Content marketing for freelancers: notes on tone and content

When you’re a freelancer, leads are your lifeline. Where do they come from? Five years experience at this has taught me that while content marketing works, tone is just as important as content.

Back up a bit. I have had six full-time jobs in my pre-freelance career. The first five of them I got through recommendations from someone I knew. The first, when I was a graduate student, was from a recommendation from my father-in-law; the rest were from people I’d previously worked with.

You could very easily assume that this confirms the “it’s who you know, not what you know” principle, but you have to consider that I got those five jobs between 1982 and 1994. While many things have changed completely since then, the personal connection part is still the same.

The last job, at Forrester Research, I got because I had created and used to run a networking organization for developers called the “Multimedia Roundtable.” (When the Internet came in, I renamed it the “Interactive Roundtable.”) In those pre-social-networking days, it met monthly and spread by word of mouth and email. By the end, there were about 250 people in it. A headhunter talked to one of those people, who referred him to me. So I got that job by creating a sort of pre-Internet social network group.

Freelancing is different

You’re only going to be looking for a job every two or three years, at most. But when you freelance, you need to be looking for a new client every single day.

Your business will be different based on the size of your client engagements. For me, I’ve made about $500,000 so far, and had 71 clients. This means the average client engagement is a little over $7,000. This size of deal has consequences. It means I need to get 20 to 30 clients a year, and also that most of those clients will be vetting me carefully, because that’s a significant amount of spending for them.

So the problem becomes: how do you get 20 to 30 new people to trust you enough to spend thousands of dollars with you every year?

The kind of networking I used to do — through people in my previous jobs, at networking events, and through friends of friends — helps a lot. I also get the occasional referral through a ghostwriting agency. But I need more than that. I need people who’ve never heard of me, and yet can be moved fairly quickly to trust me.

This means I need lots of people to receive two messages:

  • I’m smart — I know just what you need.
  • I’m a decent fellow.

The “lots of people” part is why I write blog posts and books, do interviews on other people’s podcasts, and give speeches. But just being there is not enough. I need to send those other two messages: that I’m a smart and decent guy.

What this means for the content and tone of content marketing

All of the focus I’ve seen on content marketing addresses the content. It has to be helpful (or funny, or otherwise engaging). It has to be easily sharable. It has to be repeated. It has to be SEO-friendly.

I don’t dispute any of this. It’s all true.

But if you’re a freelancer, you need more. It’s not enough to be helpful. You also need to create the perception that you are a good and trustworthy person.

That’s where tone comes in.

You may have noticed (if you’ve read my books or any of my blogs posts or anything else I do publicly) that my tone is very specific. First off, my voice is clearly my own. (You’re hearing it in your head right now.) And second, I am writing directly to you, my intended reader and maybe, potential client. I am telling you what to write, how to think about books, how to think about editing, how to generate freelance leads, or whatever. The word you is there all the time, as are plenty of advice and commands.

This “helpful stuff from me to you” is exactly what you need to generate enough leads to get 20 to 30 people to pay you an average of $7,000 per year.

This is why for freelancers, blogging can not be academic, stilted, passive, full of long sentences, or otherwise boring and impenetrable. It must lively, personal, direct, clear, fun, and really, really helpful.

I think this is one reason why podcasts and video are so popular right now: they lend themselves to an informal and helpful tone. But I still think blogs are easier to consume and more friendly to search. Either way, tone is crucial.

Each post is a love letter. It’s saying: “I love you. I like you. I want to help you. I am a nice person who you will enjoy working with and who will not waste your time. Surely you can see why we should be together. So marry me. Or at least, hire me for a little bit. You won’t regret it.”

That is not the actual message. It is the metamessage, hidden within the tone. But unless you deliver the helpful information with the right tone, you will not make that connection. People may share your content widely and cite it, as they would a news article. But they won’t feel comfortable contacting you.

This is how networking works in the world of social networks and content marketing. It’s how you communicate “I’m smart, and I’m good to work with.”

So work on your tone. It could make all the difference.

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