Some of you may have heard a little something about a recession, and while the Intertubes are awash in strategies for freelance survival during the downturn, I thought a little actual data might be helpful.

After all, my contribution to the freelance survival conversation (and I think would be a stunning blog name) amounted to “get as close to the revenue stream as you can.”

Good idea, but vague. Better might be this: In a down economy, the freelancer’s worst enemy is a shrinking budget (his best friend is marketing staff layoffs, but we’re ignoring that grim reality for now).

So where are marketing budgets growing?

That depends on who’s doing the counting.

DMNews published data from an email software provider’s poll; it identified the top three areas marketers expect to raise spending in 2009:

  • 72% E-mail marketing
  • 44% Search marketing
  • 35% Advertising

Content marketing site Junta42 says content marketing spending is accelerating as the economy worsens, while B2B Magazine says only 25% of B2B marketers plan to cut budgets.

That’s hard to reconcile with the Canadian Marketing Association’s contention that 44% of marketers will reduce their marketing spending, but then, most of these surveys aren’t exactly scientifically valid, it’s an apples & oranges comparison, and those Canadians are a pretty shifty lot to begin with.

Back to Basics

My experience during past downturns suggested marketing departments participate in “back to basics” movements, and our current mess is probably not an exception.

In a recession, Return on Investment (ROI) is king, and not surprisingly, accountable media are seeing gains (or at least not reductions). And who is the marketing ROI King? E-mail marketing, a fact which squares nicely with the bullet points above.

You might also expect to see lots of activity in high-ROI direct response media (the really glitzy lumpy mailers to 100,000-name lists are probably out), and as I pointed out above, “content marketing” also looks good, though I wonder if that isn’t mostly an extension of search marketing. (I divide the world into SEO content and engagement content, and where do the two meet?)

One bright spot is the emerging social media marketing, which despite its “experimental” status, is seeing lots of growth (and yes, I lost the link to the stats).

While social media remains a mystery to many organizations – and its effectiveness is often hard to quantify – spending in that area is still growing based simply on the potential for massive ROI, though again, it’s a spotty thing.

Marketers are often seduced by the low initial cost of social media, but when headcount is tight and people already overloaded, the ongoing care and feeding of social media projects becomes a problem (or perhaps an opportunity for the ambitious freelancer).

Where It’s Not Great

It’s probably not a great time to specialize in non-response oriented brand advertising, especially in high-priced media (like broadcast).

In addition, ad pages in consumer magazines are down a whopping 11%, and those numbers will only get worse as they’re updated, which means less print ad work for writers and art directors.

And it’s not surprising to hear that “luxury” projects (like Web site makeovers, corporate print brochures, etc) are toppling under the swinging budget scythe.

Of course, these are gross generalizations (every situation is unique), but then, why write a blog if you can’t make sweeping generalizations?

What To Do

I’m a big proponent of pitching work to the clients you want to work for, and in a recession this strong, that hasn’t really changed, though you better keep a couple points in mind:

  • A strong value proposition is essential – people aren’t buying into experimental programs or those lacking the promise of real ROI
  • A package deal often helps – cutbacks usually mean remaining staff are severely overworked, so projects have to be turnkey
  • Be prepared for disappointment – people are hunkered down, and don’t take it personally

The psychology of what I’ll call “non-abundance” is an endlessly fascinating thing. Some remain optimistic and see opportunity everywhere while most hunker down, happy if they can protect what they’ve got.

A strong value proposition is no guarantee of anything in times like these, but it’s an excellent starting point for a freelancer.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler.