Selling in the New Gig Economy

One of the most profound changes we’ve seen in business and labor in recent years is the growth of the gig economy. According to a Gallup study, about 36 percent of U.S. workers derive some or all of their income through independent gigs. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics admits that the number of gig workers in the country is difficult to confirm, in 2017 their best estimate was 55 million

Since 2010, the number of gig workers has increased by 15 percent. Forbes magazine concludes that the gig workforce is growing at a rate that’s three times higher than the general workforce rate. Many estimates suggest the growth rate will accelerate in years to come. What’s more, according to MBO Partners, gig workers contributed more than $1.3 trillion to the economy in 2017. That same study reports that high-skill, high-earning gig workers comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of the freelance workforce. 

Any way you slice it, the gig economy represents an enormous opportunity for B2B companies of many stripes and it’s here to stay. If growing your company is one of your foremost goals, focusing on the gig economy is a smart strategy. Or, to rephrase that a little more forcefully:  Companies with products and services to sell ignore the gig economy at their own risk.


Selling More In The Gig Economy

It’s tempting to jump right in and develop a new sales strategy for penetrating the gig worker market. But successful sales strategies are built on sound, comprehensive marketing strategies. So it’s important to take a step back and focus on the basic tenets of marketing planning. 

Your sales strategy should be supported by an accurate understanding of the gig worker market and your own company’s ability to play there. Looking inward and outward—that is to say, both introspection and market research—inform the best marketing strategies. So let’s take a look at how to approach building yours. 


Marketers Like The Letter C

Mnemonic devices can be handy. Marketing strategists often talk about the three Cs—and sometimes four or six of them, for that matter—as framing their approach. Their actual definitions of the Cs may also differ—and indeed, a lot of these concepts are mutually dependent upon one another— but we can map the basic path to effective marketing with: 

  • Customers
  • Capabilities 
  • Competition

It’s at the intersection of these three concepts that B2B companies will find their sweet spot, which marketers variously call brand positions, a unique selling proposition, or sometimes a value proposition.


Who Is Your Customer?

The gig market encompasses many different jobs and industries, and not every gig worker is going to be equally excited by your products and services. Concentrating on the audience that is going to be most immediately attracted to your offering—let’s call them the enthusiasts—is a safer and more lucrative bet than going after a bunch of lukewarms. That’s particularly true when you’re an entrepreneur and your resources are already spread thin. It makes sense to jump in where you can make the biggest splash in the shortest amount of time. 

Identifying your enthusiasts is one thing, but identification and understanding are two different things. Even if you’re pretty clear about what motivates traditional workers to purchase your products, gig workers roll a little differently. If you’re new to marketing to gig workers, there is a fair amount of readily available research illuminating the motivations that cut across a wide swath of gig workers. 

Most gig workers cite better work/life balance, control of their own schedules, being their own boss, and the flexibility to work only with preferred clients as key reasons they prefer gigging. Increasingly, they also point to the greater financial rewards they expect (or are actually reaping) from contract work as their impetus for pursuing freelance employment. 

But gig working brings its own set of headaches. Giggers are responsible for their own tax documentation, their own retirement plans, and finding their own health insurance, for example. Experienced salespeople know that customers want products that solve their problems, so your customer research should take two simultaneous approaches: Learn what’s going to make your enthusiasts happy and what’s going to make them less unhappy. 

Mental health professionals and experts who study the labor market have pinpointed economic uncertainty, isolation and living without the stronger safety net that traditional employment provides as major risks to gig workers’ mental and physical health. If you can figure out how your product or service can mitigate those stressors, you’ll likely find gig workers more receptive to your sales messages.

To get an even clearer picture of your target customer, listen to the specific language they use to define their needs. Some hot buttons are best pushed with specific words. Nowadays we call them keywords, but speaking in your customers’ vernacular was important long before the birth of the internet. Those words will become critical as you craft your marketing messages, script your sales pitches, or make a Google Ads buy. 

Regardless of whether you’re planning a paid advertising campaign, you probably want to find out where your target customers live and breathe in the media realm. Who’s adding to their knowledge and influencing their purchase behavior? That’s how you’ll know where to pursue guest-blogging opportunities, backlinks and ad deals.

You may also benefit by gathering some basic demographic information on your enthusiasts. Most people imagine gig workers as people aged 18 to 34. You might be surprised to learn that many retirees turn to gigging to stay active and continue to earn money on their own terms. But don’t rely on demographics alone. Talking to your target market—including prospects who declined to purchase your product—is an irreplaceable advantage in marketing and sales planning.


What Are Your Capabilities?

Some companies are fortunate to have a product every gig worker needs. It’s hard to get by in any field of gig employment without a smartphone, a dynamite internet service provider or tax preparation software–if that’s what you sell you’re in luck. But many of us sell much niche-ier products, with a value that may not be so immediately apparent. Effective marketers have a handle on the totality of benefits they offer. Make a list of yours. 

Honestly, you really can’t get too granular about this. Consider every angle as you examine your products and operations. Look at your products (or services), the way you deliver them, the underlying company values that drive the way you do business, the experience and expertise of your staff, and more. How does each of these things contribute to a positive customer experience?

Don’t dismiss seemingly minor or tangential benefits. Marketing is about tailoring your message to your audience and audiences are idiosyncratic. Here’s one simple example: Having bilingual customer service representatives on your staff may just be business as usual to you, but it’s probably not a footnote to a Spanish-speaking gig worker. It may even be the price of admission. Some 31 percent of Hispanic workers are connected to the gig economy. 

Don’t overlook the things you do routinely. Do you offer 24-hour customer service? Gig workers are often so focused on doing work for their customers during normal business hours—and perhaps cooking dinner for the family or walking the golden retriever—that they can’t even think about personal shopping until well past the classic close-of-business day. Around-the-clock service may be ho-hum to you, but not to the gig worker who wants to research time management software and talk to a customer service representative at midnight. 

The benefits you offer your customers can be rational or emotional in nature. You probably have your own ample anecdotal evidence that the most effective sales messages are those that target customers’ emotions. You can likely name a handful of multibillion-dollar companies that base their marketing on one of the seven deadly sins. 

Rational benefits—for example, the download speed an ISP provides or a couple extra cubic feet of refrigerator space—can certainly get customers interested. But look deeper into every rational benefit you offer. Inside every one, there’s an emotional benefit lurking. Faster download speeds mean you won’t suffer buffering delays when you’re streaming “Yellowstone.” And that extra space in your fridge makes holiday entertaining less stressful. 

Reframing your benefits, sometimes over and over to appeal to various customer segments, is a critical part of connecting with customers. That’s especially important when you’re trying to penetrate the gig worker market. Gig workers don’t always care about the same things traditional workers do. See Customer, above.  


How Do You Compare To The Competition?

Once you’ve conducted a thorough inventory of your own capabilities, turn your lens outward and take a look at your competitors. In some ways, your products and services probably equal those offered by your competition. Some of the benefits you provide are the cost of entry into your category and will be matched by all of your competitors. Your sales and marketing communications strategy should be built around the benefits that distinguish you from your competition. You’re looking for a sweet spot: those benefits that are both emotionally compelling and differentiating.

Framing your capabilities as emotional benefits can help you best the competition, even when you’re marketing a product that’s mostly on par with others in its category. If your product features are similar to your competitors’ product features, but you’re the only one explaining them in the context of serving gig workers’ emotional needs, you have an opportunity to get there first and win. Positioning yourself foremost in the minds of gig workers can be as simple as being first to speak their language or showing loyalty to gig workers en masse through special pricing or promotions exclusively for independents. 


New Economy, New Lines Of Communication

The marketing and sales opportunities that the gig economy offers B2B companies come with unique communications challenges. You may find identifying and talking to gig workers more difficult than you do traditional workers, as many gig workers don’t identify themselves as such, in part because they have other primary occupations: the high school music teacher who gives private music lessons after school or the supermarket manager who drives for Lyft, for example. Despite the growing number of gig workers contributing to the economy, there is still a stigma attached to gig working. Gig work doesn’t exactly equal being “gainfully employed” in some circles and, therefore, gig workers are sometimes reluctant to take on the moniker.

Independent workers don’t join or appear on professional association lists as frequently as traditional workers. You can’t host a lunch for the local gig workers’ union in your neighborhood—well, because gig workers aren’t unionized. Even if you’ve never worked with a professional data company that compiles direct marketing lists, expanding your customer base to include the gig market might be a good idea. 

Selling successfully to gig workers depends on finding them in the electronic communities in which they connect. Websites like Fiverr, where gig workers sell their services, is one popular spot. Upwork is another well-established service that helps businesses find freelancers and freelancers find work. But these are sites that appeal to gig workers in aggregate. You will probably want to be somewhat surgical in your approach, depending on the market segment that’s most likely to be attracted to your products, whether that’s tech workers, truck drivers or graphic designers


Finding The Money To Meet The Moment

Pivoting is a signature startup move. From YouTube (which started out as a video dating app) to Slack (well-known for its business messaging app now but previously famous for its popular game Glitch), many of the most prosperous startups succeeded by switching gears to meet the demands of a changing or emerging economy. 

Changing your business model can be costly and complex. You may well need VC funding before you can start to play in the gig worker arena. How much funding will depend on how you define your particular pivot. You may decide you need to invest in the wholesale development of new products, simply repackage the products and services you already offer, or do something in between. 

But whatever path you envision, bear in mind that new products alone don’t necessarily attract investors. Products that are paired with unique and timely market opportunities, such as the documented and projected growth of the gig worker segment, are far more compelling. 

Crunchbase can help you connect with the partners you need—from financiers to technology companies to sales and marketing experts—to take your business in a new direction and position your company for future growth.

Susan Doktor is a business strategist and journalist with more than 30 years’ experience in branding, research and marketing communications. You can find her on Twitter @branddoktor.

  • Originally published September 21, 2020