Freelance writer and marketing consultant Mary Kearl has maintained a five-figure monthly income working 20 to 30 hours a week since September 2019, despite losing 50% of her key clients at the start of the pandemic.
She credits her success to finding work through cold pitching, social media, and referrals and growing solid relationships with clients by being reliable and flexible.
She also touts the value of “anchor” clients, or businesses and customers you can rely on for consistent work, and generalizing when you can to offer new services.
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While I can’t remember how much I made the first time I landed a paid freelance assignment as an undergrad studying journalism at NYU (was it $25, $50, or something in between?), I do remember the thrilling feeling of creating something, putting it out into the world, and getting paid for it.
I always dreamed of being able to set my own hours, manage my own workload and priorities, and pick and choose the projects I worked on and the kinds of people and companies I collaborated with, but I never believed that I could make it as a full-time freelancer — even though I freelanced on and off while working full time throughout my 20s and early 30s, earning at least a few thousand a year on side projects.
It was only when I set out to take a break from working full time and travel with my one-year-old and husband in January 2019 that I dabbled into freelancing more seriously as a way to self-fund our accommodations, transportation, and other living expenses.
I hit my first month of earning five figures as a freelancer while we were still traveling in March of that year, a milestone I celebrated but was also short lived, as two of the three projects I was working on at the time dried up midway through the next month. I still hit four figures in income that month, then a little more than a few hundred dollars the following month in May.
Despite the ebb and flow of both my workload and income, by the time our world travels wrapped up at the end of July I was hooked on both the challenges and rewards of freelancing, and I launched more seriously into a full-time writing and marketing consulting career in August 2019.
I hit my second five-figure month in September 2019, and despite worrying that I would see a big drop like I had after my high in March, it’s been followed by 10 additional five-figure months.
Even with the start of the pandemic in March — which caused me to lose three of my anchor clients and resulted in three publications I’d been writing for on a monthly basis freezing their freelance budgets — I’ve managed to maintain five-figure months in April, May, June, and July while working roughly 20 to 30 hours per week.
Here’s what’s worked for me and how I’ve had to adjust since the pandemic resulted in a loss of about 50% of my clients.
I’ve landed new clients through social media, cold pitching, and referrals
I didn’t realize this until I set out to write this article, but about 32% of my income from this year has come from inbound leads on LinkedIn. Part of that is because even though I’m new to the world of freelancing, I’ve already worked full time and freelanced on the side over the course of 15 years, gaining experience in content, social media, copywriting, and marketing for brands like Target, the New York City Marathon, and Queens Public Library.
And, since writing about how to optimize your social profile to stand out for job opportunities, I’ve put the advice of the experts I interviewed into practice to optimize my own LinkedIn profile to best summarize my areas of expertise and become discoverable by potential clients, and it seems to be paying off.
One lead came through a connection to a company I worked for 12 years ago and another, an executive at a B2B marketing company, found me through my author bio in an article I wrote about marketing earlier this year — which just goes to show that you never really know what actions will lead to more opportunities in the future. (The point is to do good work and become known for it.)
Another 31% of my total income from this year has come from applying for freelance opportunities I’ve discovered posted on social channels (specifically in freelancing-focused Facebook groups).
The one addition is LinkedIn. Instead of searching for LinkedIn’s job listings, I search for posts by individuals and companies (using the “content” search filter and sorting to the “Past 24 hours”) for phrases that apply to my area of expertise, such as “hiring freelance writer,” “freelance content,” or “hiring social media.” About 2% of my income has come from adding this strategy to my repertoire.
Another 27% of my total 2020 income has come from cold pitching editors at publications or the appropriate contacts at companies in my area of experience.
Here’s a sample message I use when adding contacts on LinkedIn (Note: Always use the “personalize invite” feature).
Hi [name], If you ever need [type of freelancer] at [company], I’d love to help. I’ve [explain types of services you’ve done] for [companies you’ve worked with], have an MBA in marketing, and have [how many years] years of hands-on marketing experience at [most relevant companies]. Thanks!
This exact template landed me one of my newest clients, thanks to a message I sent right after I lost three of my regular clients in March.
Lastly, about 10% of my income from this year has come from referrals from current clients or former colleagues.
This is an area of potential growth for me. As a start, I’m currently working on updating my personal website and planning to ask contacts I’ve worked with for client testimonials to list on my website. Last year, referrals made up about 35% of my business, but as my workload has grown more of the new work has come from the sources mentioned above.
I’ve leveraged ‘anchor’ clients and repeat business
Based on what I learned from members of Jennifer Goforth Gregory’s “The Freelance Content Marketing Writer” Facebook group — from the author of the book by the same name — and other successful freelancers, I’ve tried to maintain a minimum of four so-called “anchor clients,” or businesses you can more or less plan on being able to get paying work from nearly every month.
Before the start of the pandemic, I had five of these anchor clients, along with four publications I wrote for on a monthly basis, and was generating about 60% more than my minimum monthly goal.
In the months since, I’ve been able to pivot by taking on work with six new companies and five new publications. It’s still too early to say which will convert to potentially becoming “anchor” clients, but for now several of them have progressed from one-off projects to repeat opportunities, and that’s an important start.
In marketing, there’s a common saying about customer retention — that it’s more costly to attract new customers than it is to retain existing ones. In fact, some say it costs up to five times more to gain new ones than to keep current clients. Another study has found that increasing customer retention by 5% can increase profits by 25% to 95%.
In my experience, these are principles for freelancers to keep in mind as well. Though I’ve expanded my income, workload, and number of clients this year, about 73% of my earnings from this year has come from clients and publications I worked with last year.
I’ve benefited from both generalizing and specializing and being flexible
Many freelancers choose to “niche down,” sticking to working with clients in a few industries and specializing in a few types of services — the thinking being that you can charge more for your expertise and get faster and better at what you do. Because of my varied full-time career and freelance history, I consider myself a generalist who happens to have several years of experience working in specific niche industries and honing specific skills.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve worked for B2B and B2C companies, agencies, and publications. I’ve delivered a lengthy email marketing analysis report with content strategy recommendations, created the social media strategy and launch content for a new technology company with no existing digital presence, and written about everything from car buying to teletherapy.
That’s been an advantage since the pandemic, because while some of the industries I was working in were hit hard by the subsequent economic crisis — like travel — others have remained stable or grown.
Similarly, I’ve benefited by gaining additional work from existing clients by being able to serve multiple needs. For instance, one agency that originally hired me to manage the social media presence of the company eventually expanded my role to include editing content for one of its client’s blogs, managing paid social media ads for its clients, and ghostwriting for the CEO.
The last area that’s helped me since the pandemic is simply being flexible. One client that used to pay me on a weekly basis had to change its payment process to every two months. That was something I was fortunately able to adjust to because I have a safety net of savings and continue to work with other clients that can still pay me on a more frequent basis. Others have had to cut their budgets, and I’ve negotiated for less complex work where possible. Still others have had more work on shorter deadlines.
Between having to move twice during the pandemic, having to keep my toddler entertained at home (where I work), and other challenges related to the pandemic, my income isn’t back to 60% above my goal — but that was never the point. I’m hitting my minimum income goals — and usually ending up higher — while still only working an average of three to five hours a day, and right now the flexibility and ability to take breaks in the day are what I’m most grateful for. SEE ALSO: I make $200,000 a year as a freelance designer by capitalizing on my downtime to learn new skills and build products that increase my profits. Here are the tools and strategies I use to do it.
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