Get your first digital marketing clients: I tested these 5 tactics


My freelance journey began many years ago in the sweltering heat of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a long time before I wondered how to get clients for digital marketing services.

After a semester abroad, I decided to extend my stay and embark on an internship. As someone accustomed to the cold of the north, waking up to the blazing sunshine every morning was a delightful shock to my system.

Driven by a thirst for adventure, I learned that one could earn a living using the internet. When I discovered online freelance platforms and a course on programming, my brain exploded with possibilities.

After nervously earning my first few dollars slaving away with shitty custom WordPress website tweaks, I realized it made no sense for me to get into coding when I had a degree in marketing.

I jumped on the chance to improve my marketing skills with more online classes, only to find that they were scammy and wanted us to be aggressive and unethical. Not what I had expected.

But let’s fast forward nearly a decade…

I’m a seasoned digital marketer and I’ve worked with digital marketing freelance clients when relevant, heck, I’ve even lived off of it for a few years.

The confusing thing about how to get clients for digital marketing services is not that there isn’t any information on the subject. Rather, there’s too much and lots of it is conflicting. Some say you should mass-spam emails, others swear by Upwork, while a third says blogging and posting on LinkedIn worked for them.

Over the years I’ve landed clients from nearly every popular channel out there, which suggests that all the tactics you’ve seen work to some capacity. 

That begs the question: how do you decide what to listen to and where to get your first client?

To simplify this, I’m sharing the best approach I’ve found to land your first few clients as an experienced digital marketer, quickly, and without coming across as a sleazy salesman.

If you’re brand new to the digital marketing field, this guide isn’t the best place to start as I don’t cover learning marketing skills. This approach also won’t be a good fit if you work at an agency and are looking for a scalable approach to land clients.

Before we dive into the six steps on how to get clients for digital marketing, I’d like to show you the popular tactics I’ve experimented with and why they work but aren’t as good a fit when you’re first starting out freelancing. I figure knowing what to steer clear of will save you time when you’re in the trenches.

If you’d like to skip ahead and go directly to the steps on how to get your first clients for digital marketing services, you’ll find the table of contents below to navigate there.

The landscape: 5 tactics to get clients for digital marketing services

Let’s explore five field-tested tactics on how to get clients for digital marketing services that have proven to be effective. They are:

  1. Upwork
  2. Personalized emails
  3. Paid ads
  4. Social media, blogging, SEO, and Facebook groups
  5. Offline referrals and networking events

I’ve grouped some tactics together due to their similarities in either implementation or results. The first two tactics are particularly similar, so I’ve cataloged additional data in order to compare them directly.

Many other tactics don’t lend themselves to such a systematic breakdown so the format will vary depending on the tactic.

Let’s dive into the Upwork experiment first.

1. The $8,988-Upwork experiment to get digital marketing clients

I kicked off this experiment from scratch without any existing clients, positive reviews, or anything else that could give me an advantage on the platform. For a period of five months, I dedicated about 40 hours per week to this experiment.

To give you an idea of how things progressed, here’s a snapshot of my Upwork profile after the experiment:

You might notice that the screenshot suggests an hourly rate of $75, but during the experiment, I was offering services for $50/h, before increasing them later.

The profile also displays ‘$10K+ earned,’ but that’s not entirely accurate since I captured the screenshot after securing a couple more projects following the experiment. In reality, my total earnings amounted to $8,988 before fees.

That comes out to $1,797/month during the experiment. Not bad if you’ve never freelanced before, but a struggle to live off of since it was pre-tax earnings.

The type of projects I worked on were online marketing tasks like running ads, configuring email software, and building sales funnels.

From research, I knew that many freelancers on Upwork send copy-paste proposals like this one:

How to get clients for digital marketing - bad upwork cover letter example

Sometimes, they even copy-paste different sections of the project description and send that back as a proposal.

“It’s a numbers game” as they say. 

To stand out from the crowd, I picked fewer projects to apply for and instead wrote in-depth proposals to impress potential clients. On average, I spent an hour on each one.

In the past, Upwork had a fun way of moving the cover letter and questions around before sending it to the client

We can break the process down into these four steps:

  1. Send a message with ideas to feel out how serious the lead is
  2. Discuss the project on the phone
  3. Send a proposal
  4. Begin the project

Sometimes, a potential client would want to jump on a call right away (or not at all), and in those cases, I followed whatever they preferred to make it convenient for them.

As I became better at filtering through available projects, I discovered that there often weren’t that many available at any given time. The best approach ended up being to send out a few proposals out every single day: 2.7 proposals per day on average to be exact.

It’s also important to mention the Upwork fees since they can be confusing. During the experiment, my average Upwork fee came out to about $114 per project. At the time of the experiment, Upwork took:

  • 20% of the first $500 per client 
  • 10% of the remaining project fee up to $10,000
  • 5% of anything above $10,000

For simplicity, I’ve included the bank transfer fees from Upwork to my bank account within the “total fees” in the data. 

Now, let’s dive into the important stuff.

The approach of writing detailed proposals to grab potential clients’ attention worked well for me, and I managed to land about 22% of all the projects I applied for.

To better understand where I fell short compared to other freelancers, I tracked all the projects I applied for, who was hired (if any at all), and what their rate was if it was visible.

To my surprise, competing with freelancers charging less wasn’t an issue. The biggest time-waster turned out to be that about half of all the jobs I applied for, never got filled (or the clients hired someone off of Upwork).

Here’s the breakdown for your reference:

In cases where they hired someone else, that freelancer often offered a lower rate either hourly or project-based. But, overall, I still managed to secure more projects than those with a lower rate.

Once I figured out how to get the attention of clients, landing projects wasn’t the biggest challenge. Rather, it was finding enough clients at a size that could pay the bills.

Early on, I managed to expand one project from the initial $500 to roughly $5,000. It was a great win and accounted for 56% of my earnings during the experiment. I worked hard to find similar clients or expand the scope of work with existing ones during the rest of the experiment, but it was rare and never worked out to more than a few hundred dollars beyond the initial fee.

The remaining projects were mostly one-offs that took about a week to land and a couple of weeks to complete. Technically, the average project earned me $642, but if we don’t count that one bigger client skewing the results, it came out to $307 before fees.

This meant I got stuck in an endless cycle of constantly pitching new projects just to keep clients coming in. Out of the roughly 800 hours I spent on this experiment, 179 hours were spent on billable work (22%) while the remaining 78% was spent pitching.

I felt like a lion hunting mice, slowly starving to death one client at a time.

I spent 50-75 hours offering free extras to go above and beyond with the clients that had already hired me. I considered this a part of my pitching and marketing strategy since the purpose was to land more work.

Making sure the client leaves a five-star review or keeping a good “Job Success Score” (a metric to judge freelancers by) felt like the end-all-be-all of landing future projects as I could freely compare my profile to competing freelancers.

That led to the occasional refund which I’ve excluded from the data here. It was only a couple of projects and they were small (a few hundred dollars or less), so they didn’t impact my finances much.

The emotional impact is worth mentioning as it almost felt like being held hostage. Clients would get busy and I’d have to follow up several times before they’d leave a review.

Sometimes everything would sound perfect when asking the client for feedback… until you discover that they left a review that wasn’t perfect. 

Check out this example a reader sent me:

To be fair, that isn’t Upwork’s fault but a side-effect of using the platform.

Some websites emphasize that job invites are the holy grail of freelance platforms. I received a few here and there, but I don’t remember a single one being meant just for me. Instead, they were generic, low-quality messages sent to loads of freelancers at once.

Freelance platforms aren’t all a negative experience though. I felt more at ease receiving payments through Upwork because of its automated process of withdrawing the money from the client’s account.

It takes about three to four weeks from earning the money to being able to transfer them from Upwork to your own bank account. I figure they do it to boost their cash flow and to allow for client complaints, but that’s a long time since it doesn’t include the time it takes the banks to process your payment as well.

This isn’t intended as a complaint about freelance platforms, but rather an honest review of what happened when I dedicated all my energy to making it work. I’ve helped several readers land their first clients via Upwork by offering different marketing services, and I’ve seen them running the exact same cycle.

Now that you have a sense of what freelance platforms are like, let’s move on to the next experiment: how to get clients for digital marketing services using email.

2. The $9,190-email experiment: is it possible to get digital marketing clients only using your email and wit?

I bet you’re familiar with spammy mass-emails like this one.

How to get clients for digital marketing - bad outreach email example

I still don’t know what the hell this is about!

How can one use so many words to describe nothing?!

This is an example of what I wasn’t doing during this experiment. Instead, I went in the opposite direction to better connect with the human behind the screen.

Rather than using an autoresponder or copy-pasting emails, I spent about an hour preparing a personal message to each business along with offering to share ideas that could boost their digital marketing performance. That way I could get a sense of their interest before diving deeper to impress them.

One of my biggest concerns with this approach was coming across as spammy, so I wanted to show you that was not the case. 

I only got one negative reply, which is unavoidable, but among 247 businesses, that is less than 1%. I also got amazing responses like:

I was experimenting with using an international name like ‘Chris’ to make it easier for clients to remember.

If they were interested, I sent my ideas and suggested a phone call to get their thoughts. If things seemed promising, I’d follow up with a proposal.

We can break the process down into these five steps:

  1. Send a message to feel out the lead’s interest
  2. Share ideas
  3. Discuss the project on the phone
  4. Send a proposal
  5. Begin the project

Sometimes, a potential client would want to jump on a call right away (or not at all), and in those cases, I followed whatever they preferred to make it convenient for them.

Like the Upwork experiment, I started this one from scratch without any existing clients, low-hanging fruit, or anything else that could give me an advantage. Here, I also experimented over a period of five months, spending about 40 hours per week.

To structure this experiment, I grouped the leads into “buckets” of fifty each. Unlike on Upwork, I could reach out to almost any business I wanted. This felt freeing compared to the limitations I experienced on Upwork, yet paralyzing as I had a nearly unlimited number of options to choose from.

The many hobby projects I encountered on freelance platforms led me to target established businesses during this experiment. I figured they would be more likely to afford my services and they had already proven that their business was viable. Two things that make it easier to do a good job as a digital marketer.

My plan was to land digital marketing clients with the following three buckets:

  1. Offer blog writing services to software businesses in the online marketing industry
  2. Offer blog writing services to 6-7-figure online course creators in the online business and marketing industry
  3. Offering general online marketing and copywriting services to online businesses in the language learning industry

By attempting a few combinations before assessing things, I figured I would be able to compare my data if I didn’t hear back from anyone at all.

I started off offering blog post writing services to software businesses in the online marketing and business industry before switching to targeting 6-7-figure online coaches. I did this because I saw loads of other freelancers doing the same, so I figured it would work. 

It sucked. 

I contacted a hundred businesses and only landed one project of $1,068. I used to help similar clients with blog posts in the past but things seemed to have gotten more competitive.

Fortunately, I found good success helping the language learning industry (my third choice), and I ended up pitching 147 businesses in the space after the initial hundred that didn’t work out in the first two buckets. 

Let’s dive into the data.

With this approach, there were no fees except for transferring the money, so I used Paypal’s fees as an anchor.

After landing one client, I realized that a fellow freelancer would be a better fit for that project, so I connected them and earned a small referral commission. Since I spent time landing the client and earning a fee from the project, I have included that in the data as a referral fee rather than a client landed.

In total, I contacted 247 businesses and 24% responded. Here’s the breakdown:

How to get clients for digital marketing - my email funnel results

That comes out to a conversion rate of 1.6%. On the surface that appears low compared to the typical numbers swung around online, but the difference is that I’ve included the early fails from the two first buckets of leads.

We tend to have to go through some mistakes at first and if I had excluded them, the numbers would’ve looked a lot prettier but it wouldn’t be the real deal.

I ended up spending 167 hours on billable work (21%) out of the total roughly 800 hours while the remaining 79% was spent pitching.

My guesstimate is that I spent 100-150 hours going above and beyond with free work for the clients that had already hired me. Like with Upwork, I categorized it as pitching (marketing) time.

I figured my time would be better spent there since reaching out to businesses with the first email was the most energy intensive.

The average client size came out to $2,780 on average. I found that these clients were more willing to work on multiple projects, so I offered a smaller “starter” project at around a thousand dollars. After that I’d upsell more projects as the clients felt the value for money was good.

On average it took me about 3-4 weeks to land the first project for each client and a month or two to complete.

Overall, this experience was slightly better than with freelance platforms as you can see on the earnings.… 

BUT I’ve saved the best for last!

All three clients wanted more upsells and offered me extra work after the experiment ended, which I didn’t include in the initial data. 

It turned out to be a game changer as I landed an extra $33,829 worth of work from those clients beyond the initial earnings. That took the total earnings to $43,019 without pitching any new clients. In comparison, four Upwork clients came back later with more projects but each one was only worth a few hundred dollars.

I’m sure you’ve forgotten the Upwork numbers by now, so let’s compare the numbers from the first five months of each experiment side-by-side.

The ‘total earnings (after fees)’ is 18% higher with emails but the $1,342 (before tax) doesn’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things.

Landing one client for every four I pitched on freelance platforms sounds sexy compared to the nearly 62 businesses I had to pitch in order to land a client with email (that became less as I honed in on what worked in the language industry though). Despite that, the freedom to approach any business I wanted made all the difference.

Catering to a clientele of hobby projects and the odd business owner, where I could only provide technical marketing help without deep industry knowledge, wasn’t enough to make the so-called ‘freedom’ worth it as I got stuck in the pitching cycle of doom.

The two experiments felt like a trade-off between bigger projects that take longer to land and complete, compared to quicker projects of a smaller size. Kinda like comparing a uniquely specialized expert with a commodity service.

Since I spent 22% and 21% of my time on billable hours on Upwork and via email respectively, I look at that as an investment to getting your freelance business off the ground. The goal for most of us is to eventually shift that to spending 20% on landing new clients and 80% billable hours, anyway.

In the spirit of keeping this honest, there are a few notes I’d like to share.

I ran the Upwork experiment a few years ago before accepting a full-time job while the email experiment was being done about two years later. 

That means that the market and my skills have changed. Especially, my emotional and social skills had grown alongside my mindset. That made me feel less worried about getting rejected and making mistakes. At the same time, my savings account was in slightly better shape during the second experiment and that offered me more stability.

I was also able to use the experience I got through Upwork in the email experiment, so this isn’t a perfectly accurate scientific experiment. 

As we conclude this comparison, let’s look at ads next.

3. Digital ads and spending money to make money

A few years ago, I joined forces with a friend, who was freelancing in the same space, to build an ad funnel that would drive clients for us both.

Fast forward to today, and I wanted to dig up the numbers from that adventure. But Facebook’s ads dashboard had other plans, and the data I cataloged isn’t as detailed as I’d hoped. I guess we’ll have to rely on my slightly fuzzy memory for this one.

Here’s what we managed to gather:

Ad spend$2,294
Cost per lead$327
Timeline~50 days

Now, let’s break it down. Our funnel had the following steps: 

ad funnel example - How to get clients for digital marketing

Our ads looked like this:

We used Clickfunnels for the landing pages, which I don’t have access to anymore. The url in the ad examples goes to a random page that doesn’t have anything to do with the ads.

Now, let’s talk about the big bucks we dropped. 

We spent a grand total of $2,294 over a month and a half, trying our luck in different industries like dental clinics and luxury travel. We did manage to get some leads, but most of them were about as serious as a clown at a funeral. Not exactly the dream clients we had in mind.

I won’t lie to you. Spending nearly $2,300 on a funnel isn’t chump change (if your hourly rate is $50, that’s the equivalent of 46 hours billable hours). It’s not always enough to test your way to a scalable campaign, and in our case, it fell a bit short. We could’ve optimized the campaign, fine-tuned it to bring in better quality leads, more of them, and at a lower cost.

But here’s the twist we realized a bit too late: If we succeeded with this funnel, we would have been swamped with clients, meaning we’d have to hire help or pause the campaign in order to keep up. Since we were just two freelancers, we wouldn’t be able to scale it and take advantage of the initial spending sacrifice we had made.

This approach certainly works, but is better suited for agencies that have dialed in who their best clients are and are able to handle an influx of new clients well.

Let’s not forget the stress of spending your own hard-earned money on ads. It’s like playing a high-stakes poker game with your credit card. You second-guess every move and get worried about spending more when the rewards don’t seem to justify the investment.

4. Social media, blogging, SEO, and FB groups: great if you wanna keep starving

When it comes to landing freelance clients, let’s put blogging, SEO, posting on social media, and even those Facebook groups in the same boat. They all have one thing in common: they require time and patience to build as effective lead generation channels for a new freelancer.

But let’s be honest, they can be a bit of a wild ride. In those Facebook groups, you’ll spend hours searching for the right ones and working hard to make a name for yourself, hoping that eventually, someone will reach out or you’ll stumble upon a post where you can offer your expertise.

The catch is, most high-quality Facebook groups don’t allow shameless self-promotion. So, it’s a long game that I haven’t dabbled in extensively for lead generation. Sure, I tried posting valuable advice related to my services without any self-promotion for a few months, but it didn’t exactly yield the results I was hoping for.

On the other hand, I’ve had much better luck with guest posting on industry-related blogs. Now, I wish I could give you a step-by-step guide to follow, but in my case, it wasn’t that simple.

I poured my heart into writing in-depth articles like this one, or this one, and guess what? 

Some interested people found me on LinkedIn and reached out. Over the course of a couple of years, I landed a few clients through this long-term approach. So, if you’re looking for quick wins, this might not be your ticket.

(Not sure why I was addressed as ‘Christian’ but let’s ignore that for now)

Blogging and SEO is similar in the way that you’ll need to guesstimate which topics and keywords will drive clients along with building backlinks to rank or get exposure.

This is typically a slow process to hone in on what works as well. There are hacks to speed up the process, but it’s hardly worth it compared to your other options when it comes to landing clients fast.

I’ve experimented with driving leads in this way on a number of sites for a few years now and it tends to work well when you want scale. 

The funnel I’ve found to work has been to write about client problems on a blog along with guest posting to get eyeballs, and asking them to sign up for an email list, which is later pitched. On occasion, readers reach out on their own asking for help as well. Nothing earth shattering here.

timeline example of blogging to get clients - how to get clients for digital marketing

But don’t underestimate how long it takes to find and distribute the right type of content that drives interest (the feedback loop is slow compared to with email or freelance marketplaces for example).

It’s worth noting that this approach felt more organic than other funnels. I built it, and then things happened sporadically. Tracking wasn’t as straightforward as with those ad funnels, though.

Overall this is a huge side quest if you’re looking to land your first client.

5. Offline referrals + networking events: effective, but NOT for everyone

Getting friends involved in your freelancing journey can feel intimidating. The good news is that you don’t need to involve everyone you know because, let’s face it, most of them will be irrelevant to your target client base.

Once you have a clear picture of the type of client you’d like to work with, it’s time to strike up conversations with people you know who are working in that industry. 

When they encounter a problem within our field of expertise, they might naturally turn to us for advice. I’ve found that by being genuinely helpful and professional when answering their questions, people often suggest a freelance arrangement themselves.

For example, a friend of mine knew a business that needed assistance with running Facebook ads. We connected, and they actually proposed a freelance engagement. It worked out well and earned me a couple of thousand dollars over the span of a month or two.

It’s hard to track an experiment like this as the clients I’ve gotten with this approach came through random conversations on the phone or offline rather than from your typical performance funnel.

Letting friends know is not something we can script out easily, but we might say that we’ve been working with X for a while and enjoy it when it comes up naturally anyway.

The most effective approach I’ve found is to offer expertise and advice for free. Take the time to understand their problem over lunch, provide them with valuable recommendations they can try out. This can lead to two outcomes: either you solve their problem, become their hero, and they’ll refer you to others when relevant, or they become genuinely interested in hiring you for help.

I’ve received several offers and earned thousands of dollars using this approach because there’s an inherent level of trust established right from the start. Referrals can be highly effective, but it’s critical that you know you’ll be able to do a good job, so you make the person referring you look good.

To incentivize your friends, you can offer them a cut for recommending you. For instance, you can mention that your average project is $1,000 and that you provide a 20% finder’s reward.

With this tactic, you depend on other people to land clients this way, so it isn’t the most effective way to get started as it leaves a lot out of your control.

How to get clients for your digital marketing services: copy my results in 6 steps

When people hear about randomly emailing someone, the first thing that often comes to mind is spam. But, as we’ve seen, that doesn’t have to be the case.

I once had a conversation with a friend who ran an agency that used spammy mass-emails to acquire clients. He admitted that while it did work to some extent, they had to constantly change domains and couldn’t put their name on the emails due to the risk of being flagged as spam. 

He also mentioned that the clients they obtained through spam emails tended to be the most desperate ones (after all, who really responds to a spam email?)

Instead of resorting to spam, I recommend reaching out to businesses within an industry that genuinely excites you. But before you begin, it’s essential to know who you want to help and in what capacity. 

However, that aspect is beyond the scope of this guide.

Once you’re ready to take the first step, you’ll need to overcome the initial awkwardness of reaching out to someone you don’t know, especially when they haven’t posted a job or expressed a need for assistance.

The first thing we tend to think when reaching out to people we don’t know is that we don’t want to come across as needy, desperate, or bother them in general.

Exactly the opposite of this email:

generic outreach email example on how to get digital marketing clients

Getting one of those feels like someone saying “hi stranger, I don’t care about you but here’s why you need to care about me”. 

I’ve found that we often dislike those emails because they are not relevant to us rather than because someone we don’t know reaches out. If you get an email about your dream shoes being on sale, wouldn’t you at least look at it?

As we saw in one of the experiments, I only got one negative email out of 247 strangers I reached out to. Most people respond well to a friendly and thoughtful email. If people reject one of those, it’s on them. Not you. They could just be having a bad day.

If the people you’re reaching out to do have a challenge you can help them with, I bet they’ll be excited that you reached out with a message that was clearly meant for them because it happens so rarely.

I was nervous the first few times I pitched my services, but thinking about it this way helped me overcome the fear.

Next, let’s get started pitching some clients!

Step 1: work only with the best leads

I once had a job as a phone salesman and I had to call random lists of businesses every day. Most of them were irrelevant, so there was a lot of time wasted. To avoid that, we freelancers benefit from qualifying our leads first.

I suggest searching online for fifty leads to get started with. If you’d rather move forward right away, feel free to do so after finding a few and come back for more later. Keep in mind that if you’re struggling to find fifty leads with similar characteristics, you might have chosen a group of businesses that are too small.

I like to keep things simple and just log the business’ URL in a spreadsheet along with the name of the person you’d like to reach out to and their email. To find their email address, I use tools like or, or in some cases, I’ll attempt to guess it if I can’t find it elsewhere.

lead generation spreadsheet example

Next, I prefer to qualify leads based on whether I can establish a human connection with them or not. Targeting individuals who have some visibility online makes it easier to find common ground. 

You can start by looking for interviews they’ve done or interesting projects their business is working on. Initially, it’s often easier to establish a connection with individuals who have higher visibility (excluding CEOs of huge corporations or famous people).

You’ll come across many people and businesses with limited online presence that requires you to get more creative when reaching out to them. I’ve noticed that people tend to either have a significant number of interviews or none at all, so a quick Google search can often reveal if you’ll be able to get to know them before reaching out.

It’s also worth determining if the leads are newly established brands with limited financial resources or if they have the ability to pay for your services.

Here are a few creative ways to do this:

  • Use to detect if they use WordPress or other (paid) plugins or marketing tools (i.e. are they using premium tools or free alternatives?)
  • Use SEMrush or Ahrefs to check their search traffic
  • Use Facebook or Tiktok’s ad library to see if they’re running ads
  • Use Crunchbase to see if they’ve received funding
  • Find the number of customer reviews they’ve got to get a sense of how many customers they’ve had (if you know that 5% of customers leave a review, you can guesstimate the number of customers i.e. 1000 reviews / 0.05 conversion rate = 20,000 customers )

The idea isn’t to perfectly judge the size of the business, but just weed out the smallest ones who aren’t able to afford your services.

When you’ve gathered a list of leads, you can move on to the second step.

Step 2: the professional mind reader

Speaking of human connection, it’s important to understand the specific problem you’re helping your leads solve and how it benefits them. 

Often, we tend to jump to conclusions, assuming that businesses want more sales or to cut costs. While most businesses would agree to those goals, asking them directly about their needs can uncover more nuanced answers that can be valuable when impressing clients from the start.

For example, let’s consider a scenario where you’re targeting marketers in SAAS tech startups. Instead of assuming they want more sales, you dig deeper and discover that they feel pressure to drive growth at all cost, even if it’s by depending on paid ads to drive sales.

This insight presents an opportunity for you to provide assistance in addressing their specific challenges.

To make things easier, consider targeting businesses you already have experience with and you’ll have a better understanding of their unique problems. If you have friends or acquaintances working in this industry, taking them out for coffee and discussing their challenges can provide good insights, too.

In the past, I have suggested reaching out to a few leads without selling anything and simply listening to them talk about their problems. This approach has proven effective for me, although I’ve noticed that many readers like to skip this step. 

Another alternative is to listen to interviews featuring your leads to identify if they share any of the challenges you haven’t uncovered already.

These interviews serve a dual purpose: finding common ground when reaching out and gathering insights into your leads’ specific issues. 

But the effectiveness of the interviews depends on the interviewer’s skill and the purpose of the interview. In my experience, interviews conducted by large media companies tend to be generic and less useful, whereas long-form podcasts often provide highly effective information.

Step 3: qualify leads without being salesy

Now that you have a good sense of who the leads are, their challenges, and that they can pay for your services, let’s reach out to see if this is a good time to offer them our freelance services.

We’ll do that by sending them a brief but personal email like this one (underlined words are for you, not the client):

“Hey NAME,

I heard your interview about A and liked your point on B. My experience has been C so it was exciting to hear that yours was similar to mine.

I’ve been helping other language learning businesses run Facebook ads and I’d like to offer to help optimize your campaigns, too.

I have a few ideas to increase your conversions while reducing the cost per new customer, but before we discuss the details, I wanted to see if this is something you might be interested in.

Would you be interested if I send over a few ideas?



The purpose of the introduction is to show the person that we took the time to get to know them and that we are not like everyone else out there. Something generic like “I like your blog articles, really great stuff” is too easy to see through for someone who gets plenty of email.

As a rule of thumb, if you can copy-paste the introduction, it isn’t personal enough.

In a world where everyone’s goal is to spend as little time as possible, we can make our future clients feel special by showing we took the time to get to know them – they will recognize the effort.

The next sections in the email script describe who we are and how it is relevant to them. Remember, no one cares about us but we know they care about themselves, so let’s focus on that to get their attention.

At the end, we gauge their interest by asking if we can send them ideas. If we don’t hear back after e.g. two follow-ups (one per week), it is probably not the right time for them.

Step 4: blow the hot leads away

Expect potential clients to be busy: a simple email with “yes” from them is a good response.

When someone is interested in hearing more, go all-in on researching their business and providing amazing ideas. 

Don’t be afraid that they might implement the ideas themselves instead of paying you to do it. In my experience, that’s rare but even so, you’ll have a good reputation with them for next time they need help.

This is where it pays off to be a freelancer that can help with execution rather than a consultant that only offers advice. You can spill as much knowledge as you want with two benefits:

  1. You can show that you are an expert on the subject
  2. You can impress them by giving free advice others would charge for

If your ideas relate to Google search ads, it could be sample keywords. If it’s Facebook ads, it could be a mock up with tweaks, or landing page if you know how to make those.

The goal is not for the client to hire you right when they see the ideas, they just have to be impressed enough to want to speak with you on the phone.

I like to end the ideas-email or document with a CTA leading to the phone call. It might be tempting to use calendar software to get them to schedule the call, but I’ve found that it’s inconsiderate to make them do the work of scheduling a time with you when you’re the one wanting the call. 

Every time you make them do the work instead of doing it for them, you run the risk of losing them.

Instead, suggest 2-3 times that work for you and tell them that you’ll work around their schedule.

Step 5: stand out while dodging the weirdos

During my first many phone calls with potential clients I felt super nervous. Many readers have expressed the same and it turns out to be common.

In fact, it took me a long time to get over but for every call you make, you get better. 

The magic is that when you’ve worked with several similar businesses you’ll pick up on which questions they ask and how they respond to the different types of answers you give. You’ll also notice patterns in the answers they give to your questions and the whole experience becomes predictable. 

This is where things get really fun!

It’ll be tempting to skip the phone call if you feel nervous, but unless the client prefers it I recommend making the attempt. The better you understand them, the easier you can bridge your services to their business, and the more profitable projects you’ll land.

It can be done via email but speaking with them almost always gets you better insights and you can feel out if they might be the type of person you want to avoid. 

If you feel nervous about the phone call, it usually comes down to two things. 

One, it’s likely that you’re hyping it up too much. At first, you’ll feel that you’ve worked hard to get this first phone call and you don’t want to blow it. You’ll soon get many more as you get the hang of things and then it’ll just be one in the sea of many.

It might help you to think of it simply as a coffee meeting on the phone. You don’t have to sell them on anything if you think it isn’t the right fit for them. In fact, pressuring yourself to think that you do, will make you feel extra nervous.

Many freelancers seem to think that they have to sell to everyone, but that’s how you end up without repeating projects, unhappy clients, low confidence and a shitty experience overall.

You’re giving yourself the phone call as an opportunity to understand if you can help the client and how, before you even begin. That way, you’ll know if you’re about to enter the danger zone or gain a happy client.

archer meme

Not only is it freeing to know that you can (and should) say no if you can’t help the client (or that you don’t have good chemistry with them), they’ll likely be surprised as it’s rare for freelancers to do. It builds trust with your client for future projects as you’re showing you have their best interests at heart. 

You might also find that the power dynamic changes as clients are often used to freelancing jumping on everything without thinking the outcome through. A fun little twist in your freelance adventure.

The second reason you might feel nervous about the phone call is if you’re concerned about what to do if they ask about your experience and past projects.

To many of us this simply comes down to understanding what a good answer looks like if you don’t feel that your portfolio is amazing, despite having worked for years in the industry.

Someone more experienced than me once told me that you often don’t need much of a portfolio to pitch clients, if any at all. I couldn’t believe it at the time but I later found that he was right. Instead, answering their marketing questions as in-depth and as helpful as possible by starting with for example “in my experience, XYZ tends to be the case” goes a long way.

If your background or portfolio comes up, I’d lead with honesty and tell them that you don’t have a portfolio but have worked on the same type of projects for X years. I’d then go on to highlight one relevant project that I’m proud of (without sharing confidential information) by saying something along the lines of:

“I don’t have a portfolio. I’ve worked with Facebook ads for two years and one project was particularly similar to what you’re looking for. 

Our target was to increase sales by 30% by the end of the quarter while decreasing the cost per sale by 10%. We nearly doubled the sales but at the same cost as previously which is common as you’re scaling the budget. In my experience, it’s common to trade a lower cost per sale for a higher sales volume.

This wasn’t only me but a small team with three other colleagues, a copywriter, a designer and a junior digital marketing executive besides myself leading the project.”

The trick when saying these things is to practice saying it out loud before the phone call. It sounds crazy but saying it to yourself in the mirror several times really does make a difference.

Finally, remember that it’s okay if they decline. I doubt they will due to a lack of portfolio, but we can’t get ‘oneitis’ and focus on only one client. Not everything is going to work out – move on to the next one.

It can also help your nervousness to have structure for your phone call.

Your social skills will make the biggest impact during the call because freelancing is a relationship-based business. 

I like to aim for speaking 10-20% of the time and ask the client questions about their business in order for them to speak the remainder of the call. It’s all about understanding their business well to be able to help them. 

It’s also a good idea to prepare for what the client might ask you. Usually, they’ll want:

  1. To have a deeper look at the ideas you sent them 
  2. To understand your background and relevant experience
  3. Know your fees, timeline, and next steps

You might start by checking if they’ve had a chance to look through the ideas, if they’ve tried similar stuff in the past and how it worked for them. If they haven’t, I like to run through the ideas briefly along with my experience implementing each one if you feel that they are interested. 

You might also skip certain ideas and only focus on one if you feel that that’s what they’re more interested in.

We’ve already covered your background and experience above, so there’s no need to jump into that again – don’t volunteer it if they don’t ask, though. Many clients don’t care as long as they feel that you can solve their problem.

When it comes to your fees, timeline, and next steps I tend to save this for the end as you’ll have to feel out how the lead responds to your ideas first. You might tell them your hourly rate or price for a similar project, but otherwise, the big pricing reveal tends to come with the proposal as the next step after the phone call, provided it’s a good fit.

You’ll typically move the phone call towards its conclusion by saying something along the lines of: 

“It sounds like you’re interested in ideas one and three. How about I prepare a proposal with a timeline, pricing, and all the details for us to get started? 

I can have it in your inbox in three days.”

Even though it might feel scary, you’ll be best off getting the client to agree to the project directly on the phone. The proposal is basically specifying the details that you’ll agree to via email before you get started.

Giving yourself a deadline of three days is secretly a test you’re giving yourself to show them that you are true to your word and do what you say you’re going to do at the time you promised. 

A subtle way to stand out among other freelancers.

You’ll also want to prepare some questions to better understand their business, such as:

  • Who are your best customers?
  • To get customers, what have you tried? And how did it go?
  • What is your business goal this year?
  • If we work together, what would that look like on a daily basis? 
  • Have you worked with any freelancers before? How did it go?
  • What are your biggest sticking points/bottlenecks right now? How have you been dealing with them? 
  • How much time do we have to get this done?

I’ve found it useful to remember that doing well on the phone takes practice. It won’t be perfect the first time and that’s fine.

Next, let’s dive into the final step: the proposal.

Step 6: seal the deal and get to work

Once you’ve reached an agreement with the client to move forward with a proposal, it’s time to put it together. 

It’s common for those without experience to assume that they need lawyers and extensive formal documents and agreements to get started. But a proposal can be simpler than that.

A proposal can be a concise summary of the ideas you and the client have agreed upon, along with the pricing, project timeline, and communication plan. The hard work has already been done throughout the process, and the proposal serves as the conclusion, bringing everything together.

Here’s a simple example for your inspiration that landed me a $1,937 project with a new client (some details have been redacted for privacy).

digital marketing freelance proposal example

I’ve found that a big mistake is sending it off with a take it or leave it attitude. A more effective approach is to be ready to tweak it in case something has changed between the phone call and when you send it off.

Expect to go through a few rounds to find the perfect match with your client and if it’s a hit the first time, consider it a pleasant surprise.

Some freelancers like to take a deposit to start the project. That’s hard if you’re on an hourly rate but on a fixed-fee project, 30-50% is common. Whether you choose to or not comes down to preference.

A word on doing free work to get clients for digital marketing services

I think it’s super weird for a client to start a relationship by asking a freelancer to offer their time for free. To me, it says a lot about a person or a business and their boundaries if they start off that way.

The usual trade-off they’ll offer is that you’ll get exposure. Interestingly, those who offer it are rarely able to clarify where and how that exposure is going to work in detail.

Whenever I’ve been asked for it, I simply clarify that it isn’t something I’m able to offer (in those exact words), then stay quiet and move on to the next potential client.

Here’s the fun twist…

I’ve actually done free work for clients all the time… when they DON’T ask for it!

To me, it’s part of the service. I see it as a marketing gimmick for existing clients who I like and don’t ask for it, rather than as part of a pitch to new potential clients.

An interesting insight that I discovered years down the road, is that to many good clients, free work isn’t worth their time in exchange for a potentially flaky freelancer that’s going to disappear when things are burning. Their time is valuable so they’d rather pay to ensure things get done well.

This approach applies to discounts as well. Feel free to do it the way you see fit, but this is my take on it.

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