[themeone_drop_cap letter=”T” color=”accent-color3″ /]he current mantra for creative freelancers, and for any independent business owner, is to create or define a niche and aggressively market to that niche. Deciding on what niche you should serve begins with knowing who hires creative freelancers. You will want to have a good idea of the freelance marketplace before figuring out where you fit into it. In my experience, it is a good idea to understand the general landscape of freelancing opportunities and the kind of enterprises that commonly work with freelancers. Why? This knowledge establishes a foundation for targeting prospective clients. By surveying the larger landscape, you are casting a broad net and identifying specific opportunities on which to focus, and also eliminating others.
Note: I’ve used the word, Hire in the article title not because freelancers are hired as an employee, but because it is a word commonly used when referring to working relationships. Freelancers are not employees and do not work for their clients, but with them.
Clients, Not Customers
Freelancers fall into the business-to-business (B2B) sector of the creative marketplace. You are not making things to sell to consumers, which is known as business-to-consumer or B2C. Instead, you are providing professional services. Although you may have an Etsy shop, or sell goods on your own web site, your focus as a freelancer is to deploy your skills, experience and talent in the service of something or someone who is engaged in promoting goods or services to their customers and clients.
By surveying the larger landscape, you are casting a broad net and identifying specific opportunities on which to focus
A client is someone who uses the services of another. They commission or contract for these services. They communicate their needs, goals and market position to the independent professional, who then creates solutions specifically for the client.
A customer is someone who buys goods or services from a retailer or a business. Customers look for bargains, become loyal to brands, and may purchase from a store regularly, but do not enter into contracted relationships to obtain those good and services.
Another difference between client and customer is that a client receives a customized solution, while a customer receives something that is offered to everyone in the same form and manner to everyone else who buys it. Customers buy things that already exist. Clients contract for things that don’t yet exist to be brought into existence. Freelancers have clients, not customers.
A client is an individual, company or organization who contracts directly with the independent creative. When you work client-direct, there is no agency or firm acting as a middleman. You are not sub-contracted by another creative professional. The client comes directly to you with a specific need or problem, and you create the solution for them. Depending upon the size and type of the client’s enterprise, you will work with an owner, executive director, partner, marketing director, president or vice president.
An agent is a middleman, intermediary or representative. Freelancers often work with agencies that place them in short term jobs — part-time or full-time — with the agents’ clients. Depending upon who is paying the freelancer — the agent or their client — the freelancer may be working client-direct.
These are the most common types of business-to-business, client-direct opportunities a creative freelancer will encounter. If you have anything to add to this list, please mention it in the comments or in the Freelance Road Trip members group on Facebook.
A design firm or studio is a small or large business that serves clients. The firm hires staff and may outsource to freelancers. The work is directed by a senior designer or design director. There are no standard titles, so you need to do some homework to find out who at what firm looks at portfolios and matches projects to freelancers. Design firms and studios generally, but not always, create branding, web sites, corporate communications and other collateral.
An advertising agency differs from a design firm in scope and focus. Agencies are divided into separate departments that interact with each other. These departments are generally designated as:
Public Relations handles the messaging and image-building of a client through press releases, events, traditional and social media. It determines the brand message and strategizes a plan for visibility and awareness.
Creative Services includes art directors, designers, copywriters and subcontracted talent such as illustrators and photographers. It is responsible for creating the visual and verbal messaging of a client’s account.
Marketing & Research determines the brand message and works with Public Relations and Creative Services to ensure consistency. It monitors and manages the client’s brand across various media and platforms.
Another distinction between advertising agencies and design firms is that clients are contracted on an annual fee with an ad ageny, where a design firm is more likely to bill per project.
A marketing firm or agency is an independent business that does what a marketing & research department does at an agency. No business or service can attract customers or make sales without getting the word out. A marketing firm is responsible for communicating a brand’s message, strategizing and implementing a plan of action for that message, tracking results, and using those results to manage the brand in the public square. Marketing firms conduct research and develop strategies which they implement. They often sub-contract for creative services such as design, photography and copywriting. Marketing firms will work with several clients concurrently.
Boutique Creative Studio
A boutique firm or studio is a small creative firm run by an independent creative or marketing professional. Boutique signifies small, flexible, specialized, and unique. Often, a boutique studio will have a narrow focus of work or client type. One boutique firm I know of only designs packaging for store brands. Another of my boutique marketing firm clients works with law firms.
Don’t overlook the possibilities of taking on fellow freelancers as clients. You already might be collaborating with another industry professional on behalf of a mutual client. As an independent worker, you should cultivate a “stable” of freelancers whose skills complement yours. In this way, you can offer a greater range of services to your clients. For example, if you are a copywriter, team up with a designer and a photographer to sub-contract for services that are not part of your skill set. Be sure to include their fees in your project estimates to your own clients.
When a fellow freelancer becomes your client, it will be because of those complementary skills. For instance, a colleague needs a professionally-crafted photo for their web site or promotional collateral, and you are just the photographer to provide it.
In-House Creative Department
Larger companies, corporations, publishers, organizations and institutions may have in-house art departments staffed by creative directors, designers, and copywriters. These creatives are employees of the company. Because overflow work is common, in-house art departments are good places for independent creatives to target with their marketing. My very first freelance design gig after I launched my current practice was with a manufacturer in the beauty industry. I reported to the art director, an employee, who reported to the vice presidents of marketing and product development. I worked with this client for almost 2 years until their needs changed.
Greeting Card and Gift Producer
Copywriting and visual images are needed by this market for both digital and printed products. Working with an established company is likely to create more profit for you than if you sell your own product lines on Etsy, if your work becomes popular. The company does all the marketing. Greeting cards make up the bulk of the gift industry, but don’t overlook surface design, calendars, and stationery products.
Magazines, newspapers and periodicals are not dead. They’ve moved online, and still produce printed editions. Magazines have an entertainment, help or information focus, while newspapers concentrate on current events and opinion. Many books, digital and print, are created by independent designers. Even if a publisher maintains an in-house art department, they often have overflow work which they assign to freelancers.
Make your own opportunities
Now that you’ve surveyed the landscape of freelance opportunities, do some research on a particular area and discover potential clients to begin connecting with. Freelancers should always be in a marketing mode, keeping an eye out for new connections and opportunities. It is important that you do not simply upload your portfolio work online, but that you actively pursue the prospective clients you want to work with.
Existing clients and people you know are the best sources for freelance work. Who do you know in any of the industries listed above? Ask them for a referral. Do you have happy clients? Ask for a testimonial to put on your web site and for a referral.
Freelance opportunities are all around you. Form a strategy to find them, and get going.
Your freelance business is built one client at a time. Knowing your options gives you greater control over your journey and freedom to decide who you want to work with. Many creatives leave school or staff positions and launch into freelancing without a clue as to where to begin, or with expectations of lazy mornings full of creative bliss. It’s actually hard work that requires courage and tenacity. You cannot default to just letting things happen. You need to make your own opportunities.
Make your own opportunities (some homework for you)!
Connect with your local chamber of commerce and identify 15-20 businesses that need your services. Keep your list short. Make a plan for reaching out, set a day and time to begin, and get started. Share your successes and roadblocks in the comments below or post them to my Freelance Road Trip members group on Facebook.