Where do creative freelancers *actually* get clients?

At the Freelance Co-op, over half of the questions that come in are a variant of:

“Where do I find clients?”

With this in mind, part of the data we collected when we surveyed 513 freelance copywriters about their pricing was where they got their clients.

This was important research topic for us because there are thousands of articles about how to get freelancing clients. But, to my knowledge, no body of work actually looks at what actual, working freelancers do to get consistent work.

Here’s what we found.

Top-ranked places copywriters get clients

  1. Referrals: 76%
  2. Social media groups: 26%
  3. Their own website/email list: 24%
  4. Cold Outreach (calls/emails): 22%
  5. Job Sites (Fivver, Upwork, Craigslist): 22%
  6. Social Media Job Boards: 11%
  7. Attending Live Events: 11%
  8. Paid programs or groups: 9%
  9. Speaking at Live events: 4%
  10. Paid traffic like Facebook ads: 4%
  11. SEO: 3%
  12. Podcasting: 1.5%

Note: Other sources that were mentioned in write-ins by participants were LinkedIn and doing agency work. We did not include these as a choice so the percentages are not included here.

The vast majority (76%) of the copywriters we surveyed get at least some clients from referrals. This was an interesting result because very few articles about getting clients really cover how to systematically generate referrals. (In this 2nd half of this article, I cover two strategies for generating referrals)

An unsurprising result from our data was that the longer someone has been a freelancer, the more likely they are to get clients from referrals. And 100% of copywriters that have been in business 20 years or more get referrals. This makes sense. If you’ve been in the business longer, the more past clients you have to refer you new business.

Percentage of freelance copywriters who get clients from referrals.

  • Less than 6 months: 48%
  • 6 months — 1 year: 79%
  • 1–2 years: 67%
  • 2–5 years: 81%
  • 5–10 years: 82%
  • 10–20 years: 94%
  • 20+ years: 100%

Similarly, the longer you’ve been a copywriter, the less likely you are to use cold outreach to get clients.

Nearly half of people who have been freelancing less than 6 months use cold outreach, while only one in 10 of those working for decades depend on this strategy.

Percentage of freelance copywriters who get clients from cold outreach:

  • Less than 6 months: 44%
  • 6 months — 1 year: 21%
  • 1–2 years: 22%
  • 2–5 years: 20%
  • 5–10 years: 16%
  • 10–20 years: 15%
  • 20+ years: 10%

While this data was interesting, I was also curious if the type of project affected where to find clients. In the survey, we asked about pricing across multiple types of projects. We divided the projects into 3 types:

  1. Direct Response Heavy. These projects (sales letters and VSLs for example) are projects where the goal is a sale. They are usually more comprehensive and more expensive projects.
  2. Mid-funnel. These are the types of projects where you need the customer to take an action. Things like email opt-in pages, facebook ads, and sales emails.
  3. Content/Top of Funnel. These are projects where an immediate action isn’t needed. Projects like blog posts and website about pages. These are usually the lowest-paid jobs on the copywriter spectrum.

We discovered that people that were charging for direct response projects found clients in very different places than content projects.

Content projects are more likely to be found on cold email and job sites like Upwork while direct response projects are around twice as likely to get clients via paid groups and live events.

Those who charge for direct response projects are also slightly more likely to get clients through their own website and, relatedly through traffic drivers like SEO, paid ads, and podcasting.

Two strategies for generating referrals

If you google “how to get more referrals,” you’ll find a whole bunch of scripts that you can send your client at the end of working together. Often these scripts look like this:

“Do you have names of three friends or colleagues that I could reach out to?”
And then you reach out to those people with an email script like: “I worked with [CLIENT NAME]. They were really happy with my service and said that you might be interested.”

I don’t know of any actual working freelancer that’s had luck with this strategy. Part of the reason is it feels kind of a little slimy — you’re treating your best client as a lead generation tool not as a client.

When I’m in the customer role, I don’t feel good about this either. I’ve always felt really weird when a company I use sends one of those surveys that asks me for the “emails of three friends” for a referral credit or bonus. I don’t want to put my friends in that position. I don’t want them to be sold to… even if I’m happy with the provider.

So here’s two ways to generate referrals while making your client feel appreciated and non-icky.

Become “referable” (not how you think)

Why do people refer clients to you in the first place? It’s not because they love you so much. It’s not because they want a credit or a coupon or a commission. It’s because when you tell someone about something that helps them, it raises your status.

You’re seen as “in the know.” Why do you post about amazing restaurants on Facebook? Because if a friend goes to that restaurant and enjoys it, they will thank you. Maybe you’ll strengthen your relationship as a result.

With that in mind, being good at what you do is “table stakes.” You have to be good at your craft, but being good is not enough to get a referral.

When I was 12, I started picking up babysitting jobs. I wanted more jobs so I looked at the babysitters my mom had hired. Why did she love some and tolerate others? So I asked her.

She said that step one was the table stakes: make sure that the kids are safe, fed, and they get to bed on time. But the key is… after the kids go to bed instead of watching TV and waiting, take those two hours before the parents come home, and clean the house. Do all the dishes in the sink, even if you didn’t dirty them up.

One day I was babysitting for a client. The kids had their own playroom. And this house was completely immaculate except for this playroom. It was a disaster. The parents let the kids have this one room. And the door stayed closed and no adult looked in there.

After the kids went to bed I cleaned the entire playroom. Put all the toys in bins and vacuumed. I didn’t tell the client. When they discovered it the next day, they took time to call me and thank me for that fairly small, easy task.

Within the next month or so, I became the go-to babysitter for an entire neighborhood. How did that happen?

When someone in the neighborhood asked my client “I’m looking for a babysitter do you know anybody?” instead of the normal, “We have a girl, she’s great…here’s her number”… the conversation went completely different. It was something like: “Oh my god, we have this girl Abbey, she’s incredible, she cleaned our entire playroom, did all the dishes in our house. She was fantastic.”

This is how referrals happen. If somebody called your client and said, “Hey, I’m looking for a copywriter do you know anybody?”… You can engineer that conversation.

It’s the bare minimum that you did the job that you got paid to do. “Oh yeah. Abbey writes great copy. I’ll give you her number.”

What little things can you do to “clean the playroom”?

At the end of the project, I always send them a little gift just to thank them for working with me.

One client I have, I send them cupcakes on their birthday. We didn’t have any active projects when I saw that his birthday was coming up. And he’s a big fan of cupcakes, so I sent some with a note that just said “Hey, appreciate you as a client.”

Now, when he talks to his friends and they say, “Hey, do you know a copywriter?”.

“Yeah. Abbey’s great! Oh my gosh, she improved our content systems while she was here, and she mailed me cupcakes!”

Another client I brought chips and guacamole for her backstage at a live event.

Neither of those things cost much money to do, but it’s these small things that make you stand out and make a great person to refer.

Make them look good when they refer you

We often expect our happy clients to refer us without giving them the tools to do it. Where do they direct potential clients? What benefit does your client get from referring someone to you?

Instead of looking at the transactional benefit (10% off your next service!)… think about the intangible, status benefit.

Dean Jackson has an amazing system where you provide a resource your client can share with their friends. Instead of setting their friend up for a sales pitch, your client can provide value, which of course raises their status.

A great tool for this is a book. My friend Joey Coleman has a fantastic book that I give out to people all the time. The result is that I look great providing a resource to someone and Joey gets more business. It feels good, not transactional.

If you don’t have a book, you can create other resources like templates or checklists that include information about how to work with you. Then if someone approaches one of your clients asking if they know any resources for _____, they can answer, “OMG, let me send you this checklist that my [writer/designer/editor/whatever-it-is-you-do] made up for me.

Inside the Freelance Co-op program, I cover how to find clients at live events using a similar strategy as well as go deeper into generating referrals using my “Clean Playroom Method,” with examples, scripts, and even great playroom-cleaning ideas.