Wouldn’t it be great to have the freedom and agility of a freelancer, with the steady work queue of a large, established company? Well, until you find a perfect world like that (and some have!), one of your primary jobs as a freelancer is to keep your eyes open for new projects and new clients as you work with your current ones.

For many people, finding new projects and clients is the hardest step; they don’t know where to start. Having worked as a freelancer for more than seven years, I know what that’s like. There are basically two scenarios: The customer finds you, which is the dream scenario for all of us; or you find the customer, which is more likely and requires you to be active in your network.

I recently posted a few pieces about building your portfolio—Why You Need an E-Learning Portfolio … Now! and What to Include in an E-Learning Portfolio—that will help you prepare for when a client asks to see your work. But how do you get your work in front of the right people just when they need a designer? Lucky for you, I have five tips that will help you connect with people who have jobs you want.

Tip 1: Get Acquainted with Your Ideal Customers

Do you already have a clear understanding what kind of customer you’re looking for? If yes, you’ll have a leg up on a lot of your competitors and you will be able to search more efficiently, which means your acquisition costs (i.e., cost of your time spent looking for new customers) will be lower. If no, spend some time researching your prospects, like this:

  1. Who are your preferred customers and projects? Are you interested in a certain industry, or have you specialized in a certain topic that could be interesting for many industries? Is your skill set only relevant for a certain group of potential customers? Who is the right person in these organizations to talk to about your projects?
  2. Where do these customers have a presence? Are there industry events they attend? Do you know of any websites, blogs, user forums, or other social media platforms they visit or contribute to regularly? How about publications and newsletters?
  3. How can you connect with these customers? Can someone introduce or refer you? Can you meet them in person, at a trade show or other event? What about participating online where they have a presence, or reaching the right contact person via email, regular mail, or a phone call?

With a handle on who your best potential customers are, you’ll be better prepared for that first encounter, whether you approach them or they find you.

Tip 2: Network, Network, Network

If you find events, whether live or online, where your ideal target companies have a presence, get yourself out there immediately! Find any opportunities to speak or present your skills and projects. There are plenty of free or low-cost events with different formats, like user meetings, BarCamps, Meetups, and so on, where you can expand your network with a lot of interesting people and ideally find new customers.

The same goes for online discussions or exchanging tweets about certain topics (e.g., #edchat or #educhat or #articulateAMA). Once people in your network know you better, it’s easier to ask them for referrals for a potential client.

Tip 3: Reach Out Personally

This one varies from person to person—some people love the research, dedication, and excitement involved in finding new contacts, and others (like me!) are less comfortable with promoting themselves. But reaching out is a necessary part of the process, and I make myself do it as a way to reach my larger goal.

Once I find the right person to contact at the company I’m interested in, I send them a personalized introductory email explaining what I can offer and how this fills some need(s) for the organization. If you know of specific projects they’re working on or trying to staff, definitely mention how you can help with these. Then, follow up over the phone to see if they are interested in scheduling a meeting with you.

If you don’t have an email for the person, or if you are comfortable making a cold introduction, you can call the company up front without sending an email first. Ideally, you’ll come away with the name and email of the right person to contact so you can personalize a follow-up email correctly.

A word of caution: Don’t approach people with mass mailings or buy email addresses to spam people. Your focus needs to be on personalizing your pitch and addressing the needs of your potential customer.

Tip 4: Promoting Your Portfolio Website

Having a portfolio website is only useful if it’s connecting the right people with your work. Let the world know where your work lives: Add the link in your email signature and your various online profiles (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter), tweet about it when you add new projects, and add relevant keywords so search engines can find it (otherwise known as SEO: search engine optimization). When you engage in online discussions, see if you can link back to e-learning demos or articles and other relevant content on your website. Maybe you can also offer a free download to get people interested. These tips only scratch the surface of what you can do to boost your online presence, but at least they can help you get started.

Tip 5: Enhance Your Digital Presence

Boosting your digital presence doesn’t mean creating a zillion online profiles or becoming the master of link spreading. Your presence on these platforms should be relevant for your potential customers so they can find you there.

Show your expertise by engaging in online conversations. Write blog articles, comment on blog posts with topics about your expertise, think about guest blogging, and contact established bloggers who might offer that opportunity. If you have your own blog, invite guest bloggers to it to attract a broader audience. Reactivate your Twitter account, post news on LinkedIn, or comment on other people’s updates.

Keep in mind: All these activities can be very time consuming, so make sure you engage on the right platforms. Evaluate which ones get you the most exposure to your potential clients. Give it some time but also, if you don’t see any responses from it, move on!

These five tips will help get you started on your search for new clients and projects—but there are lots of other things people do as well. What are your favorite strategies for finding new clients? What has worked and what hasn’t? Please share your experience in the comments below.

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Nicola Appel