How Working For Free Can Save Your Business

How working for free can save your business

No getting away from it – I’m talking about working for free again. On my recent online travels, I’ve come across a number of freelancers who’ve decided that giving away free work is a good way to boost their business.

The idea always seems to be a pretty vague one, along the lines of

  1. ANNOUNCE FREE WORK 
  2. [insert serendipitous chain of events here]
  3. GET ALL THE CLIENTS

And I’m yet to see any kind of indication that 1) the idea will work and 2) it has any kind of measurable return on investment, i.e. that it’s worth the time and money it costs to do it.

I’ve seen freelancers suggesting free work as a prize in a competition, and I’ve seen freelancers suggesting that pitching prospects with an offer free work will somehow encourage them to hire you for paid work in future –  if they like you,  if they need more work, and if they don’t find someone else to do it for free again.

Oof. 

So, let’s be clear: how can working for free save your business? It can’t. 

Yeah, I tricked you into this with a click-baity title, but I’m not even sorry. In 14 years of freelancing, I’ve literally never seen it work.

The results I do see, time and again, are as follows:

  1. ANNOUNCE FREE WORK
  2. Communicate to the world that you’re desperate for work and have no clue about effective marketing
  3. SUBSIDISE CRAPPY COMPANIES THAT WANT FREE STUFF.

Free work ≠ a product giveaway

Marketing 101: working for free is not the same as a product giveaway.

Retail brands that rely on high volumes of website or social media traffic to promote their products can do pretty well out of giveaways – that’s because there’s a tangible product that people want to get their hands on. So yeah, all that “RT/Like/Follow us for a chance to win!!1!” stuff works for them.

For service-based freelancers, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. There’s no real product appeal, so the response is highly unlikely to be viral. You may get a few bites, but per conventional marketing wisdom, it’s not likely.

Another thing to bear in mind: the expectation on creative service-based freelancers to work for free doesn’t apply to retail brands. You wouldn’t go into a shop and expect to pick something up for nothing, but many writers, artists, musicians etc. are still being asked to work for nothing. Offer your work for free and you’re feeding into this mindset.

Questions to ask yourself (HONESTLY, Please) before you give work away

I’m going to lay it out pretty straight here (harsh? Maybe): if you’re thinking about giving work away as some kind of prize or incentive, you have no clue about marketing. 

Whenever I talk to freelancers about their working-for-free ideas, it doesn’t matter how original they think they’re being, or how hopeful they are that maybe, this time, it’ll work, it comes down to this:

They either don’t know how – or don’t want –  to market themselves properly.

So let me help. 

The reason I’m covering this topic again (after recording a podcast episode on it just over a month ago) is because I really, really want freelance writers to do better. We’ve all been there, scratching a living, and it sucks.

I want you to earn more. I want you to grow up, act like a professional, and realise that throwing free stuff at businesses who may or may not hire you in future (spoiler: they probably won’t, and if they do, it’ll be for peanuts) is not the way to market your business in a successful, sustainable way.

It’s the act of a freelancer who is out of ideas or out of courage. We’ve all been there, but it’s not somewhere you want to stay.

You can do much better. So let’s go. Question time:

Are you pitching enough?

If you’re struggling for business and you don’t have enough clients, you need to be pitching on a daily basis. If you’re already pitching, you need to be pitching more – there’s nothing to stop you sending out short, customised pitch emails in the double figures every single day.

Are you pitching well enough?

Are you sending your pitch emails to the right people? “Info@“ addresses aren’t good enough – get yourself on LinkedIn and find out who people are in-house. Google them until you have an email address. Can’t find one? Phone and ask.

Are you following up on your pitches?

Sent out pitches and had nothing but some sweet silence in return? Make a note of all the emails you send – detailed advice on how to follow up your freelance pitches here – and send reminders when a little time has passed. Still no response? Time to pick up the phone. Do this for every single pitch you send.

Have you tried referral Rewards?

Trying to tap your network? Offer referral rewards to clients and non-clients alike – a discount of, say, 10% on their next invoice up to X amount every time they win you a new paying client. When you get paid, they get their discount. For non-clients, offer them a percentage of your first invoice, so when you get paid by their referral, they get a cut.

Have you tried incentivising repeat business?

Same deal, different set-up: want to turn a one-off client into a repeat client? Pop a note on their invoice inviting them to hire you again – offer them a nice little discount or incentivise bulk-buys, like a batch of blog posts, then follow up a little while later to see if they can be tempted.

Are you charging your current clients enough?

If you’re desperate enough for work that you’re considering working for free, you need to ask yourself why you’re not bringing home enough cash in the first place. My pod on how to set your freelance writing fees goes into more detail, but basically this: your minimum fees should be set at what you need to earn, otherwise there’s no way you’ll make a living.

Are you looking for work in the right places?

Still hanging around on job boards and content mills? Stop it – those are hunting grounds for exploitative clients. Great advice from one of my favourite freelance coaches, Jenny Beres (aka The Six-Figure Freelancer): you need to get out there every day and create clients. Find businesses that need your services and approach them with news about what you can do for them.

Are you tapping into your personal networks?

You don’t ask, you don’t get. Everybody knows somebody, whether that’s family and friends, online contacts, ex-colleagues, current colleagues or the woman at the Post Office. Spread the word that you are looking for work and that you’re bloody good at what you do. And you’d better be – else why are you doing it? Get some business cards that say who you are and what you do, and take them with you everywhere.

Are you tapping into your local networks?

Feel like you don’t have strong networks? Time to build some. Search online for local networking groups, breakfast clubs, co-working spaces, jellies, you name it. Look for businesses and agencies in your local area, big up that geographical link. Ask if you can drop in for a chat about what you can do for them.

Are you marketing yourself properly on social media?

Is your social media consistently updated with good quality content? If not, why not? Social media profiles are a gold-mine for marketing yourself and finding clients, so make sure your profiles are up-to-date, engaging and full of information about the services you offer. Use a platform like Buffer to keep those updates ticking over at regular intervals.

Is your website selling your services effectively?

When people visit your website, can they see instantly what you do and why they should hire you? You don’t need to spend a fortune on a flashy website – if your message is clear enough, a simple site will do the job in the meantime.

Are you upselling your services?

Running a business is about having long-term goals, which is why it’s so frustrating to see freelancers giving away work as part of no wider marketing strategy whatsoever. Upselling your services is a great way to extend and improve your sales process. Got a client who wants a blog post? How about some social media content or a press release to go with that? Or a case study? The only limit is what you can envision working for your client.

Have you reached out to past clients?

Worked with a company and not heard from them for a while? Time to get back in touch – I did this recently and just (as I was writing this blog post, actually!) received an email with a list of new projects they’d like my help with. You don’t know what someone needs until you ask – and you’ve already got a foot in the door with old clients, so they’re a great place to start looking.

Have you reached out to dream clients?

Another nugget of wisdom from Jenny Beres: enthusiasm trumps experience. And while that might be a teeny bit Disney for my liking, I can’t argue: if you show real passion for a brand and you pitch to that brand with some great ideas on how you can help them, there’s no reason you won’t be in with a chance of winning business from them.

Summing up: Be Pro-Active not Reactive

Marketing your freelance business is a long game, and the key is to be pro-active, not reactive. If you’re only thinking about marketing when you’re desperate for clients and down to your last penny, you’ve got some catching up to do.

Marketing is your business. Marketing is how people find you, what they learn about you, why they’ve convinced to hire you. It’s not you throwing free stuff at randomly chosen prospects and hoping that some of it sticks. It’s about doing what works for you and your business and doing it over, and over, and over.

If you’re itching to work for free, ask yourself why. Be honest with yourself and I think you’ll find some (plenty of!) better things to spend your time on.

No one can make you charge what you deserve (I wish I could!) but trust me when I say this: giving your services away only devalues them and you. Aim higher and you’ll achieve more.

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Working for free: it’s a topic we’ve all got thoughts on. Tell me yours! Do you disagree? Or do you agree? Do you have a free work horror story? Comment below or chat with me @LorrieHartshorn!

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1 Comment

  • Hi, Lorrie.

    Brave move to call out the people whose marketing plans could do with serious revision. Some of them don’t want to own up to the fact that they’re devaluing themselves and diluting the rest of the market by doing this.

    I used to offer free samples as part of my quoting process for paid work, but I rarely even bother with that these days. In the editorial world, I’ve heard of unscrupulous clients approaching lots of freelancers and asking each to provide a sample edit of a book chapter – add that all together and they can sometimes get an entire publication edited for free. Sneaky.

    Keep fighting the good fight.

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