No-Money Marketing Tips for Creative Freelancers

We are always marketing.

From the quality of our work to how we talk about ourselves, we are constantly sending messages into the public square, positioning ourselves, and attracting or repelling clients. While we’re hard at work on a client project, we’re marketing through everything we do with that project, and setting the stage for acquiring future work.

With that understanding, we can see that marketing and self-promotion do not require a big budget. They can be accomplished with a good degree of effectiveness with little or no money. Here are some suggestions for you based on my experiences:


Word of Mouth

My business took off  when clients began referring me to their colleagues. My best clients have all been referrals. One successful business relationship is the seed of many more. When clients start referring you it means you’ve served them well, met and exceeded expectations, were easy to work with and created effective work. When you create real value for a client, others will know about it without you needing to do much.


One successful business relationship is
the seed of many more.


Word of mouth marketing is the best kind of marketing because you’re not doing it directly. You’re creating reasons for your clients to spread the word about you. It’s passive. It’s no-cost. It’s highly effective.

Your role in the word-of-mouth effort is to ask for referrals. When you’re starting out, ask people you know and ask people who own businesses to refer their colleagues. After you have worked with a few clients, ask them for testimonials for your web site and for referrals.

Two long-term client relationships began on the pool deck at high school water polo meets. In chatting with other parents, people learned about what I do. One parent became my client and we’re still working together. Another recommended me to someone else I ended up working with for several years.

Return on word-of-mouth is not immediate. You never know who is talking about you at any given time, and what that conversation will turn into. In 2010 I developed a branding system for a client that was referred by one of my students.  Three years later, in 2013, I received an inquiry from a prospect and learned that the 2010 client had enthusiastically recommended me.


Cold Calling

No one I know likes cold-calling. I certainly don’t enjoy it, but it can work if you have a purpose, a plan and a script to follow. Scripts keep you from becoming tongue-tied, which is part of the awkwardness of cold-calling. As one who vehemently does not like making calls to strangers, I found that once I wrote out a script and made one or two calls with it, the activity got easier.

Cold calling is almost no-money. There are no direct costs to it, just your phone bill. To do cold-calling effectively, you should first compile a list of prospects. Determine the number of calls you will make per hour, per day, per week – however you decide. Then schedule that calling session on your calendar and do it.

I use cold-calling as research to find out who looks at portfolios, what the portfolio review policy is, what’s the email address of the editor or art director. I cold call when I cannot locate the email address of an art buyer, art director, art producer or editor. I simply call the main number, greet the receptionist and ask who looks at portfolios of freelance illustrators. This is effective for me 9 times out of 10.

Sometimes I get routed right through to the person, and I ask a few simple questions about how they prefer to receive portfolio samples.


Promotional Emails

You should be in a list-building mold for the purposes of strategic “keeping in touch”. You can use an email client such as Mailchimp (my favorite), Aweber, Constant Contact, and others.  Mailchimp offers a free level where you can start out and grow your list. Some services are free for a duration, and then you start paying monthly or annually. Take advantage of the free service period. Or use Mailchimp.

You’ll want to create an HTML promotion that includes a featured work, links to your web site and social media, a call-to-action, and an unsubscribe link. Depending upon your target audience, you’ll want to sent email promotions 4-12 times each year. You will also need to manage your list. I’ve discussed this here and will expand on how to do this in an upcoming article.

A short primer on list-building: When asking people to opt-in — share their name and email with you — you will want to offer them something of value in return. This can be an e-book, a tip sheet, a Numbers or Excel spreadsheet tool… anything that provides value to the person you’re targeting and is relevant to the services you provide.  For example, I offer a tip sheet: 8 Tips for Improving Your Drawing Skills as a freebie to people who sign up for my twofingersandathumb email newsletter. You may have received my tip sheet, The Freelancer’s Launch Checklist, when you signed up for Freelance Road Trip.

You can create something of value for no money and in less than an hour, save it as a PDF and upload it to where it can be downloaded from. The content for this freebie can be a list of tools, a how-to, tips, or resources.


Targeted Email

Also known as warm email prospecting, targeted email is simple and easy. It is not an email newsletter. It is not an email blast to your entire list of prospects. It is not a form letter. It is not a sales letter. It is not a featured project promotion.

Targeted email is personalized and specific to the person you’re pursuing. You send targeted email one at a time. And you send it from your desktop email client (I use Apple Mail), not through an email service (MailChimp, Aweber, Constant Contact).

Targeted email is free. There is no cost to send someone an email from your email client.

It is personalized to the recipient. That means that you’re responding to something the person has said, written or posted.

It is sent to specifically selected prospects.

It is text only, not HTML, and can contain URLs or attachments.

It is sent to no more than 5 recipients at a time. This is because you’ve selected 5 to reach out to, and have something specific and relevant to say to each one. In other words, you’ve done your homework.

It is not spammy, because it’s a specifically crafted, personalized email.

It works, for all the above reasons.


Social Media

Independent creatives need to regard social media differently for business and personal uses.  For business, you want to promote and convert. Certainly you can create Twitter ads and boost Facebook posts, but there is a cost for doing so. You can still utilize social media platforms to stay visible. Show your work. Show your process. Tell your backstory. Share your opinion. Follow selected business pages on Facebook and G+ to study what they post. In fact, when you set up a Facebook business page, you can select a number of related b businesses to follow. Learn from them. Then tweak and deploy similar things on your own page.


Mix it up

Although no-money marketing is effective when done consistently, it should not be the only way you promote your work. Your marketing plan should include the methods discussed here, plus things you need spend money on such as direct mail self-promotion, directory ads and boosted business listings.

To make any effort successful, do it consistently, and think long-term. Plan out a marketing strategy for 12-18 months, and take some time each quarter to review results and tweak the plan. There are no results without effort, so be sure to follow through with whatever you decided to do.


Your turn:

What are your favorite no-money marketing tips? Share them in the comments section.