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When SaaS writer and content consultant Annabel Fay lost almost all of her clients overnight at the start of the pandemic, she wrote to 200 of her LinkedIn contacts and asked for a favour...
On this episode, Annabel shares her steb-by-step approach to LinkedIn referral hacking and how it might help you grow your freelance business:
Connect with Annabel on LinkedIn: Annabel Fay
Say hi to Louise:
Louise Shanahan is a freelance health and medical copywriter and a big fan of finding your freelance niche. She's on a mission to help others build a freelance business that feels easy and works for them – in weekly snack-sized bites.
Intro: Welcome to 15 Minute Freelancer, your snack-sized guide to being your own boss and building a business and life you love. I'm your host Louise Shanahan. My LinkedIn bio says I'm a freelance health copywriter. But for the next 15 minutes, I'll be tickling your ears with practical strategies, behind-the-scenes stories, and nuggets of wisdom so you can create a freelance business that works for you. Whether you're just starting out or you've been self-employed for a while, I'll be right here with you to help you navigate the ups and downs of freelancing life. So grab a coffee relax and join me for 15 minutes of freelancing fun. Don't forget to hit subscribe.
Louise: Hello, and welcome to another episode of 15 Minute Freelancer, Louise Shanahan here. Today I am joined by Annabel Fay, a freelance SaaS writer and content consultant. On this episode, I want to quiz Annabel about a thing called LinkedIn referral hacking. I've talked about using LinkedIn to find freelance clients before and quite recently I spoke to Dave Harland about using humour and being yourself to attract clients on social media. I've also talked about the importance of referrals before but never LinkedIn referral hacking. I'm curious to find out what exactly that is and how we should be doing it. Hi Annabel, thank you so much for joining me.
Annabel: Hi, Louise, thank you for having me, it's really a pleasure to be here.
L: I'm excited to find out more about this. When you mentioned it on Twitter I thought, "that sounds intriguing...."
A: I don't know if it's an official term, it's more just what I've kind of called it.
L: I love it. Let's just jump right in then. We know that LinkedIn can be a great place for freelancers to drum up business and usually the advice is to focus on sharing your expertise and engaging with potential clients, maybe making a pitch or two, but your approach is a little bit different. Can you tell us about asking for 200 referrals on LinkedIn, what exactly was that about?
A: Yeah, if you think back to March 2020 when the pandemic had just hit and we were really starting to feel the effects of it in London where I'm based, I essentially had lost all of my clients overnight. I'd been a freelancer for about six months by that point and because of all of the various budget changes and people not knowing what was happening, I lost pretty much every client. I decided to take a slightly different approach on LinkedIn and I decided to individually write to 200 people and ask them for a favour. I wrote them all a message that said what I was doing, asking if they knew anyone in their network that might be a good fit for what I was providing.
L: How did you decide who to approach?
A: I'd been in a corporate job for about 10 years before I went freelance so there were a number of people that I knew. I probably had about 1200 connections on LinkedIn from people that I had connected with whenever I worked with somebody in person or worked with somebody more than just a few calls. I opened up my list of connections and made sure that as I scrolled through I selected people where they were in my target market. I'm a big proponent of niching, they didn't need to be the right person who would necessarily hold the budget to work with me, but they needed to be in the right kind of company. I made sure that they were in the right target market, that they remembered me, if I just popped up in their inbox and they had no idea who I was that wouldn't have been a good look, and they had to be somebody who was senior enough that their referral would hold some weight. Maybe if you predominantly work with people who are Heads of Marketing or Marketing Managers, I'm a copywriter so they're one of my main clients, I would look for somebody maybe who was a Head of Sales or a VP of Sales, something like that, an adjacent role who might have some kind of weight or influence over the person I was trying to reach. And honestly, it worked, and I think it's potentially a better way of doing it than cold outreach.
L: Were you asking these people to put you in touch with a specific person, or were you leaving it quite open and saying, I'm looking for this kind of work, I'm open to these opportunities, do you know someone who might be a good fit?
A: I think people like to help and they like to develop people, and people are probably more receptive to offering help than being sold something. Particularly around the time of the pandemic, people in quite a senior position, or in quite a privileged position where you're in a company, people wanted to help. People also like to problem solve. I think it was a kind of softer approach than getting lots and lots of requests of, can I write for you, can I do some content work for you. I would basically start with something personalised, something I'd seen on their feed, if they'd recently published something or they'd recently been promoted, I would say congratulations. Then I would say very, very briefly, and I have a rule that if my parents can't explain what I do I've not been clear enough. So really one sentence; I've just set up this company offering copywriting and content marketing services to SaaS and technology companies, this is the kind of work that I do and I was wondering if you have anyone in your network who you could introduce me to who might be a good fit. It took a few revisions of writing the message out on a separate document until I felt like I was happy with it, but essentially that's what I was doing, as short and sweet as possible.
L: Nice. Did you find that the responses varied depending on what kind of message you were sending?
A: You have to kind of be prepared to put yourself out there, I mean, if you don't ask you don't get. Out of the 200, I probably only had maybe 20 or 30 replies, lots of people didn't respond. The response did vary, some people asked clarifying questions, other people said let me get back to you, other people said, I do know somebody, what's your email address. What I was trying to do was sort of reduce the friction. So instead of saying, can I pitch to you, can I send you some examples of my work, do you have any work. Something quite easy is, can you show me the right person? Yes. Then when you're in front of the right person, you've already got the critical approval of somebody who they trust, because you're a referral. It's also been quite slow, I actually had a client become a client last month as a result of that email in 2019. It's a long game, it’s about relationships, and you have to be prepared that people are going to ignore you.
L: It sounds like the messages that you were sending were quite light touch, you weren't including suggestions for projects or links to samples or anything like that. Is that right?
A: Exactly. I didn't want to overload these people because I wasn't targeting my exact buyer, that would be a later conversation. I was targeting somebody who would know the right person in their company. I didn't want to overload them with lots of examples and lots of details, I just wanted them to say, hi Annabel, nice to hear from you, yes, sure, talk to this person. All of the follow up of building rapport with the right person and sharing examples of my work and talking prices and developing that relationship, that would come later. This was all very light touch and trying to get an introduction to the right person with the backing of somebody who they already knew.
L: Just on follow-up, how did you go about following up on these intros, did you have a way of tracking all the people you've contacted? Did you have a process for qualifying the people that they introduced you to, how did that work?
A: That's probably evolved as I've been running my business, to be honest. As I started off, I was quite meticulous around setting myself reminders to follow up with people. I had a Kanban board, either on Trello, or in HubSpot, or on sticky notes, whatever it was at the time, of who I was speaking to, whether I'd had a first conversation, whether they said yeah, sure, I want to see some things. So that kind of varied, but what I always find myself doing is, I kind of have it in my head and you can make it as complicated or as simple as you want, depending on what kind of person you are and how many leads you have coming in. I sort of have in my head, people that I'm trying to get in front of and build some rapport with. Then once I've got them on the phone and I've had a chance to build some rapport with them and understand what their problems are. That's when I then send examples of, okay, you think you might need an ebook in the next quarter, here's an example of one I've written, here are some ideas. Then I then try and qualify them through to opportunities. I try to avoid pitches and proposals and things that make it more difficult for people to say yes. But predominantly it was just something in my notebook of, have I sent them a message, have I had a response, have I got a call booked in. Once I'd had the call and I'd built some rapport, I would then try and follow up either the same day or the day after with, it was nice to talk to you, thank you for your time, here's some examples of my work, what do you think about doing something like this as a project. Taking the initiative and trying to lead that conversation.
L: Nice. It sounds like you kept it nice and simple.
A: Yeah, I think you can over-complicate these things, particularly my background is I used to work in a big technology company and obviously that requires much more complexity of how you track sales. But as a one-man-band I still haven't quite found the right system for me, but there's always something scribbled on my notepad of who I'm talking to and who's currently a customer.
L: Yeah, that's generally my approach as well. I've played around with some of these big CRM systems where you're tracking all the people that you've been in touch with and what the value of the contract was and all that sort of thing. But it feels like overkill sometimes as you can’t actually handle that many projects at once as one person can you, so you don't need to be in touch with that many people.
A: I also wonder if sometimes as one person it closes your mind a little bit. I mean, if you're looking at the contract value of something, that works in a big organisation but sometimes those relationships might turn into something different or they move to a different company or you might end up working with them in a way that you didn't think of at all. I'm trying to over-engineer it a little bit less and just keep a spreadsheet or a tracker on my notepad of who I'm talking to, who's currently a customer, and whether it's a real opportunity or it's just a conversation at the moment.
L: What would you say was the impact on your business then? You’d started in this position where the pandemic had led to losing some of your clients, did things take an upturn after this experience?
A: Yeah, definitely, and not only just that business started to come in. One of my biggest clients now had come through this process, I got an introduction to somebody who was a marketing manager in a really big company and managed to get some business from that, then that's just kind of evolved. I do think the impact has been great, and then people come back around to me years later when they respond back to that message. But also in terms of giving me the confidence and the clarity in pitching what I do, explaining it in a short and simple way. That process in itself has made me more confident and maybe more comfortable doing that in the future.
L: That's brilliant, that's really good to hear. Just to kind of go off on a tangent a little bit, I'm curious if you followed up with the people that put you in touch with these leads, because I've just been thinking recently about how some people like to offer some sort of referral fee or gift to people who send them referrals and I'm just wondering what your take is on that discussion.
A: Personally, I don't. I think if somebody had gone above and beyond for me and really had put their neck out with an introduction that they've made, then I might send them a thank you. I've done it a couple of times over the course of my business, I might send them a bunch of flowers or a bottle of wine or something. But I generally think these people that you're asking for referrals, if their opinion is carrying weight with the person you want an introduction to, then they're doing it because they think it's a good fit. They're putting their reputation on the line, so they wouldn't do it if they don't think you're a good fit for them. I think things like gifts can sometimes not position you as a partner, and it changes the power dynamic a little bit. But the best thing you can do is keep to your word. If somebody is risking their reputation by introducing you to somebody, and they're vouching for you, then make sure that you follow up, that you're nice on the phone calls, that you do good work, if you get any work. That's the best thank you that you can give to somebody who's referred you because it affects their reputation too.
L: I love that, that's so good. You want to make them look good, don't you?
A: Yeah, of course, you can't let them down because then they're not gonna introduce you again.
L: Then they get the credit too, don't they? Because they're now being seen as someone who's in the know about good freelancers, good contractors to put people in touch with.
A: Exactly or just a nice person, you know. If I build a rapport with somebody and they say, I got introduced through this person, then they're seen as a nice person who's got a nice network that people want to do business with, because people want to work with nice people.
L: Have you got any big lessons that you learned from this experience, or any tips for other freelancers who might be curious about trying this kind of referral hacking approach?
A: Throughout your career make sure that you add people that you meet. If you are on a project and you meet a different agency, or you meet different people around the business, or you get to interview people, add them on LinkedIn. And try to stay active, interact with people's content, in an authentic way, so that you keep your connections as high as possible. Keep it personal. The amount of times I get an email on LinkedIn and they haven't changed it to be my name, so make sure you're doing the work of making it personal. Start small, and as I said before, if you do get a lead from the process make sure you're true to your word and you continue through with that call and deliver great work at the end of it. Then that will hopefully lead to more referrals and it becomes a snowball effect. I guess finally, don't be afraid to put yourself out there, if you don't ask you don't get, and even if you get rejected you learn for next time.
L: Oh, that's so good. Thank you so much Annabel, I really love this idea and I appreciate you taking the time to share this with us. You know we talk a lot about the need to put ourselves out there and it's not always that easy, so it's really useful to hear how someone else has done it. Like you say it pays to take some control over that process and yes, if you don't ask you don't get.
A: Absolutely, thank you very much for your time, I’ve really enjoyed it.
L: If people want to find out more about what you're up to, where can they find you?
A: I suppose this is right on message, you can add me on LinkedIn, it’s Annabel Fay.
L: That is wonderful, thank you, and thanks everyone for listening. Until next time, happy freelancing.
You've been listening to 15 Minute Freelancer with me Louise Shanahan, freelance health copywriter and content marketer at thecopyprescription.com. If you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe, leave a review or share it with a freelance friend. And if you've got a freelancing question you want to be answered on the podcast, find me and say hi on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram. Thanks, and until next time, happy freelancing.