6 Non-traditional ways designers can find new clients & stand out

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Your portfolio is online, you have a stack of business cards handy, you’re trying all of the traditional methods to find new clients, and yet…nobody’s knocking on your door.

Now what?

Client acquisition is one of those tasks you’ll need to deal with as long as you’re in the design business. To help out, here’s a list of some non-traditional methods you can use you find new clients and, in some cases, create additional revenue streams.

Some are easy. Some will take work. And some are downright crazy.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

If you’ve used any other creative methods to source design clients in the past, share them with us in the comments. We’re always looking for cool business hacks to share with entrepreneurs.

Blow people out of the water

I want you to be honest — brutally honest — about your current professional image. Think about your portfolio. Think about your website. Think about the way you present your physical and digital materials.

When people come across your work, are they going to be blown away?

You'll also enjoy this episode of our new podcast...

According to TheNextWeb, seven seconds is all it takes for people to form a first impression. If people aren’t immediately impressed by your work, it’s time to change that.

What can you do to change people’s reaction from ‘she’s good’ to ‘she’s freakin’ amazing!’?

  • Gamify your portfolio like this guy and send it off to design blogs.
  • Produce an interactive video application.
  • Turn your own website into a masterpiece.

When potential clients are blown away, they pick up the phone and call you. They refer you to their friends and professional networks. They share your projects on social media. If client enquiries are only trickling in, it’s time to think about how you can blow people away.

Become an influencer

This guy made $80,000 in 24 hours. Why?

Because, as a type designer, he took the time to build a following of loyal fans and readers. When he launched a product (a course in lettering), his fan base was primed, ready, and excited to buy.

Becoming an influencer is easier said than done. It can take years to build a reputation and a sizeable following. But the benefits in word-of-mouth marketing, new clients and additional revenue ($80,000 in 24 hours, remember?) make it a worthwhile investment.

If you’re up for the task, commit to building your professional profile as a thought leader in the design industry and start immediately.

  • Read strategies of how it’s been done by others.
  • Offer basic design classes for clients relevant to your niche.
  • Invite people to subscribe to your email list and communicate with them regularly.
  • Get yourself in front of groups of people who are eager to learn from you.

The goal is to develop a large loyal following of email subscribers and social media fans within your niche who love your work and enjoy hearing what you have to say. Once you reach this point, finding work and selling new products will be a cinch.

Make something of extreme value and distribute it for free

Millo’s own Preston D Lee sparked a tsunami of new client enquiries by offering free help and a free book to new clients. Instead of distributing it online, he hand-delivered it to business owners in the neighborhood. Preston explains:

I wrote a short book titled ‘10 elements all websites should have’ and I started mailing and hand-delivering these little booklets out to small businesses all over my small town.

Creating a high quality physical booklet or ebook requires groundwork, and the trick to making this method a success is having a strong distribution strategy in place. If you go down this route, make sure that your book adds true value to readers (don’t write a fluff piece) and have a plan to ensure that the right people see your books (people you want to work with).

One other thing about this approach: if you create a physical book and it receives a positive response, create an expanded ebook version and sell it online. As well as opening your business up to more new client enquiries, money earned from ebook sales could turn into an additional revenue stream.

Pay for shout outs on popular design hubs

Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest. Track down industry influencers on social media.

Write them a quick email and ask if they’ll share your best work with their audience. Some of them might agree to feature you for free. Most of them will come back with an email that includes a rate list.

Sure, paying to have your work shared online is subtle advertising. But if the influencer you’re working with is the gatekeeper of an audience packed with new, potential clients, it’s the kind of advertising you should consider.

Work for free – strategically

At first, Mint.com didn’t want to hire Noah Kagan as the company’s Marketing Director. Despite having a reputation as a successful entrepreneur and being one of the first 30 employees at Facebook, the higher ups at Mint wanted someone with direct experience in the role – something Noah didn’t have.

Not one to fear rejection, within days Noah got back in touch with Mint and shared a 90-day marketing plan that outlined the exact results he would achieve for the company. It was enough to impress Mint and land Noah the job.

While working for free is something you probably did when you were just starting out, you can apply Noah’s strategy to your advantage.

Don’t work for free for any old potential client. Work for free strategically.

Pick a dream client and send them an impressive – free – piece of work that’ll grab the attention of someone who can hire you for design work. If it’s good enough they’ll be calling you in no time.

Send your dream client a gold brick

I once heard that a designer spray painted a brick gold and mailed it to the company he wanted to work for – just to put himself forward for design work. A note attached to the gold brick explained that the brick represented the company’s current approach to design. It also included a request to meet and discuss how the problem could be resolved.

Outlandish? Yes. Risky? Definitely. Genius? Well, that’s debatable.

Telling a company that their design isn’t up to par is a gutsy approach. If that brick landed on the wrong desk, the designer might have annoyed his potential client to such an extent that his reputation would be damaged within the company and maybe even within the potential employer’s network.

In this case, though, the special delivery was enough to get the guy a meeting and, ultimately, a design contract with the company.

Admittedly this story was relayed to to me by a friend many years ago, so it’s possible that it’s nothing more than an urban legend. Still, it always stuck with me and I believe there’s a good lesson in sourcing new clients, and that is: be brave and do something unforgettable. When you step outside of your comfort zone in a big way (just like the gold brick guy), spectacular results often follow.

Speak up – we’re listening!

What is the most creative (or outlandish) tactic you’ve used to find new clients? Share them with us in the comments.

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About Cameron McCool

Cameron McCool is the Content Manager at Bench, the online service that pairs you with a dedicated bookkeeper and simple, elegant software to do your bookkeeping for you. He regularly posts business and lifestyle hacks for busy entrepreneurs over on the Bench Blog.

 

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Comments

  1. Great ideas and novel ways to generate some work leads. As you mention, nothing happens unless you put the effort in. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I freaking love this article! SPOT ON.

  3. They’re nothing big, but these two sort of odd-ball things have secured me multiple clients:

    1) I include my business signature in my personal email. Actually, it’s simply leftover from before I segregated my work email from my personal email, and it’s been such a simple, no-maintenance (and free!) marketing tool that I’ve just left it in there.

    I send a lot of email, and I also officiate and use my personal email for communication with other officials, so every time I send a personal email, I’m marketing my business. Sure, it’s just my name, logo, contact info, and web address, but it’s remarkable the amount of people who have said, “So what’s Greer Genius?” or “Hey, I noticed in your email that you’re a graphic/web designer…” Friends, family, acquaintances, HOA members, neighbors…I’ve been surprised how much conversation and business it’s generated.

    2) Especially when I was just gathering momentum as a freelancer (warning: back story ahead), my own family didn’t take me seriously as a designer. If I had a nickel for every time I heard, “So what, exactly, do you do?” or seen a blank stare when I presented myself as a graphic designer… With the Curse of Knowledge, I was shocked that my family didn’t inherently know what I did.

    I also got a lot of skepticism about the validity of my career (being creative and artsy), and when my family explained to other people what I did, I could tell they didn’t have confidence in my skills or profession.

    So I started showing off my work to my family – on Facebook, emailing them links and images of recent projects, etc. And I got a TON of positive feedback that was well-intentioned but kind of stung, too. “Wow, April! This is REALLY good! I had no idea you were this talented! I mean, I could see people paying you for this.”

    Two positives came out of this: my family now proudly explains what I do and believes I do great work, and they tell their friends, and I’ve gotten several word-of-mouth projects because my mom’s best friend’s daughter’s best friend’s company needs a new website.

    (This is especially helpful as I moved away from home – states away – and yet I still get projects there.)

    Sorry, that was really long. 😀

    April

    • Awesome tip April. I really love the fact that a developed email signature got you business enquiries. And yes, have to agree on the self promotion side of things too. Will remember this next time I write something! 🙂

  4. Totally agree with being an influencer. Find a good niche and dominate it!!!

  5. I’ve tried to differentiate my business cards. It takes some effort and imagination, but if you can target your cards to reach the industry you’re looking at – why not?

    For example, putting tea bags in a small packet with a sticker of your company details on and “Give us a call for your design needs, we’ve already supplied the tea.” mainly targeting the office professions like accountants, lawyers etc. And using sticker applied on ABS for the construction and factories, A seed packet with some seeds and yet another sticker with “We’ll help you grow your business”.

    As you said, if you can catch their attention in the 1st 7 seconds, you have a shot. Whether they think they need your services or not.

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