Every freelancer should build an audience because an audience gives you leverage:
As you develop a new offer, test it with your audience.
When you want feedback on an idea, ask your audience.
While you tackle a big project, share updates with your audience.
An audience on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram is good, and an email list is better. Email gives you a direct line of communication that you own. Unlike your social profiles, your list can’t be suspended, canceled, or stolen.
It can travel with you to your next brand, venture, or platform of choice.
So yeah, I’m pro email, and this essay will unpack 5 ways that weekly newsletters have helped my freelance business. Then, I’ll share 3 mindset shifts and 8 steps you can follow, whether you have 1 subscriber or 10,000.
5 Ways Email Marketing Helps My Freelance Business
Here is what my commitment to weekly newsletters has meant for my freelance business:
Way 1. Email helped me establish a regular writing practice and marketing cadence.
Thanks to my commitment to send a weekly newsletter, I write more, more often. More of my best stories and ideas now exist outside of me in shareable form.
When a potential client asks for my take on any variety of topics, I can say, “I wrote about that. I’ll send you the link.”
Though it’s hard to quantify the value of this body of work, I know for a fact that I get more opportunities because I expanded the surface area of my own discoverability through writing. Prospects already know and appreciate how I think and communicate. They arrived pre-sold.
Way 2. Email helps me stay top of mind.
60 million people in the U.S. freelanced in some capacity in 2022. The number of freelancers across the globe is much, much higher, and you don’t want to be confused with 100,000s or millions of people who have a similar skill set but half your experience and a tenth of your talent.
You’ve got to stand out and stay top of mind.
Everyone checks email more often even than they check their socials, and as I already established, only a tiny fraction of your audience will ever see any one post. Staying in touch through email is the best way to stay top of mind. More on that in a second.
Way 3. Email gives me direct relationships with my readers, relationships that I “own.”
The problem with bolting your business onto someone else’s platform (e.g., LinkedIn, Youtube, Instagram, TikTok, etc.) is that those companies own your audience.
Any one of them could suspend or delete your account at any time, for any reason. They have unilateral control over this area of your marketing, and thus over your livelihood
By contrast, an email list is an asset you own, and one that can travel with you from one platform to the next.
Want to leave X for Threads or leave Threads for T2 or leave T2 for some self-hosted Discord thingamabobber? Fine. You’re like a food truck or pop-up shop, and you can use emails to tell people where to find you next.
I have always marveled that Seth Godin and other influencers can, more or less, guarantee the success of every new project and venture by sending out a handful of emails.
That type of leverage is UNBELIEVABLE.
Really, you can engineer your own bestseller by asking people to buy your new book?
You can get the book to stick in Amazon’s algorithms by following up with your audience and requesting reviews?
Because it sticks in the algorithms (and you can send regular pulses of new reviews with the help of… emails) you can ensure it becomes a perennial seller?
Filmmaker and Youtuber Casey Niestat explained the true importance of having an audience: “Platform is not a stepping stone. It is the finish line.”
I don’t know about you, but I have goals for work and creative projects beyond freelancing. I have already written one children’s book called Grabbling. I’m nearly finished with a freelance pricing and money mindset guide. I certainly don’t expect a traditional publisher to market and sell my future books for me.
Owning a direct relationship with a growing audience is paramount for my long-term goals.
Way 4. Email helps me sell.
Email marketing is similar to sales in that people dismiss it because so many people abuse it.
Shoot, maybe some of my emails have gotten on your nerves. “Who is this obnoxious human? Get out of my inbox right now!”
Don’t let the many pathetic pitches, prattling promos, and patience-piercing newsletters deter you. You can and should use regular emails to share your personality and expertise and connect with clients who need your help.
The key is finding the right language and inviting people to reply when they need help with something specific you mentioned.
Way 5. Email helps me build relationships and earn trust while I sleep.
I’m not that tech savvy. Mailchimp makes my head spin, and out of the ~10 or so ESPs I’ve used, ConvertKit is by far the easiest for me to understand, navigate, and use effectively.
By “use effectively,” I mean tag and segment my subscribers based on how they found me and what their interests are.
Then, the various rules and automations help me deliver what I promised without minimizing irrelevant emails, which none of us like.
I think of it as building relationships at scale because the various automations and sequences help new subscribers get to know me. They learn what I care about, whom I serve, and how.
They can unsubscribe at any time. The vast majority stick around. Some even become clients!
3 Mindset Shifts for Effective Email Marketing
Before freelancers can use email marketing effectively, we need to change our minds about several things.
Mindset Shift #1. No one likes email, and everyone likes some emails.
Let’s go ahead and clear this up. Apparently, everybody hates on email. People complain about it all the time.
Yet, when your favorite brand runs a sale and you get 40% off the shirt you already had your eye on, are you upset? No, you feel like you won.
We do like good emails, and we want more of them. Good emails are good because they help, delight, inform, or entertain us in some way.
So don’t let the spammers and abusers ruin an ethical, serviceable, and reliable strategy for you.
As you think about what to write about, or how to make your emails worth reading, ask yourself this: “What have I been thinking about, learning, and doing?”
That simple three-part structure helped me get out of my head and out of my way. I used it to scrape together a short, snackable email in a reasonable amount of time.
Mindset Shift #2. Email has a big advantage over social.
As of July 2023, the highest engagement rate you’ll see with an organic, non-boosted Facebook post was 2.58%. Instagram saw a 30% dip in 2022 over 2021. Twitter’s engagement rate was 0.035%. TikTok was the hero at 5.69%.
Organic reach will keep declining too. Media companies have a clear financial incentive to sell more ads, and the best way to do that is to throttle organic reach. Overall, Meta brought in $113 billion in advertising revenue in 2022, and Instagram alone accounted for an estimated $43 billion of that.
Let’s say you had 2,000 email subscribers, 2,000 Facebook fans, and 2,000 X followers.
You get nearly 3x more engagement with email than FB and Twitter combined, even with that abysmal 20% open rate. (My average open rate for a Freelance Cake newsletter hovers around 66%.)
Building an email list gives you more control over your audience and minimizes the risk of some faceless media corporation arbitrarily blocking or limiting your access to the relationships you’ve worked so hard to build.
I recommend that you take a both/and approach to social and email. Pick a social platform and build a following there, but use regular calls to action and lead magnets to move people from your social audience to your email audience. Move them from rented land to owned land.
“Email subscribers are gold bars in the bank. New media rise and fall. Email isn’t going anywhere. It’s been around longer. It will survive longer. Medium can't paywall it. It's the best place to build an audience online.” (Bold mine)
Mindset Shift #3. Email isn’t just for mega influencers with giant lists.
You can build a very profitable freelance business with a very small email list. Freelancers don’t need a lot of clients. We just need happy clients. When we have happy clients, we can lean on the 3 R’s:
Relationships (new ones, I mean)
People in your audience cannot give you any of the above if they forget about you. You use email to stay top of mind.
And the sooner you get started, the sooner you will grow your subscriber list and see the benefits. Start with 1 subscriber. Or 50. Or 100. Doesn’t matter. Just get started.
Send a regular email to all your clients and tell them you’ll be emailing them at least once a month with ideas, resources, and anything else you find valuable.
Write your first email. Share more about who you are, what you love and how you spend your free time, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, why your clients trust you, what people can expect from your emails, some of the topics you plan to explore in future emails, and what you’d like for them to do (e.g., “Hit reply and tell me what you’d like to learn about copywriting.”)
Create a content roadmap. Don’t know what to write about? No problem. Ask yourself, “What do I wish every client came to me already knowing?” Write about that. Or go to your favorite newsletters or people and brands you stay subscribed to and ask, “What are they doing that I like?” Do that. And when in doubt, simply share what you’re thinking about, learning, and doing.
Finalize a structure you can use for your own emails. Use your favorite email newsletters to make a list of content and format ideas.
Pick a topic for your next 3 emails.
Write the crappy first drafts for them one at a time.
If you have wanted more control over your marketing and lead-gen as a freelancer, then sending regular emails is a good place to start.
In his short The Atlantic article, “The Internet’s Unkillable App,” Dave Pell explains why email newsletters are here to stay: “The noisier the rest of the internet gets, the more popular the quiet, humble newsletter becomes.”
In “How to Newsletter,” Ann Handley of Total Annarchy shares a useful checklist to help your newsletter thrive.
One last thing… The pressure is off.
In 2019, at my favorite conference, Craft + Commerce, copywriter and ‘80s fashion junkie Tarzan Kay gave a talk about writing emails and confessed that one of her most popular emails was about a story about a shopping trip to Costco. Anyone who has been to a giant warehouse store would read the story and think, “That’s so true!”
Tarzan went on to explain that her best emails make her more relatable.
Sitting there in the audience, I realized that I had treated my emails as a stage where I must perform: “Austin, do a backflip. Juggle those knives. Regale us with epic freelancing tales of yore.”
And the only one putting that pressure on me was me!
There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to embarrass yourself, but I had let the desire to impress cause me to project a persona and contort myself to fit it. The permission I needed, without knowing it, was to quit being so cerebral and self-conscious.
It was time to let my personality and passion shine through and let the chips fall where they may.
If I lost a subscriber or two because I was too liberal with bad puns, so be it. A man has to live.
So consider this essay an invitation to you to write the kind of emails you want to receive.
Let your hair down. Put more of yourself in your social posts, and especially your emails. And if you aren’t already, start sending regular emails and growing your audience. Commit to it for 6-12 months, and let me know how it goes.
When you’re ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:
Freelance Fixes. This short guide walks you through 6 small but important “fixes” that you can make to raise your income without working longer hours. People really seem to like it.
Morning Marketing Habit. This course will help you build an “always be marketing” practice, become less dependent on referrals, and proactively build the business you want with the clients you want. My own morning marketing habit has enabled me to consistently make 6 figures as a freelancer.
Clarity Session. It’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I've done well over 100 of these 1:1 sessions with founders, solopreneurs, and freelancers who wanted guidance, a second opinion, or help creating a plan.
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About the Author, Austin L. Church
Austin L. Church is a writer, brand consultant, and freelance coach. He started freelancing in 2009 after finishing his M.A. in Literature and getting laid off from a marketing agency. Freelancing led to mobile apps (Bright Newt), a tech startup (Closeup.fm), a children's book (Grabbling), and a branding studio (Balernum). Austin loves teaching freelancers and consultants how to stack up specific advantages for more income, free time, and fun. He and his wife live with their three children in Knoxville, Tennessee.