The word ‘networking’ tends to conjure images of busy events with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. And while that is sometimes the case, networking is a lot more than handing out your business card and hoping for the best.
Networking needs to be done right, and when it is, it can have huge benefits for your business that aren’t simply limited to getting work—networking can lead you to discover new projects, find potential partners, and grow as a creative professional.
But as a freelancer, the process of networking is a little different. You’re responsible for finding all your own business, and building industry connections can be a challenge. In fact, your office may be your living room and you may be reading this in your pyjamas right now (no judgement).
So how do you network?
In this article, we’ll go through all the reasons why you should start upping your networking game now, and how to do it best as a freelancer.
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The importance of networking
Networking is one of the best ways to promote yourself as a freelancer. It’s how you start making connections and building solid relationships in your industry. As a freelancer, this kind of exposure is important: working for yourself means you’re responsible for getting your name and face out there.
But networking is more than just landing the next client. Below are just some of the long-term benefits that networking can have on your whole career.
Build your brand
Personal branding is a key step to getting your freelance business off the ground. Your personal brand is how you share your good reputation with the kinds of people you want as clients. It’s how you become known for your work, and start carving out your niche.
Show your face
You can build a great personal brand as a freelancer, but if you don’t share it with anyone you’re missing out on all the benefits. Through networking, you have an opportunity to share the factors that make up the foundation of your brand with your target audience. Instead of simply telling people why you’re awesome, you get to show them.
"Instead of simply telling people why you’re awesome, you get to show them."
Build your credibility
Building your brand through networking also means building your credibility. By establishing a brand and sharing it, you’re helping your audience trust you. Networking and making yourself accessible means that your audience will start seeing you as an honest, reliable, and present member of your community.
Once you’ve built up credibility, you’ll start establishing thought leadership. You’ll gain authority in your field, meaning that you’re recognized as a trustworthy person with a certain amount of expertise. That’s a powerful reputation. To get there, you have to build up that credibility with your audience. Networking is a great way of getting that started.
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Meet new people
The realities of life as a freelancer mean that a lot of your time is spent isolated—working in coffee shops or in your living room, getting work done solo. This is why networking is so important for you. Beyond all the above business benefits, networking lets you connect with other people in your field.
This isn’t limited to just potential clients—other freelancers are just as valuable to your network and your career. You should try to avoid seeing other freelancers in your industry solely as competition. There’s lots of work to go around, and networking with other freelancers means building bridges with your peers. When they have extra work, they can direct it to you, and vice versa.
The people you meet while networking may not be potential clients, they may not end up funneling work to you, and you may not end up working with them, but imbuing your network with new faces will help you stay in the loop in your industry and challenge your work with fresh perspectives. Below are some of the benefits of meeting new people as a freelancer.
"Imbuing your network with new faces will help you stay in the loop in your industry and challenge your work with fresh perspectives."
Sometimes, the best way to get solid advice is to get out of your own bubble and hear a fresh perspective. In the echo chamber of your industry, it can be hard to break out of the old and tired patterns—networking with new faces is a great way to challenge those old beliefs and hear something new.
Whether it’s passing advice from someone you have a drink with, or the start of a formal and valuable mentorship, widening your worldview with the perspective of others is only ever a good thing.
Find a potential partner
Working as a freelancer can be a busy career decision, especially when work starts to pile up. If you’re finding yourself a little overwhelmed, or if an opportunity has presented itself that you can’t tackle alone, it may be time to start working with a partner. And there’s no better place to look for a partner than at an industry event filled with creative professionals like you.
Identify a new client
This is, of course, one of the biggest reasons people network: to find new clients and grow their business. If you’re in a position to take on new clients, networking is a great way to go about it.
Find new opportunities
Networking is not only about finding work—in fact, if you go to a networking event with the sole goal of landing clients, you may come away disappointed: while these kinds of events can definitely lead to contracts (and of course, that’s always going to be a goal in the back of your mind), going to an event only to make sales risks making a negative impression on other attendees. Instead, remember that the real magic of networking lies in the genuine connections you make with other people in your industry.
Below are some of the benefits, beyond finding work, that you can achieve by networking.
Learn something new
New people can teach you new things. You don’t know what you don’t know, and new people can challenge your perspective and status quo. Changing, learning, and growing makes you a stronger freelancer and a stronger human being.
Maintaining a learning mindset also helps your work stay relevant and original. By understanding how your field is evolving and changing, you can ensure that your work evolves and changes with it. Continuous learning is the key to building a long-term freelancer business.
Inspire a new project
You never know when a moment of ingenuity will strike, but surrounding yourself with folks from your industry is a good way to encourage a lightning bolt of inspiration. In that kind of environment, where everyone faces the same kinds of challenges and innovations as you, you never know what may spark a great idea. Any conversation could be the catalyst for your next big project.
Obviously, networking can have a big impact on your career. But there are right and wrong ways to pursue connections at professional events—read on ensure you don’t scare off potential business.
You might also like: 5 Professional Life Hacks to Get Bigger and Better in Your Freelance Design Career.
Getting ready to network
So you know why networking is crucial—it helps you build your brand, find new opportunities, and meet new people. As a freelancer, it’s an important factor to your success. But how do you start networking? What homework should you do? And how do you make connections with your audience?
Below, we’ll go into the steps you should take to get prepared for a networking event. But the work you do here will not just benefit you at an event—instead, the answers to the below questions will help you build a networking toolkit, and make the whole challenge of networking that much smoother.
Identify what makes you unique
Before you get out into the world of networking, it’s important to do some homework and figure out what makes you stand out. Before you can establish your thought leadership or build your credibility, you need to identify what it is about you that makes you different. What is your unique selling proposition—your USP?
"You’ll never be all things to all people, especially as a freelancer. This is why it’s important to identify in which niche you operate, and how your unique background, perspective, and experience makes you ideally suited to that niche."
You’ll never be all things to all people, especially as a freelancer. This is why it’s important to identify in which niche you operate, and how your unique background, perspective, and experience makes you ideally suited to that niche. Understanding this will help narrow your networking focus, and ensure that your efforts are directed at the right audiences.
Let’s look at how to sort out your USP.
Identify your USP
Take some time to brainstorm. Think about how and why you’re unique amongst your competitors. Take a look at the following questions, and write down everything that comes to mind.
- Do you operate in a particular niche?
- Does your background influence your work?
- Are you especially friendly/reliable/fast/technical/etc.?
- Why should clients go with you instead of your competition?
- What problem do you solve for clients?
Once you have some notes scribbled down, look at your answers from a client’s perspective. Which ones ring particularly true? Which do you think resonate the most with a client? That’s your USP, the specific factor of your brand that sets you apart from the competition.
Chances are, you already have a decent idea of your USP. But going through this practice is a good exercise in self-awareness, and can help you with your brand building down the road.
Write a brand positioning statement
Now that you know your USP, you can let it guide the rest of your decisions around both your brand and how you network. You’ll do this by writing a brand positioning statement.
Your brand positioning statement is a short sentence for internal use. It should identify some key particulars of your business, and highlight the specific network in which you operate. Your statement should include:
- Your target market
- Your USP
- The benefit you provide to your customer
- How you provide that benefit
When you put that all together, you get:
[Your name] is a freelance [your specialty] who provides [your clients] with [your benefit/USP] by [how you provide that].
For example: Jane Smith is a freelance web designer who provides ecommerce merchants with beautiful designs for their stores by combining her love of fine art with technical expertise.
Your brand positioning statement highlights some things that will be important for your networking: namely, your niche (ecommerce merchants in the example above), and how you’re going to market yourself to them (by sharing your love of fine art and your experience in your field). Now you’re ready to look outwards at your industry.
Get to know your industry
You spend your days working on projects and interacting with clients. You’re probably quite busy, so it’s hard to find time to look up and see what’s going in your wider industry. But having your finger on the pulse of your industry will keep you up to date on any opportunities for growth or changes to your industry.
There are lots of ways to stay up to date with industry news. Blogs are a great source, and there are thousands out there that can give you a whole array of opinions and ideas. You can also join groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Slack. You can read books and attend talks. You can take a look at things from a wide angle (for example, the whole world of web design) or a narrow lens (specifically the design of fashion ecommerce stores).
The goal, though, should always be to understand what’s happening currently in your world. What are the current trends, what’s going out of style, who is breaking new ground? Staying up to date is going to be vital when you get out there into the networking scene.
Some particular things you’ll want to identify are:
- Where your audience congregates. Are there particular forums, meetups, or blogs where your target audience is found? How can you start participating in those environments?
- The problems your audience is facing. What kinds of questions are coming up among your audience? How can you offer guidance or answers to those questions?
- What your competition is doing. What makes your competition unique? What are they doing to address the problems your audience is facing?
Google is your friend for this. Search keywords unique to your industry. Find people already established in your field, and check them out on LinkedIn or Twitter. See what conversations they’re having. Check out your competitors’ websites and blogs. Join LinkedIn groups, forums, Facebook groups, and follow people on Twitter. Read industry publications. Look for meetups in your city by checking Eventbrite or Facebook.
At this stage, listening is key. You’ll get answers to these questions, start to see what questions, conversations, and problems come up time and time again, and understand how you fit in among them. Getting a grasp on these kinds of things will put you in excellent shape to start participating in those wider discussions. Basically, you’ll be ready to start networking in earnest.
How to network
You know the importance of networking, and you’ve done lots of listening in your industry. You know what kinds of problems your colleagues and clients are having, and you’ve figured out where your expertise sits in that paradigm. Now you’re ready to network.
Aim to help
The most important thing to remember when you start networking is that your goal should not be to make sales: instead, you should aim to provide guidance and help to people. Doing so will better help you meet all the goals we laid out at the start of this article: building your brand, meeting new people, and finding new opportunities.
"Whether networking at a physical event, or connecting with people online, focus on making a genuine connection instead of a sale."
Whether networking at a physical event, or connecting with people online, focus on making a genuine connection instead of a sale. Here are some suggestions to make that happen.
- Ask the right questions and listen closely. Remember—your goal in any networking space is to listen. Ask questions about what challenges, opportunities, and goals your peer or potential client has.
- Show your audience you’re a problem solver. If the person you’re speaking to identifies a challenge that you have a solution for, share it. The challenge may turn into a lead for you. Establish yourself as someone who gets things done, and you may have found a future client.
- Offer to consult. If you’re in a position to build a deeper connection with someone, it may be worthwhile to give them an avenue to follow up with further questions. Set up a coffee meeting, share your contact information, or connect on LinkedIn as a potential resource.
These are ways of establishing yourself as a reliable, helpful contact in your industry, without pushing sales or making the other person feel pressured. You gain credibility and name recognition, and the other person gains a contact that they know they can trust. If they ever need your services—or know of someone who needs your services—you’ll be on their list of recommendations.
Do some research
When heading to a physical networking event—hors d’oeuvres and all—one of the most helpful things you can do in advance is to set some goals. These goals could be:
- Number of questions you want answered
- Number of connections you want to make (aim for fewer, more meaningful connections as opposed to just collecting business cards)
- Number of leads you want to garner
Once you have an idea of your goals for the event, do some research. Figure out who’s attending (Twitter and LinkedIn are particularly helpful for this) and who you could talk to, to meet your goals.
Now that you have an idea of what your USP is, what’s going on in your industry, and who your competitors are, you’re in a great place to understand who to connect with and where you fit in. You can identify opportunities for your business and where you can help others.
Don’t forget to bring a pen, notepad, and business cards to IRL networking events—you’ll never know when you’ll need one.
The reality is that networking events aren’t for everyone. For some people, the idea of mingling with dozens of strangers is less exciting and more torturous. For those of you, don’t despair—there are plenty of ways to network, while skipping the hors d’oeuvres.
In a hyper-connected world, the internet is your best friend. Writing a blog, participating in forums, and being active on LinkedIn are all ways to network online. If you’re a remote worker, or if there isn’t much of a community around your industry where you live, this is an equally great way to make contacts. The same rules apply as in-person networking—strive to be helpful, don’t be too pushy on sales, and aim for genuine connection.
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Network to grow your business
Growing your network is especially important for freelancers, as it can help you strengthen your brand, meet new people, and find new opportunities. By approaching networking as an opportunity to help people and build meaningful connections, you stand to make strong contacts in your industry.
Take the time to identify your USP and dig into your industry. If you’re heading out to a local networking event, build an understanding of the local players in your field, and go to the event with a goal in mind. You’ll be focused and more likely to make those valuable connections.
In the end, you get out of networking what you put into it. Take some time to prepare and be ready to help, and you’ll find that networking helps build your business’ health.
What networking tips and tricks have you learned? Share in the comments below!