Facts About Marketing for Freelance Designers

When most designers consider making the move to freelance work they typically consider things like their specific skills and the potential freedom and flexibility that comes with freelancing. While those things are important it’s also critical that freelancers are able to find enough work to stay busy and to earn a living, and that usually requires some effort in marketing.

In this post we’ll take a look at some facts about marketing for freelance designers. If you’re considering moving into freelancing hopefully this information will help in your preparation. If you’re already freelancing and looking to get more out of your marketing efforts the article should be a help to you as well.

Time You Spend on Marketing is Time Lost for Designing

Marketing is a necessary part of running a business, but it’s important to keep in mind that your design work is the primary focus of your business. In an ideal situation you will develop some passive marketing methods that can bring new clients to you without the need for you to dedicate a lot of time to finding clients. The goal is to minimize the amount of time that you spend on marketing efforts so that you can dedicate more of your time for designing and for taking care of your clients. Most designers would prefer to not have to spend a lot of time on marketing anyway since doing the design work is the motivation for entering the industry in the first place.

There are plenty of methods for marketing your services and finding new clients, but some of them require much more time and effort than others. While these types of marketing methods may be needed at times, you aren’t going to want to spend the majority of your time just trying to land work.

Participating in design contests or spec work may lead to a new client, but more than likely you will just dedicate a lot of time without any payoff. Bidding sites work well for some freelancers, but for most they wind up just being a waste of time. If you’re able to get to the point where clients come to you because they have seen your work somewhere else or because of your name recognition, you will be able to spend most of your time on income-generating work, and on work that you enjoy.

Marketing is Needed, Especially for New Freelancers

Although the amount of time dedicated to marketing should ideally be kept as small as possible, marketing will always be necessary to some extent, and for new freelancers it will require more time and effort. If you’re considering making a move to the world of freelance designing be sure that you are prepared to spend considerable amounts of time on other aspects of running the business aside from just doing the design work.

There is too much competition in the industry for someone to build a successful freelance business without doing any kind of marketing work. However, if you work on building up a client base and taking care of them, eventually you should get to the point where marketing only takes a small amount of your time.


Your Network is Extremely Valuable

A strong professional network is an extremely valuable asset for any freelancer. If you’re well-connected to others in the industry and in related industries your marketing efforts can become a lot easier. A network is great for getting referral business, collaborations, launching new products and services, and really just about anything else.

If you’re starting out as a freelancer and you already have an established network, you’re at a great advantage. If you find yourself struggling to stay busy with client work, put some emphasis on strengthening your network by making new connections and improving existing ones. In the long run you’ll be much better off by dedicating time to building a network as compared to using that time to respond to project listings on bidding sites.

Word-of-Mouth is More Effective Than Just About Any Other Kind of Advertising

When one of your clients or someone from your network recommends you it will be much more effective at landing new business than just about any other type of advertising that you could do. People trust their friends and colleagues, so a personal recommendation carries a lot of weight and goes a long way towards convincing the potential client that you are the right person for the job.

Referrals and word-of-mouth advertising will typically occur naturally if you are building up your client base and taking care of those clients. Each happy client that you have out there is a potential salesperson for your business. And the best thing about referrals, it takes no time or effort on your part to find the lead. All you need to do is communicate with the potential client about your services and their project, and close the deal.

Some designers even encourage word-of-mouth advertising by giving a referral bonus or by doing something special for a client when they send more business. Another effective way to encourage referrals is simply to ask for them. While some of your satisfied clients will take the initiative to tell others about you, many times they won’t really think about who they know that could benefit from your services, but if you ask for referrals they’ll probably be willing to help out.

You Need to Stand Out

With so much competition out there it is critical for you to stand out in some way. Most potential clients will be browsing through several portfolios and looking at the work or many designers before deciding who to contact. It’s important that you stand out so they will feel that you may be a great fit for their project.

There are any number of ways that you can stand out. Some popular methods include: an amazing portfolio website, work done for a high-profile client, specialization, extensive work in a particular industry, and name recognition. You don’t need to do anything crazy so that you stand out to everyone who visits your website. What’s important is that you stand out to your target audience. So take time to think about what types of clients you want to work with. Think about what they will be looking for in a designer and find some way to make that happen so that you stand out as a great candidate for their project.

Your Portfolio Site is Critical

Your portfolio website can be an outstanding marketing tool. It can serve as a 24 hour salesperson for your services. If you’re offering web design services, visitors to your portfolio site will be judging your work not only by the quality of client projects shown in your portfolio, but also by the quality of your portfolio site itself.

A great portfolio site can help to establish yourself as a leader in the industry. With the popularity of web design gallery sites and design blogs that showcase sites for inspiration, a high-quality portfolio design can attract a lot of links and attention from the industry rather quickly.

Social Media Opens Up Possibilities for Passive Marketing

Social media and networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus present plenty of opportunities for promoting your work and building connections to others, but be careful of how much time you spend as it can easily absorb more time than you intend.

With social media it will take some time to establish your presence, build a following and connect with other users, but once you are established it can be a great way to passively market yourself. It’s a good practice to set aside a small amount of time each day, or at least a few times per week specifically for social media, but stick to it and don’t get carried away with the amount of time.

Marketing on social networking sites is usually most effective when it is not a blatant advertisement for your services. Sites like Facebook and Twitter were created for networking, but most users don’t want to feel like they are subjected to advertisements for your services. Some designers get great results by doing things like sharing their work in process, or linking to projects that they just finished, while asking for feedback. This gives you a chance to showcase your work while still being involved in productive conversations with your fellow users.

If you have a decent following you may be surprised that you can quickly find new potential clients just by posting about your completed projects or works in process. One of the great things about using social networking for finding work is that if you have established a connection with your followers over a period of time, once they have a need for your services it will be easier to land the work since you have built some rapport already.

Blogging Can Be Effective, or it Can be a Big Waste of Time

In this past we’ve published posts on the topic of blogging for freelancers (see 9 Reasons for Freelance Designers to Blog), but the reality is that many freelancers wind up wasting a lot of time by blogging with no results. Some designers just like to blog for a hobby with no intent to use it as a marketing method, and if that’s the case there is no problem with not getting results from your efforts.

If you want blogging to send new clients your way you will need a plan rather than randomly just posting something related to web design. With no plan it’s easy to spend time without seeing results, but with a plan you should (in time) get some new work out of your blogging efforts. When you are developing the plan for you blog think about your target audience and how they will relate to the services that you offer. Most design blogs target other designers with their content. Sometimes that content will lead to new clients, and it can certainly help for achieving more search engine traffic. But on the other hand you may also want to consider blogging about topics that your potential clients will be looking for.

Also, you should think about how you will convert blog traffic into client projects. Will you publish posts about your availability for client work? Will you publish posts to showcase client projects that you have just completed? Will you place links to your portfolio in prominent places on your blog? Will you encourage visitors to take action by contacting you about their projects?

There are any number of different approaches that you can take with your blog. The important thing is that you have a plan for getting results from your efforts and you’re not aimlessly spending time on the blog. For a more detailed look at the topic we have a brief e-book How to Use a Blog to Market Your Design Business, which is available at Vandelay Premier for $6.

Offline Marketing Can be Effective but is Often Ignored

Because web designers spend so much of their time online and because there are so many possibilities for online marketing, offline methods often get overlooked. If your online methods aren’t working as well as you would like, try changing things up by spending some time with face-to-face, in-person networking.

Popular offline methods of marketing for freelancers include attending networking events, conferences, seminars, handing out business cards, and meeting with people from your professional network.

It’s Necessary to be Proactive

For those freelancers who are just getting started and building a client base it is necessary to be proactive when it comes to networking and marketing. Don’t sit back and wait for clients to come to you. Make an effort to build relationships with others in the industry, reach out to people that you have never met, ask for referrals, contact people that you think could benefit from your services, and just be willing in general to put yourself out there.

Another way that you can help yourself by being proactive is to respond as soon as possible to anyone who contacts you about a project. Most potential clients that contact you will also be reaching out to a few other designers at the same time. The truth is, many designers are slow to respond to those inquiries, so if you show some initiative and get back to the client before other designers you’ll have a better chance of landing the work.

Current and Past Clients are a Great Resource

If you have been working with clients for a while you have a very valuable asset at your disposal in your client list. It pays to stay in contact with past clients by following up a few times per year to see if there is any way that you can help them. This doesn’t take a lot of time if your contacts are well organized, but it can lead to new projects pretty easily.

In addition to past clients, the clients that you are currently working with can be a great resource as well. If they’ve hired you for one service you may want to offer them some other services that may also be able to help them. Rather than needing to find more clients you can sell more services to some of your clients.

If there was some change in the products or services that you offer this client list can be a great source for getting a few projects quickly.

What’s Your Experience?

If you have some tips from your experience marketing yourself as a freelancer please feel free to share them in the comments.

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13 Responses

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  • Madras Geek, November 10, 2011

    well written, I agree when everything is done by same person then obviously time will be lost. marketing should be done initially and then their work should automatically market it by itself. when talking about designers, only word of mouth is so trustful and more helpful. thanks for collecting so many points into one awesome post.

  • Marcell Purham, November 11, 2011

    I do not think blogging helps your freelance career since people who are visiting your blog are actually inspiring designers or developers. I’ve been a freelancer for 3+ years and most of my clients come from offline rather online. When dealing with freelancers online you have to worry about who’s bidding the lowest etc. I think its best to keep working hard rather you’re designing or developing and look for new clients via offline.

    Great article!

  • Web Hosting, November 11, 2011

    Lengthy article but worth reading

  • Ankita, November 11, 2011

    truely worth reading!!

  • Dzinepress, November 11, 2011

    really useful article you sharing. thanks

  • adumpaul, November 11, 2011

    Great informative article.

  • Andy @ FirstFound, November 11, 2011

    Proactivity is key, but passive marketing methods like SEO are going to leave you far more time to concentrate on designing.

    It’s all about balance.

  • tishag, November 13, 2011

    This is a great article and I do think that marketing your skills is very important and having that network to build from is also very important. Starting at your college and using their database of connections is a great way to get the word out about your businesses. I’ve heard that FIDM has a great graphic design program and tons of connections. But in the end, it’s all what you put into it.

  • aledesign.it, November 14, 2011

    A good Marketin, a good Portfolio and a good choice of clients is important for make a good job! Also important to be upgraded. Always. In every sector.

  • JR, November 17, 2011

    Interesting article… the first couple of paragraphs emphasis the time spent marketing ‘should ideally be kept as small as possible’. The following 10 paragraphs are extremely time consuming marketing channels. The average Freelance designer would spend most of his day keeping these 10 channels current. What gives!

  • Vandelay Website Design, November 17, 2011

    Hi JR,
    I understand your question but I don’t totally agree with you. It’s not accurate to say that all 10 of the items are very time consuming. For example, word-of-mouth marketing doesn’t take any of your time. Following up with past clients takes very little time, etc. There are definitely some things discussed that can be rather time consuming. I’m not suggesting that in order to be successful a freelancer would need to dedicate time in each of these areas. You need to find what works for you and take that approach, with an effort to not waste time needlessly on marketing. Working on building up passive methods like word of mouth may take time now, but can pay off in the future.

  • YasTech Website Design, November 17, 2011

    One thing that I think is important is to spend time marketing yourself heavily when you first start your business. This will help you build your network, your client base and create a solid Social Media and blog presence. Setting these things up from the beginning will help the word of mouth and organic referrals come in more frequently and allow you to spend less time marketing and more time designing!

  • Eric @ Pixelheap, December 2, 2011

    I have ran print ads in magazines, I have a television commercial that airs three times every Sunday, and neither give me the same traction good old word of mouth does!

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