Ok, I'm going to spoil it: LinkedIn. Just suck it up, and reach out to strangers on LinkedIn. It's not weird. Everyone does it, no matter what the official policies might be.
Now I'll step back and give you a little history of how I started my editing business and the different steps (and experiments) I took to market it. And when I say "marketing," all I mean is finding customers.
So here goes:
I fell into science editing by accident. In graduate school, I worked in a predominately Chinese research group. Since I was one of the few native English speakers in the group, and I also had a B.A. in English, this meant that I either wrote or heavily edited virtually every science research paper we published. At the time, it kind of bugged me that I had to do so much editing when I was actually in school to learn how to be a chemist, but it did teach me how to read and edit science manuscripts, and how to do it quickly.
Later on, a number of friends and colleagues from graduate school became professors in China and started their own research groups. A few of them reached out to me to help them edit their science articles for publication in English-language journals. They were adamant about paying me, which was great! I edited a paper or two for them, maybe once every six months, to earn a little pin money. It was just a side-gig.
At some point, I started to see that side-gig as a way out of academia. I was getting burnt out on being a post-doc and wanted to do something different (like write novels), but I knew I needed to have a day job. I just needed the right day job for me. Something that would give me more flexibility to work on writing. An at-home editing business seemed ideal, but I really wasn't sure I could get enough clients to support myself with full-time work.
I did a little research and found that the University of North Carolina's Writing Center offered an advertisement board for local editors to help students with their papers and dissertations. Well, I was local, and I had a more specific skill than most editors (I can read and understand very technical writing), so I applied and shortly thereafter they posted my advertisement. That posting alone increased my business to at least one or two jobs a month. But still, it wasn't enough. If I wanted to edit full-time, I figured I needed to bring in at least 10 jobs a month, or be on a trajectory to reach that level.
This past January, I made the decision to just go for it and start the business. I realized I'd never begin with a full roster of clients, but I needed to be able to devote myself full-time to achieving that goal. So I used Weebly to build my own business website, something I never had before. Having an official website with all my information listed definitely made a big difference, probably because I looked more legitimate, and I started receiving more jobs. For six months, from January to the end of June, I worked like a dog to recruit more clients beyond what I could achieve through my UNC advertisement and my personal contacts alone while I was still a post-doc. This was my runway time.
First, I told everyone I knew that I was starting my own editing business. This is how word of mouth starts. Be frank about your idea, don't be embarrassed. I definitely gained a few clients this way, though it was slow going.
Then I found another university website that allows editors to advertise their services to students as well. Business slowly picked up.But I knew that if I really wanted to take it to the next level, I needed to recruit more professors into my client-base. Editing dissertations for students is fine, but there's no chance of repeat business there. What I needed was a way to reach out to ESL professors specifically and convince them that I should be their lab's go-to English editor for all their publishing needs. I should be for them what I was for my advisor in graduate school.
The problem is professors tend not to be the most internet savvy group of people, so I had a hard time finding them. They don't use Facebook and they also tend to not use Twitter, so my attempts to reach out via social media showed almost no results. At one point, I experimented with Facebook ads, which are surprisingly easy to set up. For $7, I advertised my Facebook page for a week and asked the site to target Chinese users - completely forgetting that Facebook is banned in China. So that really didn't work.
I was going to give up on marketing on social media entirely, but then it occurred to me that I had overlooked one site: LinkedIn. It's the one website that virtually everyone uses (to varying degrees) for professional reasons. Although scientists aren't active on LinkedIn, they almost always have a basic profile set-up.
I started sending messages to my LinkedIn contacts whom I thought might be interested in an English editing service. LinkedIn works by forwarding those messages to the users' email addresses. The response was immediately positive. I began to book more jobs. Finally, I'd broken through.
Realizing this was working, I knew I had to make more connections. In real life, I'm quite introverted and don't know that many people. So to build my LinkedIn network, I started using the "People You May Know" link. Even if I didn't know them personally, I just decided I would connect with any professor or post-doc who spoke English as a second language. They could decide whether or not to accept my invitation. The nice part about using the "People You May Know" portal is that you don't have to explain how you know them. The site just assumes you're already know the friends of your friends, so it's an easy in. Later on, I found out that LinkedIn is really unlike Facebook, and it's not a faux pas to reach out to people you don't know in real life.
LinkedIn also made it very easy to find the clients who would benefit from my skills. I just searched my new connections and if they were involved in science and listed their English language skills as anything below "Native or Bilingual Speaker," then I messaged them my cover letter (i.e. my sales pitch).
I've found that the more pitches I sent, the more editing jobs I' booked - so it's scalable, which exactly what I needed to grow my business.
The only problem is that it's a little tedious cold-calling people via LinkedIn. Thankfully, my marketing is starting to sustain itself as I build up more clientele and they share my information with their friends, so I'm not having to reach out on LinkedIn quite as often (though I notice that whenever I significantly slack off, the number of jobs I book per week definitely goes down).
I would also recommend being as open as possible with all your LinkedIn connections, regardless of whether you think it's going to benefit you. It's a two-way street. If I want people to stop and listen to me, sometimes I have to stop and listen to them. So when people message me out of the blue, rather than send them my pitch, I just engage them in the conversation they want to have. Usually, it's a foreign student with questions about how to get established in the U.S. academic system, find a career, etc., and I just do my best to be as helpful as I can.
What I've found is that by engaging with other strangers without expecting anything for myself, I make a much stronger connection, and they usually end up explaining some very helpful things to me as well. For instance, after an extended conversation about chemistry career tracks, a young friend I made on LinkedIn suggested that I get on the messaging app WeChat, because it's the major social media service used in China. He explained that if I wanted to work with more Chinese students and professors, they would have a much easier time communicating with me via WeChat rather than Gmail, because Google is banned in China. I had no idea, because it just never occurred to me that there was a different way to communicate than the way I use on a daily basis. So by engaging on WeChat with connections I make via LinkedIn, I've booked so many more jobs than I have in the past.
Anyway, just something to think about. If you're looking for a new job, or want to market your side-gig/business, consider networking on LinkedIn. LinkedIn helped me learn more about my clientele and to make more business connections. I'm still learning, and still growing the business, but it's been a huge difference compared to when I had one little advertisement online.
Networking, it's never fun, but it really does work.