Should You Call Yourself a Freelancer? Why Your Title Might Be Holding You Back
The words you use to describe yourself matter. Words affect your personal brand. They influence people’s perception of you, especially when a few words is all they know about you. If you want to be a successful freelancer, you need to be thoughtful with the words you use to describe yourself and your work.
The words we speak aloud can even affect our own brains. Simply introducing yourself to a client can change the way you view yourself. If you refer to yourself as an experienced professional, eventually, you will start to think of yourself as such. But if you refer to yourself as an amateur or newbie, that’s exactly what you’ll be.
Self-perception is important because words can influence your own mood and behavior. Having repetitive negative thoughts can activate the brain’s fear center. If you think of yourself as an imposter who lacks control over their work and career, you’ll present that message to clients and prospects through your behavior and language.
Your title is one of the first pieces of information that prospective clients learn about you. It should tell clients who you are and how you can help them. This begs the question: Are you introducing yourself properly? Does it make sense to call yourself a “freelancer,” or is there a different way to set the stage for client relationships?
In this article, we help you understand whether it makes sense to call yourself a freelancer or if a different term is more suitable for your career.
The words you use to describe yourself matter. Words affect your personal brand. They influence people's perception of you, especially when words are all they know about you. Click To Tweet
What is a Freelancer?
A “freelancer” is a self-employed professional hired to work for different companies on particular assignments. You may call yourself a designer, a consultant, a copywriter, or a voice artist, but these careers can all fall under the umbrella of freelancing.
The term “freelancing” refers to the mechanics of your work. That is, it explains how you work, not what you do. It’s the same as using words like entrepreneur, small-business owner, or startup founder. They give others an idea of your day-to-day and business structure, but they don’t provide any information about how you add value to the world.
Without that information, it becomes vital that you aren’t just a freelancer; you’re a freelance developer, a freelance marketer, or a freelance architect. If you only say, “I’m a freelancer,” no one will know what you mean. They need a little more information to understand what you do.
So why does anyone use the term “freelancer” at all? Freelancers tend to describe themselves as such because freelancing is not the traditional employment format. If you tell someone, “I’m a web designer,” they will assume you work full-time for a design company. If you want them to understand that you are self-employed and serve many clients at once, you must add the “freelance” part.
But while you may be a freelancer, that doesn’t mean you have to call yourself one. When it comes to giving yourself a title, you’ll need to decide if using the term “freelancer” is suitable or if there’s an alternative that suits your needs.
(Undecided about becoming a freelancer? Learn if freelancing is right for you in our complete guide: Is a Freelance Career Right For You? How to Determine if Freelancing is Viable.)
Using the Right Terms in Your Title
While some people harbor negative connotations about freelancers, that sentiment has largely faded as freelancing has become more common. According to Upwork, there are currently 58 million freelancers in the U.S. who contribute $1.4 trillion to the national economy. Freelancing is poised to become the U.S. majority workforce by 2027.
Furthermore, a LinkedIn report found that freelancers provide a cost-effective and flexible solution to small- and medium-sized businesses. 70% of SMBs in the U.S. have worked with freelancers at least once, 81% of these companies plan to hire freelancers again, and 83% believe that freelancers have greatly helped their business. Clearly freelancing is seen as a legitimate mode of work and a valuable resource for clients.
So should you call yourself a freelancer? Well, it depends. In some cases, using the term “freelancer” can give yourself a significant advantage. In other cases, it would be smarter to use a title that aligns with what your clients expect. The term “freelance” is neither good nor bad. It’s a tool you can use to grow your career.
Consider that many people are technically freelancers but don’t refer to themselves as such. Some real estate agents, for example, work entirely freelance, but they don’t call themselves freelancers. They title themselves “real estate agents” because that’s what someone looks for when they need to buy or sell a house.
Substitute teachers, private drivers, event planners, and house cleaners are all examples of freelancers who don’t use “freelance” in their title because it wouldn’t make sense. Imagine a substitute calling themselves a “freelance teacher.” That feels odd, doesn’t it?
This same phenomenon applies to all kinds of different freelancers, especially the digital freelance roles that have become increasingly common, such as WordPress developers, email marketers, search engine optimizers, graphic designers, API specialists, and more.
For this reason, it’s essential to use the terminology that your clients expect. That is, you want to use the words they find valuable. In some scenarios, “freelance” is inappropriate, but several clients want to hire freelancers. Let’s walk through some examples.
The fledgling startup
A young startup is ready to start marketing its product and needs to bring someone on board who will build a marketing program and kick off campaigns. They want someone with years of experience who will invest themselves completely in the company. The role may turn into a full-time position with a significant salary and equity. Which title best suits this role?
- Freelance Marketer
- Senior Marketing Consultant
In this case, the “Senior Marketing Consultant” title feels like a better fit for this role because it implies the kind of leadership the startup needs. In actuality, the Senior Marketing Consultant is just a marketer working on a freelance basis. There’s no difference, but the title suits the role.
The frugal nonprofit
A nonprofit needs some print media created for an upcoming in-person event. They don’t want to hire a full-time designer because they only need design services two or three times a year. They don’t want to hire an agency because as a nonprofit, money is tight. Which title best suits this role?
- Freelance Print Designer
- Vice President of Media Solutions
Obviously the nonprofit would prefer to hire the Freelance Print Designer. This title implies a close, transactional relationship that ends once the posters and flyers are delivered. And they know they’ll be paying for the work directly, rather than paying an agency’s bloated invoice.
The family-owned business
A small, family-owned business needs a basic application made to automate a simple process. They don’t know much about apps, so they want to work with someone who will walk them through the process and answer their phone calls. Which title best suits this role?
- Chief Systems Architect
- Freelance Software Engineer
Again, even though these titles can apply to the same person, the freelance title wins out because it implies an intimate relationship. A Chief Systems Architect just sounds like a leader in a big, bureaucratic company. It also sounds expensive.
The corporate conglomerate
A well-funded company in a traditional industry (maybe insurance, healthcare, or manufacturing) wants to open an ecommerce store to sell branded merchandise. They need someone with Shopify experience who can build and manage the entire project. They have a generous budget and a long time-table. Which title best suits this role?
- Freelance Ecommerce Developer
- Director of Ecommerce Operations
In this case, the company is probably looking for an ecommerce professional with a weighty title as they want to hire someone who intends to stick around for a while and invest themselves in the company’s success. So you should go with the “Director of Ecommerce Operations” title. Just like the other examples, the same person can operate under each title, but one feels more suitable than the other.
6 Tips to Help You Determine Your Title
The next decision you have to make is what you will call yourself going forward. Your job is to determine the right words that your type of client wants to hear. As we mentioned earlier, the words you use to describe yourself will influence how other people see you, so it’s important to consider this decision carefully. You may decide to continue calling yourself a freelancer, or you may pick something more suitable.
Here are some tips that will help you unpack your situation and decide on a title.
1. Consider Traditional Titles
Your industry or discipline may come with a built-in title that’s perfectly suitable for your needs. In fact, if you don’t use a title that people expect, you’ll struggle to find clients.
Real estate agents are an excellent example of this. If a real estate agent tried to use the title “home sales professional” or “housing transaction liaison,” potential clients would skip right past their name because it doesn’t match their expectations. You may think a unique title will help you stand out as a freelancer, but it often does the opposite.
If your role comes with a de facto title like this, we recommend leaning into it. It’s the quickest way to make clients see you as experienced and the right fit for their needs.
2. Avoid Adding Useless Fluff
“Fluff” refers to elements that exaggerate or boast your contribution to a client’s business or life. They often make a title seem silly or pretentious. For instance, calling yourself the “Director of Domestic and International Operations” includes fluff if you don’t have any international business. It sounds good, but it’s not accurate. Some clients might even call it deceptive.
Furthermore, words like “guru,” “ninja,” or “wizard” are trendy, but confusing and often misleading. They’re fun, but they don’t give clients much information about what you do. Opt to be clear and straightforward (unless for some reason you think a prospect really likes trendy titles).
3. Manage Your Clients’ Expectations
Your clients will use your job title to evaluate whether you are the right person to meet their needs. So your title should reflect what you actually do, not something more significant, even if you are qualified for that role.
For instance, it would be a poor idea to call yourself a “Marketing Consultant” if you only manage social media accounts. Sure, you technically consult on marketing campaigns, but the title implies something greater than the service you provide. It would be more effective to use something that relates closely to your service so clients have a clear idea of how you can help them.
(Managing expectations is also a good way to improve your relationships with your clients. Read more: How to Create Trusting Relationships with Your Clients and a More Satisfying Freelance Career.)
4. Use “Freelancer” Strategically
There’s an implied transactional nature to the term “freelancer.” Freelancers typically have multiple clients at one time, meaning each client only gets a portion of their time and attention. In some cases, freelancers have a full-time job, but freelance on the side for extra income.
As such, you can use the term “freelancing” strategically to signal that you are available for hire, but not on a full-time basis. You are willing to jump in and perform certain tasks, but unwilling to commit to full-time or long-term employment, embed yourself too deeply into your client’s team, or take on work that’s outside of the scope of the freelance agreement.
(That said, not all freelancers operate this way. Some freelancers serve one client at a time, sometimes for years before their arrangement ends. The beauty of freelancing is that you have complete control over your work, so you should operate in whatever manner suits your life. )
If this is a boundary you want to enforce, a powerful tool to use is time tracking software. Time tracking ensures you get paid for every minute of work and ensures you aren’t working on projects outside the scope of your agreement. Our app, Timing, automatically tracks your work, so you can reproduce what you worked on at any given time. Timing produces timesheets you can trust, even when you forget to start a timer.
5. Change Your Title When Appropriate
Your job title isn’t permanent. As a freelancer, you can change it whenever you want without asking for anyone’s approval. You may change your title (permanently or temporarily) depending on the industry or vertical you decide to enter. You might decide to change your title to work with a particular client.
And of course, you can always change your title when you grow. If your social media marketing services evolve into a menu of digital marketing products, you should expand your title to reflect that. Clients will better understand what you offer and you can charge more.
6. Consider Becoming a Business
You may not think of yourself as a legitimate business, but that is what you are. “Many freelancers don’t realize they’re starting their own small business,” says Sutton Fell, CEO of professional job service FlexJobs.
Depending on the type of clients you serve, it may be more lucrative to brand yourself as a business. Give your company a name, a branded domain, and a website, then title yourself “CEO of XXX” or “Owner of XXX.”
Some clients may prefer to do business with a “full company” rather than an individual. To some people, hearing that you own a business adds a lot of credibility. It signals that you are serious about your endeavor and committed to your craft. Fortunately, starting a business is easier than ever today. With digital tools, you can manage a lot of it on your own without hiring help, all from the comfort of your home.
Should You Call Yourself a Freelancer?
Ultimately, you will need to decide if calling yourself a freelancer is right for your business. If you believe that your clients find that word valuable, you should use it. But if the clients you typically work with don’t value that term, it’s wise to use something else.
We’d like to leave you with one last point: The shift towards freelancing in our economy represents an important change in the way we – as a society – add value to the world (especially in our post-pandemic climate). The freelancing world is a vibrant community of skilled, experienced, and helpful professionals. You are fortunate to be a part of that. Whether or not you call yourself a freelancer, please be proud of your contributions to the world.