, which, as you can imagine, makes doing business very difficult.

Brand equity is one of the most monumentally important parts of running a successful business. If people associate your business with nice feelings and positive images – they will want to work with you. If they associate nothing but let downs and suffering with your brand, it doesn’t matter how good your work is, no one will ever come knocking.

Let’s take it from the top

From the very first step setting out as a freelancer, you’re giving up the security of a consistent paycheck for the freedom to work with who you want and when you want. There are a lot of risks, but there are also plenty of rewards for those who succeed. First time freelancers and those just starting out often ask about finding those initial clients. A reasonable request: but one that is, unfortunately, very hard to answer. Starting a business, especially a one man shop (in the way that most freelancers operate) is a very individual process. Everyone has their own story and their own path. However; after conversations with many freelancers and my own experiences, I’ve come to learn that there are a few common themes that can go a long way towards helping rookie freelancers get up and running.

It pays to have a plan

In the beginning, it’s tempting to try and take every job that comes your way. But taking every job is a mistake. You will end up over-stretched on vastly different projects, trying to work with clients in industries that you know nothing about. Instead, take some time before you even start trying to recruit clients to formulate a plan. Ask yourself what type of work you want to do, with what types of clients? Knowing your audience and knowing your focus from the outset will help you to qualify prospects and qualify their projects.

For example, imagine that, after much reflection and research, you decide that you want to focus solely on designing and building webpages for Broadway actors. You live in New York City and many of your friends are actors, plus you just love the theatre. From that decision, you now have a clearly defined market and a clearly defined product for that market. Finding prospects and explaining your business becomes easier for you, and easier for those prospects to understand.

Tip: The Elevator Pitch: An elevator pitch is a one and a half to two minute summation of what your business is and how it benefits your prospective clients. If you can’t concisely explain what it is that you do and how it helps your clients in that short amount of time it’s a pretty good indication that you need to focus your business goals a little more.

Having a clearly defined plan also simplifies the process of qualifying clients and potential projects: If it doesn’t fit into your plan – don’t take the work, it’s that simple. It may feel counter-productive at the start to be turning prospective clients away but, remember, you’re in this for the long haul and building a brand around your work takes time, commitment and focus. You can’t build a brand by working for everyone doing whatever project they happen to have.

Every person you know is your audience

When you’re constructing your plan, it’s important to think about what you want to work on and where you want to be in the future but don’t forget to include the groups that you are already a part of and the people you already know. Your hobbies can be a great source of business and a great way to get your freelancing business off the ground. If you have a lot of friends that are actors, and you love the theatre – that might be a good industry to focus on.

If you really love photography – you can focus on serving galleries or photographers. If you already know you’re passionate about the subject material, doing the work becomes that much easier! And you’ve already won half the battle with the people that know (and trust) you, so don’t be afraid to ask. Family, friends, old coworkers; they are all potential clients. A word of warning though; mixing business with pleasure can be dangerous territory and certainly not the area for hard selling tactics. Here are a few guidelines to make sure your sales pitch remains respectful of your current relationships:

  1. Make sure you’re clear about your intentions. If you’re starting a new business – it should be clear that you are going to be charging for your services. Be certain, from the start, that your potential client (and friend) knows that you’re not giving work away for free.
  2. Only offer help where you can make an honest, positive difference. These people trust you, don’t abuse that trust just to build your portfolio. In the long run, your friendship (and your reputation) is more important than your portfolio.
  3. Start small and over-deliver. Don’t promise the moon in order to sell your services. It’s always better to start with a small project and execute it perfectly. If you have an idea on how to expand the project, discuss it after you’ve proven you’re a genius.

Buy local, Be local

Another good place to start is by focusing locally. While it’s certainly more intimidating to walk into a local business and try to sell you services face to face, it can also be a lot more powerful. It is important to remember that not everyone is as comfortable with doing business over the internet as us web professionals; for many clients, it’s easier to put trust in another local business because they can see and touch the person with whom they are doing business. Physical meetings settle fears about fly-by-night internet operations that might just be trying to get their check and deliver something sub-standard.

small town
Original image by Darin Barry

But face to face selling is a lot more difficult than sending out a few hundred emails and waiting for the responses to come pouring in. Here are a few tips for successful face to face selling:

  1. Be Prepared: It’s not just for the Boy Scouts! Make sure you understand your client’s business before you walk through the door. It’s an instant credibility booster when you can show that you clearly understand the problems that your prospective client is facing.
  2. Show your past successes: Have a few anecdotes and a few samples of your work ready to show. Not an entire tome of every site you’ve ever had a hand in – just a few of the best will suffice.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask: When you’ve shown that you understand your prospective clients issues and challenges and you’ve established the quality of your work, it’s time to ask for what you want. Don’t beat around the bush, just tell the prospective client what benefit you can provide them and how much it will cost them. Be forthcoming and honest about what you charge and, above all, don’t be embarrassed about the number you give them; this is business after all.

Working locally is also a great way to build a community around your brand. A community that you can touch and feel and talk to on a regular basis can be a gold mine for freelancers because smaller, local-run businesses are generally well connected with each other and are quick to offer recommendations (when deserved) to other local businesses. I’ve heard of freelancers that have built websites for, quite literally, every small to medium sized business in their town. They started with one and, based on glowing recommendations and personal connections, were comfortably in work for years to come.

Expanding your reach

So you’ve established yourself, you’ve got a steady flow of business and you’re relatively comfortable, but how do you take your business to the next level? How can you earn more while maintaing the same hours?

Hitting an earnings plateau is a common problem for small businesses, especially one-person operations. Sure, you could bring in employees or sub-contract out some of your work to other freelancers but your underlying problem still remains. You are doing work for other small to medium sized businesses that can only afford to pay a certain amount. To make the jump into a higher tax bracket the name of the game is brand recognition and differentiation. People far and wide need to know your brand and they need to have an acute understanding of why they know your brand. In essence, you need to set your business apart from, and above, the competition.

Cast a wide net

Moving from a client base of small fish to one of big fish takes time and, unless you live in one of the major corporate centers of the world, it takes geographical expansion. You cannot source all of your work locally anymore – and this is where advertising comes into play. Contrary to what many web personalities these days would have you believe, advertising is not dead. No, in fact, it’s more alive and more helpful that you may know! The trick with advertising though, is getting it right:

  1. Favor highly targeted, captive audiences: Place your ads within ad networks who cater only to your design/development niche. Broad campaigns are costly and yield low conversion rates, whereas targeted ads to people who are actively looking for a web designer or developer can cost far less and provide many more conversions.
  2. Place the ads yourself: By directly contacting small niche blogs and other sites that you know to be frequented by the exact clients you hope to attract you can generally pay less for advertising space. In addition, forming a relationship with the people on the other end is likely to allow you more control over when and how your ads are shown.
  3. Maintain a consistent message: Make sure that all of your advertising is consistent with your brand. And I’m not just talking about the design of your ads. Your message and your tone are just as important as how your ad looks. Consistency across all of these areas will help to build a solid brand identity.
  4. Publicity Stunts 2.0: Better yet, save those ad dollars, challenge yourself to pull off something incredible in a short period of time (build a working web app in 12 hours, etc.) or redesign the homepage of a potential client’s site and then send them redesign idea with your sales pitch included.

cast a wide net
Original image by susiewrites

It’s important to note: You can’t just run a few ads and expect the business to just pour in. Effective advertising takes time and, above all, constant measurement to be successful. Start small and keep good records of new business that is a direct result from your advertising efforts. This way you can focus your dollars on efforts that pay off and drop advertising with little to no return on investment.

Let the love grow

You’ve heard it before, but it’s so important that it’s worth mentioning again: Teaching the world what you know is a tremendously powerful method of establishing credibility and bringing in new clients. If you’ve established your business as the expert in a given niche of design or development you’ve, more than likely, built an incredible store of very specific knowledge and experience. While it would seem to make good sense to keep that information to yourself (in order to preserve your competitive advantage) the opposite is actually true.

cast a wide net
Original image by Jeff Gardner

Write guest posts on influential blogs, post frequently to your own blog, make sure you’re helping as many other designers or developers that you can. Every new place you can get your name and your information only helps to spread your brand and solidify your status as an expert. And contrary to belittling your competitive advantage (remember, competitive advantage is a multi-headed monster and it takes more than just your knowledge to take your place in the market), it fortifies your position in the market as the most knowledgeable and skilled practitioner in your field.

Need an example? Think about the chefs of high end restaurants: Why do you think they are so happy to write cook books full of their most prized recipes? I’m sure the big royalty checks help, but it’s because they know it takes more than the ingredient list to make a beautiful and delicious dish, and that those cookbooks are helping thousands of people cook better food for themselves, which only serves to build their positive brand equity and name recognition.

Charge More

Yup. Simple idea right? You want to earn more? Then charge more. If you have a constant stream of good business, and especially if you have to turn clients away because you are too busy, you should be charging more for your services. Much has been written about the psychological link between perceived quality and price and this idea was covered extensively in my last article here on Smashing Magazine about pricing, but pricing can be a great way to control the amount of work you have on your schedule.

Working too many hours? Raise your prices and you’ll cull some of the price conscious clients off the bottom. Chances are, you’ll be earning the same or more from less hours. A wedding photographer that I know has been steadily raising her prices since about the third client she ever got and it’s only fueled her business. She is now charging at least double what she was originally charging and continues to increase her client-base.

Something to remember about price changes though. If you are going to raise your prices, give fair warning to your current and possible future clients with an announcement on your blog about the price hike. Being honest and forthcoming about what your prices will be and why you are becoming more expensive will generally quell any opposition from clients about the higher price tag on your services.

Hopefully I’ve given some hope to those newbie freelancers out there and some encouragement to those sitting on the earnings plateau. And I hope that everyone has taken away the idea that, more than any other single concept, the idea of Brand Equity should be the paramount concern in any marketing effort you decide to follow!

Interested in more freelancing articles on SM?

Are you interested in more freelancing / marketing-articles on SM?(online surveys)

Further Resources

  • The Top 5 Powerhouse Marketing Secrets For Freelancers A good list of tips for positioning yourself and making the sale.
  • 10 Useful Marketing Tools For Freelancers Exactly the way it sounds – A list of helpful tools to aid you in your marketing efforts.
  • 9 Tips for Establishing Your Own Marketing Method as a Freelancer This is a good article that goes into depth on how to formulate a personal marketing plan.
  • 27 proven freelance marketing tips Long list of marketing tips and tricks for freelancers. The article is geared towards writers but many, if not all, of the tips can be applied to freelancers of any type.