From Freelancer to Thought Leader in 5 Easy Steps
Why would a freelancer want to establish herself as a thought leader in her industry or client niche? Well even for the most bashful of us, the day often (and quickly!) arrives when pushing hours for dollars or pounds just doesn’t quite cut it anymore.
I’m not saying everyone will be interested in this path. But if you are, then this article may just become your road map!.Ask yourself:
What if you had an additional option for making money that steadily grew over time, reinforced your freelancing efforts, landed you more clients, and required less and less of your time?
Yeah, it sounded good to me too. That’s why my client projects now take up less than 50% of my time and I focus the rest of my efforts on my own business, which includes establishing myself as a thought leader in my two primary industries: freelancing and women’s empowerment.
This dual focus has given me the success and financial freedom to travel this past year full-time and without paid work. Here’s how I did it and how you can too.
The Freelancer’s Path to Financial Freedom Via Thought Leadership
The following process will help you build a website that you can eventually make money with, either through sponsors or advertisers, or by partnering with fellow experts who have products or services they’d like to offer to your audience. (You can of course offer your own products, as well as your freelancing services, but for the purpose of this article I’ll assume you want to do as little as possible and you want to do the work ONCE and get paid for that work repeatedly, month after month.)
The key to selling sponsorship or even partnership opportunities is to build three assets: your reputation in the market, your monthly or daily unique visitor count, and your email list (and their responsiveness to you).
WARNING: Don’t expect a shiny red button here that you can push and get pummeled with cash! I’m sorry to say it but we both know it doesn’t work that way. However I’ve provided you here a steady, tried-and-true business strategy to help any freelancer establish herself as a thought leader and strategically build a platform that generates money even when she isn’t specifically working on the business.
Step One: Know What You Stand For and What You Offer
Before you can establish yourself as a leader, you kinda gotta figure out what you’re leading, right? Right.
So if you’re a graphics designer, what is your stance on design? Do you have a particular client niche you’re passionate about or deeply understand? The more focused you get (and you can extend to more than one niche over time) the better. Also consider what makes you unique in the services you provide or how you provide them. For example copywriters and marketers are a dime a dozen (and most far cheaper than I am), but I established myself as one of the only people who specialize in multi-million dollar copywriting and launch management for bestselling authors and speakers in the self-help, wealth, spirituality and female empowerment niches.
Now that is almost painfully specific. Yet it makes it easy for me to market myself, to become a leader in a niche service that nearly no one else provides, and my clients know that my skill set is designed specifically to meet their needs. This type of branding makes selling almost unnecessary. I rarely if ever have to ask for the sale.
Step Two: Create a Content Website You’d Be Proud to Slap Your Name On
First of all, it goes without saying: create a website you can be proud of. If you’re not a graphics designer or you want to save time, you can get some fantastic WordPress templates for free or next to nothing that do the trick beautifully and in five seconds flat. Also make sure the content is worth reading. We’re building a brand here and providing value, not attempting to get rich quick.
That aside, let’s say that your ideal client works in the pet niche. You love dogs, they love dogs. It’s more fun for you to focus on projects with fur and fluff all over them!
Well isn’t it likely that your ideal client surfs the net for the latest lovable canine content, interacts with fellow pet-lovers on the social networks, and just might be interested in working with a freelancer who is also considered the leading authority on pet owners, their four-legged friends, and how best to market to them (the owners, not their pets)?
When you establish yourself as a niche authority on, as an example, design elements dog owners are shown to respond to, and you start teaching those in the dog industry how to better market themselves and position their website design elements, you’re dominating a market in one fell swoop because no one else thought of it and to your surprise a lot of people appreciate your specialized knowledge.
This is what I did with launch copywriting and personality-based branding, and what I’m about to do with my unique brand of women’s empowerment that I’m about to launch.
Here’s the key though: once you build your content site, it’s how you structure and market it that will catapult you to the head of the class, or stamp you as an “epic fail.” Read on young grasshopper, read on.
Step Three: Step Into Rush Hour Traffic
Yeah, sure you can build it . . . but nope, sorry — they won’t come! Unless search optimization is your specialty you’re going to have to meet your future fans half way. There are two ways to do this, but first let me explain a nuance of thought leadership for freelancers: you can be seen as a thought leader by your target audience (other businesses or professionals in most cases), or — far more profitable — you can become a thought leader for your client’s target audience (individuals passionate about dogs and furry friends, for example).
I prefer the latter as this gives you a wider variety of content you can discuss on your website and when it comes to partnering with someone whose product you can sell, or with advertisers, 80% of them are going to want access to individual consumers, not businesses. Plus, when prospects see that you’re an authority to their target market, they will practically stampede each other on the way to your door.
On how to drive traffic to your new epic website:
If you’re a writer or enjoy writing: Secure yourself a gig writing articles for popular blogs and websites that cater to your target audience (such as pet or dog lovers in the above example). Make sure that you can include an “Author’s Box” at the end of your articles where you introduce yourself and mention your website (more on this further down).
HOT TIP: Do not link to your website’s home page. Instead, write a call to action that inspires the reader to click immediately to receive some free giveaway, and then link that call to action phrase to a page inviting your visitor to grab that freebie. They give you their email address and you send it their way. See my author summary at the bottom of this article for an example.
If you don’t want to write: Approach experts in your field who are good, engaging writers and ask them to write the content both for your website and for offsite columns. You can trade exposure for their content or, if you’re a handy salesman, sell them a marketing package where by providing you site content and offsite articles, you’ll get them massive exposure.
You’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to secure their own writing gigs or simply don’t have the stomach to try. What’s easy for you may be terrifying for someone else. So don’t discount the value of what you’d be doing when you create a content site, drive traffic to it, and catapult not just yourself but fellow experts into the limelight!
HOT TIP: In this case, get a one sentence bio from each expert. The Author Box would then include their once sentence bio, and the fact that they are a featured authority on the leading pet lover’s site (insert your brand here), and then give your call to action for your related free giveaway that drives them back to your website. Both of you gain exposure!
Other Ways to Step Into Rush Hour Traffic Online:
- Get on Press Notification Lists like ReporterConnection where you’ll be notified daily of publications, press and authors who need to interview experts like yourself
- Mention articles and blog posts from other leaders in the industry and give your perspective/opinion. Your link back to their site often shows up in their comments and drives traffic your way.
- Here’s a tip I got from Tim Ferriss recently: Try to write for B-level blogs and websites (in terms of traffic), meaning they might not get as much traffic but they’re usually run by one or a few writers who post once a day or less, vs. posting 10 articles each day on loosely related topics. This helps you NOT get lost in the noise and will usually translate into more traffic back to your site than being featured on the larger A-level sites.
- In addition, consider offering your expertise to bloggers in your niche as an expert they can interview (for blogs run by a single author that does not accept guest articles).
- Track news, current events and hot topics in your niche that you can post about quickly. You’ll get fast rankings in news engines because it’s a hot, recent topic and the new influx of interest will be funneled your way.
- Social media of course – but that’s a whole other conversation!
- Consider video blogging and short video clips you can blast on the dozens of video sites out there. You can use TubeMogul to easily place your video on the major (and some niche) networks. Video gets ranked quite quickly and consumed more readily by our increasingly ADD culture.
Step Four: Funnel Everyone Into Your List
Remember that freebie I mentioned above? You want to funnel all your traffic into an opt-in landing page (where the visitor gives his email address for something you’re offering) so that you capture most of the visitors who come to your site. This way you can build a solid relationship with them over time, plus you’ll have a powerful asset to leverage when selling advertising on the site later… or when negotiating partnership deals.
Here’s how to create a landing page. This is the formula I use for myself and my clients and I see an average opt-in conversion of 65%.
You’ll also want an opt in form on your site’s main page for any casual visitors.
Eventually you’ll want to market your own offers or partner offers to your list. But in the beginning you may not have anything to offer. Plus the point is to build a solid relationship with them. So right now, just notify them when you post anything new to the blog. If you’re posting every day, maybe just send an email once or twice a week mentioning the strongest article along with a secondary list of the other articles posted that week.
This will keep people engaged with your site and if you incorporate any referral mechanisms like a “tell a friend” script, you’ll grow your list and site visitors this way as well.
Step Five: Treat This Site as a Client and Build Over Time
If there’s one thing I’ve learned managing multimillion dollar launches, it’s that the epic money is never made in the big, glossy launch. Much of that money goes to the massive technology resources to pull off the influx of traffic, to experts like myself who make the magic happen behind the scenes, and to the promotional partners who spread the word and mail the offer to their lists.
So why do people still do these big launches when they only take home maybe 20% of the earnings? Because it builds them an email list, a presence, and a brand. They know however that the real money is made over the long term as they monetize those new assets.
You don’t need to carry off a big launch (though you can and I’ll share how in another article) to win the long-term game. Just remember that it’s a long-term game you’re playing and put a bit of effort into it every day. Schedule it in like you schedule in a client. Once the site is created and the initial work done as outlined above, your daily tasks are simple:
- Create new content for the site (or manage your experts who provide content)
- Create new offsite content to drive traffic back
- Monitor press opportunities and respond quickly to applicable ones
- Develop and maintain a social marketing strategy
- Attend major industry events or network online so that you can forge relationships with potential partners, experts, and advertisers
- Email your list once or more per week (the more you mail, the more they buy, but until you’re ready to sell them something, I recommend two to three times per week).
And that’s it!
It sounds like a handful, and it is. But I’ll be straight with you: as freelancers we spend our time building empires for others. Consider it an exercise in self-love to point some of your effort your own way and build something lasting for yourself that you can count on in a bind.