Articles - 2nd October 2020

How can freelancers generate leads to find work?

Words by Tom May
Illustration by Jon McCormack

One of the biggest challenges of being a freelancer is finding clients. That’s particularly true in the early stages of your career. So how do you go about it?

Drawing up a list of potential clients is, perhaps a little pompously, known as ‘lead generation’. This is a term borrowed from the sales profession, where it describes the constant hunt for new ‘prospects’: ie, people and companies to sell to. (In fact, if you know any salespeople, it’s worth chatting to them about the techniques that they use, as they tend to be pretty ruthless in pursuit of their goals; something many freelancers could learn from.)

In basic terms, freelance lead generation is the process of finding the kind of clients you’d like to work with (aka ‘leads’). You’d typically compile these into a spreadsheet, along with essential information such as their URL and contact details, so that you can methodically go through the list and send them speculative messages aiming to kindle a relationship.

Writing out a list of potential clients might sound like an easy task. But once you’ve run through the obvious contenders, it’s often surprisingly difficult to think of any more. In this article, we’ll suggest some strategies for building your list up to full and comprehensive levels.

 

1. Build an ‘ideal client’ list

You became a freelancer to do the kind of work you enjoy, for the kind of people you like. So the logical first step is to think about who your dream clients are. And don’t hold back. You might fear you’re not established enough to approach major companies. But that’s not necessarily so.

It’s often the biggest brands, such as Nike, Adobe and Microsoft, who are keenest to invest in young, raw talent (and thus guard against themselves becoming ‘old hat’), especially when it comes to creative roles like make-up artist, animator or fashion designer. More generally, whatever kind of freelance service you provide, big companies like new blood, as they perceive them as more flexible and easier to mould to their way of thinking, not to mention a little cheaper.

Of course, your ideal client might not be a big or famous company. Perhaps you dream of working for a scrappy, rule-breaking startup, a small environmental charity, or just a company that’s highly respected in its field. Whatever your dream, the specific client you have in mind might not be able to hire you… but there may be a very similar one that can. So ask around, do your research, and make sure you uncover as many potential clients that fit the bill as possible.

 

2. Check jobs site and recruitment news

Another lead generation strategy is to check out job sites. That might sound weird: you want freelance work, not a job, right? But when a company is advertising for a full-time role, that role often needs to be covered by freelance help in the meantime. Indeed, if they don’t end up finding the right full-time person, they may decide to rely on freelancers instead, landing you regular work over the long term.

In short, jobs sites are an excellent source of ‘warm leads’: companies who are more likely to be interested than those you just contact at random (‘cold leads’). For similar reasons, it’s also a good idea to check recruitment news in the sector you’re interested in. If, for example, someone in your line of work has been promoted or moved to another company, it may take a while to replace them. Act on this information, and you’ll have got your name in front of the company before their job ad has even gone live.

 

3. Ask for referrals

One further way to find potential clients is through your own clients, past and present. Think about it: if you’ve done a good job for them, they should be more than happy to refer you to their clients, partners or suppliers. You just need to ask.

Make sure you ask for testimonials at the same time, too. And don’t worry that such requests will irk your clients and make them less likely to book you in future. In fact, the opposite is true. According to the psychological principle known as the Ben Franklin effect, asking people for favours makes them more likely to like and respect you. Try it: it really does work!

 

4. Other freelancers

Other freelancers in your field can also help you find future clients, especially if you have similar skillsets. It makes sense that if the company has hired them might want to hire you, too. So how do you find out who a freelancer’s past and present clients are? If you know them, or chat to them on social media or at a freelancer meetup, you could always ask them directly. But it may be easier to first check their LinkedIn page and website, where you should find at least the prominent ones listed.

 

5. Harness your network

Clients are people, and value personal connections just like the rest of us. So one of the most fruitful ways to find new clients can be to ask around all the people you know.

Let’s assume, for example, you’re just starting out as a freelance accountant. Pretty much everyone you’re friends with on social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn is going to either work for an organisation that requires accountancy services, or be a self-employed person who needs it themselves. The same goes for your friends, your kids’ friends’ parents, that shop assistant you always chat to…

In short, it’s surprising how many people you have some kind of connection with when you really delve deep. So given that finding new clients is largely a numbers game, make sure you spread your net as widely as possible.

 

6. Look locally

In these days where so many people are remote working, it’s weird to think that living in the same area still means something. But all the evidence suggests that, even for digitally based freelancers, approaching local companies for work can be very fruitful indeed.

So if you receive a local directory of services through your door, go through it from cover to cover. If not, check out online directories such as Yell.com or The UK Small Business Directory. Furthermore, why not wander around your locality and go door to door, offering your services and see if anyone bites? It might sound old-fashioned, and takes a fair bit of effort. But potential clients will respond to it far more warmly than the hundreds of spam emails they get every day, making them warm leads indeed.

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