How you position yourself as a freelancer has a major impact on what you do or don’t earn. The fruits of strong (and weak) freelance positioning are all around you.
One designer charges $800 for a visual identity project while another charges $8,000, and a third, $80,000. Many freelancers attribute those extra zeroes to higher quality, deeper experience, or better connections, but your freelance positioning is the single biggest factor in which projects you win and how much your clients pay.
As much as I dislike the word “secret,” the secret to higher freelance income is developing strong positioning for your freelance business. This post will teach you my “Playing for KEAPPS” framework and help you make more money as a freelancer as a result.
Before we get into the KEAPPS framework, let’s touch on the factors that make your positioning critical.
Reality Check: Most people who read this post won’t take action. I would like you to be one of the freelancers who follows through. You must do what most won’t to create the life most want.
Put in your name and email address below, and I’ll send you the download link for the Playing for KEAPPS cheat sheet.
Why Strong, Unique Positioning Is Important for Freelancers
Between 2014 and 2019 the number of freelancers thinking about freelancing as a long-term career choice increased by 28% from 18,500,000 to 28,500,000. In 2019 57 million (or about 35% of the U.S. workforce) freelanced in some capacity.
Freelancers contribute nearly $1 trillion in freelance income to the economy—that is, about 5% of the GDP!
And get this: 60% started freelancing by choice, and younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z’ers are more likely to choose the freelance path.
These statistics from the “Freelancing in America 2019” study conducted by Upwork and Freelancers Union underscore both the legitimacy of freelancing as a career path and the significant competition involved. (Remember, the numbers above are for the U.S. only.)
Freelancers could once rely on being the local, convenient option. To be in the client’s timezone, work the same hours, and schedule in-person meetings promised smoother workflow. That’s no longer the case. Freelance marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr make it easy for businesses to find and hire freelancers in over 180 countries.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 forced thousands of companies to figure out virtual workflow with distributed teams. In a matter of weeks, millions of people to start working remotely.
Being local matters a lot less now. Your freelance positioning is more important than your location. To attract and win the best clients, you must stand out from millions of competitors.
Writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin describes what’s truly at stake: “In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is a failure. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.”
You can stand out by crafting a positioning statement that gathers up your best differentiators and then redeploys them to your web copy, LinkedIn profile, and all the other places you show up online and in print.
What is a positioning statement?
A positioning statement summarizes how you serve your target audience and what makes you special.
To differentiate yourself as a freelancer, you must point out what makes you and your freelance services remarkable. To cut through the noise, you must say something memorable, and you must carry that message to a specific group of people whose lives you improve in meaningful ways. (Be sure to check out “The Ultimate Guide to Finding a Freelance Writing Niche.”)
A clear, succinct positioning statement serves four purposes for your freelance business:
- It forces you to narrow your focus and tailor your messaging for a specific audience.
- It helps you clarify where you want to take your business and make decisions about which clients and projects will help you get there.
- It builds your confidence and your credibility.
- It clearly demarcates your territory in the competitive landscape.
Don’t worry… We’re going to take this one step at a time.
I’ll start with a quick teardown of the homepage of an e-commerce agency with strong positioning.
Then, I’ll use a delightfully insipid piece of marketing from a different agency to teach you three no-nos.
Finally, I’ll guide you through the step-by-step process I use with my freelance coaching clients. It’s called “Playing for KEAPPs.”
Pay close attention to this example of good positioning.
Check out the Square Nine Studios homepage, particularly the hero section.
Square Nine’s founders, Andy and Brian, start with a bang. They speak directly to their audience (e-commerce founders) and pinpoint their painful problem (disappointing growth).
A dynamite testimonial from Brian Moran, the founder of SamCart, follows.
Because SamCart is a top ecomm platform, many e-commerce founders will recognize the name. Moran’s stamp of approval gives Square Nine instant legitimacy.
The testimonial also packs a punch with specific, timeboxed numbers that would make any online entrepreneur drool: $1.2 million in 4 days. Specificity builds credibility.
Next, Square Nine uses a brag bar to build positive associations between their studio and their clients’ appearances on well-known shows and websites.
Two more quick case studies, along with more details for SamCart, come next.
Instead of crowing about their inimitable awesomeness, Square Nine passes the mic to their clients in two more testimonials.
Toward the bottom of the homepage, you will find smiling headshots and a few more lines of positioning copy emphasizing results (“ensure ad spend is done right”) and agility (“Boutique Partner”).
Finally, in lieu of a conventional footer, the page ends with a link to Square Nine’s nine-step design process.
Now you know why I was delighted to connect with Brian and find this example of strong positioning. Square Nine starts with a bold promise then backs it up with evidence of their expertise, consistency, and likability.
Well done, sirs!
Good freelance positioning leaves little doubt that you as a freelancer or consultant can get the job done. It makes your would-be clients sit up and pay attention.
3 Common Positioning Mistakes Freelancers Make
On the other hand, limp-wristed, slack-jawed positioning with bad posture and a prodigious paunch inspires prospects to run for the hills.
Before we get into the KEAPPS recipe, I want to tease out three lessons from a hot diaper of copy I found years ago.
Stick with me through this short jaunt back to high school English class. I promise it will feel so good when it’s over.
(Note: I purposefully removed the offending party’s name because my goal here is to teach, not push my colleagues under the bus.)
This example of weak positioning starts with a lackluster headline:
“What do we do? AGENCYNAME HUMANIZES BRANDS”.
I’m not in the target audience, so I can’t say whether VPs of Marketing walk around bemoaning the dehumanized brands under their care.
Regardless, the first sentence of supporting copy to the right sounds as inviting as hip replacement surgery:
“We align, merge, morph, evolve, cluster, & humanize Brands for Distinction.”
Rather than force you to read every sentence and receive a linguistic beating, we’ll skip to the “humanize” section at the end, which I showed with an arrow in the screenshot above:
“AGENCYNAME humanizes brands. We operationalize signature strategies across touchpoints that reveal a distinct people-centric approach to service that are experienced and persuasive.”
I’m sorry, what?
My mind slides down those words like butter down a clown’s back.
The “humanize” section sounds like it was written by a glitchy robot who drank too many Business Buzzwords cocktails. No one actually talks like this. The agency wants to persuade their audience that humanizing brands is the answer. Unfortunately, this whole piece, positioning included, is anything but humanizing.
If you want stronger positioning for your freelance business, please pay close attention to the three specific ways this positioning fails.
Positioning Mistake #1 – Too Many Syllables
The writer stuffs in long words like clowns into a clown car. Too many Latin roots and tacked-on syllables make modern readers yawn and disconnect.
Most people will read your freelance positioning statements on screens. Prospective clients want the tabloid version with a hook, a brief description of their painful problem, and the Cliff Notes version of the valuable outcome you deliver. They don’t want to wade through dense language.
When in doubt, ask yourself this question: “Would I talk like this if I were sharing coffee with a friend?” If the answer is no, revise your way back to clarity and simplicity.
Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and strong action verbs would have served this agency well. Instead of “We operationalize signature strategies…” they could have used a more intelligible opening:
- “We give you proven strategies…”
- “Our proven strategies….”
- “We focus on strategies that actually work….”
- “These strategies have made our clients millions…”
Positioning Mistake #2 – Too Many Buzzwords
Let’s unpack the second clause in the sentence in bold: “We operationalize signature strategies across touchpoints that reveal a distinct people-centric approach to service that are experienced and persuasive.”
“Touchpoints”? No, thanks. I ate before I came.
To be fair, a dusting of technical terms can reinforce credibility and strengthen one’s positioning.
On the other hand, buzzwords are like dandelions. They multiply. A surplus of buzzwords plants people outside the Cool Kids Club, and no one likes feeling excluded, uninformed, or somehow less-than.
Would you give your brain surgeon a high five if she recommended “minimally invasive endonasal endoscopic surgery”? Or would you prefer that she translate into layman’s terms? “A tool called an endoscope will help me see the tumor and remove it through your nose. Doing it this way means I won’t have to cut your head open. Can you get on board with that? I thought so.”
The key word here is empathy. When you show knowledge of the prospect’s predicament and a warm regard for the emotions tied to it, your freelance positioning earns her trust.
Robot Agency could have ditched the buzzwords and found more hospitable language like this:
- “Invite people into experiences with your brand that make them feel seen and heard,” or,
- “make it easy for people to make heart-level connections with your brand”
Positioning Mistake #3 – Weak Syntax
“Syntax” means how a sentence is put together, and in this sentence, the root of the syntax problem is two relative clauses, starting with “that,” smashed together like… clowns? Here’s the full sentence again:
“We operationalize signature strategies across touchpoints that reveal a distinct people-centric approach to service that are experienced and persuasive.”
Does the second “that” clause in bold modify or add meaning to the word “service”? If so, the verb is wrong. Or maybe the clause is saying that the signature strategies are experienced and persuasive?
At this point, as the reader, I don’t even care. I am confused, so for the love of all things holy, just make this sentence end!
The hallmark of strong positioning is clarity, not confusion. Here are several simple writing tricks for enhancing clarity:
- Substitute well-known words for obscure ones.
- Break up long, clunky sentences into shorter ones.
- Should you find yourself with back-to-back relative clauses like Robot Agency, do what wise Kindergarten teachers do with unruly kids: separate them.
- As you wrangle ever-ornery syntax, remember to read sentences aloud. If your words and sentences tie up your tongue, they will trip up readers too. Keep shuffling the concepts and clauses until their meanings are plain and unmistakable.
Your freelance positioning must build the prospect’s confidence in you as an alchemist who transforms their leaden frustration into golden satisfaction.
Case in point, Robot Agency could have given their positioning more clarity, lift, and impact with these simple words and sentences:
“Our strategies help you create wow moments for customers and make heart-level connections with them. When your brand makes people’s lives better, they love you for it.”
As you craft messaging for your freelance business, keep this list of best practices handy:
- Use short words, sentences, and paragraphs.
- Use active voice and action verbs. (Look this one up if you used high school English class for napping.)
- Show empathy.
- Strive for clarity and simplicity.
- Use buzzwords sparingly like salt and pepper.
- Do not, I repeat, do not, operationalize signature strategies near anyone you love.
Step-by-Step Process for Crafting Killer Positioning for Your Freelance Business
Let’s wrap up this circus with everyone’s favorite positioning acronym.
Whether you’re working on a positioning statement for your website, LinkedIn profile, or a fabulous “Welcome to Wiener Schnitzel Creative” pitch deck, I recommend Playing for KEAPPS:
Step 1. Demonstrate your knowledge of your dream client’s pains, needs, goals, and emotional drivers.
Most freelancers have encountered marketing catchphrases like “target audience,” “buyer persona,” and “customer avatar.”
I recommend that you schedule an appointment with yourself to actually create one. Think of the exercise as tilling in a field of buried treasure. You’ll turn up valuable insights that explain what really matters to the dream clients you most want to serve.
Create your ideal customer profile in two steps:
- Set a timer for 30 minutes and spend 5 minutes on Demographics. Demographic data classifies external and physical traits, such as age, gender, job title, company revenue, team size, city and region, and industry. You can put together demographics easily.
- Spend the remaining 25 minutes on Psychographics. Psychographic data is more qualitative and focuses on personality, attitudes, values, beliefs, and emotional drivers. I try to hit these six bullet points:
- High-Level Goals & Desired Outcomes
- Specific Fears & Pain Points
- Needs (aka, Must Haves)
- Wants (aka, Nice-to-Haves)
- Objections to Hiring Someone Like You
- Consequences of Doing Nothing
You may be surprised at how much you already know about what goes on in your prospects’ heads. However, if you struggle to unearth anything exciting, I can offer you a simple solution.
Identify a real person who is in your target audience, and interview him or her. Simply explain what you’re doing, schedule an appointment, and ask your questions. If you can’t find anyone willing to talk to you for free, reframe the request as “research” and offer to pay for the person for her valuable time.
Here’s an example of an ideal customer profile I created while working on our positioning for Balernum:
Deeper, richer knowledge of your dream client’s pain points and needs will tell you how to structure your offers, address her fears and objections, and move her toward short-term outcomes and long-term goals.
Bingo. Stronger positioning now entering the atmosphere.
Step 2. Show empathy for the emotions in tow.
Once you crystallize your insights in an ideal customer profile, you will be in the right frame of mind to show empathy.
People do not use cold-blooded logic for most purchasing decisions. Riptides of emotion pull us hither and thither. As a freelancer, you paddle out and deliver a service. You rescue them and return them to shore.
These questions will give you the fodder you need to show that warm regard in your freelance positioning:
- “What causes my dream client heartburn?”
- “What is she afraid of?”
- “What keeps him up at night?”
- “What expensive problem has him tied up in knots?”
- “What thorn does she have in her heel?”
- “What does she really want?”
- “What does a better future look like?”
But don’t stop with the cold, hard, functional benefits.
Zero in on the emotional end benefits. You save a prospect from the trauma of a shark bite, the pain of a jellyfish sting, the tragedy of drowning, the inconvenience of exhaustion, or plain ol’ embarrassment.
In Balernum’s example above, Janice had weak and confused messaging. I can flip that pain point into a functional benefit like this:
👉 “When we finish the project, your brand will have consistent, unified messaging across all of your platforms (e.g., website, LinkedIn, socials, print collateral).”
I can also flip Janice’s lack of confidence in her brand messaging into an emotional end benefit:
👉 “Together, we’ll ensure that you’re really confident in your brand. You’ll want to share it with everyone.”
You’ll weave both functional benefits and emotional end benefits into your freelance positioning statements.
Step 3. Explain your advantage.
Your advantage is the value proposition or set of differentiators that most people think of when they hear the word “positioning.” Your value proposition becomes more effective when you couch it inside of the KEAPPS framework.
With that in mind, your next move is taking yourself through the Bajillion Yellow Sticky Notes exercise I use with both Freelance Cake students and Balernum clients:
- Write down the different ways you create value and meaning for clients (aka, your strengths, unfair advantages, and any special ingredients). Use a separate sticky note for each one. Your differentiators may tie into your personality or attitude: “I’m nice. I’m not a jerk.” Or, they may relate to your education/training, credentials, or experience: “I am a certified lion tamer.” Or, they may highlight your skills or process: “I can get a new Youtube video ranked #1 in less than a week.” Don’t stop until you have between 20-30 differentiators.
- Set a new timer for 5 minutes.
- Force yourself to pick your Top 10 differentiators. Base your choices on which ones you think will be the most important or valuable to clients.
- Flip each of your differentiators into a functional benefit or emotional end benefit like I mentioned above. That way, you’ll have plenty of raw material for your positioning.
- Next, craft a value proposition that you can use on your homepage, your LinkedIn profile, and even in emails to prospects. This fill-in-the-blank template encompasses whom you serve, what you offer and how you deliver it differently than competitors, and why you’re committed to this work.
“You know how when you want to CLIENTGOAL1 and CLIENTGOAL2, you usually get PAINPOINT1 and have to PAINPOINT2? Well, I can help you DIFFERENTIATOR1 and DIFFERENTIATOR2. What that means is EMOTIONAL BENEFIT 1 and EMOTIONAL BENEFIT 2. My clients appreciate opposite of PAINPOINT1. When you partner with me, I will make a BOLD PROMISE HERE.
Here Balernum’s value proposition:
“Balernum makes building an authentic brand easy to understand and easy to do. We come alongside you and guide you and your team through brand arithmetic: meaningful addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Along the way, we will clarify what makes you special, simplify your messaging and marketing, and help you see and gain confidence in the path forward. We believe in your ability to operate your brand in the real world. Now let us convince you.”
Once you’ve got a working draft of a value proposition that explains your advantage, move on to Step 4.
Step 4. Make a bold promise.
I’ll share four examples:
- Square Nine Studios: “We will grow your business where other agencies and teams have failed.”
- My friend Joey Gilkey: “We do what no other outbound agency or salesperson is willing or able to do.”
- Domino’s Pizza, back in the day: “Hot, fresh pizza in 30 minutes or less or your money back.”
- Beautycounter: “One by one, we are leading a movement to a future where all beauty is clean beauty. We are powered by people, and our collective mission is to get safer products into the hands of everyone. Formulate, advocate, and educate—that’s our motto for creating products that truly perform while holding ourselves to unparalleled standards of safety. Why? It’s really this simple: beauty should be good for you.”
I included the Beautycounter example to make a point. Some brands, agencies, and studios have brand positioning that is distinct from their advantages and skillsets of their founders.
That’s the case for me with Balernum, and if you’re in the same boat, your brand positioning will explains how your brand is different from others.
On the other hand, if you’re using your own name for your freelance business and don’t have a separate brand, then it’s fine to focus on your own skills, aptitudes, expertise, background, and personality.
Either way, as brand or individual, you must make a bold promise. You must draw a line in the sand.
The bolder the promise, the more singular and attractive you become to your dream clients.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If your bold promise doesn’t make you squirm, you haven’t promised enough.
The whole point of freelance positioning is not to play it safe but to stand out, grab attention, and motivate people to contact you. You attract high-paying clients who will gladly pay higher prices for more value and more CERTAINTY.
Make a bold promise, and then work your butt off to keep it.
Step 5. Show proof that you can deliver.
These days, anyone can claim anything online. There’s a big difference between making a claim and building a case. Strong positioning means building a case and back it up with clear evidence.
Here’s where testimonials and case studies come into play. Proof of past success is perhaps the single most important factor in positioning. That’s why you see brand agencies like Red Antler, Pentagram, Gander, and Preacher putting all the focus on their clients and campaigns, not their clout.
I have a professional crush on Emily Heyward at Red Antler, so I’ll use Red Antler’s homepage as an example.
The page is noticeably light on copy. All you’ll find is a few restrained lines like “CHALLENGING WHAT IS AND CREATING WHAT’S NEXT” and a shout-out from Inc. (“The Most Important Entrepreneurs of the Decade”) with a link to the article.
What you cannot deny is the proof. Red Antler has helped build wildly successful brands like Allbirds, Casper, Keeps, and Porter Road.
Freelancers and creatives are kind of like actors and professional athletes in that people don’t want to hear about what we can do. They want to see what we have done.
In his post, “5 Steps to Position Yourself as an Authority and Expert In Your Market,” consultant and coach Michael Zipursky hits the nail on the head: “Rather than you talking about how good you are, let others do the talking.”
Or, as my high school English teacher Ms. Tracey was so fond of saying,
“Show, don’t tell.”
Step 6. Share some secret sauce.
You don’t have to give away all your trade secrets, but you do want to give prospects a taste of the secret sauce.
Our friends at Square Nine Studios list out nine steps in their process, and each section on the website expands to explain how the project will unfold.
By highlighting specific tasks and actions and the why behind them, you position yourself as an expert guide with a proven track record, not some amateur freelancer spinning up “solutions” in the wee hours of the morning.
These six pointers will keep you on the straight and narrow path:
- Consider giving your process a unique name. Names bring legitimacy.
- Make the client the hero of the story by focusing on specific, measurable outcomes.
- Tell a story to present the process. People like stories because we can imagine ourselves inside of them.
- Err to the side of simplicity. Please don’t include 43 steps with a balsamic syrup drizzle on top. The point of a process is to showcase your method, not broadcast your madness.
- Use screenshots, icons, or diagrams to help people visualize their progress.
- Write blog posts that open up new perspectives and ideas for your dream clients. These could be strategy breakdowns or deeper examinations of specific parts or phases of your process. RAIN Group’s “What Sales Winners Do Differently” research showed that the #1 factor separating winners from losers was being a “source of insight.” By educating the people you want to buy from you, you establish yourself as an authority.
Bonus Round for All You Overachievers – Positioning Your Freelance Offers
Once you have brand positioning or freelance positioning, you will also want to craft positioning statements for each of your offers or productized freelance services. Use these questions to pinpoint what makes your offers special:
- What do I call this offer?
- What short-term impact or specific results am I promising?
- What long-term transformation will the client see?
- How will the engagement unfold? What does the process look like?
- How is it better or different than my other offers and my competitors’ offers?
How you describe your specific offers makes them more or less desirable, more or less valuable.
For example, one freelance writer offers “high-quality case studies at an affordable price.” A second freelancer writer took the time to develop much better positioning for an identical service:
“I will help you get unstuck by guiding you through my step-by-step process. We will capture your incredible case studies in writing and make them entertaining and powerful. As your ghost writer, I will save you a ton of time and help to position you as a thought leader.”
If you were the client, which writer would you want to contact?
Final Thoughts on Positioning + Cheat Sheet (Clown-Free Version)
Thank you for reading to the end. Seriously. This behemoth of a post certainly isn’t a beach read. Let me send you away with a smile anyway.
You don’t have to be a once-in-a-generation talent or the best in the world to have excellent positioning as a freelancer. Really, you don’t.
Follow the KEAPPS framework, strive for clarity and empathy, and point the spotlight at the valuable outcome or experience that your dream client really wants. Doing this work is like writing yourself a future check for $25,000.
Weak positioning is like running with a parachute behind you; stronger positioning is parasailing. Strong positioning gives you buoyancy, fresh wind, speed, and perhaps most important of all, enough cushion to overdeliver, create a satisfying experience for clients, and create beautiful portfolio projects.
Strong positioning enables you to double your freelancing rates (without clients even knowing) and double your satisfaction. The more you charge, the more generosity and Pollyanna perkiness you can afford. Being more expensive enables you to build generosity into every proposal.
More than any other facet of or factor in your freelance business, positioning boosts profit, and profit brings time freedom.
Yet, most people who read this post won’t take action. I would like you to be one of the freelancers who follows through. You must do what most won’t to create the life most want.
Put in your name and email address below, and I’ll send you the download link for the Playing for KEAPPS worksheets.