Does social media matter for freelancers in 2014?

May 12, 2014

First there was the hype that social media would make freelancers into millionaire media mogul rockstars. Then there was the anti-hype that social media was a distraction-enabling time-waster that only allowed you to form meaningless, non-binding connections.

Let’s pull out the B.S. meter and do some digging around.

When and how does social media matter for your freelance business? What are some reasonable expectations we can have about the time we sink into our Facebook and Twitter pages, and what’s just hype?

Fact: A big follower count makes you look important & desirable.

The number of your connections was a measure of success hundreds of years ago, but now there’s a hard number everyone can see. Like it or not, people are more likely to follow popular people (popularity makes you more popular). And most importantly, clients look at that count and think, “Gee golly, they must be important!” and hence “...smarter, more capable, and worth more money!”

A big follower count does open doors. It’s the kind of thing that makes you attractive to people who organize conferences looking for speakers. It’s the kind of thing that puts you in lists of important influencers in your industry.

Hype: Once you reach a certain number of followers, you’ll have "made it."

Actually, it’s never going to be enough.

When you first start out, that guy with 500 followers looks popular. Then you stuck around for a year, and suddenly you’ve got 500, and you’re thinking how lame you look next to that other freelancer who’s got 2,500. The pool of entrepreneurs you compare yourself to will just get wider and wider.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to get more followers. But it does mean that you have to make sure you’re not devaluing the followers you do have.

Fact: Social media will get your name in front of new people.

At best, social media gets your name in front of a new client. You follow Joe Toe at Big Corporation, and when they see your name in the pile of resumes on their desk, they sit up and pay attention to it.

Yes, this does happen: you’re sharing useful, long form content (usually on a blog) or beautiful art or useful information that provides evidence of expertise, it gets into the feed of that one future client, they check out your website, and they contact you.

This will happen more if you use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn in a smart, time-effective way.

Hype: A successful social media-er will land lots of new clients on social media.

Your success on social media is only a supplement or introduction to the impression you make by a referral, your website, testimonials, and your portfolio. Alone, it will not bring you new clients.

Realistically, of the 106 Likes your photo just got on Instagram, very few are a potential client for your photography business. Maybe one. Of the readers of the blog post you just tweeted out, no one may actually be in a place where they’re looking to hire a blog writer today.

As a marketing channel, social media is imprecise, indirect, and slow. If you expect to invest a lot of time crafting perfect tweets and expect clients to beat down your door tomorrow, you’re going to be disappointed.

The classic pitch workhorse -- the direct email and phone call, or asking a someone you know to make a connection -- is still the most energy-effective way to get immediate results.

Fact: Social media helps you stay in touch with past clients & get repeat gigs.

We often talk about the value of keeping in touch with past clients, and this is by far the easiest way to do that.

You retweet their tweet. You send them a DM congratulating them on a new product launch, or because you follow them you and heard the news, you send them a direct email explaining how you think you can help the launch be a success. You comment on their brand’s Facebook wall.

This is the kind of soft-touch contact that will keep you in good stead with your past clients. Just seeing your name at the right time can mean the difference between you getting a gig or them sending it to someone else.

Hype: You need to have a unique “online brand” to be successful on social media.

You don’t need to set out with a perfectly tuned plan about the image you want to project. You don’t even need to be very original. (In fact, I think originality is generally overrated.)

Many freelancers start out by sharing what they like on social media. Over time, they’ll start sharing what they know: blog posts, personal opinions, tips for fellow freelancers.

You’ll start having a “brand” when you start becoming useful; when you really care about providing value to your followers. Whether that’s through curating important industry news, or providing tips, or answering your followers’ questions, you need to give.

Your “branding” will come when you slowly stop sharing the things that don’t actually matter to you. When you become more honest and open about your process. When you decide to share your expertise with others. It will be a series of conscious and unconscious refinements.

Freelancers, what's the biggest hype about social media? What are your plans for social in 2014?