The Five-Step System for Prospecting, Pitching, and Landing Freelance Clients

Written by Michelle Nickolaisen

You sit down at your laptop with a hot mug of coffee, ready to start your work day.

First, you check Craigslist for relevant postings in the freelance gigs section. Then, it’s time to check the local Facebook group for any promising projects.

Ok, just a few more things to check before you can actually start working: the job boards that have led to good work in the past, your email inbox for any incoming leads, that other Facebook group… And on and on the process goes.

Sound familiar?

Nothing is worse than an empty client pipeline

It’s pretty standard for a freelancer’s workday to involve a solid chunk of prospecting for opportunities, just like the routine above. At least right up until you have clients up to your elbows.

As the work piles up and deadlines approach, pitching falls by the wayside so you can deliver awesome work to your clients. As the end of the month arrives, you’ve run out of work, and you’re left scratching your head at why you don’t have any new clients lined up.

It’s back to square one with an empty pipeline. Ouch.

Your pipeline isn’t the problem; your process is

Even if you do keep pitching and hustling while you’re working on client projects, using the Craigslist-Facebook-Job-Board Doom Loop™ for finding and pitching gigs is about as efficient as swimming uphill in cold molasses.

Your process is broken for at least three reasons:

  1. It distracts you from the work you’ve already won. If you’re taking a break every hour to prospect for new work, then you’re tanking your productivity. No matter how well you think you multi-task, the research simply disagrees.

  2. It increases the lead time of your projects. The prospecting doom loop for finding and pitching work is so inefficient that it’s probably adding an hour (maybe more) to the start of each of your projects.

  3. It takes you longer to get paid. Every hour spent prospecting is another hour you’re not being paid. The longer it takes you to get paid, the lower your profit margins on each hour you work.

There’s a much better way to approach this process. It’ll help you focus on the work at hand, lower your time investment on each project, and take less time to get paid for your work.

The five-step system for prospecting, pitching, and landing freelance clients

In the Fizzle episode on business models, Chase mentioned the key to a sustainable freelance business: systems.

Creating a system for organized hustling was the difference between being burned out enough to get a day job at the end of 2013 and building a sustainable client pipeline in 2014 without frying my circuits.

How’d I do that?

Step One: Automate your searches

Rather than checking an exhaustive list of sites every day, make the results come to you. I use IFTTT for this, both on local Craigslist searches and for RSS feeds of job boards. Here’s a quick tutorial on setting it up to do that:

If you use Facebook groups to find gigs, turn on notifications for the groups, and check Facebook when you check email (more on that in a second). The goal: make it easy to filter through all possible gigs by gathering them in as few places as possible.

Step Two: Batch your tasks

Remember the cost of interrupting your workflow to check email and job boards?

The goal of batching is to process all possible gigs (which should now be in one or two spots) in one or two sessions per day. This is the same principle behind Tim Ferriss’ and Fast Company’s ideas for email batching.

By reading postings and sending pitches all at once, you keep them from interrupting the big blocks of time you need for your creative work.

Step Three: Use templates (the right way)

First off, let’s get this out of the way: never ever ever send a 100% form reply. That might be efficient, but it’s less likely to get a positive response … mostly because it makes you look like a lazy jerk.

That said, it is possible to use templates to speed up your workflow while also catering each pitch to the project and client by creating a “framework” template. If you want to take this to the pro level, you can create one overarching template and then one for each of your specialties.

For example, I have one focusing on my interviews/case studies, one focusing on the app/tech oriented articles I’ve written, and one that talks about my background in a more general B2B framing.

Once you’ve created your templates, you can store them using any number of tools. There’s TextExpander (the Fizzle team’s favorite), aText, or, for a simpler solution, you can just save your templates in Evernote so they’re there when you need them.

Here’s a template you can use and modify, based on mine:

Hi [name]!

I saw your posting on [job board] and wanted to send in my information. You’ll find my resume attached and you can view my online portfolio here: [link. If a specific page has sample work or case studies, link to those pages individually as well. If they request work samples in the ad, add a sentence along the lines of, “Here’s a few samples that sound similar to what you’re looking for:” with links to the articles or projects, etc.]

I’d be a great fit for this because…[Your background goes here. A good rule of thumb is one sentence for your general background, one sentence covering your experience and how it relates to this gig—for example, if you’ve written extensively about medical technology, or about enterprise app design—and one or two sentences that mentions a specific project you worked on that’s relevant to this gig.]

Let me know if you have any questions. I’d be happy to meet for a phone/Skype call or to meet for coffee [obviously, take that out if this isn’t a local job] sometime in the next week [modify timetable or include specific openings—i.e. Wednesday afternoon] if you wanted to discuss the project and my experience.

Thank you for your time and have a great day!

[your name]

When you’re working on your framework and sending pitches, keep a few things in mind:

  1. If you find a contact name, use it. In other words, do your research. Paying attention to personal details like this makes you stand out in the mass of emails the client will get from other freelancers.

  2. If the posting asks specific questions, answer them. Remember, the idea here isn’t to copy and paste mindlessly—it’s to give you a jumping off point to customize and send, without having to start from scratch every time.

  3. End on a polite note and thank them for their time. I’ve been on the receiving end of submission emails, and you’d be surprised how many end abruptly. (This might partially be a cultural thing, as a former midwesterner/now Texan, but really, it can’t hurt.)

Step Four: Set rate-based pitching goals

If you’ve done any research on goal-setting, you might have run into the idea of outcome-based goals vs. rate-based goals. If you’re in a hurry here’s the gist: you’re not in control of the outcome, only your actions. You can do everything in your power to create a perfect pitch, and yet, it might not work out for any given project.

Setting a goal like “getting two new projects this week” sounds good. But here’s the thing: If you don’t get those two new projects, you’re going to be totally demoralized.

It could be because of a change in budget, shift in priorities, or some specific needs that weren’t communicated in the ad. It’s easy to think it’s your fault, but in reality, most of the time this is completely out of your control.

On the other hand, setting a goal like “pitching five new projects this week” is 100% in your control. The only problem is finding enough gigs to pitch, which shouldn’t be a problem with the learnings from this post.

The other bonus of setting a goal like this is that it turns your work into a numbers game. No matter how good the pitch is, my best success rate has been about 50/50. And if I’m honest, I think that was due to under-charging at the time more than anything I was doing right.

Focusing on winning every single project makes you neurotic when you’re writing pitches and disappointed when you don’t hear back. It’s like dating: if your mind is on rejection, it throws off your game. Better to just pitch and move on until you meet your quota.

Step Five: Always be on the lookout

You might think once your client docket is full, it’s time to stop pitching entirely. Wrong!

That attitude is what leads to the infamous feast-famine cycle of peaks and valleys in your income, which is one of the most stressful things about freelancing. Unless the types of clients you’re landing are retainer clients (agreeing to a monthly or weekly commitment for the indefinite future) or very long-term projects, you need to keep a constant eye out for new gigs.

In my experience, the lead time from a gig being posting to the paid work can be anywhere from two weeks to two months. Maintaining the pace of your pitching prevents you from having those famine periods of low or no income. Depending on the projects you currently have going (and how long they’re set to last), 1–5 pitches a week will probably do.

You can also modify this system as you go along. For example, as I’ve moved up in my freelancing career, I’m more interested in pitching the types of sites who don’t often post calls for writers on job boards.

I stay focused on a short list of ideal clients on a whiteboard in my office and in Asana so I have it on the go and and at home.

I also keep a recurring task in Asana to remind me to pitch at least one place a week. This kicks me out of my comfort zone and breaks down the seemingly-impossible task of writing for prestigious sites into doable chunks.

Other resources for landing gigs

What if you’re just starting out and aren’t sure how to fill up your IFTTT triggers? Here are a few ideas:

Finally, there are also sites like Elance, Guru, oDesk (now Upwork), and PeoplePerHour, but for the most part, sites like this are a race to the bottom with freelancers competing for peanuts. I suggest only turning to them if you’re really having a hard time drumming up business elsewhere.

Your next steps

  1. Don’t have a portfolio site yet? This video tutorial has a walkthrough of do’s and don’t’s, along with some other tips on inbound marketing for freelancers. And this Fizzle post has 8 great examples of personal domain names.
  2. For bonus points, install Streak, Insightly or another CRM to set up, so you can stay organized and see what’s working and what’s not.
  3. Use this post to start automating your hustle and filling your client pipeline.

What other tips do you have for keeping your client pipeline full? Share them in the comments.

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