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But Where Have All the Clients Gone? How To Get More New Freelance Design & Development Work

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If you’re a freelance designer or developer in 2012, you’ll recognise that smell in the air. You know, the one that smells a lot like fear. Whether you’re new to the game or a seasoned pro, the issue of clients, sales and good old moola rolling in is probably one that dictates a lot of your daily activities. You might have given up the comfortable day job with its little perks and reassuring monotony, to strike out on your own, be your own boss, set your own hours and endless cups of tea/coffee (insert favourite beverage here) etc. You may well have envisioned an easier, less stressful (and shorter) working day, one that involved lounging around in your tacky comfortable clothes, your favourite music blasting from the speakers and a smug look on your face. Except you didn’t quite bet on the fact that the clients aren’t exactly knocking down your door, did you?


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The old adage of ““Built it, and they will come“” certainly doesn’t apply to any freelancer I know. It’s a natural state of play these days. For every great idea/concept/service/product out there on the web today (and indeed, in many industries) it is always swiftly followed by a barrage of knock-offs, rip-offs, copycats, grasscutters and undercutters. There is always someone out there willing to do it cheaper and faster (so they say) than you. If you did your research before setting out as a freelancer, you would have no doubt come across the many ‘freelance’ sites out there where you can *shudder* bid for a design project or contract, and the job is often handed out to the one who will do it for the cheapest. If you’re hoping to make it as a freelancer these days, you’ve certainly got a lot to compete with – especially as outsourcing becomes ever more popular. The talent pool has invariably widened as more and more people turn to the web for their income.

So you’ve set up your business, built your site, set-up your social media accounts, turned to your inner networking circle for portfolio work, written blog posts, maybe even joined a few forums here and there. You’ve probably registered on pretty much every single ‘directory/freelance’ site out there. You’ve read the eBooks, the blog posts, the How-to’s – any resource you could find – and you feel ready, confident to open your virtual doors to prospective clients. You probably feel all excited (clammy hands optional). And still… nothing. No emails, no phone calls, no tweets, no nothing. The silence is deafening.

So where have all the clients gone? Why aren’t they clambering over themselves to get at you and your skills? The answer is profoundly simple.

It’s because you aren’t where your clients are.


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Get it? The internet means that we are becoming intellectually less inclined to dig deep for what we’re looking for, because the majority of the time we’re simply overloaded with information wherever we go (notice how I say ‘we’, because when it comes to prospective clients, you have to think like they do). It’s a well known fact that if you don’t rank on the first page of Google (or other reputable search engine… no wait… what were their names again?) you simply won’t get seen.

So before you rush out there to set-up your Google Adwords account (no really, don’t even bother just yet) what should you, as a freelancer, be doing to get clients?

1. Set yourself a ‘target’ audience


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Okay, so you’re a web designer, developer, programmer, monkey or whatever. Great! Identity crisis over. What you should be asking yourself is ““Who am I working for?””. And before you nonchalantly answer ““everyone who wants it””, you need to remember the old marketing saying – that “when you attempt to market yourself to everyone, you end up marketing to no-one”. A good example is good old Jon Doe, who owns several hotels under his franchise and needs a spiffy design tailored to his industry. What do you think he’s going to type into his trusty search engine? That’s right… ““Hotel Web Design”” (call it an educated guess). And unless your site is SEO’d to the max with the relevant keywords, old Jon Doe isn’t even going to come close to finding you.

You need to find your happy place within the scope of your skills – and then market accordingly to a specific demographic. A prospective client is going to be far more impressed and comfortable with choosing you for their next project if you can demonstrate exactly how you can fulfil their requirements. So our Jon Doe is more likely to choose you if your portfolio shows a history of designing quality websites for hotels or the hospitality industry. By targeting your niche, you are more likely to a) show up in search engine results (provided your site is optimised accordingly) and b) be found by prospective customers checking out their competitors websites by the gratuitous link to your site in the footer.

2. Where does your client hang out?


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So Jon Doe is just a regular guy, keen to get his business in the spotlight. He probably subscribes to ‘Hotel Monthly’ (I made that magazine up, genius huh?). He more than likely reads articles on popular hotel websites on how to run his business better, or he’s joined several groups on various social networking sites for hotel owners. He may even attend conferences, seminars or workshops on running a hotel. Now if your business doesn’t feature anywhere where old Jon Doe hangs out regularly, he’s never going to know about you and your amazing hotel web design business. Got it?

If you’re going to spend on advertising, then your money will be far better spent if you target your ads to an industry or niche. Research your ideal clients, build up an idea of who they are, what they do, what they are interested in and where they go to find information, then make sure that your skills are prominently displayed accordingly.

3. Fine tune your portfolio


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Of course, 1 and 2 will mean absolutely nothing if your portfolio doesn’t measure up. One of the biggest mistakes freelancers can make (and I say this, because I’ve done it) is to set up their business and race out there to advertise themselves. Sure, your site may well be bombarded with visitors, but if your portfolio isn’t up to scratch then none of those beautiful little clicks are going to be worth anything if you can’t convert them into clients. It is far better to have your best work displayed (even if it is only a handful of projects) that really showcase what you can do. Quality wins over quantity, hands down.

And if your portfolio looks a little bare…

4. Partner up with other freelancers


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Now it’s not something that occurs regularly, but there are other freelancers out there who have more work than they can handle. Instead of turning clients down, their street cred will remain intact if they can offer prospective clients a recommended alternative. A client will feel far more comfortable if another freelancer has recommended you, because everyone knows that if the alternative turns out to be crap, then it doesn’t make them look good either. Find out who your fellow freelancers are in your niche/industry and get in touch. Most freelancers I know are friendly, helpful and happy to collaborate – because despite our geek status, we’re generally a nice bunch. I say generally, because there are always the odd ones who prove me wrong. When you do make contact, outline your skills, give links to examples of your work, be courteous and let them know it’s a two way street should the roles be reversed in the future.

5. Contract out to design agencies


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This is becoming quite a popular trend among my network (it’s a small network, but hey). When freelance work is generally a bit quiet or slow, it may be worth your while contacting established design agencies and offering your skills on an ad hoc basis. There are many design agencies that work with a core number of full-time staff, but require additional resources on a part-time basis for larger projects. The same rules as above apply for contacting them – make sure you’re professional, showcase your skills and provide recent samples of your work. You may get work straight away (if your timing is right), but even if you don’t then at least you know that they will consider you for future projects. Sites like dribbble.com have a job board which is generally where agencies list their vacancies, and is always worth checking out. You never know what opportunities will arise if you never try – nothing ventured, nothing gained!

So there you have it – my non-exact formula for garnering new clients in an ever-growing industry. Above all though, don’t ever give up – because if you love what you do, then the web needs people like you.

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