Have things been a little quiet for you lately? If you’re seeing job openings dwindling right now, you’re not alone. With economic uncertainty plaguing the world, not to mention the prospect that AI and new technologies are rendering many jobs potentially redundant, it’s a bit of a worrying time for creatives of all stripes.
So how do you survive the next few years as a creative freelancer? At the end of the day, regardless of the big picture, there will always be clients who are desperate to hire good people. So the only difference is that you might have to put in a little more effort to market yourself and sell yourself as the answer to their prayers.
That doesn’t mean being boastful, deceptive, or full of yourself: you don’t have to turn yourself into the stereotypical used-car sales manager. It simply means looking at your value and effectively communicating what makes you unique, what differentiates you from your competitors, and how you can prove to customers in a crowded field that you are the best option over anyone else.
It sounds simple, but how do you do it in practice? We asked the Creative Boom community to share their tips and experiences, and we’re sharing some of the best ideas below. In the meantime, you can see the full discussion here.
1. Be concise and honest
Let’s make one thing clear from the start. Selling yourself doesn’t mean endlessly buzzing about how great you are. Using a lot of profanity, jargon, or commercial language won’t make you sound smart; it will just sound like you are trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. People will be much more impressed if you can explain exactly what you have to offer, quickly and briefly, in plain English.
Graphic designer Mike Hinder
explain how he does it. “Most of my inquiries are sent by email, so the first response is ‘make it or break it’. I always link to website articles they will find useful. This immediately demonstrates my knowledge and my Expertise Quick and concise communication is what many clients are looking for.
“Honesty is also important,” he adds. “If something isn’t going to deliver the results the client needs, I explain what needs to change and how we can go about it. Good clients will appreciate the input and work to get it right to save wasted time from two sides. “
2. Focus on the customer
Selling yourself, somewhat paradoxically, does not always involve talking a lot about yourself. As a designer Jae Yon says, “It’s about focusing on the customer, their needs, and how you can help improve their situation. Present yourself as a business consultant and you’ll receive a different kind of respect from the customer.”
Stanley Vaganov, a social impact designer, agrees. “I think being transparent and acting like an expert, rather than an order taker, dictates a lot of your volume,” he says. “That means asking good questions and listening.”
Brand Strategist and Copy Manager Danielle LaRoy echoes this view. “Lead with questions and listen carefully to the answers,” he stresses. “Connect the dots between their challenges and your solutions, especially using stories from past projects to show how you’ve done it before.
3. Show what you’ve done
This seems like an obvious point, but it’s one that many freelancers ignore. Few people will want to hire you unless they can clearly see that you are doing a great job. So you have to find a way to put your best people in front of them.
“I have a template that I adapt per client, but I would say having an online presence helps,” journalist, communications pro and editor Kiesha Meikle. And she knows it, having been on the other side of the fence. “I always Google creative freelancers when they approach me,” she points out. “And clear examples of what you’ve been able to do for others is really helpful.”
Illustrator Vicky Scott agrees. “Having lots of examples of work, at the same level and in the same style, shows that illustrators can trust a business brief,” she explains.
This does not, of course, mean putting everything online; careful conservation is essential. “I’m very careful that my work is always available for people to see and find,” says the illustrator. Niki Married. “Only if I’m confident will I share it on my website and social media. During that time I’ll share working drawings or things that didn’t work out in stories only. I see Instagram as a second wallet.”
Also be sure to enlist a second set of eyes; and ideally a third, fourth, fifth… “I found it helpful to have friends in my target industry proofread my resume for me,” says the comic artist Timothy Winchester. “They can tell me what they don’t understand, what makes sense, what they want to see more of. For example, I assumed everyone knew what my old career entailed, and that wasn’t all just not the case.”
If you plan to play it safe and adopt a vanilla strategy of approaching and talking to customers, you’ll look like everyone else and be forgettable. Never underestimate the power of standing out.
4. Show your process
Selling yourself isn’t just about showing off the finished product, but also highlighting how you made it. One way to do this can be through case studies and testimonials. “Don’t neglect to keep them up to date and take the time to make sure you interview clients and create new case studies,” says the PR expert. Ellen Carroll. “Prove the value of what you do. Trust and credibility are so important.”
Don’t know how to put them together? Greg Findley of the graphic and web agency Mantra has some tips. “Without wanting to survey LinkedIn, I apply the ‘STAR’ method to my portfolio writing”, he explains. “It stands for Situation: the background/context of the work, Task: what was the main challenge, Action: the process/steps I took, and Result: how it benefited my client. I write one paragraph for each.”
Educating customers about your process should also be central to the pitch stage, says Jordanne Young, brand marketing amplification consultant at Enid.fm. “People want to know the ins and outs of your business, your dreams, your goals and everything that goes with it; no glossary,” she says. “For my pitch, I created a set of values inspired by the songs, which makes it a good talking point; an example was ‘No Surprises’ by Radiohead.”
product designer Becky Colley add this idea. “I don’t have my own business, but I often have to convince stakeholders of the value of what I do: human-centered design and user research,” she explains. “I’ve found that what works best is borrowing my approach from proven UX methods, such as providing evidence and starting small. I also use the classic STAR method to tell the story to people who don’t work not into technology and are unfamiliar with digital ways of working. For example, “Here’s a time I used data to spot a problem/opportunity, then what I did to fix it, and finally the impact.””
5. Soft skills
Selling yourself isn’t just about focusing on the job itself. Often potential clients are much more concerned with who you are as a person and how well you can get along with them.
“I honestly think my soft skills bring me more money and clients than my design work,” says photographer and graphic designer Michael Berger. “Being honest but respectful, communicative, understanding and trustworthy: these are the reasons why people recommend me. And each time, I raise my prices!”
6. Be different
When working in a corporate environment, it’s often tempting to follow the lead of others and keep your head down. However, when you’re selling yourself as a freelancer, that’s the last thing you want to do.
“If you plan to play it safe and adopt a vanilla strategy of approaching and talking to customers, you’ll look like everyone else and be forgettable,” says Samantha Hornsby, co-founder of The Eric app. “So never underestimate the power of standing out. Think outside the box. Take a deep breath and be different from others.”
Emily Whitehead, Founder of Simply Club accepted. “Being more Marmite really works,” she says. “It means opening your heart. It means sharing your deepest beliefs and non-negotiable values. And it means avoiding ‘beige’ marketing at all costs.
It also means focusing on your specialty, if you have one. “Being really clear about what I specialize in – i.e., communicating my purpose – has made the difference for me, in terms of demonstrating my value and integrating the right ‘fit’ of clients “, says Ben Veal, founder of second mountain. “As a freelancer, it can be very tempting to be a generalist and take whatever creative work comes your way. My advice? Don’t go down this path. Be very clear about your value and your proposition from on day one, build your reputation in this area by being consistent, and don’t waver.This is the path to true value for all.
Above all, be yourself. Because it’s much easier to sell your real self than a fake version that you think customers will like (they probably won’t). As a UI/UX designer Mayane Gabriel says: “One thing that helps me a lot is to be myself as much as possible. The more I can bring to my work, the better. In my personal life, I have values, I have joy and I’m honest. When I bring that to my work, my clients can see that spark of joy.”