Targeted Expertise: The Fastest Route to Establishing Yourself as a Freelancer
Being an expert will cut through objections and gatekeepers and attract new clients
Are You an SME? Do You Know What an SME Is?
Can you get new writing clients with one brief inquiry? Can you name your prices when doing so? And can you control the kind of work you’re doing in the process?
Subject matter expertise makes you a subject matter expert (SME), and that’s the most direct route to freelance writing and consulting success. I’m not saying it’s easy, but when you get there, the world will change.
The Fastest Way to Cut Through and Get Attention
We read endless articles and blog posts about how to approach potential clients, get on their radar, and get them to send you work. And most of that advice involves the same moves: writing introductory emails, LinkedIn messages, and other ‘cold’ communications with people you don’t know and who likely couldn’t care less. There are two ways to ‘warm’ up these inquiries and get real responses. The first is to have a solid referral and the second is to be a subject matter expert in their field.
The irony here is that you’ll seldom get a strong referral if you’re not an SME. Why would a respected peer refer someone whose skill set is not a known quantity? The reality is that subject matter expertise opens both doors.
Expertise Cuts Through Objections and Gatekeepers
Before we look at what it is and how you get it, let’s look at why you would want to (because it isn’t easy — start by giving up on easy, the world doesn’t care about easy). First, proven expertise cuts right through gatekeepers, email queues, and other barriers put in place to cut off sales communications. If you’re an expert, then you’ll know the subject line that gets your message read, the hot button issue that shows you know your stuff.
Why? Because you know the problem, you likely know the solution, you should know the market, and you definitely need to know what people need to know. That saves an incredible amount of time for your potential client. They don’t have to teach you, correct you, wait while you get up to speed, etc. And that means they save money and time, savings they will pay for without a thought. It’s simple math: If I use this person and they turn the job around, deliver quality content without a lot of handholding, and they can do this over and over, it’s easily worth paying more for. In fact, you become a resource they’ll return to over and over.
Picking Your Subject(s)
If you’re going to be an expert, consider two criteria for choosing your path. First, you’re going to invest time, money, and energy into this over the long term, so it better be something that fascinates you. If you can generate passion around it, even better. Passion is contagious.
Second, you have to follow the money. There are millions of niches but few that can support a career, much less a freelance practice. The market must be large and require time to understand. Plus, the money involved across that market must be enough to render your prices negligible in the big scheme of things. So, look for big-ticket subjects with big margins that are complex to explain.
Sounds a lot like work, doesn’t it? The negative aspect of work is directly related to your interest in the subject and the people involved. That’s why choosing a topic that’s meaningful and/or interesting is critical. If you love what you’re doing, it won’t feel like work.
The best way to acquire expertise is to do work in the field — any kind of work in the field. If you’re interning, for example, look for the complexity and ask people to explain it. Appeal to their mentor instincts. This means that if you’re a gofer, hang around in the meetings and listen. Make notes and collar someone after to explain things you don’t know. Be the curious but dumb learner. It’s called ‘beginner mind’ and you only get it once. So, use your beginner mind and go out there and get to know enough to ask your mentor better questions.
What Do You Know Already?
If you’re experienced, catalog your experience. List the topics you’re well informed about and your related work, and then rate them by your interest level. Then, go deeper into your chosen subjects. I look at it as market research:
- Who are the players?
- What’s the core problem?
- What are the ancillary problems?
- Who are the competitors?
- What are their strengths and weaknesses relative to each other?
- Who are their prospective customers?
- What do they look like and why do they buy?
The reason you do this research is to become an ‘insider’ and to judge the value of the knowledge. While you’re doing this, learn the secret of effective marketing research: digging into non-obvious clues. When a name comes up, look them up on LinkedIn, and look at both their education and career history. If they have written articles or made videos or podcasts, consume them. Keep notes and contact info — they’re future prospects.
Writing Establishes Credibility, Even if It Is on Your Own Dime
Start writing about what you’ve learned. Write articles designed to reach those buyers and insiders. Join related LinkedIn Groups (this gets your posts into their feeds) and post your articles on LinkedIn. If you get a comment or other response, send a connection request but don’t pitch them. If you’re in a consumer market, do the same process with the social media outlets they follow.
Set up a profile on a freelancer site. I like Clearvoice because their online portfolio builder is super simple and really well organized. I don’t actually do business through them, I just point people to my work there. You’ll need about six pieces minimum to show credibility.
Never Pitch Anyone Personally
I have a secret pitch process that I’ll share because I’m a nice guy. Pick your target company and identify a person on your list who works there. Send them a note that says, ‘Please route this message to the relevant person at your company.’ If you have a name or job title, even better. Then simply say you’re knowledgeable about XYZ subject and ask if they need a content resource. Link to your portfolio. I always have a link to a relevant article I’ve published recently beneath my signature. Thank them and move on.
If you’re obviously an insider or appear to be one, you’ll probably get at least a polite brushoff. But that isn’t the end of the world. You’re on their radar. I can tell you that this approach is far more effective than generic pitches for freelance work. And bear this in mind: You don’t need a lot of responses. Even one is fantastic because you can leverage the work you do for them to establish your expertise even further.
Byline or No Byline?
I never ask for a byline. If they offer it and it causes no conflicts (you may not want your clients to know everyone you work for), I’m fine with it. But very often my work is going out under a CEO’s name. If you make them look good, they’ll want you for their future work. If I have ghosted a piece for a senior manager or founder and I want it in my portfolio, I post it on Clearvoice under the Ghost Writing category.
Don’t Be an Order Taker, Go Further
When you first start with a new client, they’re likely to test the waters by giving you a non-critical task. If they’re very specific in what they need, do exactly what they requested and turn it around ASAP. I have a client that’s a German software company, and their first assignment came with a very specific brief outlining their SEO practices, formatting preferences, voice, etc. Now that I’ve worked with them on a number of things, they look for my feedback on these elements.
Tip: At this point, you’re likely to get asked to do some little things — text for social media posts, for example. You need to watch this. My approach the first time is to let them know I have a project minimum that always applies, except this time around. There’s a balance between charging for simple stuff, helping them out, and being taken advantage of. I’ve always found that being completely upfront about money is important and establishes your credibility (after all, you are an expert!).
You’re an Expert, Be an Expert
Which leads me to a technique that will raise your rates and make you more indispensable to your clients. Once you’ve established your credibility and you get a request, suggest improvements or directions they may not have considered. Be polite about this. Preface your ideas with, “Have you considered going after the XYZ angle? We could do it like this…”
I recently received a complex spreadsheet for a complete website rewrite for another European software client. I could have simply written each area as requested, but I saw some fundamental ways the site architecture could be improved from a marketing perspective (my expertise, one of them), so I wrote them a brief outlining my ideas and the logic behind them. I let them know I was happy to do it their way but felt I should share my approach. They are now looking to me to drive the project on a higher level.
Both of the European software companies I mentioned became clients based on a single email and my expertise in their core subject matter. They represent thousands of dollars in repeat income and I’m treated as a peer by their management. Expertise is an extremely valuable asset and should be treated as such. It’s an investment that requires constant updating.
Note: I write frequently about the business of freelance writing. You can see a list of the articles here.