The rise of social media has changed the way freelancers work in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. No longer limited to cold calls, word-of-mouth and expensive paid advertising, freelancers now have an extensive suite of tools at their disposal to not only let potential clients know that they exist, but to help them find advice and mentors, perform research for their work and even become more productive. Perhaps most importantly, social media tools have effectively levelled the playing field for those who rely on themselves for work, often allowing them to legitimately compete with the world's largest corporations.
Whether you're new to the freelance scene or are an established contractor, now is the time to develop a social media strategy to help you rise to the top and stay there. Here's how to do it.
It's called social networking, after all
Nobody denies the importance of networking to finding freelance jobs - so why not take those real world social skills online? Established creatives will remind you that you're already connected to hundreds of people on sites like Facebook and Twitter, and at least some of them are probably looking for someone like you, or know someone who is. Use those existing networks to your advantage.
You can also increase your chances of landing paying gigs by being strategic about the networking sites you use. According to LinkedIn expert Lewis Howes, nearly half of that site's users are "decision-makers" who typically make more money than the average Facebook or Twitter user, making the site a great (and free) database of potential clients.
Twitter has its own advantages, including being a great place for conversation. Use it to engage your audience with opinions, discussion and free advice - and yes, even self-promotion, but keep it to a minimum or risk alienating potential contacts.
Facebook offers benefits as well, not least of which is its size: nearly one billion people use the site, and half of the site’s users log on on any given day, making it the most popular social network on the planet. Often written off as a time waster, Facebook offers a number of options for professional networking, including its groups feature, which allows you to connect with potential clients or collaborators.
Before you start making connections on Facebook, however, ensure your profile is prepared. Use the site's lists feature to divide contacts into friends, colleagues, professional connections and so on, and be sure to take a look at what privacy settings are applied to things such as photos and videos you post and location check-ins you make.
Build a brand, become an expert
The sheer number of social publishing tools available to individuals today means it's easier than ever to become a legitimate content producer. Combine that with the massive number of networking sites at your disposal and you've got the means to build a personal brand that can transform you from a small-time contractor to a recognized expert in your field.
Consider blogging about your craft as a way to both build a network of potential colleagues and clients and establish yourself as the go-to person in your field. Many photographers, illustrators and other graphic artists find Tumblr to be a great way to blog, and serves to compliment their online portfolio. Offer free advice to demonstrate your expertise in a given area and show that you're a helpful resource. You can also use your blog to show off previous work and keep others up-to-date on what you're currently working on or would like to be working on.
Your blog's reach may initially be limited, but your established social networks can be leveraged to amplify that reach. Post content to a Facebook fan page and your Twitter and Linkedin accounts. Keep in mind that some social networks have niche users: video producers should consider distribution channels such as YouTube and Vimeo, and designers and photographers might consider Tumblr as a venue for their content, in addition to keeping an online portfolio.
Most importantly, don't forget to engage with your audience once it's in place. There's no sense in using social media if you aren't prepared to harness it to its fullest extent. Engage in dialogue with followers, fans and commenters, and be prepared to accept their praise and criticism.
Be forewarned, however, that developing, publishing and spreading content takes time and patience. A solid brand is not developed overnight, but grown over time.
The social world offers countless opportunities for increased productivity. In fact, the struggle is often in narrowing the many tools available for the job down to the best rather than in finding one at all.
Maps and Calendar, two of Google's better-known products, offer much more than what they are traditionally used for: maps can be used to keep track of international clients, shoot locations and, with the help of its API, even explore works of art. Calendar, though basic in nature, provides a broad suite of tools to manage client meetings, keep track of deadlines and connect to co-workers or employees.
Docs - essentially a word processor in the cloud - includes a social dimension in its ability to link multiple users working on one document. Changes are stored and can be reverted to, and users can leave comments without altering the document itself. Docs can be kept private or can be published to the web.
Google+'s Hangouts feature, essentially a video chat service similar to Skype, allows users to share a number of experiences together, including watching YouTube videos. Hangouts' one drawback is that all collaborators must have a Google+ account, not something everyone has or is prepared to get.
Tools are also available to help you keep track of who’s talking about you, and help you find out who on Twitter is looking to hire someone like you. If you use Twitter to showcase your work, you might also want to check out Tweet Reach to better understand how far links to your work travel. Don’t forget that Facebook also offers the ability to search public posts.
Where to find help
The web is awash with advice on building your brand online, connecting with audiences and marketing yourself using social media, but not all of them are helpful. There are, however, a number of resources worth checking out. Some of our favourites include:
Mashable, one of the world's largest and most-visited websites, Mashable reports on social media, tech, mobile and online business trends and offers how-tos on everything from setting up a Facebook fan page to drafting a corporate social media strategy.
The Social Media Marketing Blog, written by Ford’s Scott Monty, offers insight into the convergence of marketing, advertising and PR on the web.
Convince & Convert, written by Jay Baer, offers advice for businesses seeking to embrace social media.
The Social Media Examiner includes social media news, case studies and more
Amber Mac, technology journalist and strategist, blogs about the social space and the future of social media