Not so long ago, I had a commenter ask me a tough question: how do I find clients?
Especially in a weak economy. Fierce competition doesn’t help either. I know for myself, clients and projects wax and wane, but I’ve been very fortunate to establish some pretty loyal clients early on in my career. The question is, how can you do this too?
You’ve probably heard the suggestions I’m about to offer before. They’re not a magic bullet, and they won’t work overnight. These are intended to get your creative juices flowing, and hopefully amp up some motivation. Building a strong client base takes time and effort; and even then there will be dry periods. Looking through these suggestions, it also has occurred to me that they are applicable not just for designers, but for practically any industry.
Building a strong client base takes time and effort. Click To Tweet
Without further ado, here are some things you can start doing today to increase your client base:
1. Ask for referrals
This is number one, because honestly, that’s how I’ve gotten 80% of my clients. And it costs nothing. Either people I know come to me for work, or people who know them find me. Word of mouth is perhaps one of, if not the, strongest tools you have in your toolbox for enticing new clients. The psychology behind this is simple: people trust the recommendations of friends more than strangers.
It’s vitally important that you ask, and even reward, your existing clients for pointing others to you. Again, this won’t happen on its own. Tell every single soul that you know, even if it’s your mailman, that you are looking for more work. Most of the time they’ll be happy to help you; it’s in our nature to want to help others (as long as there’s not much skin off our back). Of course it doesn’t hurt to throw in a little incentive too, like a bottle of wine, a gift card, discounts, or cold hard cash if you desire (just be classy about it!). The key is to create awareness.
The most important thing you should take away is this: do work that makes people want to recommend you. If you’re difficult to work with, sloppy, late, or your design skills aren’t strong, people won’t want to recommend you. The key to winning referrals is that you provide stellar service and quality work; you go above and beyond and stand out in your clients’ minds. For excellent advice on referrals, check out The Referral Engine by John Jantsh.
2. Network like crazy
This is slightly related to asking for referrals, except much more sneaky; this is the stealth mode of referrals. When you network, you’re simply making connections with other professionals. It’s the same logic as referrals except much more discreet. Obviously sites like Facebook and LinkedIn are great networking sites, but you should also practice doing it in person.
Attend workshops, be social, mingle with other designers and professionals. Join groups like your local AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Artists) chapter or the GAG (Graphic Artists Guild). Join your local chamber of commerce (more on that later). The possibilities are almost endless, be creative about how you network. Every opportunity you get, position yourself so that you’re in people’s minds whenever a design job comes up.
Don’t forget that networking goes both ways: don’t be selfish. If you meet a cool web guy, but you do print, be sure to pass on his information the next time your client needs web work done. If your work is spectacular like we just talked about, you shouldn’t have to worry about other designers snatching your loyal clients away.
3. Join your local chamber of commerce
This is on my to-do list, and is closely related to networking. In fact, it’s networking on steroids. The idea is that local business owners join in order to network specifically with other local businesses. Kind of a “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” type of deal. It’s the same principal as referrals: once you’re a member, you are no longer a stranger and thus fellow members are more apt to think of you the next time they need a designer. Annual fees range from $150-500 in some areas, do your research. Some chambers are better than others.
4. Have a website that’s easy to find, and start a blog
One of the best (free) marketing tools out there is to maintain an easy-to-find website that has an active blog on it. Or not even a blog; just something that you add meaningful content to regularly.
Search engines love content, so the more quality content you add, the more visitors you get, and the higher your rankings will be. Of course, at first your readers will probably be fellow designers looking for tips.
Search engines love content. Click To Tweet
Nothing wrong with that, because eventually potential clients will come knocking, and they’ll see that you’re an active leader in the field. You know your stuff, and are involved. Now that’s impressive.
5. Try Google AdWords, register with Yelp! and other local directories
This is also on my soon-to-do list. Their Pay Per Click offer seems like a good idea; you set up a maximum amount per day that you’d like to spend based on your desired keywords. You only get charged if visitors actually click on your ad. I’ve heard mixed reviews about this, but in my mind it’s worth a shot, particularly if you haven’t been around long enough to rank high yet.
So…I finally got around to trying Google AdWords, and the verdict is in: I think it’s a great idea if you’re ready to sit down and do some homework. By that I mean you can’t just throw an ad or two up and call it a day.
I wrote several (what I thought were decent) ads, then sat back and waited. One person called me. And they didn’t have a clue what I did, or how much I was (despite all that information being on my website). I later found out that I had gotten 18 clicks total, which resulted in one phone call, which didn’t pan out. Not sure if those are good numbers or not, but I’d like to improve them. After all, $1.60 a click can add up quickly.
I’ve decided to pause my campaign, and restart it when I’ve created a decent landing page that briefly explains what I do, how much I am, and what specials (if any) I’m offering. Obviously this will take some work, so that’s why I say it’s not for the faint at heart.
6. Run a direct mail campaign
Believe it or not, direct mail still has the highest ROI (return on investment) of any marketing or advertising tactic out there. Seems bizarre huh. Most of us simply toss any junk mail we get; statistically, response rate is only about 1-2%. Doesn’t sound like much, but remember, it’s still actually the best tactic for your money’s worth.
Nowadays you don’t even need to rent or buy an expensive mailing list; USPS has a new marketing strategy called Every Door Direct.
Instead of sending mailers to specific households, they simply deliver it to a whole area. Here’s an example: let’s say you want to send out a mailer to 500 local businesses (or residents, if you choose). Print and postage can cost as little as $300. If the standard 1 or 2% of recipients get back to you, that’s 5 to 10 new potential clients.
Even if only one of them ends up using you for say, a website, you’re still getting your money back (and then some). And remember, if you provide quality service, that one client could be yours for a lifetime. So hopefully you can see how powerful direct mail can be if you’re looking to get some new work quick.
7. Do some pro bono work
If things are particularly quiet for you, helping a non-profit or charity out with some pro bono work might be a golden opportunity. For one, you get to stay busy and sharpen your design skills. Secondly, you’ll be giving back to the community. And thirdly, even though you’re donating your time, you now have your foot in the door.
In the future, if they ever have the funds or have a bigger project that they are able to pay for, you’ll be the first one in their minds. And they’ll probably refer you to others.
The only caveat with this is you must establish expectations at the very beginning of the relationship.
Be sure to write up a contract for them, detailing exactly what you will and will not do. Keep your regular, professional process intact; don’t cut corners or bend the rules. Include your regular fee and show how much value they’re getting, so they don’t start thinking your time isn’t worth anything.
Generally, doing pro bono work should allow you greater freedom in the creative process.
It also doesn’t hurt to double check that they are in fact struggling financially; and never, ever do free work because somebody asks you to. That’s just asking for trouble. They need to know, every step of the way, that you are doing them a huge favor, because you are. Just don’t be a jerk about it. This is a fine line to ride but if you can do it professionally and graciously, this will work out well for you.
8. Talk to your local printers and design firms
I almost don’t want to share this one because it’s kind of a secret, and it’s not for everybody. Did you know that most print houses and design firms only keep minimal staff on hand? Work ebbs and flows for them too, so it simply isn’t cost effective to hire tons of designers. Many design firms and printers have a roster of independent contractors (i.e. freelancers like you) to pass along overflow work to.
Of course, as a freelancer you may only be interested in having your own clients; this is fine, I have my own clients too. But at the same time I like to be able to pay the bills, and I’ve found partnering with local printers and design firms to be extremely rewarding. This is a great opportunity to establish professional, working relationships and to network. You are also able to stay busy, make more money, gain new skills, and have bragging rights (“I did work for _______ Agency!”).
One of the downfalls is a potential loss of communication with the client themselves.
That in itself can be very frustrating. And as a contractor, you might not get as much say in the creative direction of the project. Additionally, depending on the firm, you might not be able to show the finished work in your portfolio. This may be negotiable, but it’s a possibility. But, if keeping your workload full is important to you, I’d say it’s a viable lead to follow.
9. Approach local businesses
This is kind of a door-to-door salesman tactic, but if you’re desperate what do you have to lose? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been to some local businesses that just have atrocious design. And we’re talking atrocious, not, “Oh, I might have done that differently.”
Odds are, if the business owner isn’t blind, that they realize their design isn’t the best either.
It never hurts to go to one of these businesses, introduce yourself to the owner, and (nicely) inquire if they’d be interested in having ______ redesigned. Bring samples or your portfolio with you. Or ask if they can meet up with you at a specific time to talk about it.
Whatever you do, do not tell them how you really feel about the quality of what they have, because the owner may very well have done it themselves.
Just be extra respectful of them and their time; you’ll probably be turned down a lot, but I have found that most business owners are open to the idea of improving their business. I think that most just don’t know where to start. Be sure to let them know that you can help them with that.
10. Reply to ads
This one’s a little risky but it can work; check through ads that call for design work to be done. Doing this online is a bit tricky, because inevitably you’ll be undercut by someone else. This is where it pays to set yourself apart from the competition (more on that next).
It also pays to be aggressive and to be there first. One of my best clients is from an ad; I was the first one to return his call. He’s now been my client for over three years, and he’s referred me to at least two others who I’ve also done design work for (see, referrals do work!).
11. Crush the competition
“Why should I hire you?” is probably the first question that pops into your client’s mind, especially since you charge twice as much as that guy on Craigslist. Why should they hire you? Raw talent aside, let’s look at some other key things you can do to set you apart from your competition.
How are your people skills? Clients like designers who are friendly, can communicate well, who receive feedback graciously, who can sympathize with their troubles. Look at yourself in the mirror, and be honest: are you presentable? Do you practice good personal hygiene? I’m not kidding. I’ve come across way too many designers who just don’t take care of themselves—I don’t know, maybe it’s a creative thing. But my point is, when you go out into the real world, how you look, talk, act, and yes, smell, all play an important role in whether or not you’re hirable. I wish this tip were an obvious one, but it’s not.
Appearance aside, do you have any other marketable skills? Most designers just design. Do you build brands? Do you know SEO? Can you write great copy? Any and everything that sets you apart from run-of-the-mill designers can be used to your advantage. Be aware of and strengthen those skills, because they will give you an edge.
12. Be prepared
“Send me your résumé.” Before you rush home to update it because someone finally asked you for it, take the time to be prepared now.
Don’t wait until the last minute to pull together a decent business card, résumé, or whatever. Practice your interview etiquette, review your closet to make sure you have something nice to wear. Even if you’re applying at a creative design firm, it’s always a good idea to err on the side of caution.
Don’t wait until the last minute to pull together a decent business card & résumé Click To Tweet
Even as creatives, we still get only one chance to make a great first impression. There are no second first impressions. And after the interview or meeting, be sure to send them a formal thank you card or letter. A real one, not an email. No one does this anymore, and I promise it’ll not only make you stand out, but it goes a long way.
13. Find your niche
This is the argument of the century. Should a designer be a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, or specialize? My philosophy is, if you try to do everything, you’ll be good at nothing. Maybe you are a genius and can get away with doing everything, that’s great. Most of us mortals should probably figure out what it is we’re good at, and what we like.
If you try to do everything, you’ll be good at nothing Click To Tweet
Now, finding your niche can vary widely. It can mean what type of work you do (web, print, branding), what kind of market you work for (hospitality, finance) or what size or type of market (start-ups, Fortune 500 companies). The sky’s the limit when it comes to niching yourself. Find what works for you. For practical tips on how to do this, check out The Designer’s Guide to Marketing and Pricing by Ilise Benun.
14. Continue learning
Never stop learning, never stop growing. I think the biggest threat to designers isn’t unemployment, but forgetting to challenge ourselves. If you stay current, if you stay fresh, you’ll have that much more appeal to your potential clients. Every new skill you learn is another tool you can use down the road. And it’s always a good idea to sharpen those tools every once in a while.
What do you think?
Did I forget anything? What are some other ways that you can think of to find more clients?