How to Brand Yourself as a Niche Specialist for Superior Freelance Gigs

Freelancer or Employee“What do you do?” Oh, that daunting, inevitable question you’ll be asked at every cocktail party, networking function, PTA meeting and family function. But before you reply with, “I’m a freelance designer,” or whatever your micropreneurial endeavor is in the broadest of strokes, think about what you’re sating about the brand that is your small business.

While the mere mention of “freelance” used to denote second-rate productivity or serve as a euphemism for unemployment, times have changed. Given today’s digital nomad-empowering tech toolbox, available to all, allowing each and every one of us to hang a shingle and work from anywhere (Bali, anyone?), freelancers are starting to earn some more respect. It also helps that outsourcing services on an on-demand basis has become commonplace.

But to achieve new heights of recognition – the kind that large organizations enjoy when people simply see their logos – you need to start branding yourself as a significant player, just like they do. This requires differentiating by specializing in a niche. Are you a freelance coder, or are you a javascript engineer for WordPress theme customization projects? Are you a writer, or are you a tourism industry ghost blogger?

If someone from a clothing ecommerce company needs help with product description content, is she more likely to hire someone whose marketing assets and public persona profess his expertise in that discipline, or a content generalist? This is why the riches, as they say, are in the niches.

Crystalizing what goes into your brand is the easy part – it’s your identity and your promise to your customer. It describes exactly what people can expect from you, your products and services, and it differentiates you from your competitors. Conveying exactly who you are, who you want to be and how people should perceive you – and then enhancing and proliferating that image – is the real challenge. Here’s how to tackle it.

Express What Sets You Apart

Going FreelanceAttempt to appeal to everybody, and you won’t resonate with anybody. Successful brands know this, which is why even large companies target specific audiences when marketing their products.

For example, Charles Schwab targets middle-aged, upper middle class, conservative Americans. Their website feels sturdy and trustworthy, and their colors, language and visuals convey accountability. LearnVest and WealthFront, however, may also offer money management and investment tools, but these companies target millennials and 30-something techies. Their brands are younger, fresher, their visuals more vibrant and the language they use is more casual.

The first step to promoting your brand as a freelancer is deciding on your identity, your voice and your target market. How are you going to differentiate yourself? Are you the low-cost option? Are you the high-value-it’s-worthwhile-to-pay-a-professional option? Do you pride yourself on your creativity and have a portfolio to prove it?

Customize Your Portfolio for the Clients You Want

An artist creating something out of wood

When nurturing new business leads, don’t fall into the common trap of sending your resume. You’re a one-person agency, not a job applicant.

The last time you called a service tech to fix your laptop, did you ask to see a resume? You likely asked for examples of prior clients, so you can get a better idea of this person’s niche and previous experience. Perhaps you even went so far as to speak to a previous client or two, to gauge his or her level of knowledge, responsiveness or professionalism. This is exactly what you want to provide: a portfolio, not a resume.

Now, what should you include in that portfolio? Be as specific and targeted as possible and avoid the temptation to maximize inclusions. If your work history includes project management, people management and web development, you need to decide what kind of job you’re going after before you can know what to emphasize. Similarly, with portfolios, your potential clients need to see a portfolio that mirror the specifics of their projects, so they’ll feel you have an attachment to or familiarity with their products and business issues.

Delineate the Limits of What You Offer

Having nailed down exactly what you offer and its unique value proposition, don’t be afraid to walk away from projects that do not reflect or support your core competency. Yes, you are going to need to turn down some clients. The horror of it all.

Let’s say that you are a freelance web app developer, and you specialize in Python. You attend a Meetup networking function, where you explain what you do while balancing cheap cava in one hand and your business card in the other, and your conversation partner says, “That’s great – my neighbor has been looking for someone to show her how to set up a web server gateway. I’ll pass your card along!” While you do not need to argue with this person, you for sure shouldn’t work with the neighbor.

Yes, she’s likely willing to pay you for tutoring session. Yes, you have the knowledge. Yes, it would likely be an easy project. But you didn’t open a teaching business. You opened an app engineering business. Even though it may be attractive to make some quick cash by taking projects outside your core competency, you are watering down your brand, your image and your value. When the neighbor calls, politely refer her to the right person. That way, she’ll get what he needs and keep you in mind as a well-mannered and accountable resource when she hears of someone who needs an app.

Your Business Lives and Dies by Your Brand

Portrait of young adult male worker carrying small potted flower in tray at greenhouse

The last thing to remember about establishing, cultivating and promoting your brand is that as a freelancer, you are, essentially, a product. Get professional headshots taken. Manage your online reputation. Keep your ear to the ground when there is any buzz or mention of you, your product or your brand online. Utilize an automated tool like Google Alerts or Mention to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. Be careful when posting on social media, even to your personal accounts. Inappropriate pictures or political commentary can cost you clients.

As branding consultant Simon Mainwaring has been known to remark, “The keys to brand success are self-definition, transparency, authenticity and accountability.” In essence, determine who you are, who you aren’t, speak in a voice which makes both you and your target audience comfortable, and generate good work!