Every freelance knows that self-marketing is the key to winning new commissions. Although emails and phone calls sometimes appear out of the blue, it is usually your own efforts that generate the most interest. The problem is, however, that most other freelances use the same basic techniques and so, to stand out from the crowd, you need to constantly look for new approaches that might help you connect with prospective clients.

Many marketing gurus will advise you to put social media at the heart of your marketing efforts. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms are indeed invaluable aids for creative freelances but they are not the only route to more clients, and lucrative commissions. This blog posting considers an approach to marketing that has been around since before the digital revolution and, despite its age, it is still effective, particularly as it has a very different foundation to modern techniques.

Many years ago, before I was a freelance journalist, I sold software to big corporations. The products were very specialised, very complex and very expensive, and for these reasons, few companies would ever consider buying them. My sales territory was the south-west of England and in my first week, I set about getting appointments with 100 or so companies on my prospect list. After a week of knockbacks, unreturned calls and vague promises of meetings, I confided in a senior colleague.

‘Shotguns and rifles,’ he said sharply.

I was puzzled.

‘You are taking the shotgun approach,’ he said. ‘It’s like aiming at the middle of a flock of ducks and all you’re doing is shooting off a few feathers. You need to use a rifle, with a telescopic sight and choose your targets carefully.’

Focus your aim

I took my colleague’s advice and spent the next few months doing research. This was in the days before the internet so most of my information about the companies, their IT environments and their budgets came from phone calls to people who know such things. Crucially, I also found out the names of the people who made decisions to buy, those who held the budgets and the technical staff who made recommendations. By qualifying my prospects, I reduced my target list from 100 ‘maybes’ to 10 ‘possibles’ and only when I had built up sufficient knowledge did I make the calls to the key people. Six months later, I started to make a serious dent in my sales target.

So why is this approach relevant to creative freelances? Well, a few years later, I became a journalist specialising in the IT industry, and instead of firing off letters to every editor under the sun, I followed a similar strategy and found the magazines that would most likely give me commissions. I read back-issues; found out how much they paid; got copies of their schedules for feature articles; and asked other journalists how best to deal with the editors. Again, my ‘rifle-shooting’ paid off and within a few months, I began to see my by-line in the IT trade press.

One of the problems with social media is that it gives a nice warm feeling that you are reaching lots of potential clients by doing very little. Yes, you may well have 500 Facebook friends who know you are a musician for hire, or you might be a writer who is ‘connected’ to a host of literary critics through LinkedIn. But such connections tend to be rather tenuous and the inevitable consequence is that you spread your efforts thinly. Social media encourages a rather passive ‘shotgun’ approach to marketing.

A new approach might be to combine the best of old and new techniques. How about using social media to find potential clients, then use the internet to its full potential to discover more about their specific needs and preferences, and then fine-tune and personalise your marketing message?

This was exactly the strategy I adopted at the turn of the millennium, when the internet was taking off but before the advent of social media. I had been working as a freelance journalist for five years and, although I enjoyed the work, the rates were pretty low. I often used the internet to check out companies I was writing about and noticed that their own marketing material was often poorly written. So again, I did my research and came up with a list of about 20 companies who might benefit from my services.

Within a few months, I had successfully shifted my specialism from journalism to copywriting and soon had a client list of leading IT companies to add to my journalism portfolio. Again, this principle could equally apply to other creative professions. As a musician, for example, you might typically earn your money from playing gigs in pubs and bars, or session work, but how about selling your talents in the commercial world? Likewise, actors and other performers might be able to find a way of packaging their skills as something that a company could use.

Companies are always looking to find ways to build teams, improve communications, and appeal to their customers in innovative ways, and these facts are manna from heaven to creative professionals. It is certainly not easy to find such opportunities: don’t expect an advert that says: ‘Wanted! Actors to give classes on voice projection.’ But the potential rewards are considerable. I discovered, for example, that copywriting paid four times as much as freelance journalism and, to add to the attraction, the work from my corporate clients was regular.

The onus is on the freelance to find a creative angle for their services. Journalists and writers should home in on the marketing department, and find out who is responsible for co-ordinating the production of marketing literature. A good starting point for musicians and performers might be to find out who makes your potential clients’ corporate videos; or track down the person responsible for staff development and community projects. It will take time and effort, and you will inevitably hit plenty of walls. But if you persist, you might just see the financial benefits of rifle-shooting in the corporate world.

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