A lot of freelance copywriters are anti-Upwork extremists. Just the thought of tainting their reputation on that ghastly platform has them reaching for the hand sanitizer.
Others laud themselves for eventually escaping Upwork. I'm not exempt—I used to blatantly lie, saying I only used Upwork "occasionally" but was "moving away from it" soon and becoming my own man. That was 5 years ago.
Then at some I realised I was a Grade A moron. Upwork drip feeds me free qualified leads and I'm off buying worthless email lists from a web scraper in the Philippines? Why?!
So this post is about using Upwork as a freelancer/copywriter: why I think it's great, how to use it, and why I'd recommend anyone in a similar position to maintain a profile.
The Upwork rat race: you don't need to take part
Look I get it: Upwork has a reputation. It’s seen as the rat race to the bottom. Where exploitative companies pay pennies to grovelling unskilled workers. And yeah, there’s a lot of that.
A lot of the jobs, expectations and freelancers on Upwork are absolute garbage. Whenever the platform asks for feedback, it’s the first thing I say: if you want to attract more amazing companies, you need to cut more of the chaff.
Because it creates a bad cycle:
Company asks for “experts” and offers to pay $0.10 per word of writing
Unskilled freelancers take the work
More companies realise they can charge $0.10
More freelancers take the shitty work
Eventually, the majority of job posts and freelancers are shitty.
Important keyword alert: MAJORITY
This is the crucial part. Ask yourself: are you a shitty unskilled freelancer? Do you want $0.10 per word to wordsmith up some content? No?
Then stop focusing on the shitty jobs.
They aren't aimed at you!
Here's the thing: damn good businesses use Upwork, they have great work available and they know what quality looks like. Don't let your ego leave money on the table!
(Side note: if you are new to freelancing, hopefully there's still advice here that increase your odds of getting decent work. Just stay patient, do good work and the rewards will come!)
Serious businesses do use Upwork
I use Upwork and I don’t even notice the nonsense posts. (Mostly because I filter them out)
Here’s a truth many freelancers either don't know or choose to ignore: good, great and amazing companies do use Upwork. It’s the biggest freelance platform in the world and, when companies search “Hire amazing copywriter”, guess which platform is top of the search results?
And when a serious company wants an expert copywriter (or whoever) they’re not looking at $5/hr copyrighters—they find the people that know their shit.
How businesses bypass the trash
Upwork isn’t entirely stupid. They know their most optimised revenue stream is the serious businesses that want proper help and are willing to pay for it:
When creating job posts, they offer a tonne of advice on making them appeal to top freelancers.
Upwork algorithms suggest accomplished freelancers to contact
Top freelancers have top profiles that stand out
Clients can set requirements like freelancer income amount, success score, key skills etc
I’m not some megastar 8-figure copywriting genius—but I get a lot of contact from great companies, who have budgets I like, through Upwork. And bigger fish than me enjoy the same thing.
“Upwork takes too much of my money”
Yes, Upwork is a profit-making company. *gasp emoji*
Here’s how to get paid your “normal” rates on Upwork:
(normal rate) x 1.2 = offset Upwork fees
It is that simple. If you hate the idea of paying for leads, increase your rates so that any contracts finish up at whatever you normally charge. Problem solved. Upwork is now a free resource.
(And if you are successful in getting work this way, you’ve got a green light to increase your off-Upwork fees, and then re-increase them on Upwork. Win and win.)
(And if you’re thinking “Well actually Upwork charges for buying connects” then I’ll say “Look buddy, if you can’t afford $0.90 to land a job worth hundreds or thousands, you've got bigger problems. Maybe if you worked on your craft instead of making snide article comments, you'd be able afford Connects!" Then I'd thank you for your engaging comment.)
If you're good, the trash doesn’t matter
When I give a quote to a prospect, there’s 3 typical responses:
“You must be fucking joking—no one would pay that for writing!”
“Hmmm, well our budget is actually [convenient smaller number]—can you do anything on the price?”
“Sounds good. Where do I pay?”
And believe it or not, I get a higher percentage of #3s on Upwork than off it. Why?
My profile sets expectations
My Upwork profile is nothing special. But any prospect landing on it sees two crucial things: an hourly rate and the actual payments for past jobs.
The hourly rate does two helpful things. First, it weeds out the #1s of the world: if they think I’m an overcharging bastard, they probably won’t reach out*. And second, it lets my ideal prospect know I’m the real deal because I charge a respectable amount.
The “past jobs” section is just as important: it backs up the hourly rate.
A common problem on Upwork is that freelancers say $100/hr but their other projects are all $10 each. Those people are not (and should not be) taken seriously.
By contrast, most prospects outside of Upwork are coming in blind—my prices aren’t mentioned on my site or LinkedIn. That leads to more #1s.
*I did have someone message me once to point out how high my rates were. Nice guy. Remarkable knack for expletives.
How I deal with the #2s
For the most part, I quote what I think is a totally fair price—I absolutely hate haggling. I’ll probably write a post on that in future.
So when someone says “Come on, what’s your best price?” I sassily re-send my initial message. Sometimes they turn into #3s and we work together. Sometimes they go away—and then I forget all about them.
Upwork as a passive lead generator
I think a majority of anti-Upwork freelancers probably don’t realise how easy and not time-consuming the platform actually is. Once you’ve got a profile set up (I made mine 6 years ago—I have no idea how easy or hard it is today) you can go two routes:
Join the Application Nation—Use filters to eliminate (most of) the rubbish and apply for any genuinely promising job that comes up. You can do this 1-2x per week without missing a good opportunity. IMO this is the best way to use your Upwork profile since, with good templates, it requires 1-2 hours effort a week for a potentially massive return. I’ve recently amped up my Application nationalism.
Swim with the basking sharks—Basking sharks don’t hunt: they float around the water until prey literally swims into their mouths. This is how I used Upwork for years. Every now and then you’ll get job invites. If your profile is well-written and filtering properly, some of them will be great opportunities.
Unvalidated titbit warning: I’ve found a definite trend between applying for jobs and getting unrelated invites to jobs. I think that applications (i.e. spending connects) gets you better placement in the search algorithms. Therefore, making some effort to apply for jobs should have a disproportionately high return.
Spending 1-2 hours a week isn’t technically passive, but given you probably spend 5 hours a week thinking of snappy comebacks to LinkedIn posts—or cold emailing people who left that role 10 years ago—it’s pretty close.
You don’t always need to “interview”
Probably once per week I get a straight-up job offer from a totally cold prospect on Upwork. A quick clarification on scope and deliverables and bam—it’s in the diary, fully funded.
I can think of two clients off the top of my head, both of whom sent direct offers and ended up spending nearly 10 grand. For me, that's massive. I didn’t do anything to earn this other than maintain a profile and do my job.
How to get lucrative clients
Don’t worry—I’m not selling a 4-figure VIP masterclass on UPWORK CLIENT SECRETS THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW.
It’s a 5-figure VIP masterclass!
No. In my experience, the actual key to attracting good clients on Upwork is to demonstrate expertise and be specific.
Expertise—If a client reads my profile, they know that I know my stuff. An expert can always convey their expertise without saying “OMG I right so good and won amazing spurious awards!”
Specific—This is more of a general business point, but I’ve found specific profiles generally get better traction. If you have niche skills, advertise them.
I almost included “professional” in that list, but that’s not quite it. You need to be whatever your ideal client is looking for.
My ideal client is candid, knows what they want, trusts hired expertise and has my sense of humour.
So my profile is candid, it says what I do, it demonstrates expertise and sometimes makes a dumb joke. My profile photo is pretty professional.
I could write a whole post about how to write EFFECTIVE cover letters. My work as a conversion copywriter is probably an advantage and I’ve even been hired (on Upwork) to help other consultants or agencies write good applications.
But to summarise:
Demonstrate value (show you understand the post, offer free advice, reference similar projects)
Don’t share irrelevant samples. (“You want a hard-hitting landing page? Here’s my crypto blog!”)
Use casual language (personal preference)
The most important thing is to assess and reinvent your applications over time. Figure out what works and double down. And most importantly, none of this takes much time... ↓
How I maximise my Upwork efficiency
Like anything, it’s possible to spend way too much time on things that aren’t actually important. Trust me, I’m kind of an expert on that.
And so here are the ways I keep my time on Upwork to a minimum while still getting plenty of opportunities.
Use (good) templates
I use high-quality templates for about 90% of Upwork applications. They show my personality, skills, results and have been repeatedly curated over several years.
Don’t copy and paste some bullshit from the internet. Create templates based on your most successful organic applications. Just like you would with any other outreach activity. I use these for 90% of applications. Sometimes I’ll make a couple tweaks.
For the other 10% (for me, this is for the really juicy jobs I want most) I’ll spend a few minutes making things super personalised. This is the most effective approach in general, but I’d rather get 80% of the results for 10% of the effort, 90% of the time.
That's some top maths right there. 😂
Use job search filters
There are bazillions of jobs on Upwork. But as I said, only a tiny fraction are relevant to you.
Search job posts and use the features to narrow the search results. You might miss a good opportunity, but you’ll remove 99% of the garbage. Here are the filters I apply to most searches:
Experience level—In my experience, ‘entry level’ and ‘intermediate’ jobs aren’t a good match for me.
Job type—Many of my best gigs have been posted as hourly rates. I set the $500 minimum on fixed price because it eliminates a lot of duds.
Client info—Again generally speaking, those with verified payment methods are more serious & likely to hire me.
Use saved searches
I have one saved search I use most of the time: “landing page copywriter”. I occasionally use my “blog writing” search.
These save time and are specific. I can see every good opportunity in a few minutes.
“Best Matches” tool
On the Upwork homepage, there’s an auto-compiled feed of jobs that Upwork thinks will suit you. In recent weeks, these have been pretty bang on for me!
I don’t know what influences them, but I now scan these every day to look for potentially good contracts (which takes 5 minutes).
The get rich or die tryin’ strategy
Don’t want to spend ages on Upwork and have a decent income stream already? Put a wonderfully high price on your services. If anything sticks, you’re in the money. And if not, who cares? Didn’t cost you nothin’.
LinkedIn photo = Upwork photo
Upwork hides freelancer surnames to prevent poaching. But if you search "Jake B copywriter" into LinkedIn, it's not a great leap to find the profile with my face smiling out of it! Oh hello direct billing.
Double bonus if they're expecting your 1.2x rates!
(If Upwork is reading, note that I would never accept a direct job offer knowing it came from Upwork. Naturally.)
End of the blog post
I wrote this in a flurry and didn’t really have an end point in mind. So I’ll just quickly summarise and throw in anything else I can think of:
Lucrative and meaningful work is THERE on Upwork
Upwork can basically be used as a passive lead generation machine (that actually works)
In my experience, the payoff to effort ratio is high
Being professional and specific help you stand out
Good systems make the lead generation machine work better for you
Is it wise to get 100% of your work from Upwork? Definitely not - you don’t know when its CEO’s racket will collapse on itself and the platform will be ripped apart. Or whatever.
Is it a potentially lucrative and low-maintenance lead generator in addition to your other options? Absolutely.
There's no earth-shattering moral, ethical or financial purpose to this post. I just think it’s funny how puritanical freelancers (specifically copywriters, in my experience) get about the platform and thought I'd write about it - because maybe there's a big opportunity waiting for them!
It's basically free marketing. For me, that's a no brainer!
PS—I don’t use the time tracker. One prospect in 3 years has insisted I use it. One client in 5 years has failed to pay. (They did when I took it to customer support)
PPS—Feel free to share this post with literally anybody.