A lot has changed in the world of digital marketing since AT&T embarked on what was then a revolutionary strategy — the 1994 placement of what is widely considered to be the first digital banner ad on the home page of Hotwired.com, the precursor for today’s Wired.com. Primitive as that era might have seemed in some respects, internet users were already getting a taste of what would become Search Engine Optimization — or SEO — via Yahoo, which had been colloquially labeled “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web” after founder Jerry Yang. Yahoo’s debut was a decided success, and it would go on to receive more than 1 million hits in just its first year.
Web 1.0, the earliest iteration of the public internet, was largely an assemblage of web pages connected together via hyperlinks —it was often referred to as the “read-only web.” It would eventually give way to Web 2.0, which would allow those users to not only consume online information, but also interact with both their fellow users and businesses. The marketing potential of this evolution was obvious and it would jumpstart the proliferation of a number of social media platforms Myspace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, and YouTube in 2005.
Meanwhile, a major change was underfoot in the American workplace. While freelancing was by no means a new concept — Leonardo da Vinci began creating artwork and pursuing scientific discovery by contract as far back as the late 1400s — continual improvements in internet connection speeds made remote work more viable than ever before.
The continual evolution of digital marketing has combined with the rapid shift toward a freelancing workforce to create the rise of freelance digital marketing services and, by proxy, the rise of the digital marketing freelancer. Let’s take a closer look at what got us to this stage, and explore some of the aspects of where this trend now finds us.
The Advent and Continuing Evolution of Digital Marketing
It’s a little hard to believe now, but there was a time when marketing took place entirely offline and consisted entirely of billboards, TV, radio and print advertising, direct mail, and phone banks. That’s not to say that these methods don’t work now. When executed effectively, they still deliver — albeit more modestly in most cases.
Despite having plenty of skeptics, digital marketing made quite a splash early on. That aforementioned AT&T banner ad was a rousing success — despite being such a novel concept that the ad’s text literally had to guide viewers to their next action via its prophetic text, “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will.” It produced a 44% clickthrough rate. Despite the enthusiasm for their early incarnations, banner ads soon developed a reputation for being obtrusive and, because tracking pixels had yet to debut, they were also often irrelevant to end users. Nevertheless, digital marketing rapidly gained a strong foothold, and in 2004 alone, U.S. companies spent around $9.6 billion on online advertising.
Driven by digital marketing’s low financial barrier to entry, which keeps risk to a minimum, as well as its trackability — definitely, a big plus — companies jumped in ever more enthusiastically from there, and continue to do so to this day. By next year, American corporations are expected to spend about $379 billion on digital marketing initiatives and the ascent to that level has been very consistent over the years, with just a couple of setbacks for the circa-2000 dot.com bubble and the 2008 financial meltdown.
The emergence of those aforementioned social media platforms created more avenues with which to interact with both prospects and existing customers and, at the same time, created the need for a certain specialization within digital marketing — social media marketing, which centered on fostering online engagement through the creation of compelling posts and visual content and, ideally anyway, interacting with the comments (even the negative ones) and analyzing the engagement data that came from those activities. Collectively, that can be a fairly time-intensive undertaking, leading many companies to outsource social media to professionals who both had a grip on its nuances and the bandwidth to execute it properly.
Now, with social media platforms cutting their organic reach levels across the board, social media marketing has become an increasingly “pay to play” endeavor. Gone are the days when a hastily-constructed post accompanying a mediocre photo will get much reach. With well over 90% of all U.S. corporations using social media for marketing purposes, this migration from organic to paid content has exerted quite an effect. Content must now attract attention very quickly and feature sharp, professional-level quality — but without being too slick. That’s no easy feat.
Also, with more money being at stake, proper attention to trackability via analytics has gone from being a welcome luxury to an absolute must. This also raises the bar — both qualitatively and quantitatively — for what digital marketing professionals must now deliver. That seasoned marketing employee who had been entrusted with creating an attractive product brochure wouldn’t necessarily be able to review a company’s online analytics and decide what variables to test and improve.
At the same time, other facets of digital marketing — including email marketing, content marketing, and SEO — have all become more complex over the years and require more specialized expertise than ever before to be effective.
Nearly everyone’s email inbox is chronically overcrowded, so emails with bland or suspect comment lines usually get deleted quickly. The increasing sophistication of Google, Bing, and other search engines means that the content a company puts out there has to provide a genuinely helpful and relevant user experience and can’t just be an amalgamation of frequently repeated keywords in an attempt to game search engine results.
Also, because the online world has become increasingly more accustomed to an individualized experience, a “one size fits all” approach has become woefully inadequate. Most internet users are well aware of what targeting and retargeting are and how they should work — at least when properly executed. When a company serves up a Facebook ad pitching women’s shoes to a man, there will be plenty of derision reflected in the “comments” section. That is, assuming that the user hasn’t interacted with the company’s ads in the past.
So, even as digital marketing becomes more automated via the rise of Chat GPT, increasingly intricate email sequences, and Mailchimp’s use of artificial intelligence (AI), it also becomes more complex in some respects. That level of complexity often makes digital marketing best practices impractical for businesses of varying sizes, who might ultimately find that bringing aboard a freelance digital marketer is both more effective and more efficient than hiring — and extensively training — an in-house digital marketer.
The Rapid Rise of Freelancing
It may seem intuitive that the increasing popularity of freelancing is closely connected to the ascension of the remote workforce coming as a result of the Covid restrictions most of us experienced, but in fact, freelancing had been on the rise well before the pandemic hit. There are now about 70.4 million Americans who do freelance work on at least a part-time basis, compared to only 53 million in 2014.
There’s little doubt, however, that the fallout from Covid did accelerate that trend. While some companies still consider it essential to have all of their employees under one roof, Covid restrictions sent most workers to their home offices, where in many cases, it turned out that the traditional workplace was far from pivotal in fostering productivity. Marketing, as a profession, proved to be no exception.
While historically, marketing, especially at the corporate level, had been considered to be a largely “in-house” function — the Marketing Department generated demand for a product or service and the Sales Department converted that demand into revenue — a few other factors converged to change this perception. Perhaps the most important of these factors has been the rapid improvement of communications technology — especially where the collaboration on and transfer of information is concerned.
There was a time when even remote access to a company website was a fairly involved affair — content management systems like Joomla weren’t all that intuitive when first launched and WordPress was seen as a tool for bloggers, not for the creation and maintenance of professional websites. But the telecom industry continually raised the bar on transfer speeds, and fiberoptic connectivity is now pretty much the norm. Sizable files that would have taken seemingly forever to get from Point A (the company) to Point B (the freelancer) now take a fraction of that time, and information is more secure than ever before in the process.
Perhaps most importantly, both businesses and their workers have found a freelancing arrangement to be more appealing than ever before. Many companies came to realize that hiring freelancers, including freelance digital marketers, to perform certain clearly delineated duties was more economically efficient than onboarding employees, and professionals from a variety of disciplines now consider the quality of life to be a major priority in their career choices. Freed from the constraints of a daily commute, as well as — in many cases — a rigid, pre-defined work schedule, they’ve been able to better align their career aspirations with this priority.
The Upside (and Challenges) of Hiring Freelance Digital Marketing
Obviously, economic efficiency is a primary motivator for most companies, and when these companies can avail themselves of quality, results-focused digital marketing support at a more efficient price point, that’s always going to be a major plus. Freelance digital marketers don’t require the same benefits as employees — no medical benefits, no additional workman’s comp coverage, or retirement benefits to be added. And of course, minimizing the number of on-sight employees means minimizing the amount of office space needed as well. All of these can have a substantial effect on a company’s profitability.
Of course, very few business decisions come with no risk at all, and hiring freelance digital marketing support is no exception — although there’s plenty a business that’s considering making this move can do to mitigate this risk.
First off, pretty much anyone can call themselves a “freelancer” —there are no certifications needed for that title. And, even now, at a time when freelancing has become more common than ever before, many people view having full-fledged employee status as a positive. Of course, that really depends on the employee. Secondly, more than a few digital marketing practitioners inject puffery into their claims of previous success, often with no actual case studies to back those claims up. Digital marketing courses promising to create veritable Jedi marketing masters still abound on social media, and such courses — of varying quality — have been around likely ever since internet entrepreneurs Cory Rudl and Derek Gehl created their Internet Marketing Center . . . all the way back in 1996, which was only a scant seven years after British Computer Scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web as we now know it!
With these seemingly low barriers to entry, focusing on the defining factors that separate legitimate freelance digital marketing pros from the pretenders is essential, and luckily those factors are easily identified: Experience and Real-World Results. While above-board digital marketing freelancers aren’t likely to promise “set in stone” revenue gains, in a discipline as trackable as digital marketing, past results are often indicative of future performance.
Can the freelancer provide actual examples of successful QUANTIFIABLE performance for their previous or current clients? Gains in engagement, conversions, or building a quality list of qualified prospects, growing an online community? Are their clients happy with their results and willing to vouch for the freelancer’s knowledge and skill? All of these go a long way toward proving a freelance digital marketer’s legitimacy.
For those of you who have had the occasion to hire a freelance digital marketer, we’d love to hear about your experience. How did it go? Have you continued that relationship? Let us know!