How to get design clients to come to you, instead of chasing them down

get design clients to come to you

Recently, on the Millo facebook page, one of our fans, Sarah Grant, asked a question about cold-emailing (like cold-calling, but via email) to promote her design business.

In essence, the question went something like this:

“How do I send email campaigns to local businesses inviting them to redesign their web site without risking illegal emailing (spam) or offending them (by saying their site is outdated/ugly)?” (I was paraphrasing. To read the full question, click here.)

I thought it was a great question and was definitely something I faced at one point in my freelance design career. So here’s the big question:

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Does cold-calling (or cold-emailing) work?

I’ve been a freelance designer for more than 5 years now and I’ve tried my fair share of marketing tactics. It’s been my experience that the most effective ways to find new clients are as follows (in order of success rate):

  1. Referrals from colleagues or previous clients.
  2. Pull-marketing (I’ll explain this later)
  3. Push marketing (advertising, PR, and–yep, you guessed it–cold calls and emails.)

What is “pull” marketing?

You may have heard of “pull” marketing before–it has become very popular within the realm of social media marketing, marketing via a blog, and other relatively new technologies.

In a nutshell, “pull” marketing is a tactic to get design clients to “pull” themselves to you. As opposed to push marketing that pushes a message on to (sometimes unwilling) recipients, “pull” marketing creates a desire in your clients. They then request that your information be “pulled” toward them–instead of pushed.

If you’re still having a hard time picturing it, think back to when you were a teenager.

If my mother told me to clean the living room (push), it was highly unlikely I would do an outstanding job. If my friends were planning on coming over that night, however, I took it upon myself to do all the cleaning–my mom didn’t have to ask, and I did a phenomenal job.

That’s pull.

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So how does this apply to designers? And how does it help me get design clients?

Okay, enough with the metaphors.

Here’s the honest truth: not many design clients are going to seek designers out on their own. They don’t know that their site is outdated. They don’t know they need a new logo. They don’t understand the principles of contrast, repetition, or balance.

So, frankly, they don’t care.

Give them a reason to care.

But your job as a freelance designer is to give them a reason to care. You have to get design clients to care as much about their web site as I did as a teenager about my living room when my friends came over.

The easiest way I have found to get a design client to care about the design of their web site, logo, brochure, business card, etc etc. is to educate them.

For free.

The Freemium model

If you’ve ever read FREE by Chris Anderson* (and I highly recommend it! It’s a quick read and is very eye opening to a fantastic new form of marketing), then you know what the Freemium business model is.

A freemium business model is one that gives away services or information for free and then offers a premium service for those who prefer to upgrade.

Free + Premium = Freemium.

Still don’t get it totally, think about some common freemium services you use all the time without even realizing it:

  • Skype (free for most users, with a premium upgrade for businesses)
  • DropBox (Free up to a certain amount of storage space, after which you pay for more space)
  • (yep, this blog is a Freemium-based business. I offer tons of free content in hopes that if and when you need even more help, you buy my ebook.)

So how do I use the Freemium business model as a freelance designer?
Here’s the answer I offered on facebook when Sarah asked her wonderful question:

One thing I did once to help businesses realize they needed a redesign was create a booklet titled “The ultimate guide to designing a better business web site.”

Anyway, it listed all the things a good web site needs. I handed it out to free businesses and they came to the conclusion on their own that they needed a redesign. Of course, my contact information was all over the booklet.

That way is was pull marketing (where they came to me) instead of push (me trying to force them to hire me).

Hope that helps a little. I’d love to hear what happens! Thanks, Sarah.

Your turn to talk

I’ve talked long enough. What do you think about using pull marketing and a Freemium model to get design clients to come to you? Have you tried anything similar and seen success? I’d love to hear what you have to say. Leave a comment and let’s chat.

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  1. Thank You, I enjoy reading your articles. Very inspiring! I’ve implemented many of your ideas you discussed. I have never been so swamped with freelance work. It’s been crazy! Love it! db

    1. That’s the best thing I’ve heard in ages, Daniel. Thank you for sharing! Glad we can help you!

  2. I know this is a pretty old topic but this helped me a lot with my new design business. But the thing is that i still feel constricted and feel as though i still need to do so much more work. i have had no advice from any other professionals it would be really helpful if I got some direct advice.


  3. Came upon this by accident but it’s very inspirational. Now I know the next steps that I must take. I received a B.A. nearly five years ago and just couldn’t quite get my foot in the door. However, during that time people who knew me paid me to produce design for them. That gave me the experience that I needed in order to know what it’s like to work with clients. Anyways, when I had my son I had to take a hiatus from designing. It was too hard for me to juggle design projects for clients while managing a house with four kids and a husband who was going back to school. I only designed for myself and didn’t take on any projects. Now I’m ready to get back into the game but feel it’s too late for me. I’m afraid there’s too big of a gap in my employment history. It looks like if I want to design it’ll have to be freelancing and what better way than to start with those who already know that I have a passion for it. But I’ll be using these tips to gain new work.

  4. Leaving aside few novice clients, todays clients are uber smart, “freemium” model wont really work for them, they will take the free stuff and you free designs and find a cheaper designer to put the ideas to effect.

    And regarding the affiliate link, dude you are designer, design a nicer page for that, just seeing a naked affliate button in the link, is an instant turn off.

    1. “they will take the free stuff and you free designs and find a cheaper designer to put the ideas to effect”

      Yeah only if they want to get a mediocre and unprofessional website. Good designers don’t work cheap! Mediocre designers work cheap because they don’t get clients.

      1. Unfortunately in my own experience, people will often go to the mediocre (or even bad!) designers purely because they’re cheap. A friend of mine, for example, needed a website recently and instead of looking for a good designer, he chose the cheapest designer he could find in the local area. Of course, the designer’s website looked like it was designed by a teenager about 10 years ago, but my friend didn’t care too much as long as the website he got out of it “looked okay” and was cheap.

  5. This is just awesome information. Great explanation with the Pull and Push marketing terms. Agree that marketing with the Pull factor has a much higher rate of success than push, which is the traditional model.

    1. @Website Design Singapore – Morgan & Me Creative,
      Thanks for the kind words. What successes have you seen when it comes to “pull” marketing for your design business?

  6. I volunteer to design a monthly newsletter and administer a facebook page for a local networking group that I am a member of. I get my name out there and other members see the potential of what I can do for them.

    1. @Nina,
      That’s a wonderful idea! Do you see a lot of conversions from that? How many new clients do you find that way?

      1. @Preston D Lee, in the last six months I would say 50% of my clients come to me because they heard of me or got to know me through the networking group; directly or in-directly. I get to be part of a great group where I can socialize, learn new things and at the same time get my name out there. I am in a small town so word of mouth referrals are important for me, and I make sure everything I do in the community and online is a good reflection on my business. Don’t burn bridges!

        Another good free resource is LinkedIn. I go on there sometimes and answer questions about graphic design and have gained a few clients through that. One time I answered a question trying to win a job. I didn’t get that job. However, someone else red the Q&A post a few months later and contacted me about it. It lead to one of my projects that brought in the most money this year.

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