Solo consultant and freelance software developers often tell me finding clients and building client relationships online is really difficult.
I’m terrible at blogging and social media. But I do get jealous when I see other developers growing their profile online.
The temptation is to dive into creating a blog for your website or setting up a Twitter account. And then you wonder how the hell this is meant to help you find clients. And then regular posting starts to feel millstone around your neck.
But there’s an easier way to find potential clients online – FORUMS.
The benefits of forums
Forums are a playground for software developers. I know you know the benefits of forums, and I don’t need to spell them out.
Many of you are in and out of forums like Stack Overflow day in, day out, talking about code. This is where you come for answers.
But lots of subject areas have forums too. GameSpot for video games. Mumsnet for parents. There’s a forum for every audience. And the main advantage – they’re grouped in one place and they’re looking for answers.
You’re in the business of advising people, and forums exist explicitly for people to talk about their problems and seek advice.
So use forums to find potential clients online. I almost feel like I don’t need to tell you how to do it, but here we go.
How to use forums in 5 easy steps
#1. Find a forum your target audience loves to use
How do you do this? Google ‘Forums + [your target audience]’. If I were doing this, I’d search for ‘Forums for software developers’ or ‘Forums for consultants and freelancers’.
Also use keywords like ‘communities’ and ‘online groups’.
Then trawl the results. You sometimes need to sign up to the forum to poke around inside. So do that.
Then check, does it cover the kinds of issues and problems you know how to tackle? Are your potential clients asking questions you can answer?
If yes, this is where you need to be.
You also need to check whether the forum allows you to create a profile of yourself and include a link to your website.
This is important.
Because you’re posting on the forum to build your online reputation as an expert, and ultimately generate traffic to your website. With no profile and weblink, you can’t do this.
#2. Create a profile that attracts
To be able to post a reply to a question, you often have to create a profile. On Quora, for example, I can add some blurb about myself, a photo, and a weblink.
Then you need to create a profile that shows the value you generate for others, not what you do. Attract people to you.
What do I mean by this?
Have a look at the difference between these two descriptions:
Hi, I’m John Smith. My expertise in Scala means I’ve been able to help clients create scalable products that helped them achieve sales of over £50K.
The temptation might be to list your programming languages, but bear in mind your target audience might not know what, for example, Scala is, so they can’t attach a value to it.
You need to make it clear from the outset, you’re not only an expert, but you also create value for people – you help. Show the difference your skills make to others.
I write about this in other blog posts. See point #1 in: 5 ways to get potential clients to take you seriously. And see my point on About pages in: What should your website include as a business development tool?
Remember, your profile, counterintuitively, needs to be more about what you can deliver to others in terms of value and less about you.
#3. Find a relevant question
Now start looking for a relevant question to answer.
The golden rule is answer a question you can answer well – add value. Even if many people have already posted an answer, saying you agree or disagree (or down and upvoting) can help future readers decide which answers are best.
And it doesn’t matter if the question is old. Even if the person who originally asked the question has moved on, other people searching for that question will read your answer. You’re adding to the body of knowledge around a subject area.
Here’s a question I would feel comfortable answering:
I want to freelance as a software developer after work hours (outside of my 9-6 shift) for 4-5 hours a day. Where can I find clients? How can I get started?
It was posted in 2015 and has one answer.
But it ticks all my boxes. And I love answering questions on finding clients. So I’d be happy throwing my reply into the mix.
#4. Post an answer (the right way)
The most important thing I can say about posting an answer is don’t be salesy. Just answer the question.
Authentic, genuine connection is what you’re going to be about.
Remember to be:
As for the shape of the answer, here’s a formula I suggest:
1. Jump in and answer the whole question in the first paragraph or sentence with several top tips. Make it crisp and punchy, even if it looks too short and sounds dumbed down. Why? People skim for answers and if your advice gold dust is buried in the fourth paragraph, people won’t see it. You can flesh out the answer later or link to more information.
2. Add your personal experience. Why? Nothing makes an answer more readable than an honest insight – we all love to peek behind the kimono. Perhaps describe the way you did it wrong at first, and then the way you did it right.
3. If your answer is complex, explain that later on, and tell them where they can go for more information. Why? You don’t want to kill the punchiness of your answer with a long introduction about how complex your answer will be. Yawn!
Here’s an example:
Here’s my answer to the question: I want to freelance as a software developer after work hours (outside of my 9-6 shift) for 4-5 hours a day. Where can I find clients? How can I get started?
I think you need to start small (evenings and weekends) and take a 3-step approach: 1. Focus on a niche target market, 2. offer services that genuinely solve problems, and 3. start with the people you know.
Here are some personal insights I can share with you about finding clients. The tips below are things I just didn’t see in the beginning, then later, realised I needed to do in a different way, maybe even the opposite way.
1. Find more of the right potential clients by focusing on fewer – It felt safer offering lots of services to many people, but when I built up the courage to focus on a niche, I found more clients by becoming an expert to the few.
2. Start by solving problems, not offering services – I spent weeks agonising over what services to offer, but when I started listening to potential clients and solving their biggest challenges first, the services just fell into place.
3. Network with new contacts less in the beginning – I dived into networking with new contacts, but when I looked at my address book and connected with people who already knew and trusted me, it was much easier to find clients.
Finding clients seems to be the #1 problem consultant and freelance software developers have, and it’s not easy to address in one reply. The tips above come from a longer blog post I wrote a few months ago: 3 counterintuitive tips to help you find clients. And I blog about this subject more generally at www.rlwinks.com.
If you’re stuck on how to answer a question, you can also check the forum for guidance. Interestingly, lots of forums include a question that asks how a user should reply to a question. For example: How do you answer a question on Quora?
#5. Maximise your answer
After you post your answer, watch out for comments and respond to them. Remember, these could be the potential clients you’re hoping to attract.
Monitor the traffic the post should generate to your website.
Think about how you could reuse this reply broken down into short social media posts, or use it as the subject of a post for your own blog or guest blog.
Tailor the reply for similar questions in this or other forums. Look for ways to get more mileage out of your response.