How to get graphic design clients in 2021.
Getting clients is hard, whether you’re a great designer with an amazing portfolio or a brand new graphic designer with no work experience.
I’ve been there and done that. I’m going to share my best tips on how to get graphic design clients in 2021!
AND at the end of this article, I’m to share with you the exact strategies I used to reach multi-six figures in my design business inside of a year.
But before we jump into those strategies, there are two fundamentals you must have regardless of which strategies you decide to use: a positive mindset and knowing your ideal client. Because you’re unlikely to make any client attraction or marketing strategies work without these two fundamentals, we’re going to talk about them first.
1. Positive Mindset
Regardless of which stage of your business you are in, approaching any marketing strategy without a positive mindset will likely lead to frustration and defeat. While it would be AMAZING for all of us to wave a magic wand and have our perfect client attraction strategy running flawlessly, that’s rarely how it works.
You’ll have to tweak them to work for you and your ideal client. Some strategies you may realize, only upon giving them solid effort for a few months, aren’t actually the right fit for your business. Others may work quickly, but will need some minor tweaks to bring in as many leads as you may like. Staying positive, and tweaking your strategy as you go will be essential to seeing success with ANY marketing strategy.
Going into your journey to attract new design clients – especially high-end clients – will require this positive mindset to persevere in the face of inevitable challenges you will face.
Here are three ways to stay positive while implementing your client attraction strategies:
- Have a realistic expectation about implementing marketing strategies. Expect it will take you 2-3 months to work out the kinks.
- Stop and appreciate that you have taken the courageous step to TRY a strategy, even if it’s uncomfortable.
- Appreciate that every task you complete and every tweak you make to your strategy will get you one step closer to reaching your goal of having your ideal clients reaching out and eager to work with you.
2. Define your ideal client
The next fundamental step in getting more clients is understanding where they come from and why they hire designers like us in the first place. Once we understand our client’s needs, it makes it easier for us to build relationships with them and ultimately ensure them that hiring us will benefit their business goals.
For our purposes, our client’s market segment includes their geography, industry, company size, and role. Here are some questions to help you define your ideal client’s market segment:
Where do they live? Do they prefer local designers or those in other states/countries.
What industry are they in? For instance, educational and financial institutions are a lot more traditional than tech companies. Their industry can impact the way the client values about graphic design in the context of reaching their own business goals.
Are there design trends in my ideal client’s industry? If you love cutting-edge graphic design work, your ideal client is probably not a textiles manufacturer, where design is less valued. It’s more likely to be a tech company. Make sure your ideal client’s needs align with your skills.
How established is their organization? Startups will likely have less rigorous brand guidelines than large, established brands. Startups may have lower budgets, but pay faster whereas larger companies have larger budgets but pay more slowly. Knowing what is important to you, and aligning your services with businesses of the right size to support your creative and business needs is important.
Struggling to get clarity on your ideal client’s market? Click here to learn more about the highest-paying design jobs for inspiration in finding your ideal projects and clients.
Once you’ve defined your ideal client’s market segment, we can determine their “persona,” which includes the right person in the job role that would hire graphic designers like us. Here are some questions to help you define your ideal client’s persona:
What types of personalities do you work best with? Serious personalities or super fun? Organized or more free-wheeling? You can adapt your messaging to appeal to your ideal clients. For instance, I prefer to work with friendly people. All of my messaging is designed to be warm and welcoming, which will be appealing to clients who are similar and unappealing to those who aren’t.
What is their role in the organization? Again, think of this in terms of WHO needs your service and WHO you best support. Where do they overlap? Do you collaborate better with a hands-on Creative Director or with a strategic VP of Marketing?
What is their social media preference? Do they actively use LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter? You’re going to want to know WHERE your ideal clients are online so that you prioritize your efforts in the right places.
What types of in-person events do they go to? Some industries go to more conferences than others. Consider the type of events your ideal client attends so you can engage with them there, rather than trying to sell yourself to someone who really doesn’t need you and probably won’t hire you!
With all of this insight on who YOU best serve and who NEEDS YOU, you have the foundation for a really effective marketing strategy. After you’ve answered these questions, you should literally be able to go to LinkedIn or Google and search for companies in the right industry, at the right size, find the names of people in the right roles, search their social profiles and determine if they’d be an ideal client.
And, if you’re thinking, “I don’t need to be that specific because everyone is my ideal client,” you are seriously mistaken. By appealing to everyone, you are actually appealling to no one. By tailoring your services, messaging and portfolio to a specific market segment, you’ll get more of the right clients for YOU!
Now that you’ve got the fundamentals down, we’ll get into the marketing strategies you can implement to start attracting your ideal clients. By the end of this guide, you should have enough information about each strategy that you can pick one (or several), that is right for your freelance design business.
3. How to make a graphic design portfolio that gets you new clients
Start the process of appealing to your ideal clients by updating your website and portfolio. The first thing you should do is ask yourself these questions:
- What problem is my ideal client trying to solve? It may seem overly simple, but if you aren’t crystal clear on what the problem is, you can’t possibly convince them that you can solve it. Define the problem your ideal clients are trying to solve and make them want to hire you!
- What language would that client use to describe their problem? Using the language your client uses based on their industry and role in the organization is a great way to build rapport and trust with that ideal client. For example, let’s say you have a VP of Marketing and a Director of Technology who are both looking to have a website designed for their respective companies. A VP of Marketing is going to be focused on copy and conversion rates, whereas a Director of Technology may be more concerned about site speed and integrations. Where do you shine? Make sure that comes through by using your ideal client’s language!
- What would my ideal client need to see in my portfolio to know I am the perfect designer to help them solve their problem? Don’t highlight the last thing you worked on, look at your portfolio through their eyes to see what they’ll find important and compelling based on their needs. As in the previous example with website design, are they interested in seeing a case study with your designs with conversion rates? Or are they interested in seeing demos of the sites you’ve built and poking around in the code? Everything in your website and your portfolio should lead clients through a process of knowing your value, understanding how you solve problems, and showing them proof that it can be done. Your website serves as a digital brochure for what you have to offer, so make sure the information on there is clear and makes sense to your ideal client.
- Call to action Your website and portfolio should lead your ideal client to take the next step towards hiring you. What action do you want your ideal client to take? What would they be expecting based on the industry or their personality type?Maybe the call to action is to schedule a phone call. Perhaps it’s to fill out a form on your website with more details so you can provide a quote. You need to be crystal clear on what the next step is, and have a way for them to take that step.
4. Demonstrate your expertise
Okay, so now you have a website and a portfolio that is SEO optimized, speaks the language of your ideal client, and clearly demonstrates how you solve their problem.
Now it’s time to work on creating content for your blog or social media platforms that will make clients want to hire you! To trust this isn’t just an outdated website, but someone who is experienced and actively capable of helping them solve their problem.
The first step is to demonstrate that you know are a real, live human being who knows how to solve their problem. Social media is a great platform for getting your name out there as a freelance designer since it’s free and allows you to connect with potential clients across many different industries. Using social media helps people get to know you on a personal level and builds your web presence.
It’s also crucial that you’re actively posting to social media so there is proof of your activity, which then shows off your expertise as well. For example, if someone wants to hire a freelance designer who is active on social media, they’ll want to see how many Likes or Tweets you get.
Where many freelancers go wrong with their social media strategy is they post once and then forget about it for six months. That isn’t going to impress anyone, and will likely deter them from reaching out to you, so make sure you’re posting regularly to keep your web presence active!
On the other end of the spectrum, some freelancers overdo it with social media and are annoying, spammy or not strategic. A complete waste of your time! Make sure to be strategic with your posts: go back to your ideal client’s market segment and persona. What topics are they interested in? What would they want to see from you to know that you are an expert in your field? What hashtags do they follow? Some of those may be related to your services, but some may be related to their broader industry. By using hashtags related to their industry, you can potentially get in front of several of your ideal clients all at one time – and that’s the goal!
Next up: blogging! Blogging is a great way to add value by sharing helpful advice with your audience. Writing content that focuses on educating people in the industry also demonstrates expertise, establishes you as an expert. Someone who knows their stuff and can actually solve the client’s problem. The more specific the topic is, the better.
An example of a good blog post might be one on design trends in their target industry or breaking down website design case studies and showing how you can help improve conversions. Remember: show that you can solve your ideal client’s problem. That you have deeper expertise in their industry, their role, their problems than anyone else.
Another way to establish your expertise is to include testimonials from previous clients. Do you have testimonials from clients that you’ve worked with? It’s a great idea to add these to your website – it demonstrates proof of your capabilities and expertise. If possible, showcasing this on your home page is going to be beneficial for establishing social proof and improving client acquisition.
These testimonials can also be incorporated into your social media strategy! In fact, I typically ask clients to leave testimonials on LinkedIn, so I get the social proof, but then leverage the text on my website and social media posts.
5. Ask for referrals from your existing network
Look, I have no idea why freelancers hesitate to ask their network for referrals, but it’s a huge missed opportunity, especially when you’re just starting out. Maybe it’s because they’re embarrassed, or it feels weird somehow. Well, it shouldn’t – this is how you build your business!
I’m going to let you in a little secret here: most designers’ number one source of new clients is referrals from their existing network. It’s called the relationship factor. Clients already know and trust you before they decide to hire you, based on the relationship you had with the referrer and their relationship with the referrer. That trust is passed through both relationships and is hugely powerful in securing a new client. Pair that with a website and portfolio that conveys your expertise and you’ll be unstoppable!
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6. Join freelance job boards
Freelance job boards are a great opportunity to find new clients as well! There’s nothing wrong with joining up with Upwork, Guru or PeoplePerHour. Especially for those of you who are JUST starting out, freelance platforms are a great way to hone in on your signature service, test out different client industries and personalities, and build a portfolio and testimonials.
While many freelancers make good money working on freelance sites, that didn’t happen overnight. Here are some strategies for making the most of those job sites:
Market yourself as an expert in your field, not as a “jack of all trades”
As a new designer, you don’t want to get pigeonholed into designing everything under the sun. This is not only confusing for clients, but it’s also just doing yourself a disservice. If I wanted my website designed on WordPress, why would I hire a photographer?
Be active on the platform
When you have a new client, or even when you’re on the job board looking for your next client, it’s important to be active and engaged. That doesn’t mean “spamming” everyone who posts an ad with a link to your portfolio – that is just going to annoy people. You want to respond to the RIGHT job opportunities quickly and thoughtfully. Those at the top of the list will get more attention than those at the bottom. Keep in mind your ideal client’s language and personality so that you make it a no-brainer to work with you over all the competition.
Know you’re going to need to start on lower budget projects before you get the big ticket work
As a new designer, you’re going to need to prove your worth and gain confidence from clients before they trust you with their biggest projects. Even though it can be frustrating and a little demoralizing, don’t pass up those low-budget jobs that help establish you as a professional in your field. They are a great way to build up social proof and increase your rates on each platform.
Diligently raise your rates each time you take a project on the platform
As your portfolio grows and your testimonials build, you want to be on the lookout for opportunities to raise your rates. Keep track of each job that you win from these platforms and increase your rate consistently. Over the course of 3 months on Upwork, I went from making $15/hour to $100/hour. With each successful project, I raised my rate by $5/hour. With a positive review at the previous price point, it was easy for clients to feel comfortable that I could deliver a lot of value – because they saw social proof I had just exceeded the expectations for someone at just a slightly lower price point.
7. Network where your ideal client already is.
Online communities and groups are great places to meet your ideal clients. Try posting in niche Facebook group, Quora or LinkedIn. First and foremost, be sure to follow all of the rules of these online communities. It’s important to find the balance between being helpful, informative and promote your services in a subtle way.
One way to do this would be to answer questions people have. Make sure that your social profile clearly demonstrates your expertise and how people can get in touch with you.
Please note, it is generally frowned upon to slip into the DMs of unsuspecting group members and many times is against community rules. Respect the communities and the members of the group or you will likely lose access to them.
In Person Events
I cannot stress the importance of attending in-person events. Not only are you a stronger candidate, having attended an event and showed up to support it – you will also make connections with like-minded people who need your services! There’s no better way to network and get business leads than from meeting people face-to-face.
The trust that can be built in-person is much faster than that built virtually. Like all things in this article, be strategic with your in-person events. If your ideal client is a VP of Marketing for Financial Services companies, you probably don’t want to go to a Financial Services Compliance conference, as that conference will be filled with people in the right industry, but the wrong role. Attending in-person events can be very expensive, especially if travel is involved, so make sure to use those dollars appropriately!
8. Use cold outreach strategies
Cold outreach is a great way to network with people who have needs similar to your ideal client. Make sure you’ve actually done enough research on the person you’re going to email, so that when they receive it, they are compelled and willing to engage further.
Start by doing tons of research on their website and social media platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter. Make sure you have a good handle on their position, company culture, ideal client, etc. Once you’ve done that thorough work, it’s time to fire off an email with your pitch! Again, this pitch should only be going to clients you’ve identified as your ideal client. Clients whose specific pain points your website and cold outreach email should address!
How will I find my ideal clients so I can message them?
One of the most powerful ways to find your ideal clients now that you are clear on their industry and title is to use LinkedIn. First, you can search for the title of your ideal client in LinkedIn’s search. Then, click the “People” tab.
Doing this, you should find a big list of people in your ideal client’s industry that have LinkedIn profiles like you’ve been searching for. You can even filter by degrees of connection and location!
If you’ve been asking existing clients for testimonials or recommendations as discussed above, your network will also grow to include your clients’ connections. This is a great way to leverage the relationship factor and reach more of your ideal clients.
What should my cold outreach messages say?
- Be brief but friendly
- Be specific about how they will benefit by working with you
- Use the client’s name and company a few times in your email to personalize it.
The important thing is that your process is consistent and scales as much as possible.
The biggest challenge I see designers make when using cold outreach is lack of consistency. Like we talked about earlier, you’ve got to go into these strategies with realistic expectations.
Here’s the reality of cold outreach – for every 100 messages you send, you’re likely to only get 2-3 clients. It can feel like you are doing something horribly wrong if you don’t know that’s typical.
How many times have you gotten a cold message from someone and it wasn’t the right time? Or maybe not relevant at all? That’s going to happen. So just going into it knowing it’s going to be hard work, but if you have no clients, it’s work that will pay off.
So if you know you want 2-3 new clients every week, then you should plan to send 100 cold outreach messages a week or 20 per day. However, you decide to manage it, just be sure to be consistent, because the challenge with cold outreach is if you stop doing it, you stop getting new clients.
9. Search engine optimization
While Search Engine Optimization (SEO)sounds like a crazy, complicated term, it’s really not. SEO is the process of optimizing your website and posts so that they are easily found by search engines like Google, Bing, etc.
The are several reasons SEO is so powerful:
Search engines send visitors directly to your website, and clients trust those search results, so they trust you are a reputable designer. Speak their language, give them testimonials and a solid portfolio and they are eager to work with you.
The majority of traffic is search engine driven as the second biggest driver (social media being number one). Because clients looking for your solution can find you when THEY need help, SEO allows your website to work for you even when you’re not working.
Best of all, it’s a free source of traffic – no cost involved!
SEO can be very complex, especially for sites that are monetizing with low-paying ad revenue – meaning to make money they have to have A LOT of traffic. But for our purposes, it’s not that complex at all! As freelance designers, we don’t need even hundreds of visitors a day to fill our pipeline – just a handful!
There are two essential ways to optimize your site:
On-Page SEO means optimizing the actual web page you are creating. To start, what words would your client type into a google search if they were looking for your service? For instance, if you provide medical illustrations for device manufacturers, your ideal client may search for the term “medical illustrators” or “freelance medical illustrators,” so you want to make sure your site includes those keywords so that the search engines can understand what your site is about.
Off-Page SEO means optimizing the other pages that are linking back to your site. In our case, as freelance designers, we want to get links back from anywhere and everywhere – especially industry sites!
My favorite way to get quality backlinks is to use Help a Reporter Out, which has a great community of reporters looking for experts to source content from. They send out three email digests a day that you can peruse and reply, as fitting. If your quote is used in the article, you’ll typically get a link back to your site, which functions as a thumbs up to google that you are a reputable site.
10. Paid Advertising
Paid advertising is another way to get traffic to your website. You can run paid ads on many platforms, but you make sure to be strategic or you’ll just be throwing money away.
So, if you design websites for Interior Designers, do you run paid ads on LinkedIn or Pinterest? Maybe neither. Maybe both. Only spend the money on paid ads if you can afford to lose that money OR if you KNOW your ideal clients are on that platform. And that your messaging is on point and will be able to convert them into clients – now or in the future.
When it comes to having realistic expectations, it could cost $100 to $1,000 to acquire a new client depending upon your industry and area of expertise. You are unlikely to spend $5 and get new client…
11. Following up with prospects
There are many appropriate ways to follow up with prospects, though many designers don’t out of fear of being pushy.
Once you’ve sent your cold outreach messages, replied to a contact form or sent a quote, you should absolutely follow up with emails! If they don’t reply to you within 2-3 days of initially messaging them, send another email.
Mention that you reached out a few days ago but didn’t hear back, and ask again if they need any help or have questions.
If you’ve already spent the time to find and research this prospective client though, you shouldn’t just reach out once and give up. A second message is a good way to follow-up without being spammy. If you haven’t heard back from them after two messages, you likely never will, so move on to greener pastures.
12. Staying top of mind with your existing clients
It’s important to remember that when it comes to our ideal design clients, they have many priorities that likely don’t include us. We need to be their saving grace! We need to be visible so when a project that does involve us comes up, they think, “I know exactly who can help!”
At a minimum, you should connect with all of your clients on social media, so that as your posts show up in their feed, your name and information becomes memorable. This allows them to more quickly recall it when they need your service.
Another tactic I like to take with my existing clients is to periodically send out an email letting them know of upcoming unavailability or time off. My message typically goes a little something like this, “Hi! Hope things are going well with you! Just want to let you know I will be out of the office from [date] to [date]. I want to make sure to give you priority over new clients on any upcoming projects you may have, so just let me know if you’d like to hold some time for you.”
Choosing the best client acquisition strategies for you
I think it’s important to know who you are and what kind of personality you have before you start looking for clients. If you’re introverted, then SEO which lets clients seek you out might be your best option for getting clients.
On the other hand, if you’re extroverted and have a lot of friends on social media platforms, then marketing yourself on social media might be more effective.
If you have a budget for marketing, paid advertising may be a good strategy to use. If you have a limited or no budget, and plenty of time, then cold outreach may be a great strategy to start with.
It’s important that you are able to find the one strategy that works best for your individual needs – and will align with your ideal clients’ preferences so that you can get clients easier and faster.
With so many options to choose from, it can be difficult for a freelancer or small business owner to know where to start. We hope this article has helped you better understand how your strategy will impact the success of your marketing efforts.