How to Build Vibrant Freelancer Relationships (My 4 Step Cheat Sheet)
“All my clients come from word-of-mouth marketing.”
“Oh, my friend introduced me to [dream brand], and I’ve been working for them ever since.”
“It’s really not that hard. Just DM some people.”
You’ve probably heard this advice if you’re new to freelancing. Or even if you’re scaling up. But it just doesn’t seem to work for you.
Why? Because you’re missing the full story.
Common relationship-building advice (but with full sentences this time)
“All of my clients come from word-of-mouth marketing now that I’ve been in the industry for eight years and have been referred by my friends for other projects.”
“Oh, my writer friend introduced me to [dream brand], and I’ve been working for them since. She used to work with them, and during that same time, I assisted her with research and editing. So, she made an introduction when she wanted to move on to other projects.”
“It’s really not that hard. Just DM some people you want to work with. Ask them how they are, what they’ve been up to, and how you can help them. Start conversations, not sales pitches.”
Yikes. When you add the full context, it doesn’t sound so easy.
Hard truth: Building relationships with other freelancers is the furthest thing from quick success. It takes time, patience and active outreach.
But going the extra mile will equip you to build an impressive client roster and, more importantly, give you a community where you can share your wins, losses and frustrations. You can ask your fellow freelancers questions that Google can’t answer.
So how do you actually build a relationship that might become a referral down the road?
Step 1: Start a conversation organically (and stop tracking “conversation profitability”)
The only way you’re going to build a genuine relationship is to be as invested in the other person’s success as you are in your own.
When you reach out with a faux-personal message, only to send a salesy pitch immediately after, people can sense it.
Here are three legit reasons to reach out to someone:
1. You’ve come across an opportunity that fits their profile.
This is hard in the beginning because you want to apply for everything available yourself, hoping something fits. But referring other people for gigs—especially with a personalized email or note—makes them remember you.
Countless times in my own career, I’ve passed on opportunities I would’ve loved to let people who are more qualified take them on. They’ve reciprocated that goodwill by referring me for opportunities, helping me with tricky edits, and offering career advice.
Here’s an example of a time I found an opportunity that was better suited for another writer’s experience and qualifications.
She applied for the opportunity and two months later had a retainer with that client.
2. You want to tell them they’ve helped or inspired you.
On several occasions, I’ve received messages from writers who’ve told me how my work inspires them. It had me grinning from ear to ear, and those are the writers I’ve always referred for projects I couldn’t take on.
But I’ve always done this subconsciously. The human brain registers positive experiences and the people responsible for them. So when it’s digging for recommendations, those are the names that pop up.
3. You want to compliment them on their work, profile, or personal brand.
Sometimes, I’m in a low mood. If someone reaches out to compliment me on an article or a thread I wrote, it turns around my whole day. Your compliment doesn’t even have to be well structured or formatted for skimming; it just needs to be thoughtful and honest.
I recently read a piece for Zapier written by Rochi Zalani, and I actually highlighted parts of it because it was so helpful. But I also reached out to tell her that her work was incredible and valuable.
Step 2: Keep your conversations going
One message, one compliment, or even one referral is not enough. To build a valuable relationship, you have to follow up, check in, and offer support when you can. This doesn’t mean you have to message them incessantly, but make sure that your communication cadence is consistent and meaningful. Acknowledge their successes and offer your help when appropriate.
On numerous occasions, my Twitter friends have offered to help me with edits, formatting, and finding sources for a piece. I’ve done the same.
Here’s an example:
Step 3: Ask for what you need
Once you’ve established a good rapport with someone, don’t hesitate to reach out with a genuine request. People are happy to help, but sometimes you need to specifically ask for what you need.
In this example, a friend reached out to ask for business coach recommendations, and I was overjoyed to help. I’d recently done extensive research so I could shortlist coaches for myself, and I was glad to share my (beautifully consolidated) information.
Step 4: Actively seek out opportunities to give back
Relationship building doesn’t just ‘happen,’ especially in the digital world. You need to make a conscious effort to champion the freelancers in your network and the up-and-coming ones. This looks like hosting check-ins, sending thoughtful introduction emails and keeping your eyes peeled for opportunities that could help your friends.
For example, I often actively search LinkedIn for opportunities to tag Amelia Zimmerman. She’s a wonderful friend and a gifted climate technology writer.
Here’s another example. This email introduction from Aaron Orendorff is in my feel-good file.
Long story short: Be yourself, and don’t overthink it
Being judged was my biggest fear when I started reaching out to other freelancers. I’d agonize over every word (which is easy as a writer). These would be everyday thoughts:
- Should I say “I’d love to talk more,” or is ‘love’ too enthusiastic?
- Should I congratulate them on the promotion, or will they think I’m just doing what everyone else does?
- Should I ask her to introduce me to a mutual connection, or will I seem like an opportunist?
But to my very pleasant surprise, nobody cared about my word choice or timing.
People were happy that I was reaching out and would respond positively.
If you’re still nervous, borrow my cheatsheet. (I wish I’d had this when I started out).
Important truths about building strong freelancer and prospect relationships
- Good intentions almost always get conveyed.
- Don’t take delayed responses personally. Most often, people are just busy—and not laughing at your texts with their friends (which, yes, was an initial fear of mine).
- You can’t just talk to people once and then expect them to send you a stream of clients. You must be interested in their success, help them with leads, and offer support in tricky situations.
- You shouldn’t measure the “conversion rate” of relationships.
- If you’re just talking to someone to be able to pitch them later, they will know and feel exploited.
- Not everyone is open to a conversation in their DMs, and that’s okay. Move on. Don’t repeatedly ping them asking for a response.
- Don’t just reach out to people who are ahead of you. Reach out to those who you know you can help.
If you have any questions about building a network with vibrant relationships, reach out to me at email@example.com.