How To Get Started Advertising Freelance Services Online?

This letter from Will asks me how to get started advertising freelance services, which is something that I, to my own surprise, have never really thought about. So I describe how I have stumbled into it…

I have permission from the writer to post this letter; I’ve removed specific references to names and places in case these are sensitive. If Will is fine with such details, he can contact me and I’ll stick them back in.

Hi Dave,

I’ve been reading your various blogs for a while and have really appreciated your writing, humor, and insights. Flattery aside, I find your design and conceptual work to be very inspiring. A little background: I graduated from […] in May with a degree in psychology and English literature. I’m currently employed at […] as a project coordinator at the […] (think entry-level business consultant, like for McKinsey, but paid a lot less). While I enjoy my work, I’m also thinking about pursuing other avenues of work and enrichment.

One of my jobs during college was working as a copy writer for our communications office. I really enjoyed the work and found it fulfilling. As I look for additional funding during my post-graduate life, I’ve once again turned to the idea of being a copywriter-for-hire. I also enjoy editing and wouldn’t mind editing other people’s copy, but I think that business would pick up more after building something of a reputation or portfolio of writing.

So, to my question(s). What advice can you offer someone who wants to get started advertising freelance services online (I have a web site)? More specifically, how would you go about starting to build this kind of a business? I’ve had a few thoughts, such as needing to pick my target audience, build a portfolio, and maybe some mockups.

If you don’t mind sharing a few thoughts I’d appreciate it very much. If the scope of my question extends into the realm of your paid business, please let me know.

Will […]

Hi Will,

I know a few people who’ve been through […] at […], so that’s cool!

So, to my question(s). What advice can you offer someone who wants to get started advertising freelance services online (I have a web site)? More specifically, how would you go about starting to build this kind of a business? I’ve had a few thoughts, such as needing to pick my target audience, build a portfolio, and maybe some mockups.

The timing for this question is excellent, as I’m facing this very issue myself! Let me address each point one-after-the-other and see what comes out.

Firstly, I don’t feel I’m particularly successful in advertising my freelance services online. That’s because I’ve never defined them very clearly. And the reason for that is that I didn’t want to be pinned down into a line of work for purely business reasons. Instead, I wanted to give myself the freedom to explore, and was willing to take the financial hit. It has been quite expensive, both in terms of potential income lost and in time spent.

So let’s assume you don’t want to waste time tweaking the line-of-sight between your inner eye and your own navel, and want to make some money! I’ve already outlined what I think has been my barrier to successful self-promotion: lack of focus. Or, as my friend marketing raconteur Colleen would say, the lack of having a “handle” that people can use “get a grip” on me; if people don’t know how to wrap their mind around what I do, they’re unlikely to be able to think of a reason why they’d want to hire me for anything.

I pause, because I’m about to say a whole bunch of stuff that I haven’t professionally vetted or “successfully” put into practice, because I haven’t followed it myself. It’s basically the opposite of what I’ve done:

  • Pick one key audience/market which you will target by being as good as you can possibly be.
  • Make it clear what you offer, and how to get started
  • Book the work and get compensated fairly (not necessarily the same as being “paid”)

You’ll have to:

  • Figure out what “good” and “credible” is, from the point of view of your target audience.
  • Create tangible proof of that “good” online in a way that the target audience really understands, fro their point of view.
  • Spread the word of the good work you’re doing across the Internet, gathering incoming links and positive reviews.
  • Tell the people you meet in person of the good work you’re doing, sharing your enthusiasm for the work.

Ultimately, you’ll want to establish yourself as a rare, high-value commodity provider…when you are in demand, your rates will rise accordingly because people will be willing to pay for them.

There may be many people who do what you do, but you’ll want to be THE person people think about when they need work done (and this may be a small group, your target niche). To get there, you’ll have to prove your mettle by being the consummate professional that delivers the results reliably. Word of mouth can then carry you on personal referrals and word of mouth.

That’s the process side. It’s pretty much the same as all the advice you’ve probably seen already.

The hard part, I’ve found, is figuring out what GOOD means, discovering who my target audience REALLY is so I can define GOOD, and the ultimately determining what it is that I’m offering people. This is, I suspect, something you just have to learn by doing. There will be failure and heartbreak mixed with elation and success, but remember that this is part of the process. You will get there only by doing the work, pounding out those articles day after day, and creating a mass of experience that makes you into the powerhouse you are capable of becoming.

I encourage you to look into the works of Seth Godin (“Purple Cow” comes to mind), Hugh McCloud (either “How to Be Creative” or his expanded book version “Ignore Everybody”), and Josh Kaufmann’s “The Personal MBA” for a concise nuts and bolts review of marketing to help convert those concepts into doable steps. These are the first books that popped into my mind, because they are most closely aligned with what I think. If you find the process tedious and unrewarding, remember too that it takes a crapton of time to get anywhere doing your own thing; for encouragement, Steven Pressfield’s, “Do the Work” (or even his earlier and lengthier classic “The War of Art”) might help you out there. Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” might also give you a sense of what being a true stand-out is.

So I don’t know if this really answers your question. If you’re looking for more of a recipe, it would be to do the following:

  • Create a website.
  • Pick the keywords that describe copywriting + specialty.
  • Post collections of your writing on your website as a portfolio.
  • Apply basic semantic SEO: page titles, links, headers, and writing that targets a subject.
  • Pick an “angle”, and reinforce it throughout your materials.
  • Inject some personality so people can remember you as, “that guy who…” if they forget your name.
  • Post resources that are genuinely useful, so people have a reason to visit. Good for organic search, too.
  • Make it easy for people to contact you.
  • Install Google Analytics and watch your incoming search terms and track hits.
  • Create collections of your related works in easy-to-find sections on your website, cross-linked for easy navigation.
  • Use your website as a personal identity vehicle when posting your comments.
  • Refer to your website samples when approaching people for work.
  • Keep posting new website content, generating more and more words, every week.
  • Repeat for two years, and see how it goes.

It’s up to you to provide your own clever take on the above steps. It’s based on the idea people will hit your website either as a referral from you or through an organic search for “copywriter plus keyword”. They may also just stumble upon something clever you’ve posted somewhere on the Internet. When they get to your website, you want them to know right away what you’re about (copywriting) and your personality/style. If they want to hire a copywriter, I’m guessing they’ll want to know the same stuff that any business wants to know: availability, rates, turnaround, process, etc. in terms they are used to, with some way of estimating costs so they can budget you into the project. So talk to some copywriter industry people and find out what that is.