Top Tips for Choosing and Submitting Proposals on Online Job Boards

In the last few months I've started working with a few new freelancers to help them get work online. Two are looking to do this full-time, and another just wants to earn a little extra money in the evening to save up for travelling. I'm happy to say that ALL are getting work. It's all thanks to their own efforts, not mine, of course, but as I've been working with them I realised I hadn't quite covered the topic of choosing and submitting proposals on online job websites in my previous presentation about Going Freelance and also using your blog to get you work and shine online , so here are some of my top tips. (If you want a little  one-on-one help, email me .)
My experience of online job boards

For the first eighteen months of my freelance copywriting career I used online freelancing websites like PeoplePerHour and Elance to find work and secure regular clients. I use the websites less and less now, but recently I applied for a few jobs as I'd had a quiet few months earnings-wise. This was intentional as I was working on my short story collection (feel free to click through and like the Facebook page - that would make me very happy!) but now that I'm very near to the end of that process I wanted to earn some pennies and quickly.

It made me realise that this is really the true benefit of these websites - you can find, do and get paid for work very quickly. This is ideal when you're first starting out and you need the money and a certain affirmation that "you can do this" almost immediately.

However, that comes with a cost, or a snag, let's say.

The majority of the work on these websites - certainly for copywriting and writing work - is a mismatch of jobs that have low budgets, high expectations and completely unrealistic demands for the average freelancer in the developed world. It also appears that they are getting people to do the work they want for the low price they want to pay - so where does that leave you? After talking with some illustrator, designer and web developer friends also using the same sites, I think it's the same for them. Please note, I'm not going to talk too much about how the international market place affects budgets and pay rates for freelancers using online job boards in-depth here as I don't know enough about it - I also think it deflects from the two points I want to make.

Two things to always remember when using online freelancing websites

Firstly, I want to back up why I still believe in these job sites as a great way to kick start a freelancing career. There are GOOD jobs and GOOD clients using these websites. I know this because I've found them, I've been hired by them and I've kept lasting relationships with them. After spending the last few days looking at the jobs out there, I could see a handful of job descriptions that strongly hinted at being GOOD - I even applied for a few. Yes, you have to rummage, raid and rifle through the rest to find them, but they are there. For any high street fashion shoppers, consider this exercise like a shopping trip in TK Maxx (TJ Maxx for my US friends); if you're prepared to be vigorous in your search for a bargain - or in this case a GOOD job - you will find it. And guess what, GOOD clients want to spend GOOD money. They don't want the guy who can do half the job for a quarter of the budget. They want to pay for a GOOD freelancer to do the full job well.

I want to be clear. You still shouldn't spend hours and hours searching every day. At the most, spend 30-40 minutes using a variety of good keywords once or twice a day. And be ruthless. As soon as you see a red flag in a job description (a low budget, a request for a free sample, a lengthy and demanding job description that leaves you not really knowing what the client wants) then move on to the next. This sort of brings me to my second point.

You don't have to apply or accept a low paying, poorly instructed job.

No-one is forcing you to apply for jobs you don't want to do, nor is it imperative that you take on a job that transpires to be more of a pain in the ass than you realised. If you think the budget is too low, move on to the next. If you can't find ANY jobs that suit your budget and skills every time you check them, then don't use the websites - there are hundreds of other ways to get work.

However, if you're just starting out as a freelancer and you need experience as much as you need money, I would certainly recommend lowering your desired rate a little when you do find work you can do. As I said in my Going Freelance presentation , approximately 80% of my jobs in the first six months of my freelance career were paid at a lower rate than I wanted (about 10-20% lower than I would like). Within twelve months that percentage had dropped to 20% and now I don't take on any jobs for less than I want to work because I have experience and proof that I can deliver. But it took me eighteen months to get there. Absolutely, have your boundaries and know when something is a complete waste of time, but don't let your pride stop you earning anything, especially when you really need the money.

The important thing is to extricate yourself from a problematic job before you have accepted it. I've only ever turned down three jobs on Elance or Peopleperhour after I submitted a proposal. On all three occasions it was because the client moved the goalposts. I was able to turn the work down in an amicable way that caused minimal grief.

Top tips for finding GOOD jobs online

In addition to not spending too much time on finding jobs I recommend the following to maximise how you find the GOOD jobs that are out there. They differ slightly for both PPH and Elance (and then more so for other websites like Guru, Odesk (which I find has notoriously low budgets) and Freelancer).

  • Sign up for specific alerts. I get one daily email summary from Elance about new jobs and I get 3-4 emails a day with Writing Job notifications from PeoplePerHour. All of these emails get filtered into a folder in my Gmail that I can check as and when I need to, rather than the emails clogging up my Inbox. When I don't need to look for new jobs, I just delete the emails in bulk. When I am actively looking for new jobs, I check more regularly, but I am ruthless about deleting the ones that don't seem relevant. Keep this folder as empty as possible so you know when something new has come in.
  • Effective keyword searching. When you're actively looking for freelance work on Elance or PeoplePerHour use keywords that would appear in a job description that you can do e.g. "responsive web design" "creative writing" "luxury travel" rather than just "web designer" "copywriter" and "travel writer". Elance also auto-populates keywords (like Google search does) and both websites let you search across all sectors, though Elance will only let you apply for jobs within certain sectors that you have specified.
  • Check often, but not too often. You could spend hours searching for jobs (and I do recommend doing this when you first start so you can get a good idea of what kind of work you can sell) but when you're keen to get started working, limit your active searches to 1-2 times a day. I find Europe's morning and USA's morning times are good times to have a look if you can.
  • Ignore low budgets. Clients rarely increase their specified budgets. If you can't do the work with the stupidly low budget they have already stated, move on. Even if it is 100% the perfect job for you, if they're only willing to spend $15.00 on it... well, it can't be that perfect? Of course, if you think they actually mean hourly rate instead of total budget, then that's your call if you contact them to clarify, but be aware that this is one good way to waste lots of time. 
  • Look at a client's previous jobs and reviews.  If you like the look of a job, do a little extra due diligence before submitting a proposal - especially if the job/budget seems too good to be true! Clients are rated and reviewed on both Elance and PPH. You can also see the jobs they have previously posted and awarded. If you can see that a client has posted ten jobs in the last six months but only awarded two of them (I think Elance displays this as a % Awarded stat too) then it's possible this client isn't as likely to award the job as someone who has always awarded their previous jobs. Also check out the feedback given for them by previous freelancers - this can be very telling! Previously I've also Googled the client or project name to check how genuine it is.
  • Do they leave feedback?  Generally speaking, clients who give feedback to freelancers are more likely to be "team players" and better clients. Furthermore on these job websites, feedback really is king for getting new jobs, more work and getting invited to submit proposals too. You can find this by clicking on "client info" on Elance (they don't display client names on Elance until you've been accepted for a job). In PPH the client's name will be displayed and you can click on this to see their profile and view the feedback they've given in their Buyer Activity. That said, don't be put off if this is the first job they've ever posted - first time clients are also good potential prospects as they're often keen to find someone who is established on the job website and can show confidence in how to use it.

Top Tips for Submitting Proposals

So you've found some potentially GOOD jobs. Now it's time to know when to submit an eye-catching and convincing proposal.

  • Be one of a few. The earlier you can send a proposal, the better. If there are fifteen or more proposals already submitted for a job, I tend to not waste my time on it unless I think that I have something very special to bring to the job, but then it's up to me to really sell that to the client. Likewise, if the job was posted three weeks ago and still hasn't be awarded, I would question if it's worth my time.
  • Look at who else is submitting a proposal. On Elance this is visible below the job description and you can also order these by the rate they've proposed or their feedback rating. Use this to see how competitive you can be. Also, if the job states something like "Native English speaker only" and you see a lot of non-natives submitting a proposal and you are a native speaker, you know what to do. Don't always be afraid to propose a higher rate than everyone else, if you can back it up. On PPH you can click on the number of people who have submitted proposals to see where they're from and who they are (with links to their profiles) but there's no information on the amount they've proposed.
  • Understand the job description. It sounds obvious but ensure you know what the job is asking you to do and include examples of how you can do these things in your proposal. Some job descriptions are very vague or they hold information back - these aren't necessarily good jobs to apply for. If you think you understand but want to clarify something then don't be afraid to use the Clarifications Board on PPH - this can prompt early client engagement - or to ask questions in your proposal. If the client is a GOOD client, they will respect a sensible question or request for clarification.
  • Good examples . This is where doing (small! bits of) work for free can help. Clients rarely care where work has been done or published, but if you have a professional looking example of your work on a website not owned by you, that is enough - especially if it is relevant to the work they want you to do. I still write articles for free to "top up" my portfolio with different types of writing and I also include my blog as an example of my travel writing and photography and clients regularly say they like that.
  • Never give free samples. If a job description asks for a test paragraph or other fresh example for the job - don't do it. They're being cheeky. Move on. 
  • Get to the point... I'm not saying I'm an expert - I certainly don't win every job I bid on - but having hired on these websites as well as sold services I like short, interesting, personable proposals of 200 - 300 words. My proposals normally follow this structure:

Hi (client name)
Introduction sentence - who you are, where you're from, what you do (make it relevant to their proposal, i.e. I'm a creative copywriter or I'm a travel writer, rather than just "I'm a copywriter")
Why I can do this job, this is the most important thing so don't fluff this sentence up. And why I want to do this job, because clients like knowing you give a monkeys.
2-3 relevant examples of my work (I find urls work fine, but I also sometimes attach pdfs - use different websites/sources for each if you can.)
Explain what my proposal amount includes (to avoid any potential confusion about what you are going to deliver for the money) and if relevant also give your hourly rate if you think they will want to negotiate or want a more specific budget.
Kind regards,
Your next best freelancer (i.e. your name)

And to summarise... online job boards won't make you a millionaire, but they'll help get you started as a freelancer.

There's so much more I could say on both finding and choosing the GOOD jobs and submitting effective proposals, but I think this article  is right in saying that there is no such thing as the perfect proposal. Don't worry about it too much, instead spend that time being effective in your search for work and submitting more proposals.
And finally, I never intended for anyone to make a full-time freelance career out of jobs they get on Elance or PeoplePerHour or any of the others, though it can be done and is being done - very successfully. But I do believe they are a great way to kick start a career and to also act as a buffer when you want to earn a little extra money quickly, just like I'll be doing this month.

Good luck!

Photos accompanying this article are from my recent travels back in the Netherlands.