Why do people like novels and movies that center around spies?

Everyone possesses a healthy level of curiosity, and it’s often difficult (if not impossible) not to poke our noses around in other people’s business. There’s an illicit thrill. Spies are professionals who are paid to collect that information and use it to the advantage of King and Country. It’s the ultimate justification of an ignoble impulse.

I have excellent news, would-be-secret-agent freelancers: you, too, can use your spying impulses for good, without compromising your integrity.

Whether you’re starting out as a freelancer, launching a new venture, or just refining your existing business (hello, new website!), doing a little bit of friendly spying amongst your loosely-defined “competitors” can teach you a lot about how you want to market your business – and what niches you can effectively target.

Very important note before I delve further into this topic:

**DO NOT steal content or ideas from others’ business. **That is profoundly wrong, often illegal, and karma will crush you faster than a visible cockroach in a fine dining restaurant.

Additionally, search engine rankings are increasingly punishing content thievery. Don’t be a jerk, okay? It doesn’t pay off, and it’s just a nasty, disgusting thing to do. In this post, we are talking about doing marketing research, not committing plagiarism or pulling off some elaborate con job.

When you’re looking to improve your business, offer a new service, or make any kind of big change (including raising your rates) it’s smart to spend an hour or two looking at freelancers who offer similar services.


Join the nation's largest group representing the new workforce (it's free!)

Become a member


Thanks to the Interwebs, that process is easier than ever; if you Google [your geographical location + freelance specialty], odds are two things will pop up: job listings, and other freelancers. Both of those searches will yield valuable information.

Take a close look at the websites and portfolios of freelancers working in your field. What do you like? What do you hate? What’s useful? What’s redundant, boring, or obnoxious? Do you spot any pitfalls that you want to avoid: clunky content, hard-to-navigate buttons, annoying website music that plays automatically? Is there any feature of their work that you find particularly engaging? Is their contact information freely visible, or is it hard to access? Do they have a blog? How do they interact with others on social media? How do they format their resume and portfolio, and is it better laid-out than your own? What lessons can you learn by a little light observation?

Another kind of valuable investigation centers around rates and project fees. Checking out other freelancers’ rates (especially when they have comparable experience levels) ensures that you’re not chronically underpricing your work. If you’re charging half of what your “competitor” is, you’re doing a profound disservice to your bottom line – while driving down overall rates in your field. You don’t ever have to match other freelancers’ fees, but if there’s a big discrepancy in your comparative rates, you’re probably only doing damage to yourself.

Sussing out other freelancers’ professional connections is also informative. For example, if every freelancer you look at is part of the same LinkedIn group, union, community or guild, there’s probably some benefit to being a member… and you should investigate joining.

All of this casual espionage is an invaluable chance to put yourself in the client’s shoes. Why would they choose this freelancer over you?

The nice thing about this brand of freelance voyeurism is that it’s fundamentally not malicious. There’s plenty of work out there for everybody. Instead, this kind of friendly investigation helps you to more clearly define your own strengths and specialties, letting you decide how you’ll make your freelance business stand out from the crowd.

So next time you’re seeking to up your freelance game, go all Harriet the Spy or James Bond on that piece; bust out your magnifying glass and dry martini, and take a look around. You’ll learn a lot about your market without ever having to dodge a rival agent’s shots on a dark night.

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.