by Rachel Smith
01 December 2023
If you’re in the RL Gold group on Facebook, you’ll know we often talk about work, the state of the industry, how we’re feeling about losing clients and so on. And a month ago, after a group discussion along the freelance workload lines, one of our members requested we do an external survey for some deeper insights – and hopefully more commentary from freelancers outside our FB group. (Look, we’re big on surveys around here.)
We’d also been inspired by Jennifer Goforth Gregory’s The State of Freelance Writing survey (held in May and October 2023) so we launched our own. In the past few weeks, about 60 freelancers have responded. A teeny sample, sure, but interesting never-the-less. Let’s take a look at the results.
The majority of people who responded have been working for themselves over 5 years – 31 percent between 10-15 years. For those who’ve not been at it long (about 23 percent), I’m not surprised the last year or so has been a hairy ride.
Most freelancers who answered the survey operate in the content writing, copywriting and journalism spaces (which is pretty much where Rachel’s Listers sit generally). We also had responses from comms / PR people, marketing peeps, editors, subs and proofreaders and digital marketers and social media people.
In terms of who respondents worked for, the majority said they primarily work for corporates followed by SMBs, then agencies, publishing houses and solo business owners.
The majority – 51.7 percent – said they were ‘fairly positive’ about the future of freelancing but anticipated changes ahead. A further 12 percent said they were optimistic, which tells me that most people who responded to the survey have navigated changes in their freelance workload before and are taking a bit of a ‘watch this space’ approach rather than a reactive one.
“I know a lot of people are worried about the rise of AI but I am still seeing plenty of demand for people who can craft content with skill and nuance,” said one respondent.
Added another: “I think we need more skills in our tool box to thrive as freelancers in the future, especially as AI is only in it’s infancy. Personally, I’m still working out how to position myself but I can see others doing it already and think it’s a smart move because the days of earning living from jobs we work on as ‘just a writer’ are limited.”
And a third:
“I think it’s about adding other skills into your freelancing tool belt and to be open to taking on other aligned projects whether it be training, strategy and website audits.”
But one respondent who ticked ‘very concerned’ about the state of freelancing, had this to say: “I’m used to the ebb and flow of freelancing but this is the most prolonged drought I’ve ever endured, and across all areas of my business, which is very unusual. I’m not sure this is industry wide, though. I spoke to so many people at The Content Byte Summit who were burned out from overwork (the opposite problem to mine), so maybe it’s something I’m doing (or not doing).”
Respondents had a fairly even split between having more or the same amount of work in 2023, or having less work – compared to the previous year. One respondent talked about diversification being key:
“A freelancer has to diversify, and that has always been the case. I take on projects of whatever shape and size I can, and try to read the tea leaves as to what services/content are perceived to be of higher value at any given time, and gravitate towards those things.”
Said another: “I think there will be more short term work as many sectors move away from permanent staff.”
And yet another: “For years I have been looking to move away from magazine publishing, worried that it was a dying industry, but I’m still getting heaps of work plus some commercial stuff. I guess the shrinking editorial teams means more is being outsourced – for now at least.”
I totally feel for freelancers who are in this type of bind:
“In my specific scenario, I cruised through COVID (professionally speaking, at least), then the floods hit my community and that put a spanner in the works. Now, the overall economy is meh and has been the tipping point for the quietest period I’ve ever experienced in 12 years of running my copywriting business! I’m relying on work from existing clients and am hustling hard to get new clients, with mixed success. Interesting times, and also good to shake me out of my cruise-control mode.”
And another had this to say: “I work project by project, and never by retainer, so the nature of my business is inherently unstable. That said, my biggest client, who has been reliable for several years, has become very quiet in the past six months, and that is a concern. None of my clients have told me directly they are cutting back, but my income this year compared to last tells the story.”
Looks like most of us have suffered client losses this year. Which sucks, but I reckon I’ve probably lost clients most years as a freelancer – it’s par for the course. You lose some, you plug the gaps with new ones. Having the skills to do that is super important.
One respondent echoed this: “I always lose clients – it’s the cycle of freelancing.”
But it looks like – if you were told why the client no longer needed your services – it came down more to financial reasons / cutbacks than the client saying, ‘We’re replacing you with ChatGPT’.
Said this respondent: “My pipeline has been decidedly less full in the past few months and I feel like work may dry up further as AI gets better. That said, I work in a niche that is somewhat sheltered from AI’s influence. I did lose a great client this week who cited budget cuts. As the sole bread winner with a tendency towards pessimism, I’m seriously considering other options, although hopeful to see out my working years still doing what I love.”
Even so – is there a chance that AI may yet wreck more havoc in 2024? One respondent had this to say:
“My sense is that the AI wave has not hit us in Australia… yet. I have copywriting colleagues in North America whose freelance careers have been upended by AI, so I am keeping a watchful eye on these developments. The market here is definitely softening, but I suspect that is the consequence of broader economic issues / belt tightening. My concern is that the combination of wider economic malaise + AI could kill off many freelance writing businesses. I do take on strategy projects, as well as training, which are services less likely to be disrupted by AI. (They also attract higher rates). That being said, writing remains my bread and butter, and those opportunities seem to be shrinking.”
That’s pretty good news, even in the face of the less encouraging data.
This question generated a heap of different responses, including:
What have been your experiences when it comes to losing work / clients as a freelancer over the past year? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.