Understanding the Freelance Market

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The way some web freelancers talk, you’d think the work was just lying around on the ground waiting to be picked up. Some skills are, have always been, and probably will always be, in high demand. But other skills have a smaller or more specialized market.

Finding work in these smaller markets can be a major challenge.

Most of us take a sort of self-first approach to finding work, looking at:

  • ourselves
  • what we offer
  • where we are
  • who’s around us that we can sell to

But there is another approach: one in which you use your experiences in the market to consciously piece together a picture of the space you’re dealing with. This picture can then inform the way you look for work, what you offer, and how you charge.

The problem with old-fashioned market research

Freelancers are always encouraged to do market research before they begin freelancing. This is a nice idea, and honorable, but it has considerable limitations.

I don’t know about you, but I always found it a lot like an out-of-body experience. To think of a market you’re outside of, and assess it in terms of brands and contracts, of projects and dollars and contacts, is to abstract something that is, ultimately, an experience.

What freelancers need to know is the “market mindset,” if you like — not its vital stats. We need to get inside the market’s head, not describe how it looks from the outside.

What if, instead, we considered market research as a growth process that can only take place when we’re working in the market?

Beyond you

After working as a freelancer for a while, you can’t help but get a feel for the kinds of businesses that want to work with you. The industry contacts you’re making — be they face-to-face or virtual — will also provide information about the market.

That information won’t be about project size, chargeable rates, or competitors. It’s more likely to be about:

  • the priorities of different types or sizes of organization
  • the way people in the industry like to work
  • what inspires and fuels those individuals
  • who’s respected and why
  • what influences the types of work available

If you’re working in your market, you have this knowledge now. Put down your pen, get away from your computer, and think for a moment.

Forget about what individual pundits are saying about the economy, technology, and so on.

Focus instead on what you know — what your experience has shown you about the market.

Then, try to aggregate that knowledge to form a coherent picture, or “shape,” of your market. What the high-end is and where the hack-work is. Who’s doing cool stuff, and who’s likely to run the kinds of projects that will help you grow your skillset. Who’s going to pay, and who’s going to try to bleed you dry. And, importantly, who or what provides access to the different kinds of work on offer.

Once you have this overview, you can bring yourself back into the equation: where is there an opportunity for your skills and passions to fit into that picture? If you want to access a certain part of the market, what will you have to do to get there: make new contacts? Learn something new? Refocus your folio? Change your rates?

Experiential market research will help you to answer these questions, and more easily carve out your niche over time. How’s your market looking right now?

Image by stock.xchng user srbichara.

Georgina LaidlawGeorgina Laidlaw
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Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and sitepoint.com cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.

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