How To Market Yourself as a Freelance Programmer Without Feeling Cringey

Written By Jay Liew

Let’s admit it. We programmers are brave warriors when it comes to battling bugs and poorly written codes. We’ll unsheathe our swords and hunt for the single rogue code that wreaks havoc on the entire program.

But mention marketing, and it sends shivers up our spines.

Even though you’ve spent your entire career dealing with variables, databases, syntax, objects, and other technical jargon beyond the average person’s understanding, marketing can be a huge and scary word.

It brings out wild imaginings, such as trying to convince an audience how your services are superior. The problem is, most programmers are more comfortable communicating with computers than speaking to a sometimes skeptical crowd.

Marketing puts a programmer outside their comfort zone. It requires the programmer to be self-promotional to a certain degree. And for someone who’s accustomed to coding, troubleshooting, and writing documentation, wearing a marketer’s hat feels awkward.

There’s no doubt that marketing is an essential skill for a freelance programmer, but it often means exploring and confronting the fear and doubt of doing something unfamiliar. It’s like starting all over again in your career.

Often, you’ll brush the fear aside when you’re comfortably employed because there’s no strong motivation to confront it. You’re paid well for doing what you do best, producing flawless codes that work wonderfully in the digital realm, and don’t have to worry about marketing yourself.

But when you ditch comfort for the glamorous freelance lifestyle, you need to confront the looming elephant in the room, which of course is marketing.

Why Marketing Is Essential for Freelance Programmers

Right, ditch your nine-to-five job, start printing business cards proclaiming your newfound title as a freelance programmer, and jobs will start pouring in. Or find your next major projects while attending networking sessions.

Reality is often a painful picture in contrast to your imagination. Most freelancers struggle to sustain decent earnings in their new venture and go back to traditional employment. It isn’t that they’re bad coders, but rather because they hesitate to spread the news that they’re the best in town.

It was an equally rough ride for me as I transitioned from full-time employee to freelancer. Instead of churning out code, I found myself occupied in marketing my services, and praying that I land the next job soon enough.

In short, I spent a considerable part of my time marketing myself to survive the cutthroat competition among freelancers. And it was uncomfortable all the way, because I misunderstood every single thing about marketing.

Common Misconceptions of Marketing Among Programmers

There have been lots of articles that show you dozens of ideas of what marketing is all about. Some preach about being a star networker while others insist that you need to be an excellent public speaker.

But programmers spend most of their time interacting with their screens. The notion of stepping forth to wow the crowd with perfect oratory skill is an incomprehensible idea. Nor is it the sole definition of what marketing needs to be.

I also dare say that it wasn’t only me who thought marketing was about shamelessly promoting yourself as the best programmer in 13 different languages at networking or business events and hoping someone would sign up for your service. But that’s what happens when you have a set of misguided concepts on marketing.

Most programmers would rather walk on hot coals than do cringeworthy stuff like harping on their skills and trying not to appear dull. Self-promotion, networking, and elevator pitches are simply not the forte of most programmers.

Well, marketing yourself doesn’t need to be cringey. It’s not about faking your persona and hoping to land some projects. In fact, if you’re faking it, your clients will naturally feel awkward, and that is not the right recipe for closing a deal.

So, marketing isn’t about excelling in public speaking, nor shamelessly promoting yourself to everyone you meet.

The Right Mindset to Market Yourself Naturally

We’re now on the same page about what you don’t need to do to promote your newfound profession. But marketing is still crucial in defining your success as a freelancer.

Of course, there is no shortage of marketing tactics if you search the web. But you’ll need to get the mindset right if you want any of the tactics to be effective.

I wish I could brag and claim that I discovered the secret to marketing after trying out thousands of ways and hit a eureka moment. It wasn’t quite like that. I was lucky to stumble onto a couple mentors who practiced what they preached on marketing. And there wasn’t a single cringeworthy technique in it.

Here’s the simple truth that works for me: Marketing is about helping others to solve their problems. Period.

Instead of figuring out how to get potential clients to pay for your service, think about what you can do to solve their problems, and offer it as a solution. Such thinking transforms the misguided beliefs you may have about marketing.

In a flash, marketing is no longer about forcing the conversation in a crowd. It’s about paying attention to the pain points experienced by your clients in casual discussion. This is the key to offering a solution that addresses the clients’ needs instead of what you think is best for the clients. As we are naturally attentive, marketing suddenly becomes second nature.

When you’re concerned about helping others, not selling your services, marketing becomes less intimidating. After all, you’ve already been helping others by making stubborn codes work for your previous employers.

It seems counterintuitive that marketing can take such a non-gung ho approach, but it has been proven time and again that helping is one of the best forms of marketing ever.

Just check out the massive crowd attending seminars by Tony Robbins and other international gurus who are wildly successful by “helping” others. In fact, those at the top of the game do not market or sell any services at the seminar, and yet people can’t wait to get hold of their products.

You need to rewire your mindset where marketing is concerned. It’s not about dishing out free services, nor begging for a deal, but rather establishing yourself as a voice of authority.

Getting the Word Out

Now that you’re affirmed with the belief that marketing is about helping others with their problems, you’ll want to get the word out. Because, unless you do, you won’t have enough jobs to pay the bills.

This means implementing some of the marketing tactics you may have heard of, but with your newfound perspective.

1. Start a Website or Blog

I would rather invest in a decent website than a fancy looking business card if push came to shove. When was the last time you hunted for a business card from a stack because you needed a service?

Chances are, Google is your first choice in searching for information or a reputable supplier. Keep this in mind when you’re creating a website. It’s good to have a page listing your credentials and references, but that’s not the first thing that potential clients would like to see.

You’ll have a better chance of getting more exposure when you write industry-related articles that clients can resonate with. It builds trust, and positions you as an expert without being boastful.

2. Attend the Right Seminars

You’ve heard that seminars are great places to connect with potential clients. But attending seminars takes up a huge chunk of your time and could backfire if you don’t plan in advance.

Before you sign up for one, learn about the potential attendees from the organizer. It is foolish hoping to connect with clients at a coding conference where all the attendees are fellow coders. Instead, look for events that target business owners or project managers.

Again, you’ll want to be genuine when connecting with a prospect. So, stop handing out name cards to everyone in the room. Make meaningful connections with a handful of participants. Think about making new friends, because that’s how you get your best clients.

3. Promote Others

It’s cringey to blow your own trumpet. But nothing stops you from promoting other freelancers or businesses. I make it a point to connect with fellow freelancers and promote them at every opportunity, even if they are perceived as my competitors.

Sharing is caring, especially in the world of freelancers. Never hesitate to recommend the next best person you know to take on a job if you feel it’s not the right fit for you. You’ll never know what will come your way in the future just by promoting someone worthy. You could be at the receiving end of a huge project just because you did a fellow freelancer a favor.

4. Send Cold Emails With a Personal Touch

The notion of writing email pitches to strangers, hoping for a reply but fearing rejection, isn’t going to cause much excitement for freelancers. Some would rather spend time bidding for jobs at freelancing portals than blasting out cold emails.

If it offers comfort, some entrepreneurs hate sending cold emails. After all, the thought of a stranger hitting delete on the email without even glancing at the subject line sucks out any motivation for sending it. But they take it as part of their responsibilities.

Cold emails are sometimes a necessary inconvenience. Here’s a mindset that makes it more bearable: Stop thinking about it as pitching your service to others. Cold emails don’t need to scream “buy me” all over the place.

Instead, craft your email professionally, stating who you are and what you can offer for the potential client. Keep it short, and you stand a chance of getting a response in your inbox. And if you don’t, just move on.

Remember that a cold email isn’t about sending a list of your degrees, programming skills, or project portfolios, although that may come later. You’ll want to find out the business that the client is in, and propose how you could help with the possible problems faced by business owners in that industry.

Marketing Is About Trying, Failing, and Trying Again

When all you’ve ever learned about marketing is from articles written by marketers, you can be forgiven for thinking that there must be some undiscovered secrets that turn you into a marketing wizard.

There has been too much hype going on about marketing. The only secret you need to know about marketing is that it’s about finding what works best for you.

You may need to craft dozens of different cold email messages before you get a favorable reply. That sounds discouraging, but if you’re approaching with a mindset of helping others, you’ll eventually find the right combination that works.

Bring that same persistence of spending sleepless nights fixing bad codes to marketing yourself, and you’ll soon master it.

Marketing Can Be Empowering When It’s About Helping Others

Marketing is not about being the best speaker, nor being able to charm a room full of strangers. Instead of taking a self-centered approach, consider how you could put the clients’ problems first, and offer viable solutions to them.

Marketing can be simple and empowering.

When approached with the right mindset, you’ll take pride in marketing yourself instead of feeling cringey.

Keep that in your mind, and freelancing can be a joy, in spite of the demand for marketing. Keep marketing simple, just like the lines of code you’re working on.