Being a freelance designer brings great opportunities for creating a working environment that matches your particular lifestyle, but without enough clients to support the business it will be an unsuccessful venture. Many freelancers go into business because of their technical skills and a desire to bring great end results to clients, but marketing is usually not given much consideration until it becomes a necessity.
Because there are so many designers out there competing for work, knowing how you plan to market yourself is critical. Some freelancers who have had a few years to establish their businesses are fortunate enough to generate most of their work through word-of-mouth marketing, but this is the exception, not the rule.
In this article we’ll look at the subject of marketing yourself as a freelancer, but the information will also be applicable to small design studios. Regardless of whether you are just getting started as a freelancer or whether you have a good bit of experience, giving consideration to your marketing efforts is a worthwhile activity.
1. Consider Your Ultimate Plans and Goals
For some, freelancing is a temporary gig that will be used to build a portfolio and ultimately to find full-time employment. For others, the goals may include branching out and turning the business into something more than just an individual freelancer (see this interview with Matthew Jurmann of CHROMATIC for some good insight). And still for others, freelancing may be a long-term plan, something that you see yourself doing 10 years down the road.
Whatever situation you are in, these goals and plans should be kept in mind as you attempt to market yourself. Different purposes should result in different approaches. For example, if your primary goal is to build a portfolio to help you land a full-time job, setting up an attractive and effective portfolio site is a must. Many students who set up a portfolio site for this purpose will even list their graduation date and availability for hire. Taking low-priced work or starting personal projects in order to add something of quality to your portfolio may be necessary, whereas if you have other long-term goals this may not be something that fits into your plan.
2. Have a Branding Approach
Branding is usually associated with companies more than it is with individuals, such as freelancers, but it can be equally effective when used properly. How do you want potential clients to remember you? Adii Pienaar successfully marketed himself as a WordPress rockstar and became recognized as one of the leading WordPress designers. After the reputation had been established, he teamed up with some other talented designers and started WooThemes, which quickly become one of the leaders in selling premium WordPress themes. I’m sure that Adii’s branding helped WooThemes, especially in the early days of it’s existence.
Take some time to consider how you want to be viewed as a designer, and think about what it will take to get you to that point. Your marketing approach should be steering things in this direction.
3. Consider Name Recognition
The importance of name recognition for freelancers can be debated. In my opinion, it’s not necessary for success, but those who do have well-established names in the industry will certainly benefit in a number of different ways. In terms of marketing, this is an area where you should again consider your ultimate goals. If you’re planning to freelance only in the short-term, there are other things that are much more important than building strong name reputation, which can take a considerable amount of time. However, if you are planning to be an independent designer for the foreseeable future, or if you hope to use your freelancing career as a springboard to other opportunities (such as writing a book or speaking at conferences), name recognition is important.
4. Consider Your Ideal Client or Target Market
One of the first things any new business owner should consider during the planning stages is the target market of their product or service. However, many designers haven’t given sufficient amounts of thought to what types of clients they would like to work with. Having a clearly defined target market can make all of your other marketing and promotional efforts much easier. Once you have a better idea of who you would like to work with, you can do a better job of optimizing your site for particular searches, branding yourself in a particular way, advertising in certain places, and more.
Some things to consider when working on narrowing down your target market include, geographic location (do you want to target local clients?), type of business, specific type of work that you want to do for them, CMS or platform, budget, and anything else that can be used to describe the clients or the work that you want to land. Keep in mind that this is just your target market, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be able and willing to take other work as well.
5. Consider Specialization
As a freelance designer or developer you may be able to offer a vast amount of options to your potential clients, or you may choose to focus or specialize in certain types of work. There is no right or wrong answer to the issue of specialization for freelancers, but it is something you should think about in terms of how it could impact your ability to market yourself, land clients, the rates you can charge, your ability to stay up-to-date in the field, and your own satisfaction in your work.
Perhaps specializing in something like e-commerce design or development for a particular CMS would bring significant benefits to your business. While there are plenty of reasons to specialize, there are also some drawbacks: you may not like doing the same type of work all the time; you may be limiting the number of potential clients; and if the type of work you specialize in loses its demand for clients, you could struggle to find work.
6. Develop a Small Advertising Budget
Most freelancers and small design firms invest nothing in advertising, and if you can run a successful business without it you may be ok. However, there may be times when your workload slows down and it would be nice to have a little bit of money set aside for advertising. It doesn’t require a lot of money to advertise a freelance business. You may be able to get some excellent results with a targeted PPC campaign that shows ads to well-qualified potential clients. These ads are great for freelancers because they can quickly and easily be turned on and off so that they are only running when you are in need of work.
Of course, PPC is not the only advertising option. You could purchase banner ads on targeted sites for relatively small amounts of money, or you could move offline and try other methods (although most people looking for a web designer will focus their search online). Think of your marketing budget as an investment in your business, and don’t forget that business expense can be tax-deductible.
7. Work on Finding Partners
Although freelancers are independent workers, they do not have to be disconnected from other professionals in the field. In fact, most successful freelancers have built a strong network. You may find that developing connections with others in similar fields may be great sources of new clients and mutually beneficial relationships. When I say “work on finding partners” I’m not referring to finding others that will become your official business partners with whom you share ownership (alhough that is a possibility). Rather, I am referring to finding others that you can work together with in some capacity.
As an independent designer, I sometimes receive inquiries for work that would not be a great fit for my schedule and my skills. In these cases I may refer them to another designer that I think will be a better fit. However, I don’t search for specific designers for these jobs, I’ve just had the opportunity to network with many talented people over the past few years and the relationships have developed naturally. Work on building your network and keeping an eye open for those who you could partner with in some way.
8. What’s in Your Portfolio?
Most potential clients who will be considering your services will be evaluating your online portfolio, and the work that they find will be a huge influence on whether they contact you or move on to another designer. Is the work in your portfolio beneficial to your marketing? Is it relevant to your ideal client? Does it represent your best work?
If your portfolio is out of date or lacking in these areas, your marketing efforts could be greatly impacted. It’s a good idea to get your portfolio to a level that you are satisfied with before investing considerable time and/or money marketing yourself.
9. Consider Blogging
There are any number of ways that you can get people to see your portfolio, but blogging has proven to be very effective for some designers. Blogging can be an excellent way to build name recognition, to brand yourself, and to network with other designers and developers. Personally, blogging has been more influential on my career as a designer than just about anything else.
If you’re in need of exposure to potential clients, consider blogging as a means for gaining that exposure. Maintaining a successful blog does take time and effort, but using it to market a freelance business does not require so much time that it is not possible. In addition to starting and maintaining a blog on your portfolio site, you could also consider writing posts for various blogs that accept posts from freelancers.
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