Scoring work as a creative freelancer is a hustle. Creatives must be self-motivated, persistent, actively preparing, and seeking to connect with potential opportunities. Drumming up new clients and gigs isn’t a one-pronged approach. You have to build a strong and consistent social media presence, maintain and grow your network, have an up-to-date and accessible digital portfolio, and produce high-quality work for existing clients to get referrals. Here are five strategies to start generating leads and what to do once inquiries and freelance gigs begin rolling in.
1. CREATE YOUR BRAND
Building your freelance career and creative business requires more than just hustling for projects and producing high-quality work on deadline. Critical to getting hired is about who you are, how you work, and how a potential customer or client feels about working with you. This is their experience with your “brand”. Author, designer, and brand adviser Marty Neumeier defines the concept of a brand like this: “A brand is not a logo. A brand is not an identity. A brand is not a product. A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.”
What’s your brand? You’re a unique combination of the totality of your skills, experiences, philosophy, personality, and work style. You are, in the best sense, an essential part of the very product or service that you provide. In order to stand out, it’s necessary to articulate your distinct value proposition. That is, what is the value that you deliver to clients, and what differentiates you from others who offer the same service? What makes you stand out from the rest and why should someone feel good about hiring you?
Leadership expert Simon Sinek, known for giving one of the most widely viewed TED talks of all time (nearly 45 million views) goes a step further in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, stating that ‘people are just as interested in what you do as why you do it’. How clients feel about you help you define your brand:
How do clients perceive you? Does this match how you want to be perceived?
What experiences have you had with clients?
What would clients say about you, your work process, how well you accomplish your tasks?
If the responses to any of the questions above are not in alignment with your brand vision you may need to revise. You don’t want to build a brand around something that you or your company does not adhere to. Most importantly though, focus on the points of differentiation that may be attractive to potential customers and highlight them in your branding efforts and other marketing strategies.
Whether you are a graphic designer, illustrator, writer, art director, or photographer, put in the time to make sure your personal branding is clearly developed. A strong personal brand demonstrates professionalism, initiative, and pride in what you do—just the right equation to put potential clients at ease that you can get the job done efficiently. This means strong curation of your social media channels, a creative logo, and a polished resume. Your brand should be clear and consistent across all platforms and ensure that potential clients keep liking what they see.
2. KNOW YOUR TARGET MARKET
A target market is a select group of people most likely to hire you or buy your product or service. When marketing to potential customers, your marketing message must connect with the customer in a personal way, showing them that your service fulfills their needs and solves a problem. While you can certainly target everyone and see what sticks, that type of marketing is inefficient. Every target market has different needs and wants. A generic marketing message designed to target everyone doesn’t take into account how different people want different things. Generic marketing can become a barrier when seeking connection to entities that may actually be seeking your services.
As a creative freelancer, focus on your target market – who is looking for your services and expertise?
Choosing a viable target market (or a few distinct target markets) is much more efficient, especially since every person you are trying to reach has an acquisition cost. You will have a much higher rate of success at a much lower cost if you know everything you can about your market and stay informed of its latest trends. When you know more about your market, you have the data, insight, and research to craft a message just for them, as well as an understanding of the best ways to reach that market. You should also keep evaluating the market to make sure it’s stable and/or that new targets aren’t viable due to changing industry perceptions or other factors. Understanding your market takes more time, but it is well worth the effort. Knowing what your targets want, what they like, and what they do, will pave a clear path to them.
3. NETWORK IN-PERSON AND VIRTUALLY
Opportunities for creative gigs can be generated both in person and on digital platforms. Creative freelancers should be devoting time to develop both a physical presence in their local community, as well as a virtual presence. Leah Gibbs-Gore, a Senior Account Executive at Creative Circle, one of the country’s largest and most successful creative recruitment firms, sings the praises of constantly showing up. “People launch their careers by making connections with other people in the industry”, she insists. “You have to really put yourself out there and be assertive. The more you throw yourself out there, the more likely you are going to meet the right people.”
Creative Freelancers, artists, and designers have many options for tapping into their local arts, design, and creative community. Take advantage of opportunities to introduce yourself at local shows, art openings, networking events, professional meet-ups, open studios, and peer reviews, to become a consistent presence in the local scene and to build a strong network. Register with your local Chamber of Commerce; offer to facilitate workshops and presentations to professional networking groups or others in need of your services.
For virtual networking, it’s beneficial to be active on social media and engage with your audience frequently. Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn are essential tools for providing a platform for creatives to share their work and brands. Contribute to your field by serving as a thought leader and write articles for online publishing or host a podcast. Join professional associations in your field to gain more networking opportunities and members-only benefits, like access to directories and job boards. Many associations have local chapters that you can get involved in as well as professional development workshops.
4. POLISH YOUR DIGITAL PORTFOLIO
While being a constant presence in your local community is paramount, having a strong web presence is just as important. Turn your focus onto a small set of online platforms and develop a strong digital portfolio. Consider uploading your digital portfolio to spaces like Artrepreneur, Behance and Dribbble, where potential clients are scouting talent, or running an active Pinterest account to not only showcase your work but demonstrate visual boards that show off your creative references. For reaching out to potential clients directly, Upwork, as well as more creative geared sites like 99designs and The Creative Group, are great places to scan for creative freelance gigs and leads.
When it comes to creating your digital portfolio, creative freelancers should be mindful of creating consistent profiles that align with their established personal brand. Start with the basics: select a professional photo, craft an easy to understand headline and connect your social platforms. Potential clients are scouting or receiving innumerable leads and more than likely skimming through the results. Your photo and headline are the first things they see and it is important that they jump out and create a strong first impression. Get rid of the selfie and opt for an appropriate headshot that demonstrates confidence. Hire a professional photographer if your budget allows, but if not, choose an appropriate background and a quality camera. Take a shot that will provide impact and reflect you and your brand accurately.
Likewise, potential clients want to hire freelance creatives that specialize in the desired role. Focus on your strengths and specialties within your digital portfolio, rather than giving a laundry list of tasks you are ok at. Your headline should cut straight to the point. Stick to a single line with copy that doesn’t rely heavily on industry jargon—leave this for the actual profile. Craft a headline that informs potential clients of the most important details: your job title, your specialty, and years of experience.
Freelance creatives should approach their digital portfolio in the same way by choosing appropriate work samples that play into your established brand while including information that doesn’t just explain what you do, but how you work. Potential clients aren’t interested in a bulleted list of skills. Potential clients are interested in results and need to be able to conceptualize the benefits you will be able to contribute to their business.
Gabriela Williams, a Recruiter at Creative Circle, shares three pieces of information that creatives should be demonstrating within sample work.
- You need to explain what the challenge and end goals were that you were hired to tackle.
- What was your contribution? What were the ideas that you brought to the table?
- What was the impact? Were the goals met?
“This needs to be articulated for hiring managers,” Williams says. “The worst-case scenario is that whoever is reviewing your digital portfolio is left with questions unanswered, and with so many candidates, it’s easy for them to not care enough to ask because someone else did provide the answers.”
5. PROVIDE THOUGHTFUL PROPOSALS
If you are actively sending out bids on projects and freelance gigs, you are potentially one of dozens or more creatives going after the same job. This is your time to shine. Send out thoughtful proposals that demonstrate your personality, professionalism, and initiative.
When crafting a bid, don’t be afraid to be yourself. Clients are ultimately looking to feel confident that the person on the other side of the screen can get the job done. Your skillset, experience, and samples are going to be the bread and butter of the bid, and you should play those attributes up, but it also helps to add a human element to the exchange. Scratch overly formal language and feel free to play with humor. Likewise, don’t be afraid to show initiative and share an idea in your bid or talk about how you would tackle the job.
Always read job postings carefully and pay attention to any specific qualifications or questions that a job poster would like you to fulfill. Follow those directions closely. It is okay to bid on jobs even if you don’t meet all of the qualifications, but be sure to verbalize why you should be considered regardless. Always proofread your bids carefully for spelling or grammar mistakes before hitting send.
Pricing your services is a very personal process. It is a process that often takes years to figure out. Lean on your community of fellow creatives to understand industry standards. Larger online communities like AIGA, a membership organization of professional designers with more than seventy chapters around the country, also offer extensive resources including a freelance day calculator to help you gain confidence in your pricing.
Freelance work can be episodic; feast or famine. You either have too much work or not enough. That’s why cultivating and securing creative freelance gigs can sometimes feel overwhelming. However, you’re in business for yourself, so consistently executing the strategies discussed above is key. While you’re working for yourself, you can have multiple channels working for you to land your next job.
How do you book your gigs as a freelancer? Have you used our tips? Let us know!
Kevin Vaughn is a writer and photographer focused on food and culture in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His work has appeared Munchies, New Worlder, Remezcla and Savoteur.