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LinkedIn for Freelance Careers

“Kathy” got it horribly wrong. Hoping to find work as a freelance ghostwriter, she joined LinkedIn and headed straight for the Ghostwriters group. There, she started a thread which read:

“Never worked as a ghost writer before, but interested in an opportunity. Attached is my last article, shows my writing skills and gives info on publishing apps.”

She received two responses from other members of the group. The first began “WARNING:BLATANT SELF-PROMOTION” and pitched a ghostwriting course. The second just pitched the ghostwriter’s own website.

There was little evidence that any of those posts brought in more work or did anything to boost any of those freelancers’ careers.

In fact, the warning attached to the description of the ghostwriting course suggests a discomfort with making the kind of direct pitches on LinkedIn that are more usually saved for job sites. But LinkedIn is a professional careers site. If you can’t do blatant self-promotion on LinkedIn, what can you do on it?

How Do You Work a Network?

The usual answer is a vague mention of networking as though the site hands out cocktails and introductions to giant clients. LinkedIn’s ability to scan email contact lists and suggest second and third degree contacts is supposed to be the site’s biggest strength. By leveraging the network of immediate acquaintances, freelancers should be able to identify firms and prospects that might need their services — and reach them through people they trust.

In practice, there’s little evidence that happens with any regularity. Being told that your connections link you to several million other people makes for some impressively large figures but it does little to identify which prospects might turn into your next biggest client. Even the activity lists, those announcements that someone you might have worked with once is now connected to someone you’ve never heard of, is of little help. They tell what your former colleague is doing now but say little about what you’ll be doing in the future.

Asking for an introduction without understanding the relationship between them or looking unpleasantly mercenary isn’t easy. Come across as desperate and you’ll kill the chance of winning any work, and there’s no way to know whether the target is hiring anyway. It’s no surprise if those secondary connections rarely translate into a new client. Knowing that a network exists isn’t the same as being able to use the connections that link it.

More immediately useful for freelancers are LinkedIn’s groups. Search for “freelance” in the groups directory and you’ll be offered a list of around 2,327 different forums in which freelancers are happily exchanging information. Not all of those groups will be useful or relevant. The biggest freelance-related group by far is Consultants Network with more than 214,000 members. While some of those members are likely to be genuine freelance consultants looking for ideas on pitching their management knowledge or their programming skills, the tendency for laid-off white collar workers to set themselves up as “consultants” while they look for a salaried job might be a better explanation for the group’s high numbers. When those temporary freelancers move back into full-time employment, not all will resign from the group. LinkedIn contains plenty of former freelancers.

Other freelance groups though are both better targeted and packed with useful information. The Designers Talk group, run by the Designers Talk forum, for example, includes a section listing jobs as well as a promotions tab that provides space for the obvious jobseeking that can pollute other discussion streams. Jobs are few but interesting, and currently include ads for a Digital Creative Director for Walmart and a Senior Innovation Developer, Technical Product Marketing for Salesforce. The promotions tab includes blog posts submitted by attention-seeking designers, but also threads that begin: “Hi, I am new to the group, but wanted to share a bit of what I do as a mosaic artist. This is my website…”

That leaves room in the discussions themselves for questions and answers that  are genuinely helpful. A quick browse of the posts published reveals questions about the best way to show Web design specs, recommendations for revenue tracking software, and a discussion of the ethics of moonlighting as a freelancer while working for a design agency. When one designer asked what makes a site look professional, answers ranged from good images through easy navigation to restraint — all good guidelines.

We Join LinkedIn Because We Have To

These are all pointed questions and solid solutions from experienced professionals looking for answers that are hard to find elsewhere. The group might be smaller than the DesignerTalk forums themselves but the organization of LinkedIn, together with its linking of profiles that show who’s doing the talking, make it much more user-friendly. The list of top influencers on the right of the page also reveals whose answers are most worth reading.

Perhaps the most powerful benefit for freelancers on LinkedIn then is as a meeting point for others in the profession, a place to exchange ideas on a platform known for its professional outlook.

But the real reason that those LinkedIn Groups work is that we all feel we have to be there. We know that before a clients hires any freelancer for a big job, one of the first things they’ll do is check out his or her LinkedIn profile. We have to make sure those profiles are kept up to date, free of errors and act as a billboard for our services, complete with links to our websites and portfolios.

And we know too that when others in the profession land new clients, those clients are added to their own network, providing at least one (shadowy) indication of the growth and client bases of other freelancers in the same field. When you’re working alone, it’s the closest you can get to seeing how your growth compares to that of the competition.

It would be great to say then that LinkedIn is a valuable resource for freelancers keen to find new clients. But there’s little evidence that the site’s main asset — its open networks — actually deliver the goods. And while some job offers are occasionally posted in specialized groups, that kind of content usually plays a secondary role to the professional discussions about tools, best practices and suggestions for improvements.

It’s the fact that clients check the site to assess freelancers they’ve already found elsewhere that makes LinkedIn so important, not the opportunities available on the site itself. “Kathy” might have saved herself the bother of writing a plea for a job in the ghostwriting group, and opted instead to ask other group members where she might find those clients outside LinkedIn.

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