The Ultimate Guide to Networking for Freelancers
How to build your freelance business with a trusting, strategic network
Who you know—your network—can be more important than anything else in getting high-paying freelance work and building a stable, successful freelance business.
That’s because clients want to do business with freelancers they know and trust—or freelancers that someone they know and trust referred to them. And it’s not as easy as you probably think it is for them to find competent, dependable freelancers.
Building a trusting, strategic network will help you:
- Get more referrals
- Meet more clients
- Get practical advice and support from other freelancers.
Networking Doesn’t Have to Be Scary
But if you’re like most freelancers, networking is stressful—even scary. Many of us are shy. We like to work alone, and usually dread leaving the safe cocoon of our offices to go to a networking event.
Unfortunately, nothing beats in-person networking at conferences, meetings, and other events for building the trusting relationships that lead to getting referrals from colleagues and being hired by new clients.
And virtual networking, which was the only way for freelancers to network early in the COVID-19 pandemic, is now here to stay. It’s harder to make connections virtually than in person.
With the right networking attitude and some knowledge about what works best, networking for freelancers can be easier and less stressful. You may even start to enjoy it!
The Ultimate Guide to Networking for Freelancers
This freelance-focused guide to networking will show you how you can meet the people who can help and hire you—so you can get better freelance work and build a high-income business. It focuses on in-person networking but also covers online networking for freelancers.
The guide covers:
- Why Freelancers Need to Network
- The Right Attitude About Networking for Freelancers
- 2 Ways to Get More Referrals
- Are You Really an Introvert?
- Build a Strategic Network
- Get High-Paying Clients through Professional Associations
- Networking Events Don’t Have to be Scary
- Succeed in Virtual Networking
- How and When to Ask for Help
Why Freelancers Need to Network
Getting high-paying clients is a big reason for freelancers to network. Networking helps us meet people who can give us referrals and people who can hire us.
The #1 source of the best clients for freelancers is referrals.
Also called word of mouth, referrals are the easiest way to get high-paying clients. Colleagues, especially other freelancers, are a major source of referrals. The other source is satisfied clients. You get referrals from other freelancers by building relationships with them—through networking.
Better Manage Your Business
Networking helps you better manage your business, handle clients, relieve the isolation of freelancing, and more.
Most of us don’t know much about running a business when we start freelancing. If you have a strong network of other freelancers, you can learn what to do—and what not to do—from them. Other freelancers can help you troubleshoot problems with clients and improve your business practices.
When bad things happen, we usually think that we did something wrong. Most of the time, it’s not you—it’s the client. Learning that other freelancers have had the same or similar bad experiences is comforting.
Freelancing is often lonely. Our freelance friends understand us. They can provide support when things aren’t going well and celebrate our successes with us.
Learn more about why networking for freelancers works
The Right Attitude About Networking for Freelancers
Most freelancers, including me when I was starting out, don’t understand networking.
So we have a bad attitude about it. And this makes networking harder for us.
Once you understand one simple truth about networking and know my golden rule of networking for freelancers, you’ll become more comfortable doing it. And you’ll get better at it.
One Simple Truth About Networking for Freelancers
The simple truth is that networking is not about “selling yourself.” It’s about getting to know people.
The Golden Rule of Networking for Freelancers
And my golden rule of networking for freelancers is to give more than you take.
When you focus on getting to know other people and helping them without expecting anything in return, networking becomes much easier.
The Little-Known Personality Type that Makes Networking Easier
The other part of the right attitude about networking for freelancers involves your personality. If you’re an introvert, it’s very difficult to change this. But there’s a little-known personality type that makes networking easier—and many freelancers who think they’re introverts are actually ambiverts.
And even if you are an introvert, a little attitude adjustment can make networking easier for you.
Whether you’re an ambivert or an introvert, or the rare freelance extrovert, networking is a skill. Like any skill, the more you practice, the better and more comfortable you get.
That’s what happened for me. I went from dreading leaving the security of my office to looking forward to the next networking event.
You’re Not Selling Yourself
Going to a networking event used to be really scary for me. I did it, because I knew how important it is, but I dreaded each event.
Networking became much easier for me once I learned that it’s not about “selling yourself.” It’s about getting to know people.
And I also realized that:
- Everyone is there to network.
- Many of the people I met were scared too.
- Most people are nice.
Many freelancers hate networking because they think they’re supposed to talk about how awesome they are and sell their services.
Even if you could do this—and many freelancers can’t—it doesn’t work. Clients and colleagues are turned off by a hard sell.
And it’s very stressful for us.
When you focus on getting to know people, networking is so much easier! You’re listening to the other person/people and asking questions. The pressure is off.
Give More, Take Less
Remember when your parents taught you to play nice with other kids? Your parents wanted you to learn to share things with other people, and to grow up to be a kind person.
What they probably didn’t know was that one day, playing nice would help you succeed as a freelancer.
Giving more than you take is my golden rule of networking for freelancers.
Nice Guys (and Gals) Finish First
People who play nice, or to put the idea into more professional terms, give more than they take, are more successful than people who put themselves first.
In his best-selling book “Give and Take,” Wharton Management Professor Adam Grant reported that people who give their time, knowledge, ideas, and connections to others without expecting anything in return (“givers”) are more successful than people who think it’s a dog-eat-dog world and focus only on self-promotion (“takers”). Grant’s research proves that nice guys (and gals) can finish first, not last.
Giving Makes Networking Easier
Not only does giving more than you take make networking easier, it also works better than trying to sell your services. Giving is easy, and lets freelancers to build strong relationships with colleagues, prospects, and clients. Referring work to other freelancers is a great way to give more than you take.
By giving, we build trust and establish our credibility. The result, over time, is more referrals and more new clients.
Learn more about giving more than you take
2 Ways to Get More Referrals
Most referrals come from the relationships you build with other people. There are 2 easy ways to get more freelance work through referrals:
- Give referrals to other freelancers
- Show gratitude for the referrals you get.
Sharing—and Receiving—Freelance Jobs
Jobs for freelancers are abundant. The freelancers you refer work to will think of you first when they have a freelance job to share.
How You Help Clients by Referring Work to Other Freelancers
And when you help clients find the competent, dependable freelancers they need, they’re grateful. They’re likely to come back to you with other freelance jobs, and to refer you to their colleagues.
Say Thank You
Saying “Thank You” when colleagues and clients refer work to you is the right thing to do—and it also helps you get more referrals.
Too few freelancers take the time to say thank you these days. So when you do this, it makes a strong impression.
If a colleague or client gives you a referral that turns into freelance work, send a gift. I usually send an Amazon gift certificate, because then the person can order whatever she/he likes best. If I get a referral that doesn’t work out, I send a thank-you card (in the mail) with a personal note.
Learn more about getting more referrals in networking for freelancers
Are You Really an Introvert?
Many freelancers are introverts—or at least we think we are!
But if you’re like me, you may not really be an introvert.
I like to be around people, but I don’t need or want to do this too often. I get energy from working alone on things I care about. And I go out of my way to avoid conflict.
These are all classic characteristics of introverts.
But I’m also assertive and willing to take risks. And I make decisions quickly. These are all classic characteristics of extroverts.
So it turns out I’m an ambivert. You may be too.
Networking is Easier for Ambiverts
Ambiverts are part introvert and part extrovert. It’s easier for us to network than it is for introverts or extroverts, because we know when to talk and when to listen. Introverts are too quiet and extroverts talk too much. But ambiverts are just right.
There are more ambiverts than introverts or extroverts. Grant says that 2/3 of people are ambiverts.
If you are truly an introvert, shifting your attitude from “I hate marketing” to “I can do this” will help—a lot!
Learn more about ambiverts and networking for freelancers
Build a Strategic Network
Be nice to everyone you meet, but be strategic about how—and where—you spend most of your networking time. Focus on the people and places that will be most useful to you. The people in your strategic network are your key contacts, and you need to be useful to them too.
Go to places where people are likely to look for your type of freelancer, especially professional associations. You can do some strategic networking online through LinkedIn, social networks of professional associations, and other online forums for freelancers. But online networking will never be as helpful as in-person networking.
Spend most of your networking time and effort building relationships with the people you think will become, or already are, key colleagues and in the places that work best for you. Other freelancers are a key part of your strategic network.
And be reasonable about what you expect when you’re building your strategic network. It takes time—and effort—to do this. When you’re at networking events, focus on trying to meet people who can be useful to you and you to them. The quality of the people you’re meeting is much more important than the quantity. After the event, build relationships with people who could be key colleagues or even clients.
Get High-Paying Clients through Professional Associations
Professional associations make it easy for freelancers to get high-paying freelance jobs and clients. That’s where you’ll find people working for the companies you want to work with (clients) and freelance colleagues who can refer you to other clients.
And when clients are looking for a freelancer, they often ask colleagues from their professional associations for recommendations.
Build Trust by Volunteering
Volunteering for your professional associations is the quickest way to build the trusting relationships that lead to referrals, and to impress the prospective clients you meet.
And if you’re like most freelancers, volunteering is much easier than active networking.
Look for information about volunteering on the websites of your professional associations. If you don’t find it, just email one of the officers and say that you’d like to volunteer.
By joining and being active in professional associations, you’ll also be able to:
- Learn about your ideal clients
- Find ideal clients for your marketing.
Find the Right Professional Associations
Ask your freelance colleagues and clients which professional associations they belong to and would recommend. Use the Directory of Associations to search for professional associations.
Before joining a professional association, check out the website and available resources, and try to go to a meeting or conference. Sometimes though, you just have to join a professional association for a year and see what you think.
Learn more about professional associations and networking for freelancers
Networking Events Don’t Have to be Scary
Conferences, meetings, and other networking events are the best places to meet clients and colleagues who can help you grow your freelance business. But leaving the safe cocoon of our offices to go to a networking event is stressful for most freelancers—even scary.
Nothing Beats In-Person Networking
Meeting people in person at networking events is the best way to begin to build strong, trusting relationships. And people won’t hire you or refer work to you unless they trust you.
Networking events are especially important for meeting other freelancers. Having a strategic network of freelance friends helps you get more referrals, the easiest way to build your freelance business, and get practical advice and support.
Conferences let you can make lots of key contacts in a few days and deepen relationships with current key contacts. And, of course, the conference content helps you stay updated with your industry or field and learn things to better manage your freelance business.
Free Networking Checklist
What to Do Before, During, and After a Networking Event
Networking events don’t have to be scary. If you prepare before the networking event, and do the right things during the event, it will be much easier—and more effective. To build a strategic network, you also need to do the right things after the event.
Here are tips on what do to before, during, and after a networking event. Some of the tips apply to both in-person and virtual networking. I provide tips specific to virtual networking in the next section.
How to Prepare for a Networking Event
Networking will be much easier if you prepare before you go.
Develop your Elevator Speech and Business Cards
Your elevator speech is what you say so that people understand—in 30 seconds or less—what you do and how you help your clients. Include:
- The benefit clients get when they work with you
- What you do (your services)
- Who you work with (types of clients).
Your business card is a powerful ad for your business—and a way for people to remember you. Make sure your cards are clear, high-quality, and error-free.
Dress for Freelance Success
How you dress for networking matters—a lot. People form opinions about you within a few seconds, based on your appearance.
And when you look good, you boost your self-esteem. This makes networking easier.
Business casual works for most networking events, unless your clients and industry require more professional dress.
Accelerate your networking by scheduling meetings with people you already know and people you want to meet. Meet with people during breaks and for meals or drinks, or sit together during sessions. Look for new people to meet by searching the attendee list or, if a professional association is hosting the networking event, the membership directory.
What to Do During the Networking Event
Go to the networking event with a positive attitude and an approachable manner. Make networking easier by focusing on helping others without expecting anything in return or giving more than you take.
Smile. This will relax you and make it easier for other people to talk to you. Pay attention to how you look and sound when you meet people. This matters much more than what you say.
How much someone likes you, according to research by Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA, depends on:
- Appearance and body language: About 55%
- Tone, volume, and cadence of voice: About 38%
- What you say: Just 7%.
Talk to People
Most people will be happy if you talk to them. Many, especially other freelancers, are shy. So be brave, and do this yourself. Talk to people who you meet in line and people you sit next to at a presentation, session, or meal.
Prepare what you’ll say when you first meet someone. Here are a few ideas:
- Why did you decide to come to this conference?
- What sessions are you attending?
- How did you come to be a [WHATEVER THE PERSON DOES]?
- What do you like best about your work?
You can also start a conversation by mentioning something about the person or simply saying hi:
- Wow, I love your [NECKLACE, TIE, ETC].
- “Hi. I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m Lori.”
Know How to End a Conversation
Ending a conversation is harder than starting one. Here are some nice ways to do this:
- It’s been so nice talking to you! Do you have a card?
- I don’t want to keep you from everyone else, but let’s connect. Here’s my card.
- I need to run to my session. Take care!
Be strategic during the networking event, and reasonable about what you expect to get out of being there. The real results of networking come from building relationships with people after the event.
Take breaks when you need to. Being around other people all day can be exhausting for freelancers who are used to working alone. Ideas for breaks include:
- Spending a few minutes outside between sessions
- Leaving the hotel or conference center to have a meal on your own.
What to Do After a Networking Event
The end of the event is only the first step in building the trusting relationships that lead to getting high-paying clients and referrals to clients. But first, give yourself a treat for putting yourself out there and networking.
Give Yourself a Treat
When the event’s over or at the end of each day of a multi-day conference, reward yourself by doing something you enjoy. Here are a few ideas:
- Go for a walk if you’ve been indoors all day
- Have a glass of wine
- Enjoy a meal at a great restaurant.
Follow up and stay in touch regularly with the people you’re meeting. That’s where the real results of networking will come from.
Soon after the event follow up with people you think could be helpful to you (and you to them). Do this by:
- Inviting each person to join your LinkedIn network and/or
- Sending an email to say “nice to meet you.”
Stay in touch with your new contacts and key contacts you already know regularly so that:
- Clients think of you first when they need a freelancer
- Colleagues think of you first when they have freelance work to share.
Be polite and professional, and focus mostly on providing your contacts with useful information and resources. Once or twice a year, mention your freelance services.
Learn more about networking for freelancers at events
How to Succeed in Virtual Networking
My definition of virtual networking is “using technology to meet and build trusting relationships with people who can help you build your career—and who you can help back.” That’s the same definition I use for in-person networking but without “using technology.”
Use the Right Technology
The use of technology and the need to have the right technology is the biggest difference between virtual and in-person networking.
The right lighting is essential to looking professional online. Normal overhead lights aren’t flattering and usually look glaring in a virtual meeting or event. When I started doing virtual networking, my face looked really red. Then I learned about USB LED video lights and a Halo light or ring light. Once I bought these and started using them, I looked much better.
Having the right light behind your computer’s camera makes the biggest difference in how you look. That’s where the USB LED video light goes. These are small, lightweight, easy-to-use lights.
A headset cuts out background noises and helps you hear other people better. Get one if you have kids, pets, or other family members who are likely to make noise while you’re doing virtual networking.
Look Professional and Comfortable On-Camera
Dressing for success in virtual networking is different than dressing for in-person networking. Only your head and shoulders or a little more shows on camera. So focus on your shirt, hair, and any accessories.
Solid colors are best and there should be some contrast with your background so you don’t blend in with it. Patterns, especially things like stripes and plaids, can look really bad on camera. Make sure your hair looks neat.
If you wear jewelry, keep it simple and tasteful. Sparkling jewelry that may look great in person is glaring virtually.
During virtual networking, smile and make eye contact. Smiling will relax you and make you more approachable.
Eye contact helps you project confidence. To make eye contact, sit parallel to your camera and look into the lens.
Impress Colleagues with Your Surroundings
Make sure what’s around you in the background is neat and professional. There are two easy choices for your background:
- Your natural background if it’s neat and professional
- A Zoom virtual background with a green screen.
If you do virtual networking in a fairly neat office, you may only need to clean up the part that shows on your camera.
If you can’t use your natural background, then you can use one of Zoom’s virtual backdrops with a green screen. Zoom’s home page has a link to virtual backdrops and a guide to how to use them. But be careful about what you choose; many of their backdrops aren’t professional.
And you need a green screen if you use a Zoom virtual backdrop. Otherwise, when you move your head or hands, people will see strange things, like fuzziness or hair sticking up. This happens even if you move your head or hands slightly. You can get a green screen that attaches to your chair.
Practice Virtual Networking and Be Professional
If you practice on camera before a virtual networking event, you’ll feel more comfortable during an actual event. Use or get a free Zoom account and start a meeting to practice.
See how to position your lights and computer so you and your background look their best. Try different shirts and see how they look online with your background. If you use your natural background, you’ll see what you need to clean up or change.
lso practice smiling and making eye contact in front of the camera. This will feel really strange at first. But it’s better to do this when you’re alone than be worrying about how your smile looks or whether you’re making eye contact during a virtual networking event.
Be Professional Online
Show that you’re a professional by preventing or minimizing disruptions and get noticed by participating.
Ways to prevent or minimize disruptions include:
- Be in a separate room with the door closed
- Tell everyone in your home about your virtual networking event so they’re quiet and don’t come into the room
- Wear a headset
- Turn your cell phone off or put it in another room.
If you want people to notice you so you can begin to develop relationships, then you need to speak. The more you do this, the more comfortable you’ll get.
If you’re an introvert, start out participating by using the chat function. You can chat to everyone or to one person.
Learn more about virtual networking
How and When to Ask for Help
If you build trusting relationships with the right people and focus on giving more than you take, referrals to clients will come your way. But once you’ve built those trusting relationships, it’s okay to tap into your network when you need help.
Why Freelancers Need to Ask for Help
If you’re actively looking for freelance work, you need to be proactive and ask for referrals. Otherwise, freelance friends and other colleagues may:
- Assume you’re fully booked
- Not really know what you do
- Forget what you do when they hear about a freelance job
- Refer work to the last freelancer they talked to—not you.
As long as you ask for help the right way, you won’t annoy people.
Who to Ask for Help and When to Do This
Only ask colleagues you know and trust for referrals. And be professional when you do this.
It’s fine to send colleagues a friendly email once or twice a year to mention the type of work you’re looking for. Include a little information about your background and experience and a link to your website (or LinkedIn profile).
And always offer to reciprocate. Say that you’d be glad to keep your eyes and ears open for freelance jobs that may be right for your colleague. Ask about the type of work he/she is looking for so you can follow through.
Learn more about tapping into your network
Learn More About Networking for Freelancers
Here’s a complete list of the blog posts and free tools on networking for freelancers.
Some blog posts include examples of freelancers who are using networking to get clients.
All Mighty Marketer posts on networking for freelancers