I’ve had a successful first year as a freelance writer building a personal brand. It was everything I dreamed it could be—I made my own hours, worked on a ton of interesting projects with great clients, and still had time to go on long bike rides. I was doing so well that when my boyfriend quit his job to take a breather, neither of us worried about whether we’d have enough money to make rent.
But with all the new work I had flowing in, I found myself struggling to figure out which direction I wanted to take my business. As a result, I often felt burnt out, having stretched myself too thinly across projects. Sometimes I wasted a lot of time in communications with prospective clients that never hired me. I’d read a lot of articles encouraging me to define my ideal client, but I didn’t know where to start.
Since then, I’ve made a lot of headway in building a personal brand that helps me attract clients I really want to work with. And though my process is still a work in progress, looking back, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to shape a practical, profitable, sustainable freelance career—while also standing out in our ever-growing crowd. In my experience, these five pillars can help shape your brand and grow your business.
When you first start out as a freelancer, it can be tempting to accept any job that comes your way. Even if the pay isn’t great, you find that you still take the job, just to earn the extra income and help you reach your goals. If you’re unfamiliar with the industry and know you’ll have to do a lot of research to pull your stories together, you’ll dive in headfirst. And if a client is disrespectful and demanding of your time, you’ll deal with it. After all, you depend on each client—even bad ones—to keep your business afloat.
But as your business grows, you’ll likely find that more and more opportunities come your way, allowing you to shape a specialty and set standards for what you will and won’t accept. Once you have a few good clients that are offering long-term, ongoing opportunities, you can start to set boundaries. When new clients contact you with over-the-top demands or lower pay rates than your budget allows, you can start to say no. If a current client isn’t meeting your expectations and a new, higher-paying or more relevant opportunity comes your way, you can move on. Yes, you might lose some work if you put your foot down, but recognize that this will give you more room to focus on the clients that already love you. It will also give you more room for communications with new clients that value your work.
I always thought that the ideal client was a person in a certain industry—for example, a content marketer at a growing B2B software-as-a-service (SaaS) company. And while industry is definitely an important element of shaping your freelance career and grow your subject matter expertise, it’s not the only thing that should dictate the clients you choose. As time has gone on, I’ve realized that my relationship with a client is just as important as that client’s relevance to my personal brand.
These days, I work in many industries (from marketing, to SaaS, to pet care, to healthcare, to eCommerce), and my ideal clients are those that are easy to work with, pay fairly and on time, and like me as a person. I’ve found that the best clients want to build a relationship with me as an individual, not as a product dealer for writing projects, and I’ll use that knowledge to evaluate all the clients I prospect in the future.
Outside of what we can measure with regard to SEO and our social followings, freelancers don’t have a lot of metrics for success—which can be difficult, especially if you’re used to the regular check-ins and feedback inherent to a traditional full-time job. As a result, many of us turn to our monthly incomes as an indication of how much our clients value our work. Sure, it’s one thing to recognize that certain clients have set budgets through which they can pay freelance writers, but it’s hard not to think about it, especially when it flashes each time you log into your accounting software solution.
Unfortunately, if you define yourself by monthly income, you’ll not only invest way too much time and energy in clients that don’t value you, but you’ll also set yourself up for burnout. I’ve learned to decouple my monthly income from my success. Instead of focusing on the numbers, I ask myself whether I felt burnt out over the past month, if I enjoyed my projects, and if I produced work I was proud of.
Once you determine your standards for clients and decide on the best prospects for you, you have to attract them—and the best way to do that is through your personal brand. This is where you can really set yourself up to stand out, and differentiate your skills as a subject matter expert in your industry. Here, the most effective tool in your arsenal is your online presence—which can include your social media accounts, your professional portfolio/website, and any profiles you create in freelance marketplaces, among others.
When it comes to creating an online presence that encourages the right clients to get in touch, knowing yourself is key. For example: A few months ago, I participated in a virtual feedback session with Skyword’s community management team. In the session, I learned that one way in which the Skyword team finds freelance writers is through the tags on their Skyword profiles. So if a freelance writer’s work is tagged under “pets,” then their profile will come up when the team is searching for writers to contribute to a pet-related project. The key there is knowing that you’ve got great samples in a particular industry, and understanding those samples well enough to tag them specifically.
The same is true for your website. Beyond appropriate tagging, however, your website requires that you definitively know your price point. Many freelancers add price ranges to their sites so they can attract clients that are budgeted to meet their needs. This reduces the number of emails with prospective clients who can’t afford the rates. Expertise is also key here: having a line in your bio that explicitly highlights your area(s) of subject matter expertise means you’ll decrease the number of unrelated clients who reach out with projects that just don’t align.
Even though I’ve come a long way in honing my brand, I still struggle to ensure all my clients are perfect fits—and my ideal client has changed a lot over time. When I first started freelancing, I wanted to work with every client that would hire me. Today, I demand that clients pay my rates, and treat me as a professional with a valued skill. Tomorrow, I might broaden my skill sets to work with clients on projects beyond writing, if doing so fits with my broader professional strategy. These things may sound simplistic, but they’re incredibly tough to remember when you’re hustling for work. In the end, just remember to be patient with yourself—and with time and practice, you’ll learn how to hone in on the qualities that make an ideal freelance writing client.
If you’re looking for more tips on how to grow your freelance writing business, get inspired: subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter.