How to Get Web Design Clients Without Wasting Time

You will read a lot of advice about how to get web design clients. But, much of it is too time-consuming if you don’t have a dedicated sales team. So let’s explore a better way.

Whether you are a freelance web designer or run a web design agency, we all want to get web design clients fast. However, when it comes to getting web design clients, there is a lot of advice out there that is not entirely realistic.

In this post, I want to explore some of that advice, discuss the common pitfalls and introduce you to the approach I use with those agencies I mentor.

However, before we dive into the different advice you read online. Let’s begin with a myth that has become almost universal in our industry.

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Word of Mouth Recommendation Is Not All You Need

Most of us begin our businesses by working for either friends, family or clients from previous jobs. We then rely on these clients to recommend us to others, and our business survives based on word of mouth recommendation.

Many people pride themselves on the fact that they have never had to market their services. Instead, they argue word of mouth recommendation provides them with all the business they need. That is a dangerous thing to rely upon.

Although word of mouth recommendation is invaluable, you should avoid relying on that alone.

The problem is that referrals are a passive way of winning business. If the phone goes quiet, there is nothing proactive you can do to bring in work. You are at the whims of your clients to recommend you to others. Even if you do a good job, there is no guarantee they will do that.

The other problem with referrals is that your existing clients will mainly know other businesses similar to their own. That means it will be hard to win bigger and better clients if you are relying on word of mouth.

In other words, when you are relying on referrals, you have no control over the type of work you attract, which brings me on to the need to market your services. Unfortunately, most of the advice I read online has serious limitations.

The Typical Advice on How to Get Web Design Clients

As I looked at other posts which talk about finding web design clients, they all seemed to offer similar advice. Although this is good advice, I keep finding myself throwing up objections for much of it.

Take, for example, the advice to improve your website.

Optimise Your Website

Effectiveness: Low unless you are driving traffic to the site.
Effort: High. Designing your own website is hard!

It should go without saying that a web designer should have a great website. However, I come across many web design freelancers and agency owners who agonise about their websites and largely ignore how people are going to find it in the first place.

A great website is not a marketing strategy in and of itself. I would encourage people to have the most simplistic (but high quality) site possible and focus on other marketing channels instead. For most web designers, a single page can be enough when the time to work on marketing is limited.

Another piece of advice you often read is around referrals, but here too, I see issues.

Ask for Referrals

Effectiveness: Highly effective if the client is willing.
Limitations: Tends to attract more of the same kind of client.
Dangers: You could alienate your existing clients.

Don’t get me wrong; word-of-mouth recommendation is essential for the health of almost any business. However, asking for referrals has to be done with care. If you put too much pressure on clients, it can alienate them.

Good word-of-mouth recommendation should be organic. Of course, the problem with that is that it is passive. If clients choose not to refer you, hassling them is not going to help.

If you are looking for a more active marketing approach, many recommend content marketing.

Focus on Content Marketing

Effectiveness: Superb for building credibility if people see what you produce.
Effort: Extremely high

I am a fan of content marketing. I have built my businesses around providing free advice online. However, I had the advantage of starting in 2005 when there were far fewer people using the approach.

Today, content marketing has become mainstream, and user attention is oversaturated. WordPress users alone produce about 70 million new posts each month, and on Facebook, 500 million stories are shared daily.

The only reason I continue to survive in the field is that I have built a following. However, it is harder than ever.

Also, people’s behaviour has changed. With so much information available, people do not follow content like they used to. Instead, they rely more heavily on search, and getting a new content source (like a blog) to list well on Google is challenging.

If you want to go down the content marketing route, you are probably better looking at our next piece of advice for getting new web design clients.

Guest Post or Appear on Podcasts

Effectiveness: Highly effective.
Effort: It can be difficult to get invites.

Many articles advise guest posting and lining up interviews on podcasts as a way of reaching a broader audience. I would agree it is a useful technique as you are leveraging somebody else’s audience.

However, once again, it is not as easy as it sounds. I run both a reasonably successful blog and a well-established podcast. I receive half a dozen requests a day to either post on my blog or appear on my podcast. Competition is fierce, and so you need a unique angle to get people’s attention, or have some connection to the owner.

Sample guest post email.
I receive dozens of requests every week for guest posts or podcast interviews.

The same is also true for the next piece of advice.

Speak at Events

Effectiveness: Highly effective.
Effort: It can be difficult to get invites and it involves a lot of preparation.

Speaking at events is great for establishing credibility and raising your profile. However, competition is fierce for anything other than small scale meet-ups. Also, the preparation time is high.

Attending Events

Effectiveness: Reasonably effective.
Effort: It is time-consuming to network through events.

Attending events, on the other hand, has a lower barrier to entry and can often be an effective way of building a network of contacts.

However, the issue here is that attending events can be a time-consuming affair and often the people you meet are peers, rather than potential clients.

The same problem occurs with online communities.

Take Part in Online Communities

Effectiveness: Reasonably effective.
Dangers: You end up talking to peers, not potential clients.

Taking part in online communities like the Boagworld Slack Channel can undoubtedly be a less time-consuming way of networking.

Boagworld Slack Channel
Taking part in online communities like the Boagworld Slack Channel can undoubtedly be a good way of networking.

However, you can quickly end up talking to peers again, and it is still not a particularly focused way of marketing yourself.

That said, it does have value, as do all of the techniques listed above. However, there is also some advice you will read on getting web design clients that I just flat out disagree with.

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Advice That Just Doesn’t Work

There are three pieces of advice I just flat out disagree with, that I see all the time in articles about finding web design clients. These are:

  • Watch job boards.
  • Advertise online.
  • Contacting Prospects Cold.

My Issue With Job Boards

I have three problems with responding to requests for proposals found on job boards.

fiverr.com website
Although job boards like Fiverr are great for clients, they are almost always a poor choice for the supplier.

First, you have a low probability of winning. At best you are an unknown supplier among several other unknown suppliers. At worst, they already have a preferred supplier and are going out to tender to make up the numbers.

Second, responding to these jobs is a lot of work considering the chance of winning.

Finally, in my experience, the decision of the supplier is primarily driven by price. As a result, you will rarely get the opportunity to prioritise quality.

Why I Will Not Pay for Online Advertising

Whether Facebook, Google, LinkedIn or any of the others, I am just not convinced that ads work for the kind of services we sell as an agency or freelance web designer.

To be honest, the problems seem similar to job boards. Those clicking on your ad do not know you. You are just a random supplier they have stumbled upon. Therefore the chances of you winning the work are low, and there is no guarantee they are interested in the level of service they provide.

On rare occasions, I have tried online advertising with those I mentor; they almost always result in low-quality leads.

However, online advertising is still better than cold calling.

Why Cold Contacting Prospects Is a Waste of Time

Whether you contact people via telephone, email or LinkedIn, pitching your services to a random person who you do not know is a waste of time and to be frank rude!

LinkedIn Message
Nothing will alienate potential clients more than LinkedIn messages like this.

But let’s set aside how annoying this can be for a minute and look at it from a purely marketing perspective.

The probability of you contacting somebody at precisely the moment they require your services are ridiculously low, making the whole exercise redundant.

You may feel they might make a note of your details for future reference, but they will not. Would you?

That brings me on to the three overarching issues with the advice around how to get web design clients.

The Problem With Advice About Getting Web Design Clients

If you boil it all down, there are three significant hurdles we have to overcome as agencies and freelance web designers. We need to reach the right kind of prospective clients and for them to remember us when they look for the services we offer. However, we also need a way of reaching them with the minimum effort on our part.

They Require Too Much Work

Too many of the techniques outlined above require a significant investment in time.

As agencies and especially as freelance web designers, we cannot spend much time marketing. Typically our margins do not allow a lot of time away from paid client work.

We need an approach that we can set up and then only requires minimal effort to maintain. That also means we do not want to waste energy talking to the wrong people.

They May Not Attract the Right Clients

Not every person who reads a blog post or sees one of our social media updates will be the kind of person we want to reach. Neither will everybody listening to a podcast you are on, or who you meet at an event.

Unfortunately, it is tough to target your audience accurately, but when your marketing time and resources are limited, everything we do must be highly targeted.

Of course, even if we do reach the right audience, we might not contact them at the right time.

They Need Web Design Clients to Remember You

The biggest issue with most of the techniques we have discussed so far is that when we make contact isn’t necessarily the moment that the person is ready to hire an agency or freelance web designer.

That means we need a way of staying in people’s minds until they are ready to take action. We need a mechanism for keeping in regular contact.

I am very conscious that so far, I have picked apart the options out there. Let’s see if we cannot identify an approach that involves the minimum amount of work and keeps us regularly in contact with people.

How to Get Web Design Clients

The approach I favour for getting web design clients is to build an email list of prospects that I reach out to regularly.

How to Find Web Design Clients With Email

There are two reasons why I adopt this approach.

The first thing to consider is the unique relationship any prospective client has with email. As agencies and freelance web designers, we sell to business, not direct to consumers.

Email is the favoured communication tool of business, and so the vast majority of our clients will be checking email regularly. While they may miss other forms of communication such as blog posts, social media updates or podcast interviews, we can almost guarantee that our audience will at least see the existence of any email we send.

In short, email is put in front of people, while another medium requires people to go and seek it out. That makes email an excellent tool for ensuring our audience will have seen something from us recently when they come to hire a web designer.

The other thing I like about focusing on email is that because of the high level of visibility; it isn’t as necessary to engage so often. We have to spend social media updates out multiple times a day to get seen and blog posts which probably need to be released weekly to have any kind of meaningful impact.

By contrast, we can send one email a month, and that will be enough to keep you in your audience’s mind.

However, the weakness of email is getting people to join the mailing list in the first place.

Growing Your Mailing List

The way I have managed to grow my mailing list has been by utilising blog posts like this one and social media updates to grab attention and encourage newsletter signups.

However, that then falls victim to the same problems outlined above. Putting that kind of ongoing effort into getting people to signup, probably isn’t practical for most agencies and freelance web designers.

Instead, we need to build a lightweight sales funnel that leads people to join our mailing list.

That is the approach I guide you step by step through in my course on finding clients. However, at the most basic level, it breaks down as follows:

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Step 1: Identify a Specific Audience

Too many agencies and freelancers who do undertake some form of marketing tend to take a somewhat scattergun approach. They throw blog posts, social media updates and advertising at the wall and see what sticks.

The problem with this approach is that because we cannot invest much in marketing ourselves (as we have paid work to do), it proves insignificant compared to the background noise of the web. It’s like throwing a pebble into the ocean.

Instead of taking a scattergun approach of putting content out into the world and hoping people see it, agencies and web design freelancers would be better focusing their marketing efforts at a particular audience.

That is not to say they will refuse work from other audiences, merely that they focus their limited time at reaching prospective clients in a specific sector.

Also do not allow geography to constrain your thinking here.

Local thinking can blinker you to the possibilities. If I suggested that you specialise in building websites for mental health charities, you might argue that it is way too small an audience to sustain your business.

You would, of course, be correct if you are thinking locally. But worldwide, there would be more than enough charities like that.

Step 2: Reach Out to a Sample of Our Audience Individually

Once they have identified a sector, the next step is to identify specific companies they would most like to work with.

They can now contact individual people within these companies via email. However, unlike regular cold emails, they should not focus on selling their services.

Instead, in my course, I encourage them to create an industry report addressing the real challenges faced by prospective clients. All communications with them are then built around the report and engaging them by offering something of value.

Example Report
I find that cold prospects are much more open to feeding into a report and discussing that, than hearing about your services.

Step 3: Gain Permission for Regular Contact

Alongside the report, I encourage students to create an email course suggesting solutions to some of the issues identified in the report.

The report and email course can together encourage people to signup to the agency or freelancers mailing list. Then, once the initial course is complete, the prospective web design client will continue to receive advice every month, so being continually reminded of the web designers existence.

Step 4: Rinse and Repeat

The advantage of this approach is that the agency or web design freelancer can continue to promote the course and report, so gradually growing the mailing list over time.

They could even choose to target a different sector and repeat the entire process with the ultimate aim of building a mailing list made up of a broad diversity of prospective web design clients.

Obviously, the process I have outlined here is not a five minute job. It will take time to setup and run. That is why it is essential you set aside time for marketing.

Set Aside Dedicated Time to Get Web Design Clients

Every Tuesday, I release a blog post without fail, no matter how busy I am. For 15 years, I would also release a podcast episode every week. Only recently have I reduced this to once a month. For me, these things are as crucial as finishing client work.

Unfortunately, most do not have this mindset. Agency owners and freelancers often see sales and marketing as something they do between client work if that work allows it. That is dangerous because building your business is just as important as helping others build theirs.

The problem with sporadically putting effort into marketing is that it either proves ineffective as people quickly forget it, or it leads to a boom/bust of incoming leads.

You put some effort into marketing, and if you are lucky, it leads to a load of leads. Then you stop marketing because you get too busy and so work dries up. You panic, do some more marketing and the process repeats. It is not a sensible way of building a business.

Graph demonstrating the stress of getting web design clients.
The boom bust cycle of periodic marketing leads to continual stress.

The need to dedicate time does not just apply to marketing, it also applies to following up on leads. I am shocked how many people fail to pursue every lead to destruction.

Pursue Every Lead to Its Destruction

In his early career, my dad worked as a salesperson, so when I launched my business I turned to him for advice and what he said to me has been the backbone of my approach to sales ever since. He advised me to pursue every lead to destruction.

In other words, do not give up on a lead until they say no.

Too often agency owners and freelancers stop chasing leads after one or two attempts. However, it usually takes many more conversations before a prospect turns into a project.

Graph showing that many conversations are required to secure a web design client.
You need to contact a client many times before they even become a qualified lead, let alone a client.

Prospective clients get busy or distracted, and so the project slips down their list. It falls to you to keep reminding them of it and to gently encourage them to take action.

Most actively appreciate you nudging them, and even when the project evaporates for whatever reason, it often turns into something else because you have established the relationship.

No Perfect Way to Get Web Design Clients

Of course, realistically, there is no perfect way to find new web design clients. Although the approach I adopt with my students involves less work than other methods over the long-term, it does take a reasonable amount of work to initial setup.

However, I firmly believe that by growing a mailing list made up of a focused audience, you have a far better chance of getting web design clients than you have with the scattergun approach adopted by many agencies and freelance web designers.

Whether you want to know how to get international clients for web designing or are more interested in how to find clients for web development, you will need a plan. It is not enough to throw content online, polish your website or rely on word-of-mouth recommendation.

Free 7 Part Course on How to Get Web Design Clients

Sign up for my Finding Clients Masterclass waiting list and get a 7 part introductory course on Marketing your agency for free as well as early access and an exclusive discount on the masterclass.

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