Developing a Freelance Marketing Plan

Freelancing can be a great opportunity for designers at any stage in their career. For some it may be a short stint that will help them get to where the ultimately want to be, and for others it can be a long-term destination. Regardless of which approach you’ll be taking, the competition will be fierce. The ease of entry into the industry is appealing for many people, but that also means that there are thousands of other designers you will have to compete with in order to land clients.

In this article we’ll take a look at how freelancers can approach marketing in order to increase the likelihood of success. There’s more to being a successful freelancer than just being a talented designer, and by starting with a solid marketing plan you can ensure that your skills are maximized.

What Are Your Goals With Freelancing?

The first key to address is that your goals will direct your marketing approach. As was already mentioned, different freelancers can have drastically different purposes. The way you position and market yourself should help to put you in a better position to achieve your goals, so it is important to focus in on those goals when you are developing a marketing plan. Here is a look at a few possible goals and how they can influence your marketing plan.

Use Freelance Work as a Springboard to Employment

Just as finding clients as a freelancer will involve a lot of competition from other designers, landing a job with a design agency or as an in-house designer will also require you to stand out from significant competition. Many designers and students have found that freelancing can serve as a bridge to go from where you are now to where you want to be.

Freelance experience can be a great help when trying to land a job with that agency that you have been dying to work for. A successful stint in freelancing will give you some work samples to showcase to potential employers, plus you’ll pick up some valuable experience working with clients, developing quotes, managing projects, and running a business. All of these things can help to give you a leg up on other candidates for a job.

If this is your goal, personal branding is important. Being hired as a designer/employee essentially requires you to sell your ability and qualifications to the employer. If you’re able to develop a reputation or to brand yourself as a highly-talented designer, more opportunities are likely to open up.

Your portfolio website will be crucial to your own personal branding and marketing, as it will certainly be evaluated by anyone who is considering hiring you. Make sure that you take as much time as needed to create a portfolio site that does an effective job of selling your skills to potential employers. View your portfolio site as an audition for potential employers. Only show your best work samples, as any that are not up to par with your current skills and abilities may work against you when potential employers are evaluating your work.


Use Freelancing to Gain Experience and Improve Your Skills

In the first scenario where freelancing can be used as a springboard to employment, the likelihood of landing a job will be much greater if you’ve already developed the skills needed to succeed. If you’re not yet at the stage where you would be able to compete for the job that you ultimately want to have, freelancing can help you to gain critical experience over a period of time as you work on building your skills.

Freelancers can work with clients of all sizes and types, so not having extensive experience will not prevent you from being able to do work as a freelancer. Starting out you’ll probably need to focus on small businesses and organizations with limited budgets, but it will help you to improve your skills and move forward with your career as you work your way up to bigger and more challenging projects.

Career as a Self-Employed Designer

Not everyone who freelances sees it as a temporary stage that will help to move on towards full-time employment. Some designers prefer to pursue freelancing as a long-term career, or maybe they would like to expand their business in the future by hiring other designers or developers and starting an agency. In this case, the marketing focus should be on long-term stability and success rather than short-term.

Full-Time Freelance for Now

While some freelancers know exactly what they want to get, whether it is full-time employment or a career as a freelancer, others may not be sure until they get a little experience under their belt. In this case, freelancing can serve as full-time work to earn an income for the foreseeable future, but it can take one of several paths at a later time.

Maybe you have lost a job and freelancing is a way to earn a living while you determine what direction you would like to go in the future. Maybe you’re not sure yet if you would be better suited to working as an employee or if you would rather work independently. Getting some experience working with clients as a freelancer is a great way to find out which way you would like to go.

Keys to Freelance Marketing

Now that we have looked at some of the most common goals and purposes of freelancing we can look at some of the keys to marketing in more detail. As we go through these keys, keep your goal in mind and try to determine how each of these can help you work towards that goal.

Your Portfolio Site

We’ve touched a little bit already on the importance of your design portfolio, but it really is one of the most significant aspects of your marketing efforts as a freelancer and it deserves plenty of attention. The portfolio site is an important part of the marketing plan regardless of your goals and purposes for freelancing, although your approach to the portfolio site may change depending upon your goals.

If you are attempting to use freelancing as a means to landing full-time employment as a designer, your portfolio site should communicate your skills and qualifications. Some freelancers not only showcase work samples but also list their experience and specific skills, which helps the portfolio site to act essentially as an online resume. In this situation, personal branding is also important because you want the potential employer who is viewing the site to be left with a memorable impression that will keep you in the forefront of his/her mind when making a hiring decision.

On the other hand, if your primary purpose is to gain experience through freelancing, the most important purpose of the portfolio site is to encourage inquiries from potential clients. You’ll of course want to showcase your work samples and your abilities, but getting in touch with potential clients is the action that will determine the level of success of the portfolio site. Greater emphasis should be used to lead the visitor to contact you or to fill out a form.

Branding

We’ve talked about the importance of personal branding if you are attempting to use freelancing to land a job, but the approach to branding can vary depending upon your goals. For those freelancers who are looking to expand at some point in the future to move from freelancer to owner of a design agency, personal branding may not be as important. If you are extremely successful at marketing yourself as an individual it can sometimes be difficult to make a transition where you will be landing clients but not actually doing the design work yourself. In this case you may choose to work under a business name instead of as John Doe, freelance designer.

Referrals

Having a steady stream of referrals is the ideal way to stay busy for most freelancers. Unfortunately, it’s not usually that easy. In the past we’ve covered this topic in more detail with 5 Keys to Building Referral Business.

As far as it’s impact on your marketing plan, if your approach to freelancing is a long-term focus, developing referral business should be a priority. For those who intend to freelance for the short-term and move on to full-time employment, pursuing referrals from friends, family, and your existing network is a good idea and can lead to new projects, but dedicating a significant amount of time to building new relationships for the purpose of referrals may not be your best use of time.

Specialization vs. Generalization

Standing out from the crowd of other designers can be made more achievable if you choose to specialize in a particular area. Some freelancers and agencies market themselves as being experts in a certain field or as being specialists, and this can certainly help you to stand out from the competition from those who are in your target market.

For example, if a real estate agent is looking for a website do you think they would prefer to work with the average freelance designer or with someone who specializes in design real estate websites? In most cases they’ll choose the specialist because they are likely to have better knowledge of the industry and a better understanding of what it takes to build a successful website for a real estate agent.

Some common specializations include custom WordPress themes, Drupal development, e-commerce websites, blog design, non-profit websites, church websites, and more.

However, specialization does have some drawbacks as well. First of all, potential clients who do not fit into your area of specialization may feel that you are not the best fit for their project because they don’t fall into your area of specialization. Second, you’re also tied to the demand for whatever you specialize in, and that may be out of your control. For example, if you specialize in working with a particular CMS or shopping cart and that system loses popularity and falls out of demand, you could be out of luck too. Generalization also allows you to work on a wider variety of projects, which may be more interesting to you and it can lead to better all-around experience.

Deciding on generalization vs. specialization is an important key in the development of your marketing plan. If you’re going to be looking for employment specialization can either help or hurt depending upon whether the job fits into your area of specialization. If you’re not sure exactly what type of job you’ll be looking for, a general approach is usually a better option.

Pricing Strategy: Package-Based vs. Custom Quotes

Pricing may not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of marketing, but your prices will have a big impact on what clients you are able to land, and your pricing strategy will impact how you go about marketing yourself.

Most designers prefer to provide custom quotes for each project because every situation is unique. Last year we took a look at the pros and cons of package-based pricing (see that article for more details). Offering various packages to your clients can help to save some time in developing proposals/quotes for potential clients and it also helps to avoid wasting time with potential clients that would never be willing or able to pay what you charge. But for most designers the need to treat each project as unique will outweigh the pros of using packages.

One situation where packages do tend to work nicely is for those designers who are using specialization. For example, you may choose to charge a base price for custom WordPress theme development and offer various add-ons or upgrades at set prices.  In this situation your projects are likely to have more in common than a designer who takes a generalized approach, so projects may be more likely to fit into various packages.

Finding Clients

Finding enough paying clients is probably the number one challenge for most freelancers, especially those who are just getting established. This is a major topic that could not only justify an article on its own, but actually books have been written on the topic. With that in mind we’ll cover some of the basics here and how it pertains to your marketing plan.

Friends and Family

Many designers (myself included) get their first clients either by doing work for friends and family or by landing clients that have been referred by friends and family. Regardless of where you are in your career and what your goal is for freelancing, getting work this way is a possibility. However, it tends to be most effective for those who are just getting started and have the goal of using freelance work to build experience. Most connections from friends and family tend to be small businesses and individuals that will be working with limited budgets, so if you are an experienced designer with average rates or higher, many of these people will be unlikely to convert to paying clients.

Job Boards and Bidding Sites

There are a number of industry specific job boards (see 40 Sites for Finding Web Design Jobs) that can be great placing to find freelance work as well as full-time employment. Also, bidding sites like Elance and Guru offer freelancers the opportunity to bid on projects that have been posted.

These sites can be a great opportunity to land new work, but they can also prove to be a waste of time if you’re not able to secure the work. The bidding sites tend to require you to work for lower than average rates in order to get work, and you’ll also need to spend time finding the right projects before you even make a bid. You’ll be in competition with a lot of designers on the popular bidding sites, so being able to deliver quality results at affordable prices is key. Part of determining how much you need to charge will be impacted by where you live. If you’re in an area with a high cost of living you will probably be competing with designers who live in areas with a much lower cost of living, and they’ll be likely to price their services below yours.

If you’re goal is to use freelancing as a means to get to full-time employment, design job boards should be sites that you monitor on a regular basis (most have RSS feeds that you can subscribe to). Bidding sites can be helpful if you’re looking to gain experience. Otherwise, you’re probably better off devoting your time to other ways of marketing yourself.

Ongoing Clients/Maintenance

For designers who are always looking for more work, one of the best scenarios is to find a few clients that need regular or ongoing work. This will not be the case with every client, but even just having a couple clients that need a little bit of work done each week can have a noticeable impact on your income. Ongoing clients are great because you will not need to dedicate time to finding as much new work, all you will be doing is providing services and all of your time will be billable.

CSS-Tricks has a brief post that I have linked to a few times in the past, The Heating Company Analogy. This post gives insight into how and why ongoing relationships can be established with clients. For those with long-term focuses and goals ongoing clients take on a greater significance. If your goal with freelancing is to find a full-time job or to gain experience, you may be better off to work with a greater number of clients and get more experience to build your portfolio as opposed to working for the same clients repeatedly.

Blogging

For many designers blogging is not only a way to communicate and share their ideas, but it is also a way to market themselves and their services. Designers like David Airey and Chris Spooner have made blogging a priority and their careers have been greatly impacted. While both are certainly very talented designers, it’s unlikely that either would be as well-known if it wasn’t for blogging.

Having a blog will allow you to establish your reputation within the industry, plus it will help you to reach out to others that may be potential clients. Perhaps someone who is looking for a designer will come across one of your articles through a Google search and they’ll end up contacting you because of the way you communicated through the blog.

Blogging has been instrumental in the growth of Vandelay Design, and it is a good idea for any freelancers who have a long-term approach. The reason for that is that it takes time to build and audience and to develop search engine traffic that will lead to clients. If you’re goals for freelancing are short-term in nature, blogging may be able to help, but it’s unlikely to bring floods of traffic to your site in a short period of time.

For a more detailed look at the subject, please see our e-book How to Use a Blog to Market Your Design Business.

Search Engine Traffic

All businesses and marketers covet search engine traffic. Not only is it free, but you’re also getting exposure to people who are looking for exactly what you have to offer. Building search engine traffic is difficult in competitive industries like web design, but it is possible. Blogging is hands down the best way (in my opinion) to draw search engine traffic to your site if you are willing to put in the time consistently. Blogging will give you more pages on your site to attract visitors to, and it will allow you to target a wide variety of long tail search phrases rather than relying on getting top 10 rankings for extremely competitive phrases.

Building search engine traffic should really only be a priority if your approach to freelancing is long-term. If you have a short-term approach will you be unlikely to build enough search engine traffic in time to help with your goals. Search engines tend to rank sites higher if they have established trust and reputation, which is something that takes time.

PPC

Pay-Per-Click marketing can be an effective way to market your services because it will help to put you in front of people who are looking for what you have to offer, and it can be very affordable. You don’t need to have a large budget to use PPC ads, and you can pause them any time you are busy and do not need new clients. Additionally, you can target local areas or specific regions is you are looking to pick up clients in your local area or in a specific country. That way you don’t waste advertising money on people who are outside of your targeted area.

PPC can be helpful for freelancers who are looking for quick results. So if you have a short-term focus for freelancing and it’s not worth your time to work on developing organic search engine traffic, using PPC ads may be able to help with landing clients quickly.

Unique Selling Proposition

With so many designers and agencies out there competing for clients, you’ll be more likely to have success if there is something that sets you apart from the rest. Your unique selling proposition could be a particular style that you have mastered. It could be your reputation and experience in a particular industry or specialization. It could even be your approach to design or how you work with clients.

If you’re just getting started you may not have something that makes you unique, but it’s important to think about what you would like that to be in the future and what you need to do to get there. What skills and experience do you need? How do you need to market yourself so that potential clients will see what you have to offer as being unique?

Social Networking

Many designers not only use social networking as a way to communicate with others in the industry, but also to find work. This can be an effective approach for for freelancers of all kinds regardless of your goals, although, of course, your goals will impact your approach. Twitter and Facebook are the two most popular social media sites at the moment, and both are also popular among designers. However, for freelancers who are looking to find full-time employment, taking the time to develop a network at LinkedIn is highly recommended as many potential employers will have a presence there.

Social networking at sites like Twitter and Facebook can help to find new clients and to develop relationships with other professionals that may lead to referrals. For more information on this subject see How to Find Your Ideal Client Using Social Media from Social Media Today.

Jacob Cass of Just Creative Design had an interesting experience with the social site Dribbble. You can read his post How I Got a Job Using Dribbble.

Conclusion

There is a lot to consider when it comes to marketing your freelance business, but it all comes down to your goals. Always keep your purpose for freelancing in mind and make sure that the approach you are taking is well-suited for that purpose and that it will help you get to where you want to be. Remember, what may be an effective marketing approach for one freelance may not be the right fit for you.

If you haven’t already taken time to think about what you specifically want out or freelancing or to develop a basic marketing plan, I recommend that you do so. Having a game plan will help you to get more out of your efforts and to use your time more efficiently.

For more on business and freelancing please see:

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14 Responses

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  • John Saddington, February 3, 2011

    holy cow. this was extensive!

  • GraphicDesignBoss, February 3, 2011

    It’s funny, I thought there would be a huge amount of feedback on this post. But to my sad surprise there isn’t.

    If you are working for yourself, or thinking of working for yourself you HAVE to get yourself a business plan AND a marketing plan.

    Even if you don’t adhere to it to the letter it will help you focus your efforts on the right areas and save you time and $$ in the long run.

    Regarding the observation about referral business. This is a golden comment. Word of mouth marketing is the single best way to get new business. I’ve found that clients approach you from a completely different perspective when its through a referral. They never haggle about price because they’ve heard about your value.

  • Andrey Korobitsin, February 3, 2011

    The best way to get new clients for me is old “word of mouth” way.
    Such leads convert to paying clients very well, as your refferal is actually pre-sells you. :)

    Business networking is also a good way to accure new customers – that’s how about 25% of my turnover was built in the last year. You just negotiate with non-competing but related businessess (web hoster, ISP, advertising agency) to exchange reccommendations. Though this probably would work only for established business which is able to generate recommendations for it’s partners – nobody wants to recommend you without getting recommendations in exchange.

    Regarding to the specialization vs generalization: I think that the first is better, as you have much higher chance to land a project when it is about your specialized service.
    But you will not get that much work offering specialized service in the local market of a small town though.

    Totally agree with your thoughts on how to find first clients through your friends and family. Worked for me well. What also worked for me well in the beginning was offering a first draft without a pre-payment (this lead to the contract sign-ups almost always, as a client didn’t feel any risk on the start). Well, you should be very carefull with this way though, otherwise you can find yourself working for free :)

    Very good post. Thank you.

  • Tony 'Garage' King Bennett, February 3, 2011

    My experience with freelance has not been great. Communication with language barriers and also patterns of thought seems fraught with difficulty.

    Find a great site, see who built it, ask for a quote and bargain – that’s my advice

  • Calgary Web Designer, February 3, 2011

    This is a great blog post! You offer valuable tips that any Entrepreneur can apply to their business.
    Thanks!!
    Darlene

  • 27 Graphics, February 4, 2011

    Great article. Thanks. I’m in freelancing for the long run with the hope of building up a business. I’ve recently rebranded myself (with a new business name) with this in mind and mainly specialising in certain areas of print-based design. I’ve also entered the world of blogging after being inspired by others like Chris Spooner – it’s actually a good way to build up extra skills and experiment too.

  • Brian, February 5, 2011

    I do agree with you that freelancing is definitely the best way to get your portfolio up. This will help you land a big job or you can charge higher prices to freelance.

  • Patrick LeMay, February 8, 2011

    I had never thought that choosing freelancing would have so many questions to be answered. The main ideas I had in my mind is that one needs to identify the area of specialization and which all companies need your service. The way you sell your service also matters. This article has helped me to channelize my skills to a single point and helped me understand productive way of freelancing. Thanks

    • Vandelay Website Design, February 8, 2011

      Patrick.
      I’m happy to hear that this post has helped you. Thanks for the feedback.

  • Alex Stevens, February 9, 2011

    Am a trainer for web and graphic design in Uganda. I train young people aged 17-22years, am also a freelancer.
    This info was relevant in uganda and I also shared it with my students.

  • jay, February 19, 2011

    What are your recommendations for a new established agency?

    Ive been having hard time finding clients here in Scandinavia, and most US or UK clients want people who are close by.

    Ive tried cold contacting about 200 companies here in Scandinavia, but only 1 person actually takes tie to look at my portfolio.

    My website and portfolio is pretty decent, Ive done work from non-profits to magazines. But after moving back to Scandinavia and trying to go full on with an newly established agency, im basically having no luck at all.

    Which is sad because i see these other web companies around here and they provide quality work as if its from the early 90s. And here I am qualified, have a decent portfolio, have an 5 year experience and a really good eye for design, but cant find anyone that is looking for any of my services.

    Im just having a really hard time finding clients, any insight on how to advance is greatly appreciated.

    • Vandelay Website Design, February 19, 2011

      Jay,
      Have you tried looking for work on the Freelance Switch job board – http://jobs.freelanceswitch.com/ ? I know there is a lot of stuff posted there. If US and UK clients want local designers, have you tried finding clients in your local area? I would recommend going to some networking events or just getting in touch with local businesses. Blogging has been a great source of business (although indirectly) for us, but it takes time to develop and isn’t going to bring a lot of clients right away.

  • Toronto Web Developer, June 9, 2011

    Very Infomrative, Thanks!

  • Toronto Web Developer, June 9, 2011

    Very Informative, Thanks!

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