As the pandemic changed so many things both personally and professionally, I had to rethink of new ways to market and network in order to find new clients. And in doing so these past four months, I realized what my No. 1 marketing tool is for getting new clients. It’s not sexy or groundbreaking, but it’s solid: My No. 1 way to find new clients is through referrals.
You may not like the words “networking” or “marketing” or “personal branding.” So, why not reframe it and call all those things “relationship building” instead. That’s what I’ve done, and I enjoy building new relationships with people. Some of them even end up becoming true friendships. And that grows my network. And when I grow my network, I expand the possibilities for referrals—not only from current and former clients, but from former co-workers at past jobs, from other editors and writers, from colleagues in the industries I specialize in.
One of the biggest misconceptions I hear from some freelancers is about competition. Your fellow freelancers can be your friends, not your competition. In fact, that’s the way I want to live and be in my business—not in some uber competition with people, but in a non-toxic, stress-free, collegial environment. And, it is just a bonus that those people can be your biggest source of referrals.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been contacted by a potential client who was just not the right fit. Instead of telling them “no” and that being the end of it, I usually offer to connect them with someone that might be a better fit, if I know instinctively that this will not take a lot of time.
I sometimes reach out to freelancer friends that might be a good fit and ask them first if they are interested, without naming the client, and then offering to provide the client their name. Sometimes, the potential client is comfortable with me going ahead and introducing them to one person by email and then I let them take it from there.
When you provide a few contacts to the potential client, not only are you helping out a fellow freelancer, but that client is appreciative and you never know how that might help in the future. I’ve had potential clients come back to me because I went that extra mile and asked me if I was available for a different type of project.
Doing something small like that to help a potential client who has no idea where to look for a writer or editor, or whatever the services that they need help with, keeps you top of mind as a reliable and helpful person. Your name does not get jumbled in with all the other freelancer names they’ve heard. They will remember you—at least more than they will remember the freelancer who never got back to them or just said, “no, it’s not a good fit” and moved on.
When you help out other freelancers in this way, they often reciprocate. You never know what opportunity might come up; it sometimes takes months or even years. But it is amazing how much work I’ve received from other freelancers.
So, when you hear from potential clients with projects that are not quite for you, think of your fellow freelancers. This is easier the bigger the network you have. I actually have lists of friends with their expertise listed because it is hard to think of a perfect fit on the spot. The lists are good reminders of what everybody focuses on and what they’re looking for. In turn, these freelancer friends will hopefully remember you and return the favor, as they have done for me over the years.
The other primary way to get referrals is, of course, your current and past clients. Don’t be shy about letting clients know when you are looking for new work. And be specific about what you are looking for. You may think your client already knows what you do, but they often only know what you have done for them.
Rather than just telling your clients what your services are, phrase it more like: “How can I help you? What do you need?” Then, you can list some of your services, and depending on how much energy and time you want to spend on this, you could also offer to connect them to other freelancers in areas they need help with. For example, if I make this offer and my client needs a new magazine designer, I can connect them with several graphic designers. I’m taking the burden off them, helping to shorten their to-do list.
At the beginning of 2019, I decided to tell my clients directly exactly what I was looking for in the new year, so in my regular newsletter I explained that I was looking for a new newsletter or magazine to be the managing editor of, more membership association clients who needed a magazine writer and magazine proofreading gigs. One of them is now an anchor client.
I remembered the success of that email when I needed to replace lost work at the beginning of the pandemic, so I decided to do something similar. This time, instead of using that smaller email list I had gathered for my newsletter, I pulled together my email contacts of former clients, current clients, friends and colleagues, and almost anyone I had ever had an extended conversation with about work. I then crafted an email and let them know I was looking for new work and spelled out exactly what services I could provide.
I briefly mentioned my 20 years of experience, then created a bulleted list of my services and asked them how I could help them. Again, I offered to help them with whatever they were looking for, mentioning my vast network of other freelancers.
In that bulleted list, I thought of the work that might be needed particularly during the pandemic like writing about public health. I also thought of things specific to the pandemic, like covering virtual conferences, which I used to cover in-person. I also mentioned I could help revamp content editorial calendars since the pandemic destroyed everyone’s editorial calendar.
I ended the email by saying “Please feel free to share my name with—or forward this email to—any editors or colleagues at associations or other organizations who might be looking for a freelance writer or editor, especially someone who specializes in health care and public health.”
My biggest lesson here is ASK. People don’t necessarily think of you unless you ask. Or, they think you don’t need the work. Or, they don’t know what you do. I had a handful of people respond that they didn’t think they could afford me, but as we talked through the project, it turns out they could.
So, again, referrals come from many places. It’s my No. 1 way of getting new clients—and often clients I LOVE because I did the work to make sure we were a good fit.
But you have to ask. And be specific about what you’re looking for, while also saying “how can I help you?” Getting referrals happens through networking, marketing and branding—or, better yet, “relationship building.” And that can still be done virtually right now, through social media, Zoom, texts, phone calls, email and more. Also, be sure to attend virtual conferences and webinars where your clients are—often there are chat features where you can connect with people.
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Episode #64 of Deliberate Freelancer: How to Increase Your Visibility and Get More Clients, with Amelia Roberts
Episode #49 of Deliberate Freelancer: Appropriate Marketing and Promotion during the Coronavirus Pandemic, with Michelle Garrett
Episode #43 of Deliberate Freelancer: 33 Ways to Find More Clients
Episode #24 of Deliberate Freelancer: Networking Tips, Especially as an Introvert