The Future of Freelance: Finding Work on the World Wide Web

Dec 26, 2011


      Bookmark and Share

BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Article ImageFrom an outsider's perspective, being a professional freelance writer may seem like the dream job. After all, you can make your own hours, work from the comfort of home (or from your local Starbucks), and handpick which projects you want to pursue based on your level of expertise or interest. Those who are active in the field know this is far from true. For many freelancers, finding a job that appropriately compensates their level of skill, and relaying that job into a steady gig takes patience, perseverance, and a whole lot of practice writing query letters.

But there's good news for freelancers. The market is changing. Elance, an online work platform, found in its 2011 Online Employment Review that, for its site, online work flourished in 2011, with 650,000 new jobs posted, and cumulative earnings set to surpass $500 million. As Ved Sinha, Elance's VP of interactive marketing, explains, "What this growth rate reflects is that businesses are looking online to get instant access to talent. The number of businesses hiring and the number of online professionals on Elance grew more than 120%. That gives you a sense of where we see the freelance world turning online."

If more and more businesses do indeed start tuning to online hiring to meet their employment needs, freelancers may have to rethink their traditional tactics, and learn how to adopt new strategies in order to survive in the increasingly competitive market. 

Navigating the Freelance Waters

As with many industries, the internet has opened a whole new world of opportunity for freelancers. Websites that are devoted to helping freelancers find work such as Elance.com and oDesk.com have been popping up all over the place for the past few years, and are giving freelancers access to a database of jobs and networks. But the internet has produced its share of challenges for freelancers as well. Professionals who choose to utilize sites like Elance and Guru.com often find themselves bidding against other writers for work, and sometimes must lower their fees in order to land a job.

Then there are those other websites known as content farms, which publish large amounts of inexpensive, often low-quality content to generate search engine traffic, that often only hire freelancers who are willing to accept very little money for their effort, and thus make it difficult to make ends meet from their craft.

Nicole Miller, freelancer and author of Outsourcing Through RentACoder, says that "for the most part, content hunters are attracted to that price knowing they have to improve the quality that comes from it. That's bad. What's good is that Google's new Panda program will displace these exploitative content mills, and transition the source of quality, informative writing back to the people who can provide it." But even months after the launch of Google's Panda algorithm, an update that aimed to weed content farmers out of top search results by rewarding sites with original content rather than aggregated content, many freelancers are still faced with the same issue.

Professional freelancer and owner and operator of Drop Edge of Yonder Freelance, Bradi C. Roberts, explains, "The biggest challenge I had was finding jobs that paid anything resembling adequate compensation for the work required. This is especially true for writing jobs. In my experience, most native English speakers from North America lose out on writing jobs to Filipino and Indian ESL writers who can charge much lower rates due to the significant difference in the average cost of living between those countries. I found myself severely underbidding on jobs just to stay competitive with ESL writers."

Even moving away from these bid-based sites can cause issues for freelancers. Freelance writer and co-founder of EnhancedFreelance.com, Thursday Bram, notes that "the type of clients who use Elance are generally more concerned with budget than results. It's rare to convert a client from a bid site into someone you work with elsewhere, especially since many sites actually prohibit freelancers from doing so."

So what is a freelancer to do?

There Are Options

Websites like MediaCooler, and to a degree, even Elance, approach the freelance problem from a different angle. MediaCooler is a platform that allows journalists to showcase and sell their new or previously published features and columns to global publications. "Journalists sign up and are vetted by our editor. Once approved, they can quickly submit their articles onto the site. They set the selling price and retain copyright to their work, which is quite different from what other sites are offering. Publishers sign up for free, browse and buy the articles they need a-la-carte," says MediaCooler co-founder and CEO, Alison Yesilcimen.

Elance, besides just letting freelancers bid on work, allows business owners to peruse a database of professionals and invite the right worker into a contract. In addition, freelancers have the option of a site like SpotUs, which was acquired by American Public Media is November of 2011. SpotUs puts the responsibility of hiring freelancers in the hands of the community, as it allows the public to fund journalistic projects they deem important. "The public now has the ability to be the editor-in-chief collectively," says SpotUs founder, David Cohn.

With all of these sites to juggle, many freelancers now find themselves having to double as salesmen as well. "I think the biggest challenge for freelancers today is the supply and demand of content," says Yesilcimen. "High supply drives down the price you can charge for your content.  I have seen a lot of freelancers start to specialize their writing and then diligently market themselves as the expert in that category."  Elance's Sinh agrees, saying, "Certainly there are many more people who are looking for the same work. How you differentiate yourself and what are your unique selling points becomes more important. What is your brand? How are you different? That becomes critical."

For freelancers looking to find work and support themselves through bid-based sites, the only answer is to raise their rates and hold out for the right job, a technique that often produces mixed results. Thursday Bram notes that "Oddly enough, while I started out pricing my work fairly low, every time I've raised my rates I've actually gotten more work. I'm not the only freelancer to experience this phenomenon. After conversations with clients, the reasoning is fairly simple to understand: a freelancer doesn't charge rates that she can't expect to get, generally speaking. As long as the freelancer in question has a good reputation, a raise in rates signals that there's demand for her work."

This tactic may not work for all freelancers. Miller says, "I'm not confident many writers will admit that a higher rate actually decreases work opportunities. I've heard writers claim on more than one occasion that increased rates attract more work for them, but that hasn't been my experience at all."

No matter which avenue a freelancer pursues, they must first make sure their choice is trustworthy. "Freelancers should be wary if they have to pay to subscribe to a site," says Yesilcimen. "They should do some due diligence on who is running the company and how long they've been around. Do they have the domain expertise to help the freelancer succeed?"

Some Things Never Change

Whether the current proliferation of freelance websites has changed the freelance market for the better is yet to be determined, but some, like Elance's Sinh, believe that once you try out an online hiring site, the benefits for businesses and freelancers alike are hard to ignore. "As a business, you can hire someone very flexibly. It is more cost effective. You have access to a pool of talent not just in your local area, but across the country and across the world. I would say that it is opening up more opportunities than you would have had. Now you have access to just work through people you know or the local area, the flip side of businesses hiring across the world, you have access to clients from across the world."

Even with this widened breadth of opportunity, some aspects of the freelance process haven't changed. While some online hiring websites may help novice freelancers get their name out into the world, they are not a long term solution; most successful freelancers still build their careers through marketing and client referrals. As Bram says, "The long-term strategy differs from freelancer to freelancer. For some, building on-going relationships with editors is a great option. Personally, I created packages based on my services that appealed to small business owners and marketed with them in mind. It really depends on what type of work a freelancer wants to do. After all, if someone wants to focus on writing copy, few editors are going to have a lot of work available consistently. With most options, though, marketing and getting referrals are key." Cohn from SpotUs, agrees. "I think that in a lot of ways, freelancing is still very antiquated. It is a little bit faster, but it is still one to one communication, and it still happens behind closed doors. And it still relies on who you know."

One thing is for sure though, with the added pressure of now having to juggle all the different online venues to find work, being a freelancer is no cake walk. "I think people picture just sleeping in, doing whatever you want, because you are a freelancer and you can work whenever, but it a fulltime job if you really want to do it," says Cohn. "If you really want to make a living doing it, it requires a lot of work."