Is Building An Audience Worth It For Freelancers?


Key Takeaways In This Article...
  • Why freelancers traditionally haven’t been encouraged to focus on building an audience
  • What we can learn from how enterprises acquire and nurture leads
  • Tip #1: Don’t promote a service right away when building an audience
  • Tip #2: You need to create, not attract, clients
  • Tip #3: Educating your audience is everything
  • How building an audience increases your Luck Surface Area

“Traditionally, consulting businesses have little of either [reach & scalability]. Consultants don’t need wide brand awareness or a large audience. They only require a small group of highly targeted individuals and organizations to be aware of their existence and services. Word of mouth is often enough to fill the pipeline for consulting businesses.”
– Rand Fishkin

I’ve been reading Rand Fishkin’s book, Lost & Founder. It’s the story of the founding of SEOmoz, and each page bleeds practicality and plenty of “gah, why didn’t anyone tell me this first” takeaways.

Rand talks a lot about the difference between selling services and selling products, and makes a pretty strong case why products aren’t necessarily right for everyone.

But what really stuck out to me was the above quote, which can be summed up as:

  • Product businesses are high-volume, low-revenue. You need to build an audience (a.k.a. generate a ton of leads) in order to make it work.
  • Service businesses are low-volume, high-revenue. Since you can only work on so many projects at any given time you should put more focus on building a strong network, rather than building an audience.

In principle, I agree.

Superimposing the audience building and sales tactics that $197 course creators on top of a consulting business rarely works, mostly because hiring a consultant tends to involve a lot more due diligence than an impulse buy product.

However, have you looked at how really successful enterprise product vendors operate?

Enterprise sales teams aren’t driving people to a credit card checkout form, but they are leveraging tried-and-true audience building strategies to acquire leads, qualify them, nurture, and then close the deal.

Because these teams optimize for super high volume (relative to the average freelancer or agency), they don’t regard each lead as being “ready to buy”. They score leads and take into account a lead’s level of awareness.

OK, I promise not to dig too deeply into enterprise sales here.

However, the exact same higher-touch lead generation and nurturing strategies enterprise companies use can be used by you, even if you’re solo. There’s a lot about effective audience building that we can learn from enterprise leaders who have lead generation and nurturing down to a science.

Ready to start playing the long game? I’ve got 3 core truths to start with (that many of us learned the hard way):

1. Don’t promote a service right away when building an audience

The single biggest mistake I see freelancers make is that they focus way too much on selling a service, especially to people who aren’t yet ready to buy.

A freelancer who codes Ruby on Rails apps might have a portfolio website that’s about her ability to code. Her site only appeals and attracts companies who have needs that can be met by Ruby on Rails apps.

She’s chosen the ultimate pigeonholed niche – total problem and solution-awareness, and the conscious recognition of a particular technology (as opposed to the many other competing technologies) as a means of solving a problem.

This means that her offer (Ruby coding) only makes sense for those with a Ruby-related problem.

And you see this play out often:

  1. A freelancer or agency has some success with intent-based ad platforms, like Google AdWords. People search for “ruby on rails consulting” and end up on their services page. Downside? Low search volume and prohibitively expensive costs.
  2. They decide to “scale their ad spend” and look into a more passive platform like Facebook.
  3. A ton of money is recklessly wasted.

Typically the offer doesn’t change. They’re still selling Ruby on Rails consulting.

So pushing ads for their consulting services into people’s Facebook feeds go nowhere, because the offer is way too niche (again: only appealing to people who are problem and solution-aware, and have enough understanding to realize that they have a need that can be solved by a software consultancy.)

Smart companies know this, and instead focus on promoting lead magnets, not their products or services.

For example:

  • Whitepapers
  • Free reports
  • Free ebooks
  • Paid books (David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is primarily how his company sells executive training gigs)
  • Email courses
  • Webinars
  • In-person seminars

Their marketing teams know that there’s something called an awareness funnel.

Not every lead is equal. Not everyone in a sales CRM is ready to be sold to by a salesperson. And not everyone who could be sold to is already in the sales CRM.

They focus a ton of time and money on prospecting by “selling” some of the lead magnets I listed above.

The job of marketing is not to advertise and sell a product or service, but to advertise and sell (in exchange for time + contact information) a product with wide appeal, like a short guide on what to do when you get fed-up with Microsoft Excel.

Why Excel? Especially if you’re a Ruby on Rails consultant?

Because there are a ton of companies that use Excel daily. And people who store a lot of data and spend a bunch of time computing stuff probably have Excel powering lots of big and important things in their business.

Then you come in and start summing up a lot of what’s readily available out on the Internet that Excel users probably don’t read, except in moments of rage:

Google is a great way to curate pain points for your audience

This helps you get the right type of people (white collar professionals) in your audience.

These are the type of people who either have decision making capabilities in their companies, or work for someone who does.

Your primary goal should be to build up an audience of people who work at (or own) companies that fit the right profile. If you code Ruby all day, 99% of these people aren’t going to be people who are looking for Ruby help.

Sounds counterintuitive, right?

But let me take you on a quick trip down memory lane:

When I first started building an agency, most of our clients were startup companies that needed “more keyboards thrown at the problem” (their words, not mine.) They had developers on staff, and just needed more coding bandwidth. Hiring me and my company was a way of getting that – fast.

We weren’t given much creative freedom. Our job was to pick whatever’s at the top of the project management tool every morning, and build that.

After we started focusing on firmographics (a fancy way of saying “the right type of businesses”), rather than promoting and selling our Ruby coding services, we ended up getting more companies who had zero idea Ruby on Rails was a thing – nor did they really care – and we could help them plan, design, and ultimately build software that they needed.

So by building the “wrong” audience with lead magnets that, on the surface, don’t really look all that relevant to what you’re selling, you’ll find that you end up attracting exactly the right people – real companies with real problems.

What’s something that you could promote first that isn’t your services?

This should be what you promote at networking events, at conferences, on podcast interviews, in guest posts, in the emails you send, and in ads.

2. You need to create, not attract, clients

The second thing we should learn from enterprises (and those good at building and profiting from audiences) is that clients need to be created.

Those people struggling to deal with Excel?

DO NOT SELL CONSULTING!

You need to first prepare them to be ready to work with you. This means:

  1. They become aware of a problem (“oh, Excel is holding us back in more ways than I thought…”)
  2. They’re told that a solution to this problem exists (“it would be great to be able to have all this data centrally available on all of our phones, and have some sort of audit trail when changes get made, and be able to get notified of new updates…”)
  3. They become confident that their version of this problem is solvable (“wow! others have experienced the exact same thing we have…”)
  4. They become increasingly convinced that this problem is really impacting them, and that it can be reliably fixed (“it looks like custom software is within reach for us, it won’t break the bank, and it could really help streamline the way we do business…”)

You need to be OK with shepherding your audience through this process.

Because, if you think about it, this process is the exact same process all of your past clients have gone through.

At some point, they realized something wasn’t right (their online sales suck), they want to solve this problem and have the cash flow to, say, expand their business. They ask around or Google a bunch, and something they’ve heard or read leads them to think that maybe it’s because of their store’s design. After going down the rabbit hole of our-design-is-holding-us-back, they internalize that they should hire a designer to redo their site.

Then they find you.

This funnel is prone to failure – most people won’t survive through the end.

So if you can get people and reliably move them toward the point of realizing that they can (and should) be helped in a particular way, you’re going to be credited with helping them get from here to there.

And then you’ll have primed the pump. Now they’re ready to be pitched on your service, because your service will actually align with what they know they need.

This is why pushing consulting offers in front of Facebook traffic rarely works, but works well enough with intent-based platforms like Google AdWords.

  • AdWords: People are looking for services that you provide. The fact that they’re searching this way means that they’re already solution-aware and likely already know what needs to be done (hire a Ruby coder) to achieve what they want.
  • Facebook / LinkedIn / passive platforms: People might fit the right profile… but they need to be shepherded first.

The reason many freelancers and agencies fail when marketing their consulting isn’t because of the channel (“Facebook sucks!”) or the audience. It’s because there’s a misalignment with what they’re offering and how prepared the audience on the receiving end is.

3. Educating your audience is everything

The thing you’ll realize after you’ve done the audience thing for a while – especially at high price points, like with consulting – is that the majority of the people you attract won’t actually ever hire you.

When we were building our agency’s audience, exactly 0.16% of the people on our list ever hired us.

That’s 5 clients. Out of 3,000 subscribers.

Failure, right?

Wrong.

Our referral work was through the roof.

Think about the last few referrals you got. They were probably from clients, right? Why’s that?

Past clients refer work to you because you’ve delivered something of value to them in the past (you’re legitimate) and you’ve remained top-of-mind. So when they’re talking to a peer who might need some help, you come up and a referral is made.

By educating your audience and sending high-quality original or curated content again, and again, and again, you’re delivering a tremendous amount of value at scale. And by doing it frequently, you’re keeping yourself top-of-mind.

This is the exact. same. formula. that triggers referrals.

So an audience of 3,000 that had received a lot of value from us and to who we were top-of-mind sent us a lot of referrals. In retrospect, I like to say that we significantly expanded our Luck Surface Area.

Had we depended on just relying on our network (mostly composed of past clients) to get future work, we would have had limited “referral reach.”

But because we focused on expanding our reach and maintaining relationships at a pretty large scale, we had no issue getting work.

I ran my agency back in 2008-2011, and my automation chops were pretty non-existent back then. These days, I’ve become quite a bit better at selling to an audience (vs. just hoping for referrals.) After all, Double Your Freelancing is 100% dependent on my ability to do exactly that.

If I could do it all over again, I’d do exactly what I did a decade ago… but I’d be much more systematic at how I tie together lead magnets, services, and ongoing and continuous education.

And I wouldn’t geographically limit our audience (the 3,000 were pretty much all from southeastern Virginia, even though our client base – referrals from Virginians! – was international.)

Closing thoughts:

Fed up with haphazard attempts at getting quality clients?

Unwilling to scale your business before you really nail your sales funnel? (So was I.)

My magnum opus on getting high-quality leads releases in about a month. Do yourself a favor and get on the announcement list. You’re not going to miss what I’ve been working on over the last year.

“I still can't believe you don't charge for this course.”
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I can't thank you enough for everything you're doing to share your knowledge and experience with us. I've been reading and listening to a lot of "gurus" out there and often times feel like their approaches are a bit too gimmicky or lack what I appreciate about your content the most: genuinely caring about the client's needs. I read every word of every lesson many times over and I could truly feel my mindset shifting.
Sam F., joined the course April 18, 2018
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