6 lessons from a year of freelancing

A year ago today I joined the freelance world. And, for a 51 year-old copywriter who’d spent the rest of his career working for other people, it was a massive, scary step.

Yes, I’d won quite a few awards and gained quite a healthy reputation in the recruitment communications industry over 25 years, but the truth is that it wasn’t something I’d always planned to do. In fact, if I hadn’t been made redundant, I wouldn’t have even considered it.

It’s been an eye-opening, exhilarating and, very occasionally, worrying 12 months. And a year down the line, I know that it was definitely the right decision. But it obviously isn’t right for everyone, so if you’re thinking about going freelance, here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

1. Finding work can be tough – but only if you let it be

That’s what everyone told me. And, to be honest, I believed them. I hadn’t had to go out and try to find work for myself for 25 years and the thought of it didn’t fill me with joy. But I suppose necessity is a great driver and I was determined to make my freelance career a success. I was also in the happy situation of having a great list of contacts – people I’d worked with over the years who had moved on into more senior – and more influential – roles.

So I spent my first week meeting people and showing them what I’d been doing since I’d last worked with them. And it worked – by the second week I had my first freelance job, and the phone has hardly stopped ringing since.

Which brings me onto my next lesson:

2. Use your network 

It’s no use being embarrassed about asking people you’ve worked with in the past for a job. After all, it’s not as if you’re asking for favours (or it shouldn’t be). If you’ve enjoyed working together in the past, it’s more than likely they’ll want to work with you again. But don’t assume that’s the case – you still need to show them a strong portfolio of work and get any subsequent contracts on merit.

This has worked incredibly well for me. I suppose it helps that I’ve been around so long and got such a wide network of ex-colleagues. But every piece of work I’ve done over the past year has either been directly for, or as a result of, a recommendation from someone I’ve worked with in the past.

3. Promote, promote, promote

The most difficult thing when you’re on a contract – well, for me at any rate – is thinking about the next one. But, of course, it’s no use coming to the end of one job and then thinking: “What am I going to do now?”

One of the first things I did after I set up my company, Welch Words, was to secure accounts in that name on Twitter and Facebook. I also changed my LinkedIn profile to make it clear that I was looking for work and my credentials.

Again, I used my network, asking anyone I’d worked with for a recommendation on LinkedIn. This, I think, is a powerful promotional tool. After all, I had 20 people, including colleagues and clients, prepared to say how good I was at the service I was offering. And certainly LinkedIn has been one of my most successful tools for getting new work. But Twitter and Facebook have also been useful – particularly for building a new network of contacts who now know me as Welch Words, rather than ‘Phil the writer’.

4. Get the finances right

One of the first pieces of advice I had when I went freelance was to get a good accountant. And certainly, that was useful when it came to deciding whether to set up a limited company or not. But, whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to take some responsibility for your finances.

This means it’s important on a day to day level to keep up-to-date records of the work you do and the amount you’ve quoted for it. But the most important thing is to invoice regularly. I do my invoices every weekend and invoice the clients I work for each week – even in the middle of a contract. Why? Because of the next lesson I’ve learned:

5. You never know when you’ll get paid

This is something that I thought would be standardised. When I started out as a naive, not-so-young freelancer, I thought that if I sent an invoice out, there would be a standard amount of time I’d have to wait before the money came in. But no, apparently not.

I even checked the legal position. And the government’s website makes it perfectly clear: 

“Unless you agree a payment date, the customer must pay you within 30 days of getting your invoice or the goods or service.”

Yet I’ve had some payments a week after I’ve sent the invoice and a few others over 60 days afterwards. Luckily I’ve had to chase very few invoices over the year. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that’ll continue.

But even though the finances are obviously important, I’ve also found that you shouldn’t let them take over completely. Because, if you’re a freelancer, you have to make it enjoyable. And for me that means making the most of the free time you have, rather than worrying about why you don’t have any work for a day or two.

6. Your time’s your own

This is one of the best things about being a freelancer for me. I’ve had some very busy times during the past 12 months, but there have been a few slower weeks. And, although I’ve used these to email potential clients and post messages on social networks to try and get more work, I’ve also tried to make the most of them. So, my wife and I have been out for long lunches, or even whole days. And I’ve had a couple of enjoyable holidays. It’s made the whole freelance experience far more pleasurable. 

Overall, the results of my first year as a freelancer have been very positive. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. And I’m happy to say that I haven’t had a single week when I haven’t had any paid work – apart from those I took as a holiday. I’ve been involved in some extremely interesting and challenging projects and tackled work in sectors that I haven’t worked in before. I’ve made some new contacts. And I’ve ended up earning more than I would have done if I hadn’t been made redundant. 

So, Welch Words Ltd. is definitely looking forward positively to it’s second year of trading.

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6 tips to make the most of your social media presence for recruitment

Last week I joined forces with Neil Parkinson to deliver a workshop on making the most of your online presence to the Recruitment Society in London.

Neil’s strength is in helping organisations to bring their data to life – helping them to analyse and interpret the data from their online presence to inform their future strategy. And the workshop combined his expertise with my experience of developing online content. So we covered the whole process of creating original content for careers websites and social media strategies, measuring its effectiveness and then refreshing it in light of the analysis.

The main part of the workshop covered content for social media. Why? Because I think this is the area that a lot of organisations still have a problem with. And particularly when it comes to recruitment.

For example, I’ve been in meetings with a lot of HR professionals and recruiters in recent years and one of the things they’ve all asked for is a Facebook page. But a lot of them don’t realise the amount of time and commitment it takes to set up and manage something like that. Or what kind of content is going to enable them to engage with their target audience.

So, here are just a few of the tips that I gave on recruitment content for social media.

1. Set a definite strategy

As I mentioned, a lot of companies think they have to have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed. But a lot of them don’t pause to think why they want one or what they want it to achieve.

If you think about it, though, you wouldn’t even consider launching a major advertising campaign without deciding on your strategic objectives and setting KPIs. So, why would you ignore these for a social media campaign?

By setting these, you also have something to measure success against. So, when you start to measure the effectiveness of your Facebook page or Twitter feed, you can see where you’re winning and you change the areas where you’re not.

2. Do your research

Again, this is something that comes naturally with any other marketing campaign, but seems to go out of the window when it comes to social media for recruitment.

Social media isn’t a single entity. Instead, there are a large number of different social media platforms, appealing to different audiences. And they stretch well beyond the Facebooks, Twitters and LinkedIns of the world. So, like any other media, it’s up to you to find out which ones will deliver the right audience for you.

3. Not all social media are the same

When it comes to the content you’re going to put on your different social media platforms, you need to understand the different audiences you’re talking to.

I’ve seen a number of organisations just replicate posts on each of their social platforms. But, as we’ve seen, different social media appeal to different audiences. So, for example, posting the same information on Twitter and LinkedIn would be the equivalent of putting the same advert in The Sun and the Sunday Times. And, while sometimes that might just work, the majority of the time it won’t.

4. Make sure you’ve got enough resources

Many organisations dipping their toes into the social media pond for the first time underestimate the amount of time and resource they need to devote to it.

But managing a Facebook page, a Twitter feed or a LinkedIn account is a time-consuming business. And if you’re managing all three, plus a few more, it can be a full-time job.

People expect you to keep them informed, educated and entertained regularly each day. To do that, you need someone who can devote enough time to managing content, who understands the objectives of your social media strategy and who can tailor content for different platforms and different audiences.

Oh, and of course, you need someone who can regularly police your feeds to make sure nobody posts anything illegal or offensive.

5. Create meaningful and valuable content

The organisations that are the most successful on social media are those who understand which content will appeal to their audiences.

And in recruitment, the worst thing you can do is to simply post a series of job opportunities on your social media platforms. Why? Because people want engagement that’s also relevant – whether that’s through an informative white paper posted on LinkedIn or a cat video on Facebook.

So, you need to inform, educate and entertain in equal measure through relevant content. And don’t restrict yourself to work-related topics, or spend all your time talking about your organisation. By inviting people to ask or answer questions, give their opinions and post links to their blogs or videos, you’ll find it easier to engage them. That in turn will make them more inclined to apply for any jobs when you do post them.

6. Don’t over emphasise your brand

Generally, people using social media want to know they’re engaging with a person, rather than an organisation or a brand. So, when you’re writing your posts, you need to focus less on your employer brand and more on your audience.

In most cases, you’ll be using social media to take people through to more branded content on your careers website. Because of this, I believe that on certain social media platforms, you can afford to be more conversational, friendly and personally engaging than many brands might normally allow you to be. But again, you have to decide if that approach is right for the platform and your media.

So, there you have it – a quick summary of the main points I put forward on social media content for recruitment. And the great thing about having Neil there was that he was able to  show how he could measure the effectiveness of these tips. And together, we were able to show how we’d be able to continuously improve our clients’ social media presence through effective measurement and great content.

The value of words

We’re becoming an increasingly visual world.

The music industry makes stars out of artists based on how they look, rather than what they sound like (Justin Bieber anyone?). And you often hear people say they love the video of a song, rather than the song itself (it’s one of the reasons YouTube’s been so successful).

Then there’s the communications industry. As a writer I’m always being told to cut the copy down. In adverts, to give the image more space. Online to avoid scrolling, or simply because people “don’t want to read loads of copy online.”

A global language

Technology – and particularly the internet – has accelerated the process. By making the world smaller, it’s connecting more and more people who don’t share the same language. So, naturally, the world of mass communication’s had to adapt. Its answer? To focus on images rather than words.

The results are films that rely more on visual techniques and huge special effects than a solid plot and memorable dialogue. Singers who become better known for wearing dresses made of meat than their actual music. And homogenous global advertising campaigns with a bland core message that can be translated into all available languages. Or not. (The current Esso campaign claims it “helps your engine’s fuel economy wherever you are driving towards” – makes me cringe every time.)

The word is social

Which is why I love social media. Because on most social media platforms, the focus is on the message again, rather than the image.

Yes, you can link images and videos to tweets or Facebook updates, but you need a strong message to entice the reader to open the link. And even on Pinterest, if there’s no witty description or interesting comment, it can feel like you’re just flicking through a random stranger’s photos.

Content, content, content

Content strategies, content plans and, well, just great content, are – or should be – at the heart of successful social marketing campaigns. And that’s where a good creative writer really comes into play. Take the business of writing effective tweets, for instance.

Only 140 characters to hone your thoughts, argue your point, express your opinion or just entertain and amuse – it’s harder than you think.

So hard, in fact, that it took me a while to write that last paragraph within 140 characters (it’s 139 characters, in case you were wondering). You don’t have a lot to play with. And that’s where good writing comes into its own.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. But in today’s competitive markets, if they’re the wrong words, it can be detrimental to a brand. So, with more organisations moving into the social sphere words are, you might say, on the tip of everyone’s tongues once again.

Who do you trust to promote your employer brand?

Why do brands tweet on Twitter, post on Facebook or set up LinkedIn pages? Simple – to get people talking about their brands, spreading the word and, hopefully, generating sales. Because if you’re not doing this right, you might as well not be using these platforms.

That’s why one of the big debates in marketing circles is around the best way to promote brands on social media. It’s all about getting the right people talking about your brand. But who are the right people? For most marketers, there are two main choices.

Social influencers v brand advocates

The first group are social influencers – people who have loads of followers on Twitter or Facebook, or whose words are keenly followed in a particular industry or sector.

The other group are brand advocates – essentially satisfied customers who’ve had some contact with your brand and who are happy to tell their followers about how good that contact was.

Both groups have their plus points depending on your brand. But when it comes to promoting employer brands, I think one has a distinct advantage over the other. And a recent blog by Jay Baer highlighted why.

Employees – more influential than Lady GaGa

The main theme of Baer’s blog was that advocates who’ve had direct contact with a brand and can talk about real stories are far more believable – and ultimately, more trusted – than influencers who can only talk about the brand through second-hand experiences. And the figures seem to back him up, with 18% saying they trust influencers, against 92% who trust brand advocates.

It’s all very well to get a celebrity to endorse your brand through their Twitter feed (even if it’s someone like Lady GaGa who currently has 30 million Twitter followers). But in recruitment terms, I believe the brand advocates would be contented employees rather than satisfied customers.

If employees talk on social networks about the reality of working at an organisation, the messages will seem more genuine. And the people who follow them are far more likely to have the kind of skills and experience that their employer’s looking for. Which means for employer brands to make the most of social media, organisations need to encourage their people to talk about the brand on these platforms.

Getting organisations to encourage their employees

I realise that most organisations are wary about letting their employees loose on social media. They still feel that they need to keep a tight rein on their brand.

But I think that if they lay down some basic social media rules for their employees to follow and trust them to follow these rules, it’ll really help to strengthen their employer brand across social platforms. And ultimately, that’ll make it easier for them to recruit the people they need.