Side Hustle Stories: How a freelance marketer built her business with referrals

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Gail Keith

Gail has built a successful freelance marketing business.

This article is part of the Side Hustle Stories.

Without a doubt, the best way to land new freelancing business is through a referral.

It has worked wonders for freelancers in every field, myself included.

Referrals work because they are natural and genuine … but that doesn’t mean that they should be left to chance. You can definitely set up a system for getting more of them.

Now, you may find yourself asking, “How do I set up a system that brings me referrals? What should I do?”

Well, the answer is here. And that’s why I love this story from freelance marketer Gail Keith.

Here is Gail’s story in her own words … and her tips for getting more referrals for your business.

How she got started

I left the corporate world in 2004.

In the months that followed, I focused my job search efforts on networking events, such as Chamber of Commerce mixers and local events affiliated with the Small Business Association.

At that time, there weren’t a lot of freelance marketers in the Phoenix community. There were graphic designers or website developers, but they were highly specialized so they could only do certain projects.

When I represented myself as a marketer to others, I was dressed professionally and had numerous success stories along with lessons learned along the way, which fostered the credibility to gain clients without even trying in those first months.

My freelancing started with small projects like reviewing brochures or writing letters or figuring out how to do email campaigns.

My role still varies widely even now.

Marketing for one company could be helping them create a great website, for the next company they need a TV commercial, and yet another company may be struggling with their overall brand … in short, I am a jack–of–all trades marketer.

Very similar to a general contractor, I oversee every detail of the project and on occasion I bring in others who have highly specialized skills when needed.

I boil down my specific tasks and typical deliverables on my website.

What she gets paid (and what you should get paid)

In general, I have three types of clients.

  1. Monthly retainer — monthly rates range from $1250 to $2500 per month depending on the scope of the work and the terms. Usually these are established companies who need an executive level marketing pro, but don’t want to hire a full time person or they have a project with many facets that will take more than 6 months to complete.
  2. Solo/Small Business — this group is usually project based pricing. This might include things like writing, creative direction on a photo shoot, or creating a do it yourself marketing plan, in which the client implements everything on their own. There is a wide range on these projects. I might charge $150 to write a quick video script and $2500 to write comprehensive legal content for a website. I might charge hourly if someone wants me to simply be an advisor of a project or to oversee a designer.
  3. Education — Many of my clients come to me for educational purposes. They might want to be trained in social media or have their sales team embrace personal branding or have a workshop series on a specific marketing subject. I find that the workshops are most effective when followed by a coaching agreement. Thus, a monthly retainer for a 2 to 3 month workshop/coaching combo usually fits the bill.

Pricing is one of the hardest things to gage when in the freelance business. It is a combination of your time and what the client can afford and is willing to pay. Unlike other tangible and traditional products that sit on a shelf, freelancing usually isn’t the same price for everyone. My pricing is a sliding scale to meet the needs and thresholds of a client.

I have had business coaches tell me I don’t charge enough. Maybe true, maybe not. The bottom line is: when you have been at it for a while, you learn the lessons.

My advice to other freelancers is listen to your gut around money.

Don’t take pricing advice from family that have never worked in a freelance job (even though they mean well!). If you are charging too much, you will know. If you aren’t charging enough, you will know.

Three ways to get more referrals

Making money quickly and making it repeatedly are two different things.

If you know something about marketing and want quick money, then you might find a desperate customer on Craigslist or Odesk or Elance.

But if you want a sustainable freelance business, then it’s about building relationships that can refer other business to you. And referral marketing is an actual marketing system. Referrals do not happen consistently by accident.

Most of the business I receive now is from referrals and there are three main ways that I get them.

1. To gain more referrals you must be specific.

The freelancers out there who will do anything are also the ones that rarely get anything.

Rather than being a general solution, you must understand what specific problems you solve for people and what they say when they experience those problems.

Most people don’t ask their friends and colleagues, “Do you know a freelance marketer? I have a couple of projects.”

They say things like:

  • “I am so frustrated with my website.”
  • “Crap, I missed the deadline to run that ad.”
  • “I spent ___ dollars on advertising and got nothing.”
  • “I know I should be doing social media. I just don’t want to learn something new. My brain is maxed out.”

So when I ask for referrals, I say things like:

  • “Who do you know that isn’t happy with their website”
  • “Who do you know that is frustrated with all the money they have dumped into marketing and without any results?”
  • “Anytime you hear someone talking about wasting money on advertising or needing to use social media, those are good referrals for me.”

Or I might go into a target market with specific requests.

  • “I do quite a bit of work in high compliance industries such as attorneys, dentists and chiropractors. If you know someone who owns their own practice, they would be a good connection for me.”

When someone sees and hears those things, I am basically training them to simply say “Have you met Gail Keith? She handles the marketing for some local companies that I know. I think you two should meet.”

2. Ask for introductions, not clients

When you ask someone to hand you a referral, there is an inherent fear that you are going to “sell” to their friends or colleagues into something and they mentally begin to eliminate people instead of qualify people.

I ask for connections and introductions. That way there is no risk to the person who is trying to refer you.

Once you meet with someone it’s easy to open up a needs analysis conversation with general questions and asking about how they are doing in today’s economy.

If they are comfortable enough to reveal some challenges, then I have the opportunity to say “So what’s your plan to deal with that issue?

Most of the time, they don’t have a plan so I can say “I do that kind of work and handle things like that all the time with other clients.  Maybe we should schedule some time in your office to dig in a bit and see if we have a fit with each other.”

Then we move to the formal meeting.

3. Use alternative currencies.

In this economy the use of alternative currencies is a must.

Trades are great if you have clear boundaries of when a project is complete. I do set limits though. I only do two trades at a time and the trade must be for something I am already paying cash for or something where I can have a credit and transfer it to a family member as a gift later.

One of the most valuable alternate currencies are introductions.

For example, I did a branding project for a sales team within a large company. The sales manager who hired me could only authorize $1000 per month without getting into a bunch of red tape with her out–of–state managers.

I could have walked away, lowered my value, or delivered a poorly done version of what they needed.

Instead, I agreed to $1000 cash and a “rolodex meeting” with her and her top sales people. The rolodex meeting was all about finding meaningful and relevant introductions for me, so I could make up the loss with referrals to other businesses.

In my early years, I also asked for powerful testimonials as an alternate currency.

For example, I would come across someone in my community who seemed to be quite connected or I had heard their name in the networking circles. I would have a short meeting over coffee and very passively “pitch” doing a project for them. The cost was their endorsement if they were thrilled with my work.

When you’re starting out as a freelancer, gaining third party credibility can do more for you than all the advertising dollars in the world.

Interested in learning more?

Thanks so much to Gail for sharing her story as well as some great, actionable tips!

If you want to learn even more about freelancing, then sign up for the Free Newsletter on Earning More. You’ll get immediate access to Freelancing 101, which shows you exactly how to make $500 in the next 5 weeks. Sign up here.

What other types of freelancers would you love to hear from? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

5 Responses to Side Hustle Stories: How a freelance marketer built her business with referrals

  1. This is absolutely some of the best information I’ve seen for getting referrals! I never would have thought to just simply ask, or treat it as a commodity; I always thought referrals were things that just happened, and was a reflection of my fantastic service.

    The thing is, my clients were always happy, but I never got referrals so I thought maybe it wasn’t good enough. Now I have a new way to go about it! Thank you.


    • Gail Keith says:

      Hey Delena, thrilled you found value in the article. Pick up the book “Business by Referral” by Dr. Ivan Misner. It is basically a marketing system for referrals. Most of the things I do in regard to referrals have a foundation in that book. Referral marketing is the process of marketing “through” people instead of “to” people. Not only are the returns better than traditional marketing, its more passive, so the pressure to “sell” someone almost goes away completely. They want to “buy” from you instead.

  2. Henrique says:

    Great insights. Very valuable article.

    Bookmarked this one!

  3. Imtiaz Nabil says:

    Thank you, Keith! The discussion under ‘Use alternative currencies’ is a real eye-opener. I mean, I had been aware of the concept, and that only vaguely, but now it’s crystal clear, and with a very specific guideline, too.

  4. Joe Resendiz says:

    I loved this article, it was truly inspirational. I am currently attempting to become a freelance marketer. Please check out my website

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