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What comes to mind when you think of “networking”? If you picture people wearing name labels, drinking lukewarm white wine and playing awkward icebreakers in a boardroom, you’re not alone. Lots of us fear networking. And will often do what we can to avoid it.
But, if you’re a freelancer, networking has so many professional benefits. It could bring you more work opportunities, clients and customers; teach you new skills; help you spot industry trends; identify mentors and make a name for yourself.
We gathered a bunch of freelancers and asked how they go about it themselves. Here is their guidance.
1. Get involved
The definition of networking has changed – it doesn’t have to involve in-person meetups or even cringe-worthy conversation starters anymore.
Steve Morgan, author of Anti-Sell, a guide to Marketing, Lead Generation & Networking Tips for Freelancers Who Hate Sales advises to “contribute to communities – whether it's a Facebook group, an online forum, or something similar. And when you do, don't go in just to sell yourself. A lot of Facebook groups have strict 'no self-promotion' policies, so you'd likely get told off (or even banned) straight away. Instead, just... talk to people. If someone asks for advice, help them out. Over time, the more you help out and contribute, the more people will refer you on.”
“I used to do this with a local entrepreneurship Facebook group, offering help with people's SEO queries. After a while, if someone came onto the group saying: "can anyone recommend an SEO person?", people would respond by recommending me. I never 'sold' myself – instead, I helped people, gained their trust and showed off my knowledge and expertise through the advice that I gave. It takes time. Don't expect referrals straight away. But as a long-term tactic, it can work wonders.”
2. Be generous
“Online networks and platforms for freelancers are great for introducing yourself, finding people to collaborate with, keeping up to date with news and seeking opportunities,” says writer Nicci Talbot.
But don’t be a passive member of the group. Whether you’re giving information, time, connections to fellow freelancers, or recommendations for resources, Talbot says: “give more than you take. Volunteer to give talks and speak on panels whenever you can.”
3. Have a chat
“Connect with similar people on LinkedIn without trying to sell to them. Simply have a conversation,” says Mark Smith, founder of Double Up Social. “What do they think about recent news in your industry, have they worked on any cool projects recently?”
“Starting a conversation with others in your industry not only allows you to get a better understanding of the industry as a whole but also allows you to build a network so you can pool your resources or collaborate on projects when the time comes – and it will!”
4. Analyse your network
People like to play up the word ‘network’. But your network is just people you have around you, both professionally and personally. Whether you’re a freelance writer, photographer, hairdresser or contractor, you probably know other people who do what you do. You already have a network; it just might not be delivering the results you want.
So how do you get intentional about creating and maintaining a network that helps you achieve your goals? Start by mapping out your network. What patterns do you see? Which kinds of roles are overrepresented? Which are underrepresented? From there, you can recognise where the gaps are and work to fill them in.
5. Recruit for different roles
It’s tempting to only speak to people who could buy your products or services, but this is seriously short-term thinking.
A strong network includes people who might hire you, but it also includes people that are trying to do the same thing as you, as well as people who’ve already done it, people who could sponsor or mentor you, people who you can sponsor or mentor, and lots of other kinds of people.
Do you have some ideal clients that you would love to work for one day, or is there a freelancer whose work you admire and want to learn from? Reach out to them. Then take simple, regular actions to connect: check in, send them a friendly note to say you enjoyed a recent blog post, social post or piece of work they’ve shared.
Don’t be over the top or inauthentic, just show you’re interested in their work and like how they do it. A friendly comment, re-sharing a blog or tagging them in the comments on a relevant article can all add up to a real connection over time.
6. Know your niche
If a networking event says that it’s for everyone, it might be too general to be useful. While it can be helpful to meet other freelancers from a whole range of industries – so you have a sense of camaraderie and connection – they’re not as likely to boost your career prospects as people in your sector.
“Join niche-specific Facebook groups,” says Smith. “Since we’re food and beverage focused, we find the Facebook group The Food Hub an extremely useful tool to network with others in our field. Not only do we see other food business owners leaning on each other for advice about rules, regulations and tips – but groups like these are often used to ask for recommendations for services. If you’re in these groups, then you’ve got the head start in identifying leads who may need your services.”
Search “Freelance + [your occupation]” on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to see what comes up. The more specific the community, the more likely you are to develop rewarding connections.
7. Know your ideal client
Can you picture who your ideal client is? This is the customer who is exactly right for your product or services. Sure, a healthy network is full of all different kinds of people, not just potential clients. But you should regularly revisit the question of who your ideal client is, even as you’re reaching out to co-strivers and competitors.
“Make sure you're fishing in the right pond,” says business development coach Una Doyle. “For instance, if you're trying to get bigger clients, don't network with a load of startups.”
8. Then select opportunities that match
“When you’re pressed for time, you want to ensure every event you take the time for is worthwhile,” say Ellen Cole, founder of PR agency Little Seed. “Keep your ideal client in mind, and attend events where you’re likely to meet them.”
9. Make friends with rejection
Many of us worry that reaching out to people – whether for a coffee, a quick chat about their business or sending a LinkedIn connection request – will lead to rejection.
But what’s the worst that could happen? It’s likely that the worst outcome is somebody ignoring you.
So long as you’re polite, genuine and make it clear that you’re just curious about people in your industry and interested in hearing from other people’s perspectives, you shouldn’t go too far wrong.
10. Tackle your mindset
Networking isn’t a dirty word. At its heart, networking is an exchange. It’s about building authentic relationships, understanding other people’s needs and interests, being curious about what they think, and offering them genuine value.
So, if you have negative thoughts about networking, like ‘why is networking so hard?’ try changing the words you use. If you substitute that with 'talking to people', 'sharing my thoughts about work' or 'making friends with people who do what I do', we're sure you wouldn't feel the same way!
Experiment with substituting words and phrases that feel a bit friendly, until you’re ready – one day – to say “I love networking!”
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