A Social Network “Unstrategy” for Finding Freelance Gigs

How effectively do you use social media to get work? When I began freelancing full time I decided to try social media on the basis that it might help me to promote my services and work. I don’t have a website or any sort of marketing collateral, and social media seemed like a good way to stay “top of mind” with those of my contacts who used it.

It sounds a bit like an “unstrategy,” but I was fairly constant in my approach and thought objectively about my activity on these sites rather than always shooting from the hip. Now that I’ve been freelancing full-time for a year, I decided to revisit my predominantly ad hoc approach to social media and see exactly what my unstrategy had delivered.

The Networks

The networks I use for work-related purposes are LinkedIn and Twitter. I might use Facebook if more of my business contacts were users, but currently my contact list there consists entirely of friends.

LinkedIn is, of course, a business network, which makes it easy for beginners to get their heads around. Uploading my work history and details was easy and the profile pages are straightforward for non-subscribed users to access. On LinkedIn, my contact list consists almost entirely of people I know — I’ve met them and worked with them.

One issue I’ve found with LinkedIn is that the service requires you to provide the name of the company you work for. For an independent consultant working for myself, without a business name or company set up, this is a problem: my bio that says I work “at freelance” (for want of a business name), which, since I’m a professional writer, bugs the heck out of me.

I’ve joined some LinkedIn groups, and participate in relevant conversations, but I haven’t yet learned a whole lot from that involvement. I use the LinkedIn job search functionality, which seems to display nothing more than listings from domestic job sites. I also review jobs posted in the groups I’ve joined, although these tend to be U.S.-centric and inflexible when it comes to those in remote locations. As such, LinkedIn hasn’t opened up a whole new world of job listings to me.

Twitter is a much more open-ended tool for me, offering scope to connect on levels other than work. That said, I consider my primary audience there to be work contacts with whom I’m also friends, though of course my contact list contains more people I don’t know than people I do. My Twitter profile links to my LinkedIn profile, since most of my followers are following me for professional purposes.

I’ve often reviewed job listings on Twitter, and periodically follow recruitment agencies (who I always end up unfollowing), but so far I haven’t found that kind of wide-net approach useful. Perhaps the time I’ve spent on freelance job sits has jaded me, but I’m conscious that anyone can post anything as a “job” on Twitter, and I’m not excited by the idea of trawling through endless listings that either require me to live in another country or be prepared to work for less than I can afford.

The Results

Despite the issues I just mentioned, my social network unstrategy has helped me obtain some of my largest clients in the past year. It has also allowed me to secure contact with people who, though they haven’t offered me work, have acted as middle-men, successfully recommending me to others who need my services.

The networks’ official job-finding offerings have produced little in the way of results, yet my involvement on them has been crucial to my bottom line and job satisfaction over the past twelve months. I obtained my largest new client last year simply by sending a connection request on LinkedIn. And my most valuable work-generating connection is a Twitter follower I used to work alongside.

There’s one caveat, though, and it’s this: Face-to-face contact has also been essential to my success finding work using these online tools. Sure, if I had an enormous personal brand and reputation as a guru beyond my personal sphere, I might be able to attract work contacts from strangers through these social networking tools. But as an Average Joe Freelancer social media user, I’m not in that position.

For me, social media is a good tool for ensuring that I’m in contacts’ minds even when I haven’t seen them for a while. It also gives me the opportunity to illustrate my skills by example, and without me having to embark on promotional strategies like newsletters, direct mail or warm calling — all of which entail time and financial costs.

By staying top of mind on social media, and supporting that presence in the real world through irregular but not infrequent in-person contact (usually achieved by having lunch or going out for coffee), I can promote my offering productively and — best of all — enjoyably. My review of my efficacy in using social media for work showed that without in-person contact, I struggle to create connections that produce work opportunities. And this may be something I’ll work on in the coming year.

But it also showed that without social networks, I’d have to expend a lot more energy, time, and money illustrating my skills and remaining in touch with past clients and colleagues. And it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun!

Where do social networks fit within your promotional strategy? Are they producing results?

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Can Enterprise Privacy Survive Social Networking?

Image by stock.xchng user Gastonmag.