If you ask freelancers the toughest part of their job, many would say it’s getting new clients.

Melanie Padgett Powers, owner of Mel Edits and host of The Deliberate Freelancer podcast, offered her tips and strategies for taking stress out of the process during Freelance Austin’s March event.

Know where your work comes from
First, she recommends doing a business audit – by money, not by volume of assignments – to determine where your work is coming from. “That way you can double down on what is working and not waste your time on what’s not,” she explained.

While many freelancers rely on letters of introduction (LOI) – cold calls or letters/emails in which you introduce yourself and your services to a potential customer – Melanie prefers to work smart. “I don’t bother with LOIs because it’s a numbers game, and you have to send out hundreds of them each month to make it work,” she said.

Ask your network for names
When Melanie first went freelance, she hired someone to teach her how to pitch stories. The consultant encouraged her to cast a wide net and email her entire network – former bosses, former and current co-workers, family and friends through church and other associations – to let them know she was going out on her own.

In addition to telling people what she offered, Melanie said another key tip from the coach was to ask her network for names of other people who might need her services. “That specific act not only expands your network but gives you a name to whom you can send an LOI, which is critical” to success, Melanie said. “Being referred directly by a contact gets you to the front of the line.”

Be specific about the work you want
Melanie recommends letting people know the specific kind of work you want and not assuming they already know. An email in which she asked for three very specific types of work was one of the most effective mailers she’s done.

Why was it so effective? “People responded, ‘I had NO IDEA you did X’ and another friend said, ‘I thought you’d be way too busy to do this so I never considered you,” Melanie explained, noting that she still has those two jobs.

“That ONE email was really lucrative,” she said.

Re-package your offerings or diversify your services
Sometimes we can’t be so choosy, however, about the kind of work we will do. Like many of us, Melanie’s work fell during the early pandemic. She decided to send an email listing all the services she could offer, but one of them had a creative twist.

In a nod to the pandemic, Melanie offered coverage of virtual conferences as a new service for writing clients.

If you need to add services but don’t have the know-how, consider taking a class in that subject to become more skilled.

Share referrals with other freelancers
During the pandemic, Melanie said, several freelancers sent opportunities to her, allowing her to make up lost income. She acknowledges the power of her network, which she says “helped [her] get back to pre-pandemic income levels” and has traditionally provided her with referrals.

If a gig isn’t a fit for you, why not pass it on to someone else? There’s room for all of us in the freelance ecosystem to succeed, and people will refer you back. Karma rules.

As Melanie said: “Other freelancers are not your enemies; they are your colleagues.”

Position yourself to receive referrals

  • Go where your clients are. For Melanie, as someone who writes for associations, she joined and is active in the Association Media & Publishing group. She encourages volunteering for committees and organizing events because it’s a way to meet other people in that organization and, for her, it is a potential client base.
  • Find opportunities for public speaking. It’s not in everyone’s comfort zone, but probably neither was freelancing when you started. As Melanie says, public speaking “really shows that you are expert in a specific area.”
  • Be generous and pay it forward. If a potential client asks Melanie to do something that’s not in her wheelhouse, instead of saying “no,” she tries to help them. “I keep a running list of other writers and editors who do specific services, and then I write the client back and give them a couple of names,” Melanie says. “The client appreciates it and the freelancer will remember, and sometimes I get a gift card from it.”
  • Wrap up projects with a bow. Similar to on-boarding, which is when you get up to speed on a new client’s needs, be sure to “off board,” too. Ask them if they know anyone else who might benefit from your services and ask for a testimonial.
  • Find ways to stay connected to clients. Melanie does this through shared personal interests. For example, if she knows a client loves baseball, she might send a message or news piece about that topic.

For more information, listen to Melanie’s Deliberate Freelancer podcast or subscribe to her newsletter, Mel Edits.

Meredith Hunt