Updated: Jan 16
Here’s the reality: More businesses need good copywriters, designers, and video editors than there are freelancers available to handle the work.
Still, many freelancers struggle to find these businesses. Rather than feeling in-demand and enjoying a constant stream of high-quality leads, many freelancers feel stuck charging low fees and competing against dozens of other people for every project. Where’s the disconnect?
These two variables—low pay and ample competition—are often interrelated symptoms of the same problems. It’s cyclical: the more competitors you’re bidding against, the lower you must charge to win projects. The lower you charge for projects, the more people you’re competing against.
Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be your reality. I wrote this article to help freelancers differentiate their services and make competition irrelevant, so that you can charge great rates and serve clients who want to work only with you.
1. Create an inbound marketing engine
What’s the difference between outbound and inbound marketing? It all comes down to who starts the conversation.
In outbound, the freelancer starts the conversation by reaching out to leads through some form of pitch. In the pitch, the freelancer must introduce themselves, explain their value, establish credibility, and see if the person has a need for their services. In most cases, either the person isn’t looking for freelancers (and doesn’t hire anyone), or they’ve made a public post about wanting to hire freelancers. In that case, your pitch is often just one of a dozen.
But what if you don’t start the conversation? Instead of pursuing clients, what if they pursued you?
That’s the benefit of inbound marketing.
The most common forms of inbound marketing include:
Writing social media content
Publishing articles in popular blogs and magazines
Appearing in Google searches for relevant keywords
Speaking at major industry events
Publishing high-quality thought leadership blogs
With inbound, clients go out of their way to work with you, based on your reputation, ideas, or past work. Rather than having to prove your value, often you merely need to name your price. As Alan Weiss explains, “When people knock on your door, credibility is assumed and fees are whatever you say they are.”
With inbound marketing, competition becomes irrelevant because your leads have already done their homework and decided that your expertise is what they’re looking for. They’ve seen your work or ideas. They don’t care what other freelancers charge because to them you’re not just another freelancer. You’re an expert who can solve their problem.
2. Attract more leads than you can handle
Another way to make competition irrelevant is to have more leads than you can handle. Rather than feeling at odds with other freelancers, you begin to see them as people to whom you can recommend clients who aren’t a good fit.
You never have to lower your fees just because other freelancers are bidding on a project. With enough clients requesting your services, you can simply work with the clients who don’t mind paying a premium to work with you.
How do you receive more leads than you can handle? I have two recommendations here:
Promote your business, ideas, and services even when you’re fully booked. Don’t wait until you have an empty calendar to start looking for the next gig.
Use inbound marketing so that leads come to you (as we discussed in the first point) because inbound marketing scales more easily for one-person businesses than outbound.
3. Focus on the value of your services (not their cost)
Remember: Price is one of the lowest forms of value you can offer as a freelancer. Saying to clients, “I can do it cheaper” won’t get you as far as “I can solve your problem.”
When you compete on price, you’re inevitably inviting competition. As Seth Godin put it, “The problem with the race to the bottom is that you might win.”
One of the most common reasons people compete based on price is because they think of their skill as a time-saving service rather than one that achieves larger business outcomes.
Consider a writing example: You can position yourself as a blog writer. Or you can position yourself as someone who generates organic demand through high-quality content marketing. Both services involve blog writing, but only the latter framing captures the value of blog writing.
There’s a lot less competition—and much higher rates—among freelancers who understand the business value of their services. They’re problem solvers—the kind of freelancers every growing business wants to work with.
4. Leave the freelance marketplaces behind
Websites like Upwork, Fiverr, and Thumbtack are great for beginning freelancers. These platforms make it easy to get your first gigs and establish a portfolio. But you don’t want to stay on these platforms long term.
Marketplaces naturally attract competition. Even if you know how to pitch your value, it’s hard to differentiate yourself when literally dozens of people are bidding on the same projects. You’ll inevitably have to lower your fees just to be in the same ballpark as other freelancers.
So, as you gain more experience, leave these platforms as quickly as possible. Find new ways to market your services. Instead of relying on a profile, create a proper portfolio that showcases client reviews and your best samples.
By getting off these platforms, you will greatly reduce your competition. Freelancing is much quieter without the busyness of Upwork.
5. Play the long game
Most freelancers only last a few years. The gig-to-gig lifestyle isn’t a good fit for most people. This short-termism can work to your advantage as a freelancer.
If you’re in your business for the long run, your reputation can become a powerful marketing engine that naturally draws people to you. The longer I freelance, the more common it is for me to receive referrals or work with repeat clients. Another way to say this is that my past work pays dividends in the form of recommendations.
It doesn’t matter how many people apply to a freelance job post. If you’re the only person who comes with a strong recommendation, you’re almost always going to get the project. Competition becomes irrelevant when you’re recommended by a trusted person.
6. It’s always about the customer
Most freelance pitches are focused on the freelancer. “I’ve worked for these clients, performed these services, and achieved these results.” No matter how unique your experience feels to you, most freelance journeys sound the same from the client side.
On the other hand, it’s rare to meet a freelancer who knows how to focus their pitch entirely on the customer. Rather than talking about your skills and experience, ask questions about the client’s challenges. Ask about their business goals:
Why are they launching this project?
Why are you prioritizing this now?
What are you looking to get out of this project?
How have you solved this problem in the past?
I’m always surprised by how little I talk about myself on my most successful client calls. Beyond a simple two-sentence introduction, I almost never talk about my experience. If you ask good questions about the person’s business, they’ll intuit that you have the experience and samples to back it up.
The more curiosity you show about someone’s business, the more trust you’ll build. Don’t forget: people love talking about themselves. Then, if the prospect starts asking you questions, you can tailor your answers to emphasize the specific value you’ll provide the client based on everything they’ve already told you.
7. Knock it out of the park (and be easy to work with)
The term “freelancer” comes with a lot of baggage. People who regularly hire freelancers have multiple stories of being ghosted, receiving deliverables weeks after deadline, or just working with people who over promise and under deliver.
The good news is, you can be the exception. If you deliver good work on time and are easy to work with, you’ll already be ahead of many freelancers who don’t take their work seriously.
This makes point #5 about playing the long game doubly powerful. If you consistently overdeliver for clients, you’ll soon find yourself positioned among higher tier freelancers who take their work and clients seriously. At that level, businesses are happy to pay a premium for your time and work because you’re no longer a generalist service provider.
You’re a highly-recommended expert who every business wants on their team.
Build a career you love as a freelance writer
Receive a once-weekly email about writing, copywriting, and launching a freelance business.