There are a wide variety of methods for marketing your self-employed business, giving you options to suit whatever time and budget you’re able to invest. Clients and customers need to be aware you exist to spend money on your products or services, but it’s difficult even for large companies to cover every promotion channel.
The aim of this guide is to give you a quick overview of the many marketing techniques available, helping you decide which are most appropriate for your business. And IPSE members can find a growing number of more detailed resources on each marketing tactic via our resource library, webinars, and the Incubator for those new to self-employment.
- How to approach marketing your self-employed business
- Marketing methods for the self-employed
- What to do if your marketing isn’t working
The most important foundation for marketing and growing your business is setting a target for what you want to achieve, and a plan for how you intend to make it happen. You may already have a self-employed business plan in place, which will help you create your marketing strategy.
It doesn’t have to be massively detailed, or overly-ambitious. Even a very short and basic outline will help you to know if you’re working on something which should help your business grow, or if you’re possibly wasting your efforts.
The key elements are consciously choosing which channels you’re going to primarily focus on, the amount of new business you plan to gain from them, and the time you’re going to allow for it to happen. That gives you a way to check and assess whether a specific tactic is working for you, or not.
It’s easy to get caught up in marketing your business, especially investing lots of time on social media, or spending large amounts on producing video content. So, it’s important to know whether those efforts are generating any interest in your business, and being able to track whether it’s resulted in any revenue.
If something isn’t working, then it’s important to be honest with yourself and avoid falling into a sunk-cost fallacy, where you become reluctant to give up doing something after investing heavily in it, despite the fact it’s better to spend your time and money elsewhere.
Not every marketing technique will work for you, even if it’s popular with other freelancers or small business owners. You may find it difficult to stand out in a crowded channel, or need to evolve and improve how you’re using a tactic to find success. By tracking the results, you’ll have a better idea when it’s necessary to change tack or try a different marketing method.
The advertising industry covers everything from local newspapers to television commercials and digital ads. While your budget might not stretch to a Super Bowl half-time spot, it’s important not to dismiss the potential of advertising for your self-employed business.
Your target audience is key to understanding which advertising channels are going to have the most impact. Local newspapers and free publications are a cost-effective way to reach potential customers and clients in your city or town, whereas a trade magazine will be much more suitable if you’re providing services or consultancy to businesses in a particular industry.
The cost of press advertising needs to be balanced against the potential reach of a publication, and don’t forget to include any spending on designing the advert itself.
Digital advertising is broadly split into two categories. Display adverts are the online equivalent of a traditional print ad, paying to have your business promoted via a banner on a website. Search adverts display alongside the results when people put a relevant term into a search engine. Buying space on a relevant industry website can help build your brand, and appearing when someone has used Google to search for a freelancer means you’re appearing at their time of need.
With all advertising, it’s important to know what you want to achieve, and measure the results where possible. While brand awareness is more difficult to quantify, using specific web addresses and tracking codes mean you will see the majority of people responding directly.
Promoting businesses by producing a range of content has a longer history than you might expect, including Benjamin Franklin publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack to promote his printing business in 1732, or the free Jell-O recipe book given away in the early 1900s.
But the internet made publishing and distributing content accessible to everyone, allowing individuals and small businesses to take advantage of the low cost of creating and sharing articles, infographics, case studies, and more.
The key decision for any piece of content will be where you want to publish it. Sharing it via your own website can build your authority, generate direct traffic, and help with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), as well as giving you material for social media. But ‘guest posting’ on bigger websites gives you potential access to their larger audience, more brand awareness, and any reputation increase being associated with well-known brands.
You can be successfully focusing on either approach, but generally the best route is to mix publishing on your own website with posting articles elsewhere. Building up a small website can take a significant amount of time and effort before it generates a sustainable return, but having everything you create hosted elsewhere means it can potentially be removed at any time without your control.
A big difference between writing for pleasure and content marketing is that you’ll need to consider the needs, interests and questions of potential clients and customers. You can research these using various sources including SEO keyword tools, industry communities, or sites including Reddit and Quora where relevant questions are often being asked.
It’s also worth spending time considering the style and tone of voice that you want to use consistently, so anyone discovering your content will recognise it, and know what to expect.
And you don’t have to always provide an expert answer to create engaging content. Sharing your journey as a newer freelancer or providing behind-the-scenes insights into an established business can be highly engaging alongside content more focused on converting potential clients and customers.
When you’re sending a physical item to existing or potential customers to promote a business, you’re using direct mail marketing. Whether you’re posting letters, catalogues, free samples or gifts, an effective campaign can deliver a significant improvement on responses compared to the most obvious alternative of emailing offers and discounts.
Obviously direct mail can cost significantly more than digital marketing. So, it’s a good idea to invest more time in analysing your mailing list to make sure you’re targeting the right people, and in preparing whatever you’re going to send out.
But in an era where so much communication is virtual, good direct mail can help you stand out. And even a single handwritten letter or card can make a big difference to smaller businesses.
Directory listings and reviews
As phone books were replaced by online directories, listing your business became an important part of local marketing and SEO. But with the growth of other channels, it’s become something that often gets overlooked.
The prime example is a Google Business Profile, which displays your information on Google Maps and Search, including a phone number, address, opening times and more. If your details aren’t correct, you might have customers turning up when you’re closed, or phoning a number which is no longer in service.
But there may be other useful listings that you can utilise, including those covering your local area, trade and industry directories, and larger general sites. Some may ask for payment to feature your business, in which case it’s worth checking whether the investment is likely to result in a positive return.
And make sure you schedule some time each year to go through each listing and ensure that all information is current and correct.
You also need to monitor any location allowing people to share reviews and feedback on your business. Encouraging clients and customers to leave comments will help to grow your profile, but it’s important to also respond constructively to any negativity. If you can respond in a good way to complaints, that can actually be more relatable and persuasive than a spotless list of reviews.
Email marketing and newsletters
Just because the cost and ease of email marketing makes it possible to contact your mailing list on a constant basis doesn’t mean you should. It’s important to consider whether you’re sending the best information and offers to the right people, or if you might start to irritate them and end up deleted or relegated to spam folders.
It’s important to understand your obligations under the UK Data Protection Act 2018, and GDPR, along with any restrictions put in place by your email service provider, and for your email recipients in specific countries (for example, some retailers may find products can’t be offered for sale in other territories).
Around 2.4 billion emails get sent every second, with estimates for an average officer worker in the UK of around 121 messages arriving every day. And this can make it hard for you to stand out in a crowded inbox, and to get people to actually engage with your message. Checking open rates and unsubscribe numbers will help you understand what works for your business.
Accurate targeting can help you improve your response rates by ensuring that people only receive relevant offers, along with testing alternate subject lines, sending times and more. Most big email services such as Mailchimp, AWeber, Campaign Monitor, Constant Contact and more offer easy ways to segment your mailing lists, use A/B testing and more.
Email newsletters have been a popular option for companies to build their mailing lists and update their audience on new content, offers and more. And there’s been a big resurgence in individuals and smaller businesses reaching people via their inbox rather than relying on social media, for example.
This can allow you to be more personal and informal, building a closer relationship with your email subscribers. The risk is that having an email due to go out on a schedule means you end up filling space with less interesting or useful content just to meet deadlines.
Opinions vary between individual freelancers on the value and success you can find through various marketplaces. But it’s certainly possible to use them to build your business, or to fill gaps in your work schedule as needed. And to be successful, you’ll need to invest some time and effort.
As with directory listings, your information needs to be kept updated to avoid missing out on potential business. And you’ll need to encourage positive reviews, while resolving any issues in a professional manner. But it’s also important to make sure you’re highlighting the very best examples of your work portfolio, and tailoring your profile to target the type of clients you want to collaborate with.
For more detailed advice, our article on the best online job boards and sites for freelancers will provide you with places to start listing your availability, along with more tips on getting set up, and securing better clients and rates over time.
You don’t have to love marketing to be successfully self-employed. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so partnering with other people can be useful in covering gaps in your business skills and confidence, along with allowing you to offer a wider range of products or services.
It can be as simple as you, and your clients, acknowledging suppliers, service providers and other business relationships to promote both parties. This works particularly well if you’re utilising companies and individuals in your local area, and celebrating smaller businesses.
Or you may want to develop a more formal partnership with other people working in the same area, or related specialisms. It’s fairly common and established in creative areas, with designers often partnering alongside copywriters or marketers, for example. But it can be done in any industry to offer a better or more comprehensive service to clients and customers.
The marketing advantage is that you have two or more companies promoting each other, and sharing the time, effort and cost involved. But it does require a clear understanding of the responsibilities for everyone involved, and that you make sure you live up to your side of the deal.
Even if you’re partnering with good friends or family, it’s important to have a clear agreement or contract in place to prevent misunderstandings. And to help ensure that everyone benefits from the partnership.
If you’re working together with other contractors and freelancers, then it’s also worth checking that you’re not going to potentially be impacted by Managed Service Company legislation.
PR and Media Relations
There’s a lot of crossover and confusion between public relations (PR), and media relations. In general, PR uses a variety of strategies to communicate with the public, rather than focusing purely on media coverage, which can now include blogs, podcasts and video alongside the press, radio, and television.
But the exact definitions are less important than having your business, or your clients, mentioned and featured. Whether it’s in the national media, trade publications or smaller local outlets, appearing in news stories or business features puts you in front of potential clients and customers.
Larger companies will have internal PR teams or external agencies, but there are plenty of opportunities for individuals and small businesses to get coverage. Online services such as HARO and Source Bottle connect journalists and bloggers with potential sources, and you can also follow relevant people on social media, or hashtags such as #JournoRequest.
More proactively, you can also generate press releases about your business and clients, covering any new developments or interesting stories. And building relationships with outlets which might feature you regularly. If you primarily want to target people in your local area, then get to know reporters, broadcasters and bloggers who cover your region. Trade journalists will also tend to refer back to sources regularly if they know they can rely on you for quotes and opinions in a timely manner.
PR crosses over a lot with content marketing, SEO and other areas. And the more you can bring those areas to work together, the more benefits you’ll see from each individual effort.
Public speaking and events
Meeting people and networking is an essential part of life for most business people. It’s also difficult to scale if you’re looking to grow more quickly. Building long-term personal relationships shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly if you offer high value products or services. But there are ways you can reach a larger audience through public speaking and events.
Not everyone will feel comfortable getting up in front of an audience, particularly for the first time. But speaking and presenting at events means you’re the centre of attention, and introduces you to everyone at once. And you don’t have to be the best presenter in the world to offer something useful or entertaining.
One big benefit is that people will feel more at ease approaching you after a talk, usually with relevant questions and enquiries. As a result, the conversations are likely to be more productive.
And there are a wide variety of smaller local meetups and events which offer a friendlier and more informal way to get experience of speaking and presenting, including IPSE local member meetups around the UK.
If you’d prefer to shine the spotlight on other people, another option is to begin hosting your own events. It’s easy to set up an IPSE local member meetup, or find potential speakers to talk about a subject, and by being the organiser, you get to meet and greet everyone.
And one-off events can often grow into regular meetups, building a new network of people in your area or industry that can bring a huge amount of value to all involved. Especially if you’re the person that brought everyone together.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
There are various ways to attract traffic to your website, and search engine optimisation (SEO) can be hugely effective in attracting the most relevant visitors. When someone enters a relevant topic or question into a search engine, successfully SEO means your site will be one of the first results to appear for them.
SEO can take a while to have an impact, particularly if you’re launching a new website. But a big benefit is that it tends to have a long-lasting and cumulative effect. Investing in advertising, for example, requires an ongoing financial investment. If you pause your spending, your traffic stops.
If your website is ranking highly for a relevant term, then that’s unlikely to dramatically change in the short term, even if you don’t invest any further time and effort in improving that individual article or page. Which can mean a great return on investment over time. Especially when you can then target related questions and topics, and benefit from search engines already seeing you as an authority in that area.
Search engines try to keep their ranking methods secret, and regularly update them, to try and prevent people spamming and manipulating the results. But while SEO specialists will work to uncover the hundreds of potential factors, it’s possible to be fairly successful just by following some general principles.
Having a website which is fairly fast to load and accessible, offering content which is high in both quality and relevancy, and working to secure coverage and links to your website from other reputable sources will all help you to be seen as an authority by search engines.
Social media marketing has quickly evolved from something new and unusual to standard business practice. But there’s a big difference between spending time on social networks, and using them effectively.
The platforms you choose, and how you utilise them, will depend on your business approach and objectives. You may decide to build a smaller, personal network of connections via LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook rather than simply trying to reach the biggest audience numbers. Or to focus on engaging people via those platforms, rather than encouraging them to click through to your website.
It’s essential to tie your social media marketing to your business strategy and objectives, and to focus on your target audience. The social networks you’re active on, and what you’re posting, will tend to be different if you’re aiming to attract senior corporate clients rather than small business owners, or going direct to consumers (although exceptions exist to every rule).
But if you don’t have targets or measures of success in place, then it’s impossible to know whether you’re doing well or not. Which is important if you’re relying on social media marketing to deliver results for your business, or for your clients.
Similar to advertising, you can improve your brand awareness quickly with relevant sponsorship opportunities. And these can be smaller and more affordable than you might think, as well as offering additional benefits.
It’s obviously expensive to become the headline sponsor of a Premier League football team or big national conference. But there are usually lots of opportunities to raise your profile locally, or in your self-employed specialism, by looking for smaller events, organisations, or teams.
You could also look at media sponsorship, including podcasts, email newsletters or a series of articles which reach a relevant audience.
Supporting local charities, sports and events will help your brand awareness. But it also tends to offer more opportunities to develop the relationship, whether that’s regular content and updates you’re able to share for your business, access to mailing lists, or finding a cause or interest that you share with potential customers and clients.
Video marketing includes creating content for your own website, on external services such as Youtube or TikTok and even live streaming. And modern technology means it’s never been quicker, easier, and more affordable to produce engaging footage that can benefit your business.
It can be easier to find success if you’re a natural in front of the camera, but it’s not a necessity. A simple screen capture of a work process, animation, virtual avatars, or montages of stock footage are just some examples of alternative approaches which have been successful for a wide variety of freelancers and self-employed businesses.
The foundations of all content marketing are to try and produce something which is useful, informative, or entertaining. And ideally combines all three areas to some extent. But how you approach that will depend on your preferences and skills, and the resources you have available.
It’s possible to create great work simply by using your smartphone and whatever natural light is available, or free screen capture software. And by using free video editing software, whether it’s part of the video hosting service (e.g. the TikTok Video Editor or Youtube Video Editor), open source options, or introductory trials of paid software.
But video marketing has become a massively popular and important channel, with audience numbers and viewing time both increasing massively. It also tends to improve the responses on non-video specific channels such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
Personal recommendations are hugely effective in attracting new clients or customers. We all tend to respond to advice from people we trust more than other forms of marketing. And the foundation of word-of-mouth marketing is delivering good, reliable work.
But if you’re looking to scale your self-employed business, you may want to encourage recommendations and referrals.
There are various techniques you can use to prompt clients and customers to share your business with other people, but the main thing is to ensure that they think of you positively.
Asking or reminding clients for a review or testimonial is often enough for them to share their opinions publicly. And this is useful social proof to display publicly on your website and elsewhere.
And if you’re looking for more work, then it’s also worth mentioning that to current clients and customers. It can often prompt them to remember that they know someone looking for a business like yours.
You may decide that you want to offer a discount or commission as a reward for people sharing your product or services. Whether you’re doing this on an ad hoc, informal basis or setting up a standardised referral scheme, it’s important to have a clear agreement and understanding of what conditions need to be met, and any discounts or payments that will be provided. Otherwise, you can find yourself faced with an uncomfortable conversation at best, or potentially losing a happy client in the worst case.
Owning your own domain name and website is important for any self-employed professional, to ensure that you have a consistent address for potential clients and customers. Even if it seems unlikely Facebook or Youtube will disappear overnight, there’s always the risk that your profile could be removed for various reasons, ranging from a technical glitch to accidentally breaching the terms and conditions.
It also provides you with a base from which you can organise and link your various profiles and marketing efforts, a destination for your content marketing, SEO and videos, and the ability to secure mailing list sign-ups, create promotions and landing pages, and even host your own communities or educational courses.
Whatever tactics you choose to try and scale your self-employed business, there’s always a chance that it might not deliver the intended results. If that’s the case, and your marketing isn’t working, then you need to try and identify whether you need to tweak your approach, or try an alternative channel. Or if your business isn’t adequately targeting a need people have right now.
If you’re reaching a reasonable audience but no-one is committing to your business, then you might need to look at your proposition and positioning. It may be that your business plan and original assumptions weren’t quite right, and you may need to pivot to offer something slightly different, or more targeted.
You also need to be realistic about the potential timescales involved. Marketing tactics including content marketing, PR and SEO can take months or even years to deliver their full potential. So, you may need to use other channels like advertising in the short term, and then reduce that spend over time.
When previous success starts to drop, it may be that a specific platform has changed how it promotes your efforts. Social media sites may focus on video more heavily, or search engines may put more value on the technical aspects of websites. You can often find tips and advice via marketing websites and blogs, or from specialists and other freelancers via various communities, including the IPSE Community Forum, or our LinkedIn and Facebook groups.
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