Whether you’re a freelance designer or work for a design agency, clients are the lifeblood of your business. But getting new clients isn’t necessarily about going out there and actively searching for them.
In fact, seeking out clients who are requesting help can even be counterproductive. Because businesses who've publicly announced that they’re looking for designers are usually the ones you don’t want.
“Those clients you’ve found by search and advertising who are looking for design support are probably going to be inundated with offers,” points out Ben Matthews, director at London digital marketing agency Montfort and blogger of freelance life at benrmatthews.com. “And that means competing with dozens of other designers.”
Katherine Cory, a freelance web and graphic designer based in Derby and Manchester, agrees and believes you should avoid sites like People Per Hour like the plague.
“You don’t want to throw your hat into the ring with 10, 20, maybe even 50 other designers and compete solely on price,” she says. “Hiring a designer or developer should be based on whether you can create a good relationship that works both ways, not only on who’s the cheapest.”
Ideally then, you want clients to find you — rather than the other way around. In this article, we get advice from the experts on how to do just that.
Like the foundations of a sturdy building, there are a few fundamentals you need in place before you start to think about attracting new clients to your business.
The first thing, not unexpectedly, is to do good work. But the second, perhaps more surprisingly, is to prioritize existing clients over searching for new ones.
“Current clients should come first, always, for two reasons,” says Matthews. “Firstly, it is much easier and more cost-effective to grow your revenue from existing clients than plow time into developing new business. And secondly, if your current clients are happy, they're more likely to recommend you to new clients anyway. So serving current clients well could be one of your main channels for generating new business.”
Cory agrees. “It’s a cliche but I believe the best way of getting new clients is as simple as doing good work,” she says. “Happy clients don’t think twice about referring you to their friends, family, and other businesses.”
Andi Graham, CMO and managing partner at Florida design agency Big Sea, echoes the idea that referrals are key to generating new business. “Seventy-five per cent of our new business comes through referrals,” she reveals. “That would never happen if we burned bridges or didn’t deliver on our word. Combine high levels of integrity with being damn good at what you do, and you’ve got referral gold.”
But what about the other 25 per cent? “That comes in through in-person networking and inbound marketing,” Graham explains.
Let’s now look at each of those in turn.
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Although client referrals will likely bring in the bulk of your new business, it’s also important to build up a strong network of people to spread your net as wide as possible. “This should include people you know and who know your work, people who are happy to recommend you, and people who are looking for support in their projects,” says Matthews.
Social media can play a vital part in this. “You can find Facebook groups for freelancing and connect with like-minded people on Twitter,” suggests Cory. “If you’re niche enough (I’m known as ‘the Drupal girl’), people on Twitter and Facebook soon recommend you if they see something you might be a good fit for, and you can do the same. I feel there’s enough work out there for everyone, so we should do our best to support each other.”
And in an infinitely expanding Internet, there are many other places to try. “The Dots and Creativepool both work for me,” says Chile-born, London-based freelance digital and web designer Carolina Soto Pik. But it’s all about being appropriate, points out Graham. “You might have the best Dribbble or Behance profile in the universe, but if your clients are looking on LinkedIn, that’s where you need to be.”
Of course, it’s not all about online. Offline networking can often be more effective.
“It’s pretty easy to get carried away with all the different online networks and channels, but the reality is that nothing beats good old-fashioned word of mouth,” says Dave Ellis, a Leeds-based freelance web designer and digital consultant. “It’s pretty hard to beat real relationships with real people.”
For this reason, he tries to stay in touch with as many people as possible. “It’s amazing how many people either need your services or know someone who does,” he explains. “So I try and make sure that I’ve got business cards with me pretty much anywhere I go. Back when I used to work in a creative business hub, I’d regularly pick up new projects while making a cup of tea and having a chat with whoever was around.”
So if you never leave the office, it’s time to start doing so. “Go where people are, such as industry conferences, design events,” urges Ellis. “Carry business cards. As well as attending, consider speaking. If you work in a shared space, chat to other freelancers: you never know where it might lead.”
Adds Graham: “You need to be where your potential clients are, physically and virtually. So go to your design meetups and conferences, sure, but then head to an entrepreneurs’ networking group.”
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In short, attracting the right kind of client is all about being in the places where they’re looking for designers. But if the place they’re looking is Google, that means you need to start thinking about SEO. And one of the best ways to match potential clients’ search queries to your site is by blogging regularly.
“I’ve been blogging since I was a freelancer back in 2003, and articles we wrote in 2005 or 2007 still bring qualified leads to our website,” says Graham. “It’s three hours of effort now that pays off for years and years. It’s how we can earn new business, even when we’re on vacation.”
And here’s another benefit to blogging: choosing the right subjects to write about can be a great way of attracting not just clients in general, but those seeking the specific type of design work that you want to do. So think carefully about the keywords you need to include to boost SEO for relevant searches. And set aside enough time to craft the right social media messages, which should help get your post shared by the right people.
Bear in mind, though, that chasing SEO may not always be the best use of your time. “I became a little bit obsessed with SEO for about a year,” says Ellis. “But the reality was it didn’t generate me great leads. It led to me getting phone calls at all hours of the day to build the next YouTube for a few hundred pounds; I’ve had that particular request at least five times.”
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So far we’ve talked about the tried-and-tested approaches to attract clients. But of course, there are an infinite number of other ways to seek out clients if you use your imagination.
“Over the years I’ve tried a number of things, from specific LinkedIn strategies to email marketing and PPC campaigns,” says Matthews. “All have had varying degrees of success.”
Graham relays an intriguing strategy she discovered a fellow agency owner was using. “They’d find organizations they wanted to work with and redesign either one page or one module of their website, then send it to them on spec. They called it ‘black tar heroin,’ because once people got a taste of what they could have, they’d come asking for more. We haven’t done this yet — we haven’t needed to — but it’s definitely on the list of things we’d try if we had the time.”
And of course, sometimes, clients can come out of nowhere. Soto Pik, for example, has often been contacted by potential clients due to a talk she gave at the University of Greenwich. Ellis once had a client who thought he was calling someone else, and it ended up turning into a project for him. When such an opportunity happens, you need to be ready and willing to grab it with both hands... even in the oddest of places.
Award-winning creative director Shane Mielke, for example, has found a number of clients at CrossFit. “I don’t physically look like your typical nerd,” he says, “so people are usually surprised when they find out that I’m a graphic artist, animator, and developer. But I’ve met some of my clients through the fact that we’re both into fitness, working out, and suffering in a CrossFit class.”
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Stick to the basics
In general, though, all our experts believe you don’t really need to do anything ‘clever’ to attract new clients: it’s all about sticking to the basics.
To summarize, that means doing good work and maintaining good relationships with the clients you work for. This should help you get referrals and recommendations from existing clients.
It also means building up a strong network of potential future clients. To do this, you need to ascertain where they’re likely to be, whether that’s on social media, searching on Google, or at physical events — and then make yourself as visible as possible in those places.
And the best news? Good designers are always in demand. So follow the fundamentals, and you shouldn’t go far wrong.