The Definitive Guide to Marketing Your Freelance Business for Cheap

If you’re a freelancer or small business owner, you know it well:

Marketing your freelance business is expensive.

From business cards to web hosting, Facebook ads to marketing automation . . . all those monthly expenses add up fast, and you can’t run your business on free trials forever.

Not only is marketing your freelance business expensive, but doing it right also takes a lot of time. You’re busy enough staying on top of client work. Keeping the lights on doesn’t leave a lot of extra time for chasing down new business opportunities.

Sound familiar?

The problem is, if you want to grow your freelancing business, marketing isn’t something you can afford to ignore—and it’s definitely not something you can half-ass (if you haven’t updated your blog in weeks, or even months, I’m talking to you here).

So what are you going to do?

Well, for starters, don’t panic.

The good news is that by following these simple rules, you can market your freelance business like a boss. Even without burning time and cash you don’t have.

There’s a nearly infinite number of ways to market a freelance business, but these 10 stand out. They’re effective, affordable, and within reach for any freelancer.

Table of contents

  1. Launch a website (and blog)
  2. Leverage lead magnets
  3. Automate your email outreach
  4. Send cold emails
  5. Host content events
  6. Network (in-person and online)
  7. Ask for referrals
  8. Seek (positive) online reviews
  9. Create a brand / style guide
  10. Run online ads

(As you can see, there’s a lot of advice here. Reading it all in one go might be a bit much, so bookmark this page. You’ll want to refer back to it later!)

1. Launch a website (and blog)

Hopefully you’ve got this one covered. But just in case, do yourself a favor: set aside 15 minutes to get your website and blog up and running. That’s all it takes. Grab a domain name, connect it to your favorite website design software, and you’re good to go.

Grab a domain name, connect it to your favorite website design software, and you’re good to go.

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Here’s every step you need to set up a freelance business website:

How to set up a successful website for your freelance business

Register your domain and hosting

Some content management systems include a custom domain registration with their premium plans. If a domain isn’t offered by your CMS, however, check out these registrars:

Google Domains is still in beta, but it bundles domain registration with an optional custom email address and access to Google’s G Suite productivity software.

Many content management system providers also offer hosting. If you opt for a CMS without included hosting, however, consider one of the reputable companies above.

Choose a content management system (CMS)

There’s no shortage of site-building apps for even the most non-technical freelancers (that’s me!). These are just a few of my favorites for marketing your freelance business without breaking the bank:

  • WordPress.com is one of the most popular CMS solutions, and it’s easy to see why. Easy-to-customize themes and a limited number of helpful plugins keep things simple. Paid plans start at $2.99 per month and include hosting. Some plans also include a free custom domain.
  • WordPress.org lets you download WordPress and host it on your own server. It’s free and has virtually unlimited themes, plugins, and options. Unless you’re familiar with the basics of website maintenance and management and are comfortable setting up your own hosting, I recommend opting for all-in-one WordPress.com.
  • Squarespace lets you choose from a number of templates and uses a simple drag-and-drop grid system to make design super simple. Plans start at $12 per month and include hosting. Some plans include a free custom domain.
  • Wix‘s drag-and-drop interface makes design easy. Paid plans start at $5 per month (a limited free plan is also available) and include hosting. More advanced plans include a free domain, more storage, and no ads.
  • Strikingly is a straightforward CMS option for freelancers looking to get started quickly. It has fewer features than competitors, but is intuitive and a great option if you want a scrolling opt-in page. Paid plans start at $8 per month and include hosting. Premium plans come with a free custom domain.

Your website will often be the first impression you get to make on potential customers. So it’s important to get it right.

Here are a few tips for designing your freelance website and blog:

Prioritize signups

Above all else, your website should motivate potential clients to hand over their email address. Make sure your email signup form is front-and-center on your homepage, and that your blog encourages readers to subscribe.

If you use an email service provider or automation service like MailChimp or ConvertKit, be sure to connect it to your website. Most CMS software integrates with popular providers, and you can always create your own data connections using tools like Zapier.

Bonus: Sign up for Sumo and add powerful email list-building tools to your website and/or blog. A basic plan is free and lets you add simple banners, popups, scroll boxes and more for collecting email addresses.

Set up tracking

Many CMSes include built-in analytics, but I recommend installing Google Analytics. It’s free and can be set up with zero programming knowledge.

If you might consider advertising with Facebook in the future, grab the Facebook tracking pixel, too.

Hire a copywriter (if you’re not one yourself)

If writing isn’t your thing, consider spending a few bucks on a freelance copywriter. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of strong, action-oriented copy on your website. You can find a quality freelance copywriter on Hubstaff Talent or any other freelance marketplace.

Build a portfolio

Don’t shy away from your successes. Make sure your website includes a strong portfolio of previous work. Potential clients care about results, so emphasize what your work accomplishes. If you can, write up a case study or two, and ask current or former clients for testimonials.

If you’ve worked with recognizable brands, mention them. This is a good time to share any publications or news sites your business has appeared in, as well.

Be personal

There are a million freelancer websites out there. What sets you apart won’t be the theme, colors, or images you choose, but the story you tell. As a freelancer, you are the company.

Potential clients want to know about you, so pay close attention to the About page and other opportunities (like the blog) to tell your story.

Show, don’t just tell

People are drawn to visual content. Make sure your website and/or blog includes strong visuals and, if possible, videos.

Consider hiring a freelancer to help you create a promotional or explainer video for your business, and embed it on the homepage.

How to market your freelance business by leveraging blog content

If you’re like 99% of freelancers out there, the purpose of your blog is different from that of a full-blown agency blog.

Organic search traffic isn’t going to account for a ton of your business.

As a freelancer, you don’t have much time to invest in SEO. That’s just the reality.

Don’t let the marketing talking heads shame you for it. When it comes to marketing your freelance business, your blog is valuable for building credibility, establishing yourself as a thought leader, and driving new business.

When it comes to building a freelance site, DO:

Stick the link to your blog on everything you can

This includes your email signature, social profiles, job site profiles, business cards, proposals, and invoices.

Promote your latest blog posts via email

These can be personal or automated—more on both in a minute.

Keep your blog content fresh

Even a couple new posts per month is okay.

Share your latest blog posts via your social media accounts

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LinkedIn and Twitter are particularly great channels for reaching B2B prospects.

Follow the 80/20 rule on content

Focus 80% of content on your niche. The other 20% should consist of other content your audience might find helpful. You can also throw in a few personal posts, as many potential clients want to know about you personally.

But DON’T:

Feel like you have to publish a new post (or two!) every week

That kind of frequency is primarily for larger agencies looking to pick up organic search traffic.

Spend too much time on SEO

I know, this runs counter to pretty much everything you hear elsewhere. But I’ll be straight with you: as a freelancer with very little time for marketing your own business, your time is better spent figuring out how best to share your content, not rank for #1 on Google.

Don’t overlook the basic stuff—make sure your title and meta description are cleaned up for sharing, include relevant keywords, and so on. Just don’t burn a bunch of time that’s better spent cultivating relationships. Seriously. Now take a breath. I know you’re still freaking out.

2. Leverage lead magnets

People aren’t stupid. They know their email address is worth something, and they expect something in return. That’s where lead magnets come in. A lead magnet is something you offer in exchange for your prospect’s email address. The smart folks over at Digital Marketer describe it this way:

An irresistible bribe offering a specific chunk of value to a prospect in exchange for their contact information.

That “chunk of value” could be anything. Here are a few popular types of lead magnets:

  • Guides / reports / cheat sheets / handouts
  • Templates / toolkits
  • Resource lists
  • Infographics
  • Videos (ideally some kind of training)
  • Software downloads / free trials
  • Discounts
  • Quizzes / surveys
  • Assessments / tests

OptinMonster has a library of awesome lead magnets if you’re looking for inspiration.

Keep in mind, however, that a lead magnet is more than just an effective incentive for email signups. It’s also a powerful tool for demonstrating your expertise. Here’s an example of a lead magnet that you’ll see often at Hubstaff:

Whatever you decide to offer, make it specific and irresistibly relevant to your target customer. Show them you know what you’re talking about.

Best resources for DIY lead magnets

  • Canva is a super-simple graphic design tool for folks that don’t know (or don’t want to spend a fortune on) Photoshop. Templates, fonts, icons, and images let you whip up a killer lead magnet in no time. Canva is free, and offers an extensive library of premium elements for $1.
  • Google Slides is perfect for creating a guide or ebook. You can adapt a number of free templates and export your slides to a PDF when you’re done. Best of all, Google Slides is free with a Google account.
  • Typeform is a go-to tool for creating quizzes, surveys, assessments, and tests. Its powerful logic-based forms are perfect for creating interactive lead magnets. Typeform is free for collecting up to 100 responses per month, with more robust plans starting at $29 per month.
  • Wistia lets you create “turnstiles” where users can unlock videos by entering their email address. Better yet, Wistia’s free plan gives you access to all its features for up to three videos.
  • Sumo‘s banners, scroll boxes, and list builders are great for promoting lead magnets and collecting opt-ins. For sites with limited traffic, the free plan should do the trick. If you’re driving up to 5,000 unique visits per week (first, congratulations), opt for the “Small” Sumo Pro plan at $29 per month.

3. Automate your email outreach

Automating emails saves a huge amount of time. It also ensures that you’re staying in contact with your email list.

But it’s not just your list that you should be automating.

You should automate your one-to-one email outreach, too.

We’ll go over both of these in detail.

How to automate emails to your list

Choose an automation tool

There are lots of choices when it comes to email automation for freelancers. These three providers stand out, though:

  • ConvertKit is more sophisticated than some of its competitors. Plans start at $29 per month and include unlimited forms, automation rules, emails, and even landing pages.
  • ActiveCampaign is an intuitive drag-and-drop email editor. Its visual workflow lets you easily set up automated campaigns. Plans start at just $9 per month for up to 500 subscribers ($17 for 1000).
  • Mailchimp‘s free plan includes automation tools for drip campaigns and handles up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails per month. Plan upgrades start at just $10 per month and include more features and higher subscriber limits.

Create your first campaign

Start with the basics. You can segment your list and get fancy later. At this point, you’ll want to create a basic welcome sequence that includes a welcome email plus three to five emails over the next few weeks.

Don’t reinvent the wheel here. The vast majority of content in your drip campaign can come from your blog.

Pro tip: Take the first chunk of a blog post and use it as the beginning of your email. You might want to add a unique intro or change up the format a little. A few paragraphs in, add a “Read More” link to direct readers to the blog itself.

(CoSchedule, below, does this extremely well; their emails are nearly impossible to not click.)

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As you generate more content for the blog, you can continue to expand the sequence.

Also, don’t be “salesy” in these emails. The entire point of the drip campaign is to associate your freelance business with value in the mind of prospective clients.

Save the salesy stuff for 1:1 outreach.

Speaking of which . . .

How to automate your 1:1 email outreach

Whether you’re cold emailing or trying to close a sale, there’s a lot you can automate.

Here are some of my favorite tools:

  • MixMax lets you track emails, create prospecting email sequences, and (bonus!) even set up one-click meetings. It’s quite affordable, starting at $9 per month.
  • Reply automates your prospecting emails. Leads move through a sequence that pauses upon reply so you can jump in and start the real conversation. You can get started for $20 per month, which lets you contact up to 100 people.
  • Canned Responses is a free Google Labs product for Gmail. It allows you to quickly send common emails with a click.

At a minimum, you should be using a free tool like Canned Responses to create templates for common emails. You should tweak these templated emails for each prospect, but not starting each one from scratch will save a ton of time.

4. Send cold emails

I am a huge fan of cold emails. Cold emails are responsible for 20–30% of my freelance revenue over the last year alone. Some of my most valuable partnerships are the result of a single cold email. No joke.

And I’m not the only one.

Josh Denning’s authority marketing agency sends around 3,000 cold emails per day. With a 5–10% response rate they generate roughly 300 leads per month. We’ve broken down Josh’s method in this definitive guide to cold emailing. You can also catch Josh on the very first episode of the Agency Advantage Podcast.

Before you freak out, I don’t expect you to send 3,000 emails per day like Josh’s team! But let’s do some quick math. Everyone loves a good story problem, right?

How to use cold email to market your freelance business

Here’s the deal:

Let’s say your cold emails get a 5% response rate, and 30% percent of those leads convert. This is quite reasonable if you’re good at what you do.

If you spend 30 minutes per week emailing five potential clients, you’ll land four new clients per year.

Would your freelance business benefit from four new clients per year?

Think about that for a minute.

Now think about this:

Here’s how this all works out if you spend just a tiny bit more time sending cold emails each week:

  • 60 minutes per week cold emailing = 7 new clients per year
  • 90 minutes per week cold emailing = 11 new clients per year
  • 120 minutes per week cold emailing = 14 new clients per year

See what I’m talking about? Is spending a few minutes per day on cold emails worth fourteen new clients?

It’s a no-brainer.

Set aside a few minutes each week for sending cold emails. Think about the kinds of companies you’d love to work with. Then follow our cold emailing guide to find your prospects, identify contacts, write your emails, and follow up.

5. Host content events

Remember when we talked about lead magnets? I neglected to mention the most powerful lead magnet of all. In fact, this lead magnet is so freakin’ powerful that I decided it deserves its own place on the list.

I’m talking about content events.

What is a content event?

A content event is an experience designed to generate opt-ins, showcase your expertise, and engage potential clients. Unlike other types of lead magnets, a content event is typically live and often interactive.

Types of content events include:

  • Webinars. Hosting live trainings for potential clients will always be a hit.
  • Mastermind groups. Co-host a live video chat with other industry experts to offer insight. Consider partnering with other freelancers in related businesses to maximize your reach.
  • Q&As. A live video chat or conference call to answer prospects’ questions makes the buying process easier.
  • Challenges. Teach folks something valuable over a series of days. These are often delivered via email.

Although content events take a bit more planning than traditional lead magnets, you don’t have to spend a ton of money. There are a number of affordable platforms for hosting webinars and video chats, and you can run an email-based challenge using any email service provider.

Affordable options for hosting live content events

The folks over at Small Business Ideas Blog have a complete guide to webinar and video chat platforms. These are some of my favorites for marketing your freelance business with content events on a budget:

  • Crowdcast lets you host unlimited webinars with up to 50 attendees for $29 per month. An upgraded plan also includes Zapier integration, analytics, polling, as well as email and data export.
  • Big Marker offers unlimited webinars with up to 25 attendees for $29 per month. All Big Marker plans come with cool features like polls, automated reminders, analytics, and custom branding. And there’s no special software or plugins for attendees to download, which is great. You can set up pre-recorded “evergreen” webinars for ongoing lead generation. Plans also include private virtual meeting space on a custom URL.
  • ClickMeeting gives you unlimited webinars with up to 25 attendees for $25 per month. It comes with a ton of extra features, including customized invites, polls, and a whiteboard mode for live demonstrations and collaboration.
  • Google Hangouts is a great tool for hosting video chats, mastermind groups, and Q&As. You can even run a basic webinar with screensharing. Google Hangouts can host unlimited attendees, and up to 10 can actively participate. And it’s free.
  • Zoom is pricier at $54.99 per month for unlimited webinars of up to 100 attendees, but it’s one of the most intuitive systems I’ve encountered. It’s packed with features, and plans include a private meeting space you and your contacts can access 24/7.

How to run a challenge to market your freelance business

The most valuable thing you can offer a potential client is the opportunity to learn something.

A challenge is a type of content event designed to walk your prospect through a series of educational lessons over the course of a few days. (Three-day and five-day challenges are most popular.)

Challenges can be either live, where you create content on-the-fly, or evergreen, where the content is always available. I recommend setting up an evergreen challenge that potential clients can start immediately.

Launch your email-based challenge in 3 easy steps:

1. Identify something valuable to teach

Build your challenge around something you’re an expert in. Use these research techniques to find valuable ideas for your email course:

If you’re a developer, you might decide to teach folks the basics of the sprint process or Scrum framework.

An SEO specialist could break down the most important lessons of Google’s latest update.

A copywriter might build a challenge that introduces folks to the basics of landing page copywriting. Whatever you decide, make sure it’s specific and relevant to your target clients.

2. Break it into three, five, or seven lessons

Once you’ve decided on a topic, break it down into short lessons that can be completed in less than 15 minutes and packaged in an email.

Each email should include the text-based lesson, and maybe links to a video or supplemental reading. A related blog post or excerpt from a relevant book or news site works well.

At the end of each lesson, ask participants to submit their “homework.” This could be as simple as answering a question in a reply email, or posting a comment on your Facebook page or group.

3. Automate your emails

When you’ve got your challenge emails written, connect your opt-in form and set up a campaign to deliver daily lessons.

Follow up

Whether you’re running a challenge, hosting a webinar, or leading a live Q&A, content events won’t do diddly for your business if you don’t follow up with your participants.

Here’s an example follow-up email. You can modify this template for personal follow-up with your content event participants:

Hey [FIRST NAME]-

Thanks for joining [CONTENT EVENT NAME]! Hope you found it helpful.

I’d love to learn more about how you’re hoping to use [CONTENT EVENT TOPIC] for your business, and I’ve got some ideas to help you [DESIRED OUTCOME].

Want to chat?

If you’ve got even 10 minutes, grab a time on my calendar that works best for you:

[LINK TO CALENDAR]

Looking forward to it,

[YOUR NAME]

Automate your follow-up

You can knock out these follow-up emails quickly using canned responses in Gmail. You can also automate the process by adding it to the email sequence you set up in Step #3.

6. Network (in-person and online)

Unless you’re into fancy networking events with all-you-can eat shrimp cocktail, networking is free. And it remains one of the most effective ways to market your freelance business.

If you’re hoping to market your freelance business on a budget, you can’t afford to pass on networking. Both in-person and online networking opportunities can pay off big-time.

Dos and don’ts of marketing your freelance business with networking

DO:

Treat every interaction as a networking opportunity.

You never know when you might be talking to someone who has the power to hire you.

Dust off your LinkedIn profile.

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Seriously, this needs to be bulletproof. For many potential clients, visiting your profile is the second step after the initial contact. Here are six must-haves for your freelancer profile on LinkedIn.

Follow up.

They say 90% of life is showing up, but when it comes to networking, you need to follow up. Use the outreach tactics above, and if they’re not ready to deal just yet, see if you can get them on your email list.

DON’T:

Talk.

Not at first, anyway. Now is the time to listen. It’s your turn to talk when you can actually offer your contact something of value. That might be marketing advice, an introduction, or something completely different.

We have lots of great tips on networking in our definitive guide to professional networking. Don’t miss it!

7. Ask for referrals

Mridu Khullar Relph is the founder of The International Freelancer and a best-selling author on growing freelance businesses. So take it from her:

Ask for referrals. It will change your career.

Believe it. According to a study in the Harvard Business Review, clients obtained through referrals are

  • more loyal (18% more likely to stay with your company)
  • more profitable (generating 16% more profit)

In fact, our own 2017 Global Freelancing Trends study showed that referrals are the most valuable factor in landing clients.

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That’s not all, though. For B2B freelancers, referrals are even more important. According to recent research,

  • 84% of B2B buyers start the purchase process with a referral
  • 90% of all B2B buying decisions are influenced by peers

If you’re not asking for referrals from current (or former) clients, please start!

If you’re not in the habit, it can seem awkward to ask for a referral. But I promise it’s easier than you think, and it’ll soon be second-nature.

Tips to get referrals for your freelance business

Add an incentive

Let clients know that when a referral becomes a new client, you’ll offer them a discount on their next invoice, or send them a gift card. Sometimes all it takes is a little push.

Use LinkedIn

Add current and former clients on LinkedIn. Then use the platform’s advanced search features to find second-degree connections. When you find a good potential fit, ask your client for an introduction.

Make the ask when you invoice

Add a simple ask (or a link to an online form) for a testimonial at the end of every invoice. Some invoicing programs like Freshbooks even include this feature out of the box. Follow up with clients that provide a testimonial and ask for referrals.

8. Seek (positive) online reviews

As a freelancer, your reputation is one of your most valuable assets. Not only should you seek to protect it, but you should also do your best to share it via high-visibility online reviews.

If you rely on a freelance marketplace for business, make sure that your clients are leaving reviews. A friendly nudge is all it takes: “Hey, it was awesome working with you. Would you mind writing a quick review?”

It literally takes two seconds. If you don’t receive a response, don’t take it personally and be persistent. Send a friendly reminder a few days later.

LinkedIn Recommendations

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Although they aren’t exactly “reviews,” recommendations from clients on LinkedIn can be valuable. Even if you’re not actively seeking work, keep in mind that potential clients will check your profile anyway. It’s important that you’re putting your best foot forward.

9. Create a brand / style guide

Every email you send, blog post you publish, and business card you share reflects directly on your business.

Even your invoices make a statement. Sloppy branding and inconsistent design raises eyebrows, and diminishes current and potential clients’ opinion of your professionalism.

One of the best and easiest ways to market your freelance business is to create a brand or style guide and stick with it.

Not a natural-born designer? Not to worry. Spend a few bucks on a logo (if you want one), brand, and style guide by a professional graphic designer. Your prospects will take notice.

Professional logo, brand kit, and style guide resources:

Remember, you get what you pay for. Don’t hire someone for $5 on Fiverr and expect a brand identity that rivals Nike.

Do I even need a logo?

A lot of freelancers stress out about logos. And a lot of them are wasting their time. Just because you’re marketing your own freelance business doesn’t mean you need a logo. If you’ve built your freelance business around your personal brand, a logo might not help much.

So don’t get hung up on it.

That said, even the simplest logo is an easy way to stand out and provide some design consistency across your website, business cards, invoices, and other collateral.

One case in which you should definitely get a logo:

If you plan on expanding your freelance business into a multi-person agency.

Having a logo designed is a must if you want to start positioning your brand beyond yourself.

10. Run online ads

I hesitate to even go here, because advertising can get expensive very quickly. But there are ways to take advantage of digital ads to promote your freelance business without breaking the bank.

I’ll just say this:

If you’re looking to test the waters, Facebook Ads are probably your best bet. The Facebook Ads Manager interface is relatively user-friendly and you can get a test campaign up and running in less than 15 minutes.

How to advertise your freelance business with Facebook ads

Entire books and lengthy blog posts have been written about how to get started with Facebook advertising (Double Your Freelancing has a good overview of Facebook ads for freelancers).

Here are just a few tips to get started:

Start cheap

You don’t have to spend a lot to get started with Facebook Ads. Put a few dollars a day toward your first ad to generate some data you can learn from. Or, for more control, set a lifetime ad spend. The goal is to start small and scale as you figure out what works.

A/B test your ad copy and creative

One of the best things about Facebook Ads is how easy it is to experiment with ad variations. Once you’ve settled on an ad, simply duplicate the ad set and change the image, headline, description, or call to action. Just remember, as with any A/B test, you should only change one element at a time.

Leverage your lead magnets

Remember the lead magnets we talked about earlier? Facebook ads are a great place to use them. People are far more likely to click on an ad that offers a free ebook, toolkit, or webinar.

Use retargeting

You’re probably not the only freelancer your potential client is considering. Keep your business top-of-mind using Facebook retargeting. You can serve ads to people who have visited your website, or advertise to a specific audience.

Create lookalike audiences

One of the best ways to reach potential clients with Facebook ads is to create lookalike audiences. Facebook analyzes your website visitors or email list and creates an audience that closely matches their demographics and behavior.

Create a unique landing page

This is online advertising 101. Don’t direct your Facebook ad to your homepage (or any standard page on your site, for that matter). Instead, create a landing page specific to the unique audience and offer.

Not a landing page expert? No problem. Instapage lets you create unlimited landing pages with no visitor limits for just $29 per month. LeadPages is another good option with plans starting at $25 per month.

And remember, some of the email automation tools we talked about earlier (like ConvertKit) even include landing pages, so you can potentially kill two birds with one stone.

More marketing ideas for freelancers

There’s no shortage of ways to market your freelance business. Above are just a few of my favorites, but they are by no means your only options.

How are YOU marketing your own freelance business? Have you tried any of these tactics? Did they work? Did they suck? What have you found to be most valuable?

I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.