There are three basic ways for a freelancer to get business: inbound queries, referrals, and community participation. They have one thing in common: being nice pays off.
Inbound is effective, but expensive
Inbound marketers would have you believe that if you create awesome, SEO-enabled content, leads will roll in. They are right, but it is not easy.
First you have to build a regularly updated, fascinating, search-optimized content collection. This might include blog posts, Facebook posts, Instagram posts, podcasts, videos, infographics, original songs, or memes. Then you have to deploy them in all the social channels you can and cross-promote. Then you have to connect them to lead generation.
You could even write a book, which is the most powerful form of content marketing.
Of course, you could advertise, too.
If that all works, you get a list that you have to nurture.
All your effort results in a funnel. At the top are (hopefully) hundreds of thousands of interested people. At the bottom are the ones that are right for you. If this works great, you could have hundreds of qualified leads; if it doesn’t, you could have three, two of which are bad fits or horrible people.
Even if does work, it’s expensive to build and nurture. Not only that, it’s icky. Inbound often most effective when it concentrates on volume and conversions, which makes it seem salesy — if you’re not careful, you may be driving away your best clients and attracting the dumbest, most easily exploited ones.
It’s a delicate balance to remain classy and ethical and still attract business.
I do this (you’re reading some of my inbound marketing right now) but I do it for love. I’m sure if I did an economic analysis of the amount of blogging I do, it doesn’t make sense. It does generate leads, though, and many of them pay off.
To make these leads pay off, you need to help them and be generous with them. All that effort, and in the end, what matters is if you’re nice to the people at the end of the funnel.
Referrals are the best source of business
Repeat business is the easiest way to make money. But the best way to grow that business is to have a client who tells another client that you’re awesome.
To get referred, you need to treat clients like royalty. That doesn’t mean price breaks. It means you respond quickly, do quality work, and understand their actual objectives, not just what they tell you they want. Plus, of course, you’re the best at what you do.
Even that is not enough. It really helps to be nice. I love my clients. It makes working with them more enjoyable. And it makes them want to tell people about me.
For me, as a freelancer, this is new. When I was working for a company, being nice to clients was the salespeople’s job. Oh, sure, I liked and respected them, but I didn’t see being nice to them as my job. Now I do.
Community participation is effective — if you’re in the right community
There’s a third source of leads: community.
Part of this is schmoozing. Schmoozing is the art of being friendly and helpful and making connections at networking events. Schmoozing works, but it’s inefficient, unless you go to a lot of events. It’s also challenging if you’re an introvert.
Online, schmoozing takes the form of participating in communities. I’m active in a couple of elite online author communities — they generate a steady stream of quality leads. What does “active” mean? It means when people ask questions, I’m very responsive and helpful. It does not mean being salesy, because in the most valuable communities, that’s forbidden.
So we’re back to being friendly, nice, and helpful.
I’m not a nice guy. You may have read some of my mean and nasty commentary right on this blog. When it comes to public blather and deception, I’m downright mean.
But as a freelancer, I have learned to enjoy being nice. I am nice to inbound leads — I give a lot of help away for free. I am extremely nice to clients. And I’m nice to community members.
Nice doesn’t mean being a fawning sycophant. It means I listen. I try to understand what people need. And I do what I can to help.
People want to work with somebody like that. It’s not that hard. In fact, it’s a lot easier on the brain that being grumpy and nasty.