How to find clients and get noticed

There’s never been a better time for ambitious creatives to turn their passions and side gigs into a career. Even would-be graphic designers have made marketing a portfolio as easy as pushing a button; new and intuitive software has become commonplace, giving them the ability to share work with their network via social media. However, as the field becomes more accessible, how do freelancers and agencies find clients and get their work noticed? Especially when freelance sites such as Upwork, Fiverr and 99Designs have thousands of designers competing for work at what seems like discount prices?

Regardless of whether you’re just starting or looking to grow your existing client base, finding those elusive clients is one of the toughest jobs. Luckily, you don’t have to resort to spending exorbitant amounts on advertising campaigns or being overly “salesy” — which can come off as desperate. Instead, here are five tips to help you find clients, with some help from industry pros thrown in for good measure.

Shamelessly contact clients you want to work with

Shamelessly contact clients you want to work with

There are many ways to go about finding clients, but one of the most common is to contact them directly. Word of mouth can help, but if you don’t know anyone in the industry who can help it’s hard to find clients. The best way to go about contacting clients is to shamelessly email them. Ask to meet up or grab a cup of coffee and work up to why the two of you would be a good fit.

Before you call, however, you need to find the right person in the company. And to do this you often need to get past the company guard dog, often the secretary. Their job is to get rid of time wasters and help their bosses work efficiently. You don’t need to use your full marketing pitch on the secretary, you just want the right email address. Once you get the right contact, reach out directly to that person and see what happens. Your first meeting can be nerve-wracking, but it’s an important part of how to get a new client for your business.

Be more than just an app

Experts agree that the most connected people are often the most successful. When you invest in your relationships — professional and personal — it can pay you back in dividends throughout your career. Show them you can sell clever design, that you have nuanced thinking and aren’t a total jerk and these connections will help find clients.

Graphic designers think they are unique, but similar crowdsourcing trends are happening across the board, with apps and companies offering cheap-to-free alternatives for everything from logo design to dubious medical diagnosis.

According to Louis de Villiers, whose clients include Nike, AT&T, and the Brooklyn Nets, “Consumers are accustomed to cost-efficient options, but the reality is that these alternatives only provide for fundamental, rudimentary needs — Band-Aid solutions, you could say. The adage says ‘You get what you pay for,’ and that’s absolutely true.”

Take the time to build meaningful relationships with those in your professional circle, so when the time comes, you can tap into those valuable connections for referrals, insights into job leads, and other valuable information. You also cannot underestimate the power of social media.

Highlight your uniqueness

Thanks to digital media, everyone who can use a computer and has an eye for aesthetics can claim to be a designer. In a sea of countless designers, when everyone has easy access to design tools, how do we get noticed?

Find clients by highlighting your uniqueness

For those in marketing, Unique Selling Propositions (USP) are extremely important because to sell more of a product you need to know what will motivate customers to buy yours instead of the competition. If this is the case, have you taken time to think about what makes you unique in comparison to other designers out there? Why will clients want to hire you instead of another designer?

Your USP could be any number of things. Many designers choose a specialization to get noticed. You could focus on developing custom WordPress themes, e-commerce websites, church websites, email newsletter design, character illustration, etc. When clients are looking for a type of service that matches up with your specialization you’ll likely stand out more to them when compared to a freelancer who markets his or her services in a more generalized way. Most designers, however, market themselves by letting the work speak for itself. This can be effective if your quality of work is truly outstanding. To make this work you’ll want to emphasize the best items in your portfolio as much as possible on your portfolio site.

Don’t overlook the power of traditional media

Don’t overlook the power of traditional media to find clients

When everyone’s connected, it’s easy to understand that clients can be oversaturated and become numb to just another piece of cool artwork. Through traditional media like business cards, flyers, and promotional items — as well as the use of guerrilla methods — it’s possible for word of your business to spread. Eventually, it might make its way into the hands of a client who’s looking for someone new.

Kenzo Minami, whose clients include Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, and Kidrobot (amount others) says, “I think the most effective tool for promotion, and to connect with clients, might be shifting back to physical and analog promotional items; stickers, posters, stationery, as well as your physical self — just showing up.”

Just because your services are online, doesn’t mean your tactics to find clients should be too. Many freelancers and agencies have found success and new business by implementing traditional advertising.

Beggars can’t be chooser, take the one-offs

When you’re trying to find clients, it’s easy to take any project that crosses your desk. Even if the client sucks, it’s still a job and only temporary. But this one-and-done mentality sets you up to get stuck doing one-off work over and over again. Instead, try to approach every gig as if it’s going to be a lasting engagement. Clients often use small projects as a way to validate ideas or test different approaches to larger projects. They may also use a paid test project to learn more about your expertise, approach, or work style. Therefore, approach even small one-off projects like they’re a gateway to bigger opportunities — because they very well might be.

“Most of our extensive client relationships were born out of personal relationships or small “one-off” design gigs,” says Amy Globus and John Clark of Team, whose clients include Red Bull Arts and Marlborough Contemporary. “Taking on a design project for a friend or colleague can come back as a large corporate brand project in a short matter of years as friends rise in the ranks along with their career paths and move around to different companies.”

One easy-to-overlook step is to reach out and ask your clients whether you can contribute to other projects they’re working on. This can be intimidating, but it can also be an opportunity to proactively promote your business and potential word-of-mouth referrals. And as the saying goes, you’ll never know if you don’t ask.

Partnering with other agencies that have similar skill sets can also help you find clients. Larger agencies or ones that become busy often farm out smaller projects to other agencies or freelancers. This is an opportunity to get your foot in the door and become a resource for them to feed in work.

So how do you find clients?

There are no silver bullets when it comes to finding clients. I wish I could say do “X” and you’ll have clients knocking down your door today and for years to come. Instead, getting new clients takes time, energy, and lots of effort. Unfortunately, to get a steady stream of clients you have to invest time into building relationships, networking, marketing yourself, and doing the job no one wants.