The Importance of Social Trust in Freelancing
By Jill Gutierrez
Given that one in every three members of today’s U.S. workforce is a freelancer, the issues and concerns of this sector must be treated as the concerns of us all. When you think “freelance,” graphic designers, web developers, writers and photographers are the specialties that likely spring to mind. And correctly so. Creative and digital services specialists make up the clear majority of the freelance workforce. (It’s also worth noting that in the new economy, you’ll meet regulatory professionals, bookkeepers, makeup artists and others, who are going it alone as freelance workers. I experienced this diversity firsthand at a freelancers’ event featuring Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union.)
The numbers speak for themselves. Freelance collaboration is central to many U.S. industries, to our professional culture, and to our economy—but you wouldn’t necessarily know it when listening to the feelings of instability, isolation, and often, disempowerment, that are voiced by a room full of freelancers. So that’s the dark side. The bright side is, of course, the ability to make your own schedule and work in your sweatpants, and best of all, the chance to follow your professional dreams.
Independent workers, even those with proven talent, business savvy and excellent reputations, face some formidable challenges above and beyond the essential skill and performance requirements of their chosen fields. There’s been a real lag in basic services, practices, laws, and policies to support freelance professionals, especially as compared to what’s long been in place for those with full time employee status. Worse yet, the cold, hard facts are, even the most successful freelancers sometimes have trouble finding work and getting paid. A freelancer’s work pipeline may by comfortably full, even overflowing, to the point that she is turning away work. Then suddenly, two pending projects with different clients get cancelled at once (through no fault of the freelancer), and the impact can be devastating. By the very nature of freelance work, this unpredictability is impossible to avoid, so how can it best be managed?
What’s the solution? Does a perfect pipeline exist?
To thrive amidst the sudden bursts and dreaded lulls, freelancers need to have multiple channels for new work primed and within easy reach. In the past, such a perfect arrangement would have been nearly impossible to construct. But that was the past. Social media is now on the scene and it just might save the day.
For freelancers seeking opportunities of quality, with “good” clients they can trust, the time-tested method is word-of-mouth. Buyers in need of proven freelance resources know this, too. Reliable referrals based on past collaborations are pure gold. And with social media, you can get to so much more of that gold, and faster. Utilizing their social networks, freelancers and buyers can now gain immediate, pervasive access to opportunities and resources among their own clients and friends, as well as the clients and friends of their clients and friends, in expanding circles of trust and connectivity.
Trust vs. deadbeats—it’s a no-brainer
It’s important to use social media to preserve what already works well in freelance offline. Word-of-mouth is vastly preferred by professionals seeking relationships of value and integrity, because trust and accountability are inherently built in. Freelance copywriter Andrew Nossiter sees it this way: “The word-of-mouth approach means that my skills are recognized by buyers before work even begins, and that helps to foster a relationship of mutual trust right at the outset.” Who wouldn’t prefer a collaboration that’s biased for success from the start? Another important benefit of word-of-mouth: the unfortunate cases of client nonpayment (which the Freelancers Union found have occurred at least once in their careers with 77% of freelancers surveyed) are far less likely to happen when matches are made by referral.
People are people, too
On the softer side, today’s professionals also favor word-of-mouth because it gives us an opportunity to “pay it forward,” to share among our networks, to help someone else, as we were once helped. When used correctly, social platforms can add power and efficiency to these valued and meaningful practices.
Even more basic, the perception of success at the end of a freelance collaboration has quite a lot to do with how it felt to do the job. Was it any fun? Did you like the person you worked with? If the answers are no, chances for repeat business are slim. Now you’re back to starting from scratch, which is costly on both sides of the relationship. Socially matched collaborations obviously have better odds of delivering a positive outcome in this important, yet subjective, regard.
Jolie Giese, a consumer brand executive, reflects on this: “For years, I managed a prestige brand where all of our ad and marketing work absolutely had to be impeccably styled and beautifully designed, all of the time. I had my stable of freelancers that I worked with to make this happen. The fact of it is, the “best” creative on my team was the one I actually used as my last resort. She could be so difficult at times. My top two resources were the ones I enjoyed working with day-to-day.”
Tools to close the deal
Digitally, we can accomplish so many more things, and so much more effectively, than was possible in the offline setting. In freelance collaboration, the advantages are particularly strong. With social media matching of freelancers and clients, there’s the opportunity for a richer exchange of information up front. To close the deal, we can easily show, rather than tell, about our past work, give good input and ask good questions about the project at hand, share what it’s like to work with us as individuals, and link to sources of inspiration—all in a clean and consolidated digital view.
Getting this kind of input clearly and early on can make all the difference in a project’s success. Luke Bornheimer, a freelance mobile app designer, said, “It’s helpful when clients share up front examples of interfaces that they like and want to inspire their own app’s interface. It instantly aligns us on the design and expectations for their work.”
We all stand to gain
It’s an unnecessary reality that many startups, marketers and SMBs are at a loss when it comes to finding and working with good freelance resources. Likewise, skilled and enthusiastic professional freelancers needn’t struggle to find the opportunities that intrigue them and sustain their careers. The talent and the needs are out there; the problem is one of matchmaking and trust. I’ve carefully surveyed the state of the freelance talent pool today, and it’s been nothing short of inspiring. There’s serious potential lying in wait for smart clients and creative freelancers to find each other, to collaborate and get the job done. But, hey, you don’t know me, so I suggest you ask your friends.
Jill Gutierrez is Community Manager at the San Francisco-based startup Coworks, an online freelancing platform built on social recommendations. She has spent her career as a creative freelancer and a buyer of freelance services, and blogs about life on both sides of this relationship at blog.coworks.com. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on twitter @gocoworks.