When I was running a multiple 7-figure digital marketing agency, I made many mistakes that'd I need to fix.
Many of these "learning lessons" would cost thousands of dollars. However, the experience taught me how to create a better freelance digital marketing agency when it came to results, setting expectations, and working with business owners.
In this article, you'll learn the mistakes I've made and things I did right so you can have success selling marketing services.
Table of Contents
Freelance Digital Marketing Job Description
Freelance digital marketing comprises of a marketer or team of marketers using online strategies and initiatives to move defined key performance indicators (KPIs), including brand engagement, new leads, new customers acquired, lifetime customer value, and referrals.
These freelance digital marketers aren't employees of companies. Instead, they're contractors who provide a defined scope of work that they executed upon often on a retainer or performance-related agreement.
Types of Freelancing in Digital Marketing
Media Buyer (Paid Acquisition)
To have a successful client-freelancer relationship with a focus on media buying, it's important for your client to have existing traffic and blog content to use for content syndication. You also want to have a couple of freelancers working for you, including a copywriter, ad designer, and a video editor.
A team of digital marketing specialists must work together to get landing pages converting well for a media buyer and business owners.
Now, if as a digital marketing freelancer, you're hopping into a new company promising amazing paid acquisition results, then you're setting the wrong expectations. The reason is new companies have poorly defined customer personas (if any at all) and no saved audiences to leverage for remarketing and lookalike audiences.
Content Writer (Technical, Ghostwriting, and Copywriting)
Content writing is one of my specialties. As someone who's done freelance technical writing for blog posts, I've seen the dark and the bright side. The dark side is blog posts and social posts can often be stopped at any point with little repercussion to a company's brand.
On the other hand, the sunk cost for a CEO stopping with a ghostwriter halfway through his book is much higher. He's already invested many hours into it. Take this into consideration when you sell content creation and copywriting services.
As a freelancer, you want to tie in all content to ROI. It's not immune from data as many marketers would want to believe. If you have a strong understanding of SEO and distribution, you can make reasonable estimates for new visitors and users gained from those initiatives.
Public Relations (PR) Coordinator
To some degree, PR also falls under content. However, the underlying piece with a successful PR campaign is relationships. You need relationships with journalists and publications. If you don't have that, then you need to focus solely on creating something worth covering. Now, if you're working with a company whose mission statement makes you snooze, it will be hard to deliver PR results. What you need is an edgy company that triggers emotion with their story and product.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Specialist
I love search engine optimization because it's very black and white. "Here are the number of visitors your competitor gets for this keyword. Here's what you could get if you do it X & Y better than they do." Search engine optimization, though, is only as powerful as the content team on staff unless you're working with a company with lots of brand and blog traffic that's done little SEO effort to date.
Backlinking similar to PR is about creating relationships and - hopefully - leveraging a strong piece of content when doing so. That could mean a controversial or inspiring story. If you have the marketing skills, you can even leverage the company's product or service (if it's backlink worthy) or Chrome extension related to the product in your outreach efforts. Many people use sites like HARO and Ahrefs to identify backlinking opportunities for their clients as well.
Affiliate marketing is another channel that acts synonymously with public relations and backlinking. It comes down to building something that others want to market and handling the outreach methods around it - except for people who want to sell your product, not just write about it. As a freelancer, your job is to find the right affiliate platforms to make that happen, then act as an affiliate success manager to ensure people who choose to promote your product actually do so in the best way.
Few people have the skills to build community whether online or offline. One of the best ways to do this is to empower people on the team you're working with by using ghostwriters and a clear strategy whether that's for growing a Facebook Group, the client's website forum, or a conference.
The size of a social community building opportunity depends on the size of the companies you're working with. For example, a current client of mine (as of writing this post) gets 1,200 new users/day on average. They're looking to grow their Facebook Group. If I point new user traffic there, I can create a 30,000-person Facebook Group in one month. That's insane.
Marketing Automation Specialist
Often many companies can cut their overhead by implementing automation to take care of many tasks they're doing manually from exporting CSVs to creating new Facebook Audiences to conducting webinars. This requires someone who's an expert in ideally Zapier, Segment, and a marketing automation tool that acts as an API connector like Autopilot. Knowing those three tools will give you a deadly skill set.
B2B Demand Specialist
One of the most in-demand roles is a B2B demand specialist. The reason is if you're good that means you're bringing in leads worth $5,000/month to even $20,000/month. I want to reiterate the "if you're good" part. Because of the longer sales cycle that comes with B2B leads, it requires many precise messages, minimal variables in automation, and often more hands-on transactions with passing leads through the client's funnel - and that's hard to excecute.
Engineering as Marketing Specialist
If you're good at most of the above job descriptions, you can demand to work on more technical projects that require knowledge of multiple marketing verticals. An example of an "engineering as marketing" project is building a Chrome extension that ties into an existing product as a way to increase demand generation. A Chrome extension is essentially a product in of its own so you must understand everything from content marketing, SEO, PR, to even media buying if you want to get it traction.
How to Scale Freelance Digital Marketing
If you want to scale your freelance digital marketing efforts, you need to learn to hire and lead. They're both very different skills.
When it comes to hiring, there are many platforms you can find freelancers on, including Freelancer and Upwork. In this example, I will be showing you how it works with Upwork.
The good news is these hiring platforms like Upwork specialize in taking the hard parts out of hiring. They do this by giving you past reviews and example projects of what these freelancers have worked on before.
Notice how this applicant freelancer listed her relevant work. This gives me a clear direction on whether she's competent to produce similar results.
Often, they'll attach a cover letter as well. Here, I like to see if they have a passion for the project and other relevant experience not listed in their work portfolio. For example, in the cover letter below, I see a lot of things I like including that the person completed a Proofreading course and loves fantasy. These are two important attributes if I want them to work on a writing software company.
Now, I dig in further and I notice they've had many jobs via Upwork. That means they're an experienced freelancer who knows how to set expectations.
Before you press the button on hiring them, let's dive into how to create a sharp scope of work so you're firing on all cylinders effectively.
Example: Hiring Freelance Content Writers
When I'm interested in hiring freelance content writers, I keep the job description minimal because I know EXACTLY what I'm looking for.
Note: The easiest way to lose money building a freelance digital marketing business is contracting other freelancers on assumptions rather than clarity and proven processes.
Notice in the job description below, I give the freelancers the keywords I'm optimizing for and headlines. This way they have some idea of the post layout. Next, I give them an example of excellence I'm looking to replicate. As a result, there should be no confusion on whether the freelancer can do this job or not.
I keep a low fixed cost on the assignment because if the job description is exact and someone 1) understands the scope of work 2) can do it, then 3) there's no reason I shouldn't be able to hire them at a relatively inexpensive cost. To that end, the more you specialize each piece of the process to a freelancer, the less it will cost you.
Most agencies will charge you $400 - $700 per an 800-word blog post. It costs me only $50/piece for the same level quality with an extra 1,200 words. If you're in a less saturated market, though, it can often be more expensive to pay freelancers to write content because there's a small market of them to do so on your provided topics. The good news is you can create many content outlines from "case study interviews" to "top tool lists" to give them a headstart. This way you don't need to pay the full bill for industry expertise.
In order to limit your costs, you want to limit the scope of work for everyone you hire. In this case, the person who creates the text outline for the blog post infographic isn't the same person who wrote the blog post. I do this because 1) it enables me to always know what project a freelancer is working on 2) get more ideas from just one person on a critical piece of content. As you'll notice, the scope is clearly laid out with examples and I even note "add more ideas than what's in the blog post."
Then I show them a finished example of an outline that's been turned into an infographic. This way everything is cut and dry. There's no room for guessing.
The last part is setting reasonable deadlines for their work. It's often hard to know until you start with the digital marketing freelancer you hire. The reason is they can be working on multiple clients and you're just one of many projects. I always believe it's best to do some of the work yourself before handing it off - that will give you the best idea of an expected execution timeline.
If you like the person after a few projects, then invite them to Slack and introduce them to the team. You want to make sure they do good work and are committed to your cause before you get them deeper involved.
Once you include them in Slack, introduce them to the general channel so other team members can get to know them.
Example: Hiring Freelance Graphic Designers
When you're hiring freelance designers, setting forth a clear scope of work and ensuring they have example outputs is just as important.
In this job description below, I'm hiring an infographic designer. I give them the notes for the infographic and an example infographic. This way there's no confusion. If they produce one solid infographic, then I'll hire them to do another.
If the digital marketing freelancer keeps producing quality content, then I might move the contract from one infographic to eventually 10 or 20 infographics at a time. This way they know there's consistent work coming from me, which makes me their number one priority among their clients.
Once again, if they produce enough quality work - invite them to Slack and get them to feel a part of the team.
Example: Hiring for B2B Digital Marketers
To scale a freelance digital marketing team, you'll often dive into different areas to see where you can best fit to get clients results. For me, one of those fits involved B2B lead generation.
As I began to understand the hiring for B2B lead generation, I quickly realized how hard it is. The good news is by reading through profiles, you can find that gem. For me, that gem came on a job post asking for a freelancer to respond to LinkedIn messages.
I noticed this person had experience in SaaS, business development, and customer success. The chances are because of her background in customer success and biz dev., she knew good English. Moreover, her background in SaaS meant she knew more technical terms, which would help because I work mostly with clients who have software companies.
Because of her background in technology, she was quick to learn HubSpot and the marketing automation setup I implement for clients. The downside is she cost twice as much as everyone else who applied, but it didn't matter because the upside was so much bigger. That included knowing that this was a person who could eventually replace me on client calls. Maybe even handle a client entirely by herself. It's rare to find those people. Once you do, you better keep them close.
Once the freelancer does an excellent job with one client, sometimes you just need to say, "Do the same process for John as you're doing for Jason." That's when your work has been officially handed-off.
To give her a head start in understanding the B2B lead generation process and automation, I documented it in a book for her to read. Then I launched the book on Product Hunt which gave me the clients to provide her with. That's what I call a "strong ecosystem play."
In some sense, every time I launch a book on Product Hunt, I'm giving away the playbook to outsource the work I do to other freelancers. It's one of the most underrated strategies for building your freelance digital marketing business.
My Favorites Tools to Organize a Digital Marketing Strategy
It's the best communication channel to sync with all your clients who probably also use Slack. Moreover, it's fantastic for managing your own team.
It's an advanced version of Google Sheets that allows you to do incredible things. Here's an example content calendar I've created and have used for teams.
I'd recommend checking out the templates they already offer. That alone can help you fill in a lot of your organizational gaps without the hard work of starting from scratch.
Loom allows you to share video recordings instantly with your team. This works wonders when you're sending over instructions via Slack or Upwork.
Logitech C922x Pro Stream Webcam
If you're going to record video or jump on video calls with clients, then you want to look good when doing it. It makes a big difference. When it comes to your work, the quality of anything is the quality of everything. This is the webcam I used in the Loom video above. You can get it here.
If you're presenting to a client or screen sharing to walk your freelance team through a project's scope, then you want to rely on Zoom video. There's a reason this company is valued at over a billion dollars. It's because the technology works and never fails (at least for me). I include my Zoom link in my Calendly requests when booking time with clients or freelancers.
Calendly makes booking time with freelancers and clients much easier. It prevents the back and forth. Moreover, I can simply set my Zoom link in my Calendly setup and I'm ready to go. It's also a great tool if you're working with clients on lead generation campaigns to set up booked calls with prospects.
Calendly also allows you to insert times directly into your email.
It's simple and saves hours.
Google Slides for Reporting
Google Slides make for easy reporting with your clients. Sure, you can use super fancy software, but for the most part, your clients only care about ROI. Here's an example slide deck I've used with clients before. Feel free to swipe it.
Now, if you do want to get fancier, I recommend Google Data Studio. For me, I include the Google Data Studio screenshot in my slides.
Google Data Studio for More Fancy Reporting
Google Data Studio isn't the easiest tool to learn. I recommend taking a couple of Udemy classes to catch up to speed. It's worth it. The reason is there's so much you can do with automated reporting - plus it makes the work you're doing look good visually.
You can also embed these reports into your Google Slide decks and blog posts. This way you only need to hit refresh for new data to appear.
My Favorite Tools to Execute a Digital Marketing Campaign
I love the SEO tool, Ahrefs. It's one of the reasons I'm writing this article because I found an opportunity to rank for "freelance digital marketing."
I've found 100K/month organic result opportunities using Ahrefs. They have everything I need and more. Ahrefs helps keep track of all my client keyword rankings and gives me the opportunity to create a competitive keyword strategy to crush any of my client's competitors.
For most infographic and social media images, Canva does wonders. I create templates in Canva for my team of freelance digital marketers to use in order to add flavor to blogs and social postings. Google likes to see images in blog posts as well that are optimized properly.
Lumen5 is a quick and fast way to create engaging videos for ads and social media without diving into a complex video editor. It enables anyone to feel like a video editing professional. Similar to how Canva enables anyone to feel like a social media designer.
Phantombuster is my #1 tool for digital marketing freelancers. It gives you the "growth hacker" in growth hacker marketing. It's a platform of APIs for scraping and enriching data for the many different outreach projects you may take on. You can even pull LinkedIn profile images at scale while retrieving emails and profile data. Just take a look at the screenshot below.
Phantombuster also has APIs for Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and even Angellist. This tool is a digital marketing freelancer's playground.
GrowthLead is the number one LinkedIn automation tool for prospecting. With an individual server for each account, it will keep you well below LinkedIn's radar. GrowthLead connects with Zapier, does follow-up messaging, custom exporting based on prospect actions, and provides a dashboard for analytics. It's a powerful tool that I use almost every day whether for clients or testing new B2B copy. If you're doing B2B prospecting, it's a must-have. Morever, they're coming out with new updates almost every month.
If you're looking to remove manual work from what you do for clients, then you need a deep understanding of Zapier. Zapier can connect LinkedIn prospecting campaigns to Facebook and LinkedIn ads while populating your CRM. The choices of what to automate with Zapier are limitless.
If you're working with a lot of data, you need Mixpanel to help you understand how to segment users into proper cohorts and events. This way you can better analyze your product or service's retention. Moreover, Mixpanel syncs with Zapier, which means you can automate users and customers getting added and removed to and from ad marketing campaigns. You can also automate Tweeting @ users when they complete defined events in their customer journey.
Autopilot is my favorite email marketing software because it acts as a connector similar to Zapier while providing you the ability to create robust customer journeys.
I use Lemlist to send out automated sales email sequences that are customized with people’s names on pictures and even videos.
The extra personalization leads to better reply rates and click-through rates.
My favorite part about the tool is this extra personalization only takes a minute to setup. The ROI on your time is worth it.
Dux-Soup Turbo enables you to do a crazy amount of LinkedIn automation from visiting profiles to sending connection requests. You can change the intervals between automated actions to your liking as well. My favorite feature is that it finds the emails of almost any LinkedIn profile. This feature is enhanced by the fact that Dux-Soup Turbo syncs with Zapier. This means you can automate finding emails, then send them email sequences at the same time.
How to Create a Social Media Marketing Proposal
I have my proposals written in Google Docs that I then send via HelloSign as PDFs. This makes it easier to change up the proposal. You can also use PandaDoc, which makes changing proposals on the fly much easier. To make sure these proposals, get signed here are five key steps that will help make it happen:
1. Talk numbers, not sales copy
One of the big mistakes I made early on was making my proposals too long by including a lot of fancy copy about who I am and what I do. The prospect doesn't care. All they want to know is what you can do for them. Instead, show that you listened on your sales call by defining the scope of work very carefully.
2. Have a legal section but don't make it pressing
In freelance digital marketing, there's little you can do about clients when they don't pay you - that means taking them to court or finding another way to recoup lost funds. The reason is your opportunity cost on time is high and you don't want to take a company to court that can afford a much better lawyer than you.
Most importantly, you don't want to create a reputation of taking clients to court while burn a referral bridge - no matter how bad you want to do it.
Having a legal section is a lot of putting on a front. In relation, don't make it too long to where it scares off the client, but keep it long enough to show you're a professional.
3. Create a monthly breakdown of costs
By having a monthly breakdown of costs, it helps to deescalate the commitment from a big one-time fee. It's important that the client feels like they can take baby steps to build a working relationship with you.
4. Define the scope of work clearly
In your scope of work, you should include everything from software costs to hiring contractors to help you. Make sure the client knows about every resource involved. The last thing you want is your prospects having questions in the back of their mind after they already read the contract. I like to say it's better to be too trasnparent than not transparent enough.
5. Explain the R.O.I clearly
Here's an example:
With 10,000 additional organic visitors/month starting in three months, I expect 1/30 to start a free trial. From these visitors, I expect a higher lifetime value than the average at $36/dollar a customer. That's an additional $12,000/month in revenue totaling $144,000/year in revenue.
Payback period on services @ $7,000/month for three months is at 5 months. This revenue is reoccurring. That means in two years and three months, you will have made from a $21,000 investment an additional $267,000 in revenue.
What I've learned: The best clients will ask for the most in-depth proposals. The reason is they're taking the work you're doing seriously. The more in-depth you go (to an extent), the more likely they'll hire you.
How to Charge as a Digital Marketing Freelancer
For the most part, you should opt to do retainer work for clients. Large clients don't like results-based payment proposals because it means there's more to figure out. They want to keep the payment simple and know what to expect.
Results-based work can also appear as a desperation to land clients. And no one hires digital marketing freelancers who are desperate. With that said, results-based work makes sense if you understand a business model in its entirety and the client doesn't have a high budget to pay for your retainer. At this point, you may feel comfortable enough with your ability to drive results for this business model that opting for results-based makes more sense. This is rarely the case, though.
The last piece: avoid handling payments through your client's preferred payment method. The reason is one client may want to use Bill.com, another PayPal, and the last may want to do a wire transfer. Make this point known to them and get them to feel empathetic to your pain. Explain that time wasted on dealing with payment systems is the same time you're not executing for them.
With that said, I use a Typeform asking for credit details, which is connected to my Stripe account. Sometimes I'll include the link in the HelloSign follow-up email or I'll use Calendly's integration with Stripe and skip using Typeform entirely. With Calendly's integration, the client will be required to pay when setting up a time for the kick-off call. Take a look:
How to Keep Improving Your Skillset
If you're looking to improve your skillset while working with clients and can't necessarily guarantee R.O.I, then charge less. It's that simple.
Use this opportunity to overdeliver on your cost, then ask for a referral who you can then charge more. Only do this if you've created a replicable process to delivering value with this new skill set.
Develop a Sales Channel for New Client Acquisition
In freelance digital marketing, having a sales channel for new client acquisition means landing the clients you want to work with.
To land these ideal clients, you need relevant content and case studies that appeal to them. For example, if you're doing outreach to B2C founders of fast-growing tech startups, then you want a case study of working with one in a similar capacity, and ideally, several people who can vouch for you as referrals. This credibility takes time to build but is well worth it.
An example of a case study in action is how I began working with MaintainX. I walked them through all the data from my company, Squibler. I said, "I managed the growth for this, would you like something similar?"
At the end of the day, we all need to work whether from boredom or to make a living. So if you're going to work, you might as well do it with people you enjoy hanging out with - that's why the founders of MaintainX are also close friends.
How do you get those initial people on board as referrals and customers, though? This can from helping people for free or even doing one-off projects at a lower cost. This is called paying your dues. If you want to break into a new industry, you often have to do it.
The other workaround, which I did - do it for yourself. For example, I help B2C companies build Facebook Groups because I built one for myself. In addition, I help B2C software companies with content marketing because I've taken multiple blogs to 100K/visitors month and built my own B2C software. For example, I walked
If you're looking for a strong outbound channel to leverage your case studies and content, I wrote an entire eBook on the process here. This should give you a huge head start in landing a few clients.
Create a System for Client Retention
In freelance digital marketing, you have to set the right expectations from the first conversation. It doesn't matter if it's a sales conversation or you just met the person at a party. If you don't deliver on what you promised, they won't just dislike the service but they'll refer to you as a lier among their network. Don't put yourself in that position.
One of the biggest hurdles to client retention is when you start having someone else handle sales calls. I can't count the number of times I've heard, "Well, John told me this on the sales call and that's not what you're doing." This hurts. It makes you feel like they should've never paid you.
When it comes to client retention, it's important to go above and beyond but not set the expectation that going above and beyond every single day is your new standard. We're all human and can only do so much. For example, I'll fly out to another city to kick-off with a client in person. Then I'll fly out quarterly to meet with them. It's just as much fun as it for them as it is for me. Moreover, it doesn't set any crazy expectations.
The little things matter, too. For example, when January was coming around, I worked with a videographer to turn all my client's Instagram photos into beautiful year-in-review recaps completely pro bono.
It cost me $200 per client but guaranteed me another two months working with them. That's high R.O.I.
I've never seen my clients so happy before. This small gesture made them feel like I was truly invested in the company's growth and culture.
Focus on Referrals and Testimonials
The fastest way to lose a referral or testimonial is to keep a client on when they don't need to be working with you. For example, if the scope of work changes outside of your expertise, then make a suggestion of another freelancer who can solve that problem.
I've seen far too many freelancers do good work for clients over a long period, then unnecessarily push to keep them on one more month. As a result, they lose their client's trust and any future referrals. Don't be that digital marketing freelancer.
Instead, lead your client in the right direction and then ask for the testimonial and referral. I prefer asking for the testimonial first, then agreeing on what numbers I can share with prospects in the testimonial.
After they provide the testimonial, I ask for a referral. At this stage, the client is more likely to provide it to keep a congruent behavior. Jumping back, I ask for the testimonial first because it's an evergreen piece of content to leverage for new prospects. This is far more valuable than referral who might convert into a client.
Scale Your Time
If you're looking to work with many clients or even bootstrap a startup, you need people who work for you that you can trust and will help scale your time. That means having freelancers managing other freelancers in a place that's visible to you like Slack.
In this situation, your job as the primary digital marketing freelancer should be business development, retention, customer service, and refining services.
To keep doing business development, you need processes in place you can hand-off to freelancers. And, of course, trust. Without trusting the people around you to execute, you'll never scale a team.
Avoid Fix Costs
It pains me to write this section because I've lost thousands of dollars making the mistake of choosing fixed costs over variable costs. With freelance digital marketing, things change fast whether that's Facebook's or LinkedIn's algorithm or even your client's needs and budget. As a result, your income flow can change drastically month to month.
To reduce the pain that happens from variance in income, you need to limit your fixed costs. That means keeping a remote team over having an office, ensuring you hire people on contract rather than making them employees, and lastly, bartering to keep software costs low. Sometimes writing a blog post about a piece of software is enough to get it for free and save you $1,000/year.
Niche Down & Develop Your Reputation Accordingly
The last, but often most overlooked step is niching down. If you want to be everything to everyone, then you're playing a losing game. You rather be something to someone where they know what you stand for. This requires having a clear value proposition and niche.
Don't be the one-stop shop that does whatever a client asks. Pick something specific and brand yourself as the best with testimonials and referrals. This will attract the right audience for you and give you a never-ending source of leads. I also recommend avoiding even a small overlap. A great example is the ghostwriting company, Scribe Media.
Scribe Media could also write blog posts and do search engine optimization for content, but they choose not to. Instead, their focus is purely on ghostwriting books, then promoting them - that's it. By narrowing down, they solidified themselves as the best in the business.
There's a lot of material in this blog post on how to become successful in freelance digital marketing. But if there's one main takeaway, it's this: be honest. Honesty has taken me much further in my freelance digital marketing career than anything else. It will keep you learning more, attract the right clients to work with you and keep your clients on board.
At the same time, you'll see others making money from dishonest tactics, strategies, and you may even feel a need to do the same - don't. Stay to your lane of delivering value and setting the right expectations. In the long run, it will take you much further than you can even imagine.