These days there’s lots of discussion in policy circles about the importance of soft power. Meetings like the G20 offer mega “soft power” moments of influence as the NY Times put it. Author Joseph Nye Jr. coined “soft power” in the 1980s, defining it “as the ability to influence others without resorting to coercive pressure”. The goal is to project a nation’s values, ideals, and culture across borders to foster goodwill and strengthen partnerships. Soft power generally brings together initiatives of education, music, sports, media, and major industries like Silicon Valley and Hollywood; that is, a supportive echo-chamber.
A recent article in Bloomberg described how Saudi Arabia soft power is build stronger relationships and influence through Vision 2030. But Vision 2030 also shows that soft power can be a powerful force for organizations as well as nations. It’s a foundational skill by which organizations – and leadership teams – of all sizes and purposes can build the relationships and influence needed to achieve their goals.
How might freelance marketplaces use soft power to build reputation, impact, and financial performance? After speaking with freelance leaders around the globe, this article describes 10 ways that freelance platforms can successfully build and use soft power:
Make Friends. Psychiatrist Karen Horney divided instinctual reaction into three basic channels: “fight, flight, and approach.” Problems ensue when people or organizations get “stuck” in one orientation, unable to pivot when a better solution is approach instead of threat. Smart freelance platforms benefit from making friends and turning competitors into collaborators. Freelance colleagues – in Spain, Latam, and through action research projects like the First Freelancer Study Group – show that together they can be a rising tide that lifts the freelance industry. Making friends has staying power when (1) relationships are encouraged and fed, (2) participants join for a cause of shared importance. For example: The UK Association for the Future of Work founded by entrepreneur Albert Azis-Clauson, has been an influential and helpful forum for freelance platform leaders in advocating for better freelance protections.
Give. What events does your freelance platform have it store for clients and other stakeholders? Catalant, the respected independent management consulting platform, hosts executive sessions where clients hear from executives and thought leaders and learn more about the range and impact of Catalant’s work and future plans. Upwork has an annual executive conference where clients, leaders, and friends of Upwork meet. And, offers to stakeholders needn’t be physical or invitational events: McKinsey, the consultancy, and Goldman Sachs, the bank, have communications teams sending out regular, brief, articles on targets of interest to their subscribers, and enables subscribers to customize what they receive. Like your mother says when ending the video call: “Keep in touch.”
Mobilize. The NYC arts community comes together each September, and the entire city turns out. The Armory Show is the headliner, but galleries and many artist studios mobilize to take part, and it attracts city wide attention, interest, and many collateral activities. Imagine freelance festivals in many large and medium sized cities across the EU, as well as countries supporting digital nomads like Australia and Thailand. As the greater global freelance community grows, so does opportunity to celebrate this choice of career, teach about it, and help people understand why its future is bright. There is so much to learn from others as freelancers individually and collectively mobilize. For example, almost two million freelancers work in Saudi Arabia at present and, yet, the global freelance community is not set up to learn from ambitious Saudi projects like Future Work or up and coming regional platforms like Khibraty.
Partner. An excellent conference on freelancing was held in Copenhagen this Spring, organized by Proteams, a well-respected freelance platform, and Novo Nordisk, the global healthcare company. Invited speakers included competitors Yuno Juno and Toptal, and it was well-attended by freelance platform leaders and enterprise executives. Some wondered whether Proteams was better off restricting the event to its clients and stakeholders. But, as one enterprise executive explained, “It’s reassuring to see other well-run companies trust and use freelancers, and other successful marketplaces. It helps me be more supportive.” Remember, freelancing is still a big change for many enterprise companies and the decision whether or not to use freelancers is very often in the background. Partnerships like the Copenhagen conference can build reputation and opportunity in multiple ways.
Share. Topcoder, a division of Wipro, is well-known as the expert in open innovation. That reputation doesn’t come easy; open innovation is tough to brand directly. But Topcoder has found that sharing its expertise generously with the right stakeholders is a powerful reputation builder. The sharing strategy has four key elements: (1) Excellence in a skill set or methodology, (2) collaboration with worthy organizations that have stakeholder and public respect, (3) supporting a project of importance, and (4) a strong concurrent communications plan telling the story. Working with well-respected institutions like Nasa on key challenges, and telling the story well, has helped Topcoder establish a reputation for innovation. Other organizations like social-action platform Omdena have also found share strategies to be powerful.
Benefit. Creating more ways to benefit freelancers is a powerful soft power strategy to attract top talent and build a reputation where talent is best found. Freelancers are attracted to Contra for the excellent tools, Wethos for pricing AI insights, Fring for an active and open community, 9am for greater access to opportunity, Mash Brands because of its strong culture for creatives, Torc for the quality of its tech freelancers, and G2i for its strong commitment to developer health. Think of each of these as a strategic superpower that attracts freelancers and makes it easy for freelance members of the platform to recruit others. But remember, there are three parts to a superpower: the platform must (1) earn it, (2) claim it, and (3) consistently deliver.
Join Forces. The West End and Broadway show The Collaboration describes an uncomfortable but ultimately important collaboration between artists Warhol and Basquiat. Both suffered from flagging reputations until restored by publicity from their collaboration. Noma, the world’s top rated restaurant is joining forces by reopening in London as a pop up collaboration with Mexican Cuisine Innovator Kol. These are “big” events, but small collaborations can also help build reputations. The Dobrinka Salszman Gallery in the Chelsea district of NYC joined forces with neighborhood artists, offering their metal roll down gate as a canvas. Artists get to show their work, and the gallery benefits from its reputation as a strong arts supporter. The gallery has already heard from over 500 interested artists.
Invest. An impressive example of soft power is Freelance Business education month, a creation of Elina Jutelyte, founder of Freelance Business in Belgium. Over several years, her startup has produced an impressive array of workshops on all aspects of freelancing. Elina and her team have created a network of thousands of freelancers who’ve participated in her workshops as a student, teacher, or mentor. She is now building FB 2.0, a global freelance community that offers freelance platforms and both SMB and enterprise clients easy access to an increasing range of services. The relationships she has built, and the respect FB has earned, has proven an extraordinarily important asset.
Connect. Human Cloud offers a top-rated podcast on freelancing. Matt Mottola, who leads Human Cloud, explains: “Every week, we introduce colleagues to an important voice in the freelance economy. We’ve learned the best shows combine insight and entertainment. These podcasts have helped create a vibrant Human Cloud ecosystem. It also helps to define me and Human Cloud as worth following. So, people are more likely to read my articles, listen to my podcasts, and want more information about what Human Cloud is about. It’s definitely a huge win all around.”
All together. Most organizations don’t see or act on their potential for soft power. They have good marketing ideas and may organize a client conference or run a blog, but it’s not a coordinated and thoughtful program that builds reputational influence. But one-off events aren’t a coordinated soft power plan. An effective soft power strategy depends on credibility, built on constancy of purpose, great execution, and a continuing commitment by platform leadership. It can’t be boring, fair weather only, or the first thing to go when budgets tighten.
A recent article published this summary: “When used properly, soft power can be one of the most effective tools in creating a positive image or business reputation, including within global markets.” For a freelancer or platform, the fundamentals of soft power are the promotion of an individual’s or organization’s interests, based on its experience, expertise, values, and achievements and executed through events, collaborations, incentives, and relationships. There are an endless number of ways soft power can be earned, many more than described in this article. A future article will describe how a “soft power” lab helps freelance entrepreneurs to take advantage of this approach.
These are challenging times for the freelance community. VC funding has stalled, and most startups have turned to bootstrapping, cutting costs, and prioritizing survival. Some are looking for an exit. But this economy will turn. For many freelance platforms combining tough love with a focus on building reputation through soft power might be the right strategy.
Viva la revolution!
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