If you’re a freelance web designer or run a small web design agency, it won’t have escaped your notice that getting web design clients is a real challenge. I would go so far as to say that web design is one of the toughest business models you can pursue.
- Web designers are working against (often) small budgets
- Web builders like Wix and Squarespace are becoming increasingly sophisticated
- Everybody thinks they’re a website designer
- Clients with “big personalities” can make the job even more challenging
- The low cost to entry means there is global competition in the web design space.
And so on. Make no mistake, the work can be arduous. I have been there.
BUT, professional web design isn’t going anywhere, and with the right mindset and processes, freelance website design can be an amazing business opportunity in 2020. You don’t need to settle: you can get high paying web design clients on your own terms, who value what you do, and grow a web design business using the step by step guide that I lay out in this article.
Before we begin
Before we get started on this step by step guide, there are a few things I want to say. Firstly, I am basing this on my own experience. Unlike many other “how to get clients” web design articles, I’m going to give you a step-by-step plan, and won’t simply throw a list of ideas at you. This is a guide, but it requires effort on your part. You will need to be intuitive and apply the content here to your own circumstances. You’ll need to be resourceful and fill in the gaps. You’ll need to trust the process and have patience. Nothing easy is worth having.
Ready? Then let’s get you some awesome web design clients 😀
First things first: why do you design websites?
On the surface of it this sounds like an absurd question. “Because I enjoy it”, “because it’s my job”, “because I’ve been doing it for years” might be your answer. (They used to be my answers as well).
But you’re going to be spending a huge amount of time doing this, so it’s really important that you’re not on autopilot. So let’s dig into your “why”.
There is an amazing book called Start With Why that I wholly recommend reading, whether you’re in the web design business or any other area of work. This book, along with a few others, changed the way I saw my work and helped me to identify what it was that really mattered.
Most of my work involves helping non-profit organisations to succeed using digital tools, and web development is a big part of that. But, web development isn’t all of that. By establishing my why, I don’t get bogged down by the website design aspect of my work and am always grounded by the bigger picture.
I do web design, but what I actually do is help social-purpose organisations to thrive online. And web design is just a part of that.
This is important. Stop and read that again.
If you want to get more web design clients, you have to stop calling yourself a web designer. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but as the book Start With Why states: people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
Let me give you a real world example. Imagine I approached a local homeless charity because I identified that their online presence could be greatly improved. If I framed myself as just a web designer, I would be immediately put in a box with all the other web designers who have contacted the charity previously. Remember: there are already plenty of people offering web design services, so you need to stand out!
How to stand out as a web developer
Winning projects as a web designer is simplified when you know why you do what you do (and others know too). Firstly, I would urge you to pick a niche, or a small number of niches, and stop pursuing work anywhere else. But it’s really important to base your niche on your personal interests, otherwise you won’t be able to work with confidence and authenticity. My primary niche is non-profits because I believe that the work charities do is hugely valuable to society. Subsequently, I can help them in earnest.
Going back to that earlier example of a local homeless charity, let’s re-frame my approach:
I was really sad to read in my local paper last night that John, a rough sleeper, died in the cold on Main St. It is a crying shame that homelessness is so rife in this city, and it’s good to see organisations like yours helping those afflicted.
My business supports a number of charities to help them raise their profile and reach more donors online, I’d love the opportunity to speak with you about how I can help here.
We’re told that unsolicited sales emails are evil, and admittedly most are, but this isn’t a sales email. It’s an offer of genuine help. And I didn’t even mention web design.
I want to reiterate: you must believe your words. Don’t be cynical. If I didn’t really think I can help – and genuinely want to – sending an email like the above would be pretty grotesque. This is why your niche must align with your personal values.
Let’s recap so far: to stand out as a web developer you need to stop saying you’re a web developer and start talking about the value you bring to a specific demographic.
You don’t “design websites”, you “help non-profit organisations maximise their social impact using digital tools”.
You don’t “design websites”, you “help SaaS businesses grow their customers by enhancing the on-boarding journey”.
You don’t “design websites”, you “work with independent coffee shops to help them fight back against the onslaught of mediocre chain store coffee”.
You don’t design websites.
Get web design clients with a targeted content strategy
Now that you have a better idea of what you actually do, and who you do it for, you’ll notice how much simpler everything is from here. In the past, before I bothered to define an audience, I was writing all manner of vague content on my web services page. “We craft unique digital experiences” is one such example that, ironically, you’ll find similar versions of all over the place (not very unique, right?)
In my opinion, the web design industry has a lot of growing up to do. Just Google “web design agency” and look for the patterns.
The problem with this is that these companies are trying to talk to everybody. They’re not focusing on a particular client need, and so their messages just get ignored. But now you have your niche audience, how do you actually target them so you can start getting on their radar?
Grow your web agency by producing highly relevant messages
The first step is to evaluate your current positioning. If your homepage currently makes a statement similar to one of those sites I just mentioned, it’s time to change it up. Let’s imagine for a moment that you have decided to target SaaS (Software as a Service) businesses as a freelance UI designer. There are a tonne of SaaS startups out there, so your market is deceptively huge. How could we target them?
Let’s begin by crafting an overarching statement (by defining our why):
“I help SaaS businesses like yours to grow their customers by enhancing the on-boarding experience. Using the latest techniques backed by psychological research, and by analysing user behaviour, I develop customer journeys that will make your product stand head and shoulders above the competition. Here are my services…”
Now that’s a fairly strong opener because it speaks directly to your target audience. Let’s go a little deeper.
Hook your ideal customer by pressing on their pain points
What problems do your target customers face? In our case, SaaS businesses often face the following challenges:
- Not enough website traffic
- High user churn rate
- Poor conversion rate
- Low in-app engagement
- Technical debt
- Poor visual design
There are probably plenty more problems and I’ll show you how to uncover those shortly. But this is enough to be getting on with. Now you have an idea of what their problems are, you can start to produce pages on your website and blog that directly address these issues!
Empathise with their problems, provide a solution. Rinse and repeat for each problem you uncover. It’s so simple.
How to get more web design customers by hanging out with them!
Once your website is finally fit for purpose and talking to the right people in the right way, it’s time to get it in front of them. It’s worth mentioning here that when you niche down on a topic, keyword research also becomes simpler, and therefore ranking in Google for your desired search terms gets easier. However, let’s save the SEO benefits for another article and talk about how you can locate and engage with your ideal client in a non-salesy way.
Social media is your answer, but not in the way you might think. So many people assume that using social media means you have to post dozens of times a day and grow a massive following. No thanks, that sounds exhausting!
When I talk about using social media to get web design clients, I mean finding those niche communities that exist all over the web. Closed Facebook groups, Subreddits, Quora threads and even classic bulletin boards; these are all deeply important online spaces that you can participate in to
get clients add value. This is how you work smart, not hard.
Exercise: spend 15-30 minutes searching all the main platforms (Facebook, Reddit etc) for keywords that would indicate your audience might be found there. In the example of non-profits, there are lots of Facebook groups about fundraising, where fundraisers hang out! For the SaaS niche we’ve been exploring, StackOverflow and Hashnode are places you might want to consider building your profile.
Remember: you know your ideal customer, so finding them is now much simpler. But when you do get access to their spaces, be sure to listen and learn, and offer your constructive input at the right times. This is crucial. Any sense that you’re a salesperson sniffing around for leads and you’ll quite rightly be shown the door. Listen, learn, participate, help. You’ll become known for your expertise and respected by the community, and eventually members of that community will come to you. It works, I’ve done it.
How to become an authority in web development
So far, we have examined why you do what you do, who you do it for and how you might reach them. To really take advantage of this approach to marketing, you need to grow your profile in the niche you have chosen. You are no longer an “all rounder”, and so this too becomes simpler.
The process looks like this: you locate those people who are already talking about your niche, and reach out to them to contribute to the conversation.
If you are a freelance UI designer for SaaS businesses, your job would be to locate blogs, podcasts, YouTubers and so on who already cover this topic area and add value to their content. Comment on their videos, ask a question to their podcast guests… get on their radar. Then, when the time is right, introduce yourself and see if you can contribute in some way. If you make an impact, the likelihood is that they will probably reach out to you first.
Every mention you get on a blog or in a podcast goes towards building your profile. This is the engine that will begin to consistently send you traffic, leads, and ultimately customers. This is the exact process that I have followed, and I receive 3-6 leads per month through my website. That might not sound like much, but in the web design industry we’re used to breaking our backs networking and seeking word of mouth recommendations. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but wouldn’t it be nice if more leads just dropped into your lap?
It’s time to up your web design game, and start winning clients who value you, and pay what you’re worth
Let’s recap on this 5 step process:
- Understand your core motivation for being a web developer: what’s your why?
- Choose a narrow market segment, a niche that you can own
- Research the needs of your niche audience and start producing content that answers their questions
- Mingle with your core audience and earn their trust
- Become an authority who they come to when they have problems that you can solve.
This process takes time, but you’re probably already somewhere along the path. Take some time to identify where you are currently, and forge your own route forward. I have done this, and my working life has improved dramatically, and I promise that if you do the same, you’ll gain greater satisfaction from your work, have better relationships with your customers and earn more money by building a sustainable web design business.