4 Reasons Networking Hasn’t Won You Freelance Clients (and how you can fix that)

Networking is usually “all or nothing.” Most people either avoid it like Comic Sans or they give it their all.

And when someone doesn’t like or believe in online or offline networking for new clients, it’s usually for one of two reasons.

In the first scenario, it’s likely they tried going to networking events or joining online groups in the past, and nothing good came of it. Maybe they received no response, maybe it ended in a negative experience, like their ultimate worst client coming from an in-person networking event. And honestly, those scenarios happen.

But this person likely was also making one of the networking mistakes we’re going to talk about later.

In a different light, some people don’t like networking because their idea of it is based on people in the scenario above. Their opinions of networking are all based on someone for whom it isn’t working. So why would they try it themselves?

But to a freelancer, your community is everything. As the saying goes, “your network is your net worth.” There’s power—and lots of client work—in the people around you, even if you haven’t found it yet.

If being part of a community—online or off—hasn’t worked for you in the past, here are some of the mistakes you might be making and how you can change them. These work for both online and offline networking; in the end, it’s all about building better relationships.

1. You’re focusing on peers, not clients

The first, and maybe most common, mistake freelancers make when networking is only spending time with other freelancers in their own niche. This would be if you, a web designer, mostly hung out with other web designers, and that’s all.

Now, hanging out with people like you is amazing. You can make friends, find mentors, get valuable insights, and just have fun hanging out with people who understand your experiences.

But when you’re spending all your time with them, how are you going to find people who actually need web design and would hire you to do the job?

Finding peers to hang out with, in person or in Facebook groups like Leah Kalamakis’ Freelance to Freedom Project Community, can grow and improve your freelance business in tons of ways. But getting new clients probably won’t be one of them.

There are more indirect ways of finding work in these communities, like getting referrals from other designers you meet there. But if new work is a big reason you’re interested in networking, you’ll see more results by networking in communities that actually have your ideal clients.

What to do instead

Join a variety of different networking groups of different types, both online and in-person.

Aside from communities of other designers, here are some audiences you might want to meet (depending on your niche):

  • Marketing agency employees who might outsource work to freelancers
  • Local communities of small businesses who likely won’t have in-house designers
  • Online communities serving the industry your favorite clients work in
  • Freelancers in other areas like writing, virtual assistants, and photographers who need better websites for themselves (or their clients)
  • Business coaches who recommend resources to their clients

When you’re choosing places to spend your networking time, focus on your clients instead of yourself.

What industries are they in? What events do they go to? Where do they spend time online?

Focusing on their own interests and behaviors instead of your own will help push you toward your future clients.

2. You’re not going niche enough

Let’s say that you’ve decided to stop networking with other designers and find where your clients are. So you say, “hmmm, well, I live in D.C. and like working with local clients, so I’ll just start going to as many events in town as possible and hand out cards.”

That’s still networking wrong.

Or say you have decided to target freelance virtual assistants, but join a general Facebook group for online business, including some VAs. Or you’re focusing on realtors and only work with local clients, but join a national LinkedIn group.

Even if there are some VAs in that Facebook group you joined, you’ll have to talk to and meet a lot of other group members to find them. And if you show up to any Facebook event, you have no idea who’s going to be there and if they’re even in jobs where they’d need a web designer.

Can you eventually get lucky and meet a good prospect? Of course.

But it will take longer.

Pushing business cards on strangers, whether they’d need your business or not, isn’t fun for anyone. Instead of meeting tons of people just waiting for one to be your ideal client, draw from a narrower pool.

What to do instead

Instead of a “spray and pray” approach to networking, meaning you’re putting yourself out there, anywhere, and hoping the right people find you through it, take a more strategic approach to researching the communities you’re active in.

It’s all in the research, so once you walk into a room or introduce yourself to an online community, you know there are potential clients listening. It can be helpful to plan out the type of communities you’re looking to join, and then find fits for that, as opposed to just browsing.

Finding somewhere to start won’t be hard.

It should only take five minutes of planning, solid Googling, and a few minutes of LinkedIn or Facebook perusal.

Grab a piece of paper or your planner and jot down:

  • Specific details about your ideal client (industry, business type/model, budget, location, etc.)
  • Their favorite places to hang out online
  • Organizations they may be part of
  • Conferences or events they may attend

If you don’t know all of this immediately, you can view a colleague’s or client’s Facebook groups to see what they’re a member of, look at LinkedIn groups your clients have joined, and Google to see what events (if any) they sponsor or participate in.

For example, if you work with a lot of health companies, you might attend health, fitness, and wellness conventions and conferences. A huge amount of the events’ sponsors, exhibitors, speakers, and other attendees could be potential clients for you. That’s fully taking advantage of your niche.

3. You’re building shallow relationships

Let’s say you’ve done your research. You found niche communities to participate in and are ready to make your entrance, whether that’s online or by literally entering a room.

This is not something where you can just show up and succeed—or where you can rush things.

The last thing you want to do when it comes to valuable networking is work the room.

I like to call this “overenthusiastic networking,” and the person usually means well. But being so excited to get yourself out there, talk to people, make new relationships, and drive new business can lead to “working” the room instead of participating in it.

In an effort to connect with as many people as possible, you can end up having a lot of shallow conversations that end with pushing your business card or website URL on someone way too soon.

That’s collecting relationships, not building them.

If you’re only participating in a Facebook group’s promo threads, or making five minutes of small talk with someone at happy hour before your pitch, the interactions you have aren’t going to amount to a valuable connection.

What to do instead

Realize you’re not going to meet everyone at once, and that’s okay. Think about it this way: even in a best case scenario where everyone wanted to hire you, you wouldn’t be able to take on all the work at once anyway!

Instead of letting your enthusiasm get to you and introducing yourself to everyone who could be interesting, spend a little more time with fewer individuals. That could mean private messaging with someone in a Facebook group, sitting down for a one-on-one with someone at a conference, or creating follow-up lunches with people at Chamber of Commerce events.

By building deeper relationships with fewer people, you’ll be able to learn enough about each other to really build the foundation of a professional relationship.

The better you know someone, the better the chances are there will be a time they can help you, and you them. For example, if someone you start getting to know ends up not becoming a client, they’ve learned enough about you and your business that they might refer you to someone else.

Long-term relationships can also pay off way down the line. For example, someone that I originally met in an online community over two years ago just became a new client. If we hadn’t kept in touch and kept a friendship going since, he would have long forgotten about me by the time he needed to hire a writer.

4. You’re not making your expertise known

On the other end of the “pushiness and timing” spectrum, there’s a chance you’re not doing enough to make your intentions known. I have to admit, I’m guilty of being so afraid of being seen as sleazy and salesy that I’ve tiptoed around mentioning any part of my actual work when talking to new people.

But your talents are one of the many things that make you interesting—of course you can and should talk about them!

Someone could be your ideal client, with money ready to spend, looking for exactly what you’re looking for, and you just pass by each other. You could have an entire conversation with them without realizing you’re perfect for each other—at least in a business sense. Talk about a missed connection.

There’s a difference between talking about your business and promoting it, between informing and pitching, but it’s a thin line to straddle. Earlier on in networking interactions, you definitely don’t want to pitch yourself. That said, you should feel free to talk about your experiences in business, the types of clients you work with, and past successes you’ve facilitated. Be proud of it.

What to do instead

Master the art of “subtly informing,” as well as the art of timing. There are lots of ways to slip into conversation what you do, what you’re best at, and even why people might want to work with you—without pitching at all.

The easiest way to do this is through telling stories. 

For example, spending 30 seconds telling someone you just met about how good your websites are won’t get you anywhere. But simply telling them about your day, that you’re in the middle of launching a new client’s site and collecting great feedback, and what that involves, doesn’t come off as pushy at all.

You’re just telling them about your day. But you’re also subtly informing them that you get invested in your client’s end results, you know your own system or process, and your sites get great feedback. Sneaky, but it works.

You also want to know when to be subtle and when to be direct.

If you’re at a happy hour event and someone is talking about launching a new business, that should raise a red flag for you. It’s not time to pitch yet, but asking something like, “Oh, have you started the website yet?” can let you know if it’s appropriate to go in for a direct offer.

And if the timing is right, if they’re looking for a designer and you’re right there, it’s okay to be direct. You’re offering a solution to a problem they know they have, which will be appreciated.

Take your mind off yourself

The one overall theme to follow when networking is to think about relationships over projects.

Pitching people too soon or working the room may land you one or two projects, but you’re not building significant relationships that will last beyond the final deadline. Relationships, however, have infinite value.

Relationships can give you insights. Relationships can bring you referrals. And connecting relationships to projects is what keeps clients coming back for more work and introducing you to all of their other contacts.

Have you been able to crack the code when it comes to valuable networking? What benefits has it brought you?

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