What the Carnies Can Teach You About Freelancing

Fairground CansThe taste of dust in my mouth. The smell of cows in the air. The sound of buzzers, bells and staccato gunfire ringing in my ears. Loud screams…

Yes, folks, the local fair has been in town.

For a few days each year, the empty lot behind the skating rink transforms into a razzle-dazzle low-scale and dirty festival of noise, cotton candy and empty wallets. Teens dress baggy or skimpily, hooking up all over the place. Children run to and fro, joyfully skipping out of reach of poor parents shouting, “This is the last ride!”


Mid-afternoon, the demolition derby roars to life while firefighter air horns pierce through the gunning of engines and bangs of loud backfires. Farmers scowl at the noise, calming wild-eyed and carefully groomed cows or chattering chickens. The beer tent thrives with inebriated high-schoolers – those still in class and those reminiscing the decades since the good old days.

Ah, the local fair is a fantastic tradition – and a true education in marketing for freelancers. Come one, come all… the show is about to begin.

You’d Better Know How to Hustle

Hustling is the name of the game for both fair carnies and freelancers. Booth and ride carnies have to sell to people walking by – and that’s not easy. They need to attract the attention of people focused on something else, get them to look twice, draw them in, sell them on the fun or the prize, and get them to hand over their money.

The carnies hawk rigged dart tosses, squirt machines, speeding rides, swirling cages, and off-center bowling balls. They need to keep the place bustling and alive. Sound like the freelancing life? You betcha. Replace the games and rides with your services and products – and start hustling.

You’d Better Be Wise to People

Carnies are street-smart. They know just how to get people interested. Two men? Encourage competition and rivalry for the prize. Two women? It’s time to compliment a shirt or some earrings. Parents? The carnies go right for the kill: they market to the kids. Win the kids, win the parents.

They know exactly who they’re talking to, what rings the bell in that person’s mind and what gets the guy or girl to slow down and come over. They know their target market like the back of their hand, honing right in to make the sale – and you should to.

You’d Better Be Willing to Give and Take

Carnies wheel and deal. Anything to lure people in and keep them spending. Three darts for $5. Try a free round. Three tickets for a ride instead of four. Trade in two prizes for a bigger, better one. The discounts and deals are no skin off anyone’s back – a small tradeoff keeps customers happy and hooks them in.

Not only does it hook, them in, but if the carnie plays it right, the people spend more in the end. That’s a trick right there: the longer they stay, the longer they play. That’s key – for the fair and for your freelancing. The carnies made sure people were happy, too. The happier they were, the more chances they’d come back later on.

You’d Better Be Able To Sell

Game carnies sell like crazy. They don’t care about patting someone’s back and making them feel good or empowered. Hell, they have a job to do! They have money to make! They aren’t going to hurt anyone’s feelings, but they also aren’t afraid to pitch their game or ride and influence people over to pay the ticket.

Think about this one: Imagine a fair operated by polite, considerate, gentle and submissively quiet people who never pushed, called or even did anything but smile nicely. Now take a look at how you sell on your site or blog. Yeah. I thought so.

Freelancers don’t need to bark and shout to sell. Carnies don’t either. In fact, during my visit to the fair, I noticed that they’d only call out to people during particularly quiet moments. They were generally pretty polite about selling their games. They watched people for clues, picked up on the subtle triggers and body language, and then they went to work.

You’d Better Be Okay with Persuasion

The carnies aren’t ashamed of themselves or what they sell. They’re there to help people have a good time. That’s their job. Yes, the end result is more money, but the carnies made sure that every customer for every game left smiling, happy and satisfied that the over-priced prize was money well spent.

That, my friends, is persuasion and good customer experience at its purest. It’s amazing to watch the carnies do it, too. They can sell anything to all sorts of different people from all sorts of different lifestyles. They’re good, really good.

Now carnies may not have learned influence, persuasion and manipulation from a course, but they sure do understand that if you can’t persuade someone that what you sell is really great, then you definitely aren’t going to make money.

And they make money. The place thrives. Buzzers go off and lights flash and happy (but broke) people walk away hugging some prize. And the carnies sit call out scores and ‘awws’ and cheer for the people as they collect the coins. They’re real ringmasters at their own show. Everyone wins. No one loses.

The magic? People leave broke, tired, and dirty – but they leave with smiles. And they’ll come back again to do it next year all over again.

Your customers will too – if you play the game right.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Brett Legree says:

    If you’re a freelancer and you want to use carnie techniques to sell your stuff to me, here’s how you do it:

    Sell it to my kids.

    Seriously! Take four kids to a fair, and you’ll walk out of there about $60 poorer…

    And you know – I think that many companies already know this (toy companies, cereal companies, fast food…)
    .-= Brett Legree´s last blog ..the rocking chair. =-.

  2. @ Brett – $60? Lucky man… I polled a few parents I knew as I walked around at our local fair, and the average spending for 1 to 2 kids was $150. Scary.

  3. Great analogy!

    Another point about carnies is they’re not afraid to charge what they’re worth. You have to pay if you want to play. Carnivals have overhead like gasoline for the rides and moving from town to town, insurance (which I bet is very expensive), rent (landlords will want their cut too) . . . and freelancers have overhead too. But somehow we’re willing to write for peanuts and take our expenses in the rear.
    .-= Terry Heath´s last blog ..Life and Blogging Without Regrets =-.

  4. Oh, this is so true! For the last 13 years when the fair comes to town, I put aside my ‘business’ duds and indulge in working around a little carnie magic. My crew are from New York and they have a pizza joint along with elephant ears and lemondade. I stand quietly at the window and smile while the true carnies stand behind me selling our wares. As fast as I can take the cash and say thank you, they are busy reeling in the next parent with the hungry, excited child and tempting them with what we have to sell. It’s great fun and a true lesson in marketing!

  5. And the award for best headline of the week goes to ….. (drumroll)…..

    Excellent selling points from an unusual angle. The business of the funfair – something which I’ve never thought about before but is true all the way.
    .-= Roy Jones´s last blog ..Mejia & Jones Business Startup =-.

  6. woohoo what a simile for freelancers.. proud to be part of the band…I v always fascinated about the life of gypsies and carnival folks and maybe this is what I like the most about being a freelancer. No anchors, just a free bird… But the free bird needs its worms too, so interesting tips James 🙂 and a refreshing post.
    .-= write a writing´s last blog ..How and Why to Write a Book =-.

  7. Huslting is a good way to earn quick cash. But not necessarily the RIGHT way.

    …not unless there’s a quality product to back up the hustle with (which is the point I assume you’re making here.)

    This is where the similarity with the Carnies ends. Because there IS no quality product with these shysters. They basically earn a living ripping off gullible adults and un-supervised kids.

    Nothing like watching a child blow $30 in five minutes on a rigged game. And then seeing the disappointment in their eyes when they realize the prize they’ve won could be bought at Wallmart for $12.99.

    Sure, it’s all fun and exciting while it’s happening, but once it’s all said and done, the customer leaves with a bad taste in their mouth.

    Unlike Carnies, I assume that’s the type of thign we’d want to avoid…
    .-= Friar´s last blog ..Nothing is a Given (*) =-.

  8. @ Friar – I disgree. The quality is in the *experience*. Everyone knows the toys are crappy and they don’t care. Because they wouldn’t come back if they weren’t satisfied.

    So the quality is definitely there. Just not in the tangibles. And that makes a *HUGE* difference to customer satisfaction.

    (Not to say freelancers shouldn’t deliver quality…)
    .-= James Chartrand – Men with Pens´s last blog ..What the Carnies Can Teach You About Freelancing =-.

  9. Right on James! The quality IS in the experience. The prizes are crap but people come anyway to get away from everyday problems. People go just to enjoy themselves and be kids again even for just a night or two.

  10. Brett Legree says:

    I think Friar was saying that the difference between carnies and freelancers is that the freelancer should probably make sure that there is a quality product or service behind the “carnie marketing techniques”.

    We all know if we go to the fair that we’re going to get screwed out of $60 (hey, I’m cheap!) or $150 for five crummy hamburgers, some shoddily sewn stuffed toys and a few dangerous rides.

    And that’s okay.

    I’d hope that I won’t get the same result from a freelancer, no matter how slick the pitchman may be!
    .-= Brett Legree´s last blog ..the rocking chair. =-.

  11. You hit the nail right on the head about not being ashamed of what you sell, I know people who wonder “How can salesmen live with themselves?” I’m not a true-blue salesperson but as you wrote here, it takes the right attitude to get business!

    This reminds me of the high cost of food and beverages at tourist attractions, special events, etc. I used to turn up my nose at a $5 lemonade but now I pay it gladly. If I paid good money for tickets or entry, why be thirsty and pissed while I’m there?? The satisfaction is well worth five bucks, whether or not the drink itself is.

  12. The local fair is really a wonderful tradition! I would have loved to visit one, I haven’t gone to one in a while.
    Your post absolutely hit a home run! Carnies are able to sell ultimately because they are excellent at their craft. They know when to sell, what to sell, whom to sell to, and how to sell it. Perfect combination.
    Before I used to wonder why people still continue to play the games even if they somehow know that these are rigged or that there’s very little chance of winning? It’s all in the selling prowess of the game carnies.

  13. Tremendously brilliant article. Whenever I hear of carnies, I always think of Ron Popeil and his journey from showmanship to being one of the most popular infomerical-item creators ever.

    But wait! There’s more! 🙂
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..How to dramatically increase your optin list with ease =-.

  14. It is the quality of the experience. And the Barker with the loudest voice doesn’t necessarily attract the most people to the booth. It’s the Barker’s “Schtick” and the number of people standing around the booth. The glitzy trinkets and wildly coloured stuffed toys are a secondary consideration.

    Yep, my six year old plowed through a hundred bucks in an afternoon – but the smile on her face was worth twice that.

    .-= Tumblemoose´s last blog ..Vintage Typewriters and Deviled Ham =-.

  15. Great article and analogy. Putting yourself on the market and selling it to the right people is very important. What do you have to offer that others don’t? It’s the twist, the hook in your sell that makes you stand out from the rest. You don’t even have to be the best candidate as long as you can catch and keep.

    If you don’t catch on their fishing pole, to convince them of your worthiness, then they’ll cast out into the big pond for someone who catches.

    Nice job!


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