We’ve all heard the saying “a designer is only as good as his/her clients.” Some designers, regardless of skill level or experience, seem to always have the most interesting assignments that are creative, challenging, and highly paid, while others, who may have more experience, technical skill, or talent, get stuck working for peanuts on unfulfilling, low-level work.
Why is that? Why do mediocre and bad designers seem to always get the best jobs, while good, talented designers struggle in obscurity?
The answer almost always has to do with marketing. Every designer’s Achilles’ heel, marketing is nonetheless a vital part of freelancing success. In this article, I’m going to share some tips on how good designers can market themselves to exactly the kind of clients that will best suit their services.
It’s All Sales
What’s the difference between a good designer and a great designer? Notoriety, of course. There are literally thousands – possibly millions – of designers out there whose talent and technical skills rival or even surpass those of the tiny handful of designers who are “well-known” or famous.
Are those well-known designers doing something especially different than the talented designer “misses?” Well, yes and no. We already know they’re not necessarily better designers – perhaps their style is more in line with current trends and thus they’ve gotten more recognition in recent years, but good design is good design. Trends come and go, but a strong understanding of basic design principles will never go out of style. So how do these famous designers differentiate themselves?
If you’ve ever worked in an office, you know that the management positions don’t always go to the most capable or competent leaders, hard workers, and visionaries. In my time as a corporate employee, I saw brilliant, talented, creative people get passed over for promotions and high-level work by incompetent, lazy, belligerent jerks – over and over again.
Why? Because the jerks knew exactly how to market themselves to their superiors. They knew what to say and how to say it. Every job is a sales job. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, an artist, or a Sunday school teacher – we all have to sell something to someone. And we all have to make ourselves known to the people who can help further our careers. This applies doubly to those of us who make our living freelancing, as there’s no framework or built-in networking platform vis-a-vis a corporate job.
Selling the Experience
Designers who compete for freelance jobs have quite an uphill battle to fight. They constantly have to convince potential clients that they’re the best person for the job, while simultaneously diverting the client’s attention away from the zillions of other designers out there who provide essentially the same service.
Now, I’m about to say something that might depress a lot of you out there who are hoping for a freelancing miracle. The sad truth of the matter is this: the typical design client knows next to nothing about design, and couldn’t care less about your technical knowledge, years of experience, or brilliant design sense. Yup, it’s true. They just don’t give a damn. You say you’re an award-winning branding manager who’s been featured in industry publications? That’s nice. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Standards-compliant web developer? Eh? What’s that?
It can be extremely frustrating when a client simply doesn’t care about the work you’ve put into perfecting your craft. I could be smug and suggest that you only work with clients who do care, but that would be pretty irresponsible of me. No matter how far up the freelancing ladder you go, there’s always going to be a discrepancy between what you think the client should care about, and what they actually care about.
The key to selling yourself as a talented, capable designer lies in the way you present your skills. The first thing to go should be the idea that you can somehow convince a non-designer to care about the intricacies of design. You can’t. Save it for your fellow designers, and instead focus on the experience you can provide your clients.
Your technical skills and knowledge are not experiences for your clients – they are merely attributes. Put another way, when you see a television commercial for a pizza shop, do you ever see the inside of the actual pizza kitchen anywhere in the ad (not the fake set meant to sell you on “authentic Italian cooking” or some such nonsense)? Do you ever see what kind of knife the chef uses to cut the pepperoni and other toppings? Or the Serv-Safe certificates of the pizza making staff? Of course not.
What you see is a delicious-looking pizza, complete with sizzling sound effects and mouth-watering, rising steam, possibly being paraded in front of the camera on a round dish by an attractive, young actor dressed up as a server or a pizza chef. In the background, you might see a laughing group of diners seated at a table, pulling apart their pizza slice by cheesy, gooey slice. You’re being sold an experience, not a simple list of attributes or qualities.
If your clients are decent and treat you with a reasonable amount of professionalism, they’re going to expect that you know what you’re doing. They will take it as a matter of course that you have all the necessary skills and know-how to complete the job adequately. A simple list of the things you can do isn’t going to impress them. You need to sell them an experience – the sizzle, not the steak, in other words.
Having a Backup Plan
You’ve probably heard of the recent business phrase “multiple streams of income.” It’s become quite a popular goal for business owners and freelancers, especially since the internet has become a powerful and simplified way to make multiple income sources a reality. But you don’t have to be a fast-talking, greasy-haired entrepreneur wannabe to take advantage of this important idea. Today’s economy makes it tough for even the most established freelancers to stay afloat, and if your client base is too small, you could find yourself in real trouble if one of them stops calling.
Creating an exclusive niche for yourself is important, but it’s equally important to have a large enough pool that you can easily generate new business. Keeping up with your marketing efforts, even if you can’t currently take on the new work, will ensure that you always have prospects lined up just in case one of your current clients falls through.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask your current or past clients for referrals. Generally, people are happy to spread the word about freelancers who have done a remarkable job. And as a bonus, you’ll widen the net of clients who are similar to those clients you’ve already worked for, since people tend to talk to their friends in the same industry.
What Do You Think?
How do you approach marketing as a freelancer? Are there any specific tactics which have worked for you? What about tactics which haven’t worked so well?