How can I promote my graphic design and web development business?
April 11, 2005 11:56 AM   Subscribe

I have a freelance graphic design and web development business that I'm working hard to make a living off of. I've been fairly successful thus far but I'm not quite there yet. Where can I advertise my business on a modest budget, either online or in print? Other ideas for promoting my work are quite welcome as well.

To be more specific, if it will help with suggestions: my business is a one-man operation, although I do have another designer/illustrator I work with on occasion. So I'm looking for clients/jobs where that fits well... Mainly small to mid-sized jobs for small to mid-sized companies. While I might be able to pull off a million dollar ad campaign, or a huge, complex site like, I'm probably not the best man for the job! If you'd like to see some of my work and current clients, have a look at my site.

Most of my current clients I've found through word of mouth and a little bit of luck. I've tried some online advertising (on MetaFilter and the Morning News, for example) and some print advertising (in a local magazine) but haven't had much luck with either. I plan on keeping at it, but the more options the better.

I've also tried Google's AdWords program, but I found the whole setup a little confusing. In particular I've had a hard time coming up with appropriate, specific keywords. I can't use something simple like "graphic design" because I just can't afford such a common search term. So any tips on using AdWords would be greatly appreciated as well. (Not to mention your own thoughts on whether it's worth using.)
posted by robotspacer to Media & Arts (12 answers total)
I would consider a more local approach to marketing. If you are competing globally for (e.g.) adSense keywords related to graphic design, you are going to have an extremely difficult time getting noticed, much less differentiating yourself.

But generally, I think that networking rather than marketing per se is a good practice. (which it sounds like you are already doing) Get your name out to as many people as possible. Look for quality of referrals, not quantity. The same practices apply to almost any small business, I suppose.

I once read the sample chapters for this book from Sitepoint. I never ended up buying it, but there was a bunch of information on marketing yourself/your business, and it is targeted directly at small web shops. Some of the info turned me off, but some was worthwhile. (I am obviously not associated with this book, as I never even bought it nor have I read the entire contents).

BTW, the fact that you don't have a business address (even if it's your home address or a PO) on your site means that no-one knows if you ARE local. Plus, I think people are more trusting of businesses w/ a physical address.
posted by misterbrandt at 12:48 PM on April 11, 2005

Use your contacts.

When I started out about six months ago, I talked to a hosting company run by some people I know; they specialize in a particular CMS and I had experience designing for it, so we set up a referral deal where I'd offer a slight discount to their hosting clients and they'd give me a percentage on anyone I referred to them. That deal has netted me a couple of clients.

Another thing I've found useful is chatting with local businesspeople; if you don't live in a major metropolitan area the quality of local web design is likely to be abysmal, and you'll find a lot of people who'd love to have a professionally-built site but don't know the first thing about how to find a professional designer. Also, mention somewhere prominently on your site where you are -- if you can get fairly high in Google for "{your location} web designer" that'll net you a good bit of business.

Also, learn how to work with a few popular CMS products, and post regularly in their support/community forums; I've had more than one email out of the blue from potential clients who found me that way.
posted by ubernostrum at 12:52 PM on April 11, 2005


Snarkiness aside, in my experience there's not really any 'magic bullet' aside from what you've been doing--word of mouth and paid advertising where you can afford it. The main thing is that if your work is quality, it should advertise itself--your clients will refer other people to you.

It may take time, but there's not really any other way around it. I expect you knew this when you started, but if not, well, them's the breaks--you're attempting to get into a field with lots of competition among actual companies and well-entrenched and skilled individuals. Sure, it may not be like trying to start a brick-n-mortar store, in that it doesn't cost much to start out, but you still have all the problems of attracting business.

On preview, I obviously concur with misterbrandt re: networking vs marketing.

posted by cyrusdogstar at 12:52 PM on April 11, 2005

(Note, the opening line of my post was a line from the #mefi IRC channel :))
posted by cyrusdogstar at 12:54 PM on April 11, 2005

I second and third the networking suggestion and add: submit for awards. Here in MA there are the MITX Awards. Charlotte has the ITC and the Blue Diamond Awards and maybe others. It isn't so much that you can say "Look, I have these awards" to prospects, but that businesses and their IT/Web teams in your area see your name and you make connections at the event.
posted by Cassford at 1:32 PM on April 11, 2005

I don't currently have a business address on my site because I've been moving around a bit the past couple of years (well, just once, but I didn't expect to be here so long), I prefer not to post my home address online, and I deal with physical mail so little that the expense of a PO Box seems wasteful. In addition, most people that find me online are almost certainly not local; most people that find me some other way probably already know where I'm located. That has been my logic anyway, but perhaps you're right. The Google location suggestion in a smart one. I'll give it some thought. I could at least note the city and state that I live in.

As I said I've been doing plenty of networking, but that only goes so far. My clients love my work, they always come back to me, and most of them have referred someone at some point... It's just not quite enough to keep my business sustainable. I realize it takes time, but I've been doing this for years! I'm sure there's something I could be doing better.

The referral deal with the hosting company is a great one, but I can't think of anyone I know that I could make that sort of deal with. One thought I just had is to send my current clients a postcard (or something), offering them a discount on their next job if they refer someone to me. Seems like it might be effective?

Chatting with local business people is certainly good advice, but I wouldn't know where to begin. How can I approach them without feeling smarmy about it?

I occasionally submit things for awards, but I've always had a tough time finding ones that seem worth the time. A lot of them have entry fees and I often feel like my money would be better spent advertising. If anyone has suggestions for others I'm all ears. It's a shame I missed the Blue Diamond Awards, I live just outside of Charlotte!

Sorry if the link came off as spammy. I hesitated for that reason, but it seemed appropriate. Like I said I've bought ads here; in this case I'm just looking for advice.
posted by robotspacer at 2:26 PM on April 11, 2005

You're going to need to do two things.

First, mine your previous clients. If you haven't talked to them recently, call them to find out how they're doing, if they still like everything, if they need help with something else, and most importantly, if they know someone else that they could refer you to.

When you invoice clients, include several of your business cards and ask them to pass them out to their business associates. 90% will end up in the trash can. The ones that don't will get you more business.

Figure out who your clients use all the time. For instance, I've gotten referrals through both my Colocation facility and my merchant card processor. The salespeople at the merchant card processor and I get together for lunch every few months just for kicks, because we like each other and want to work more with one another.

Start going to chamber of commerce meetings. Find out more about other people at first... don't sell yourself until you've been a member for a few months, unless someone asks you directly. Chamber of Commerce people see guys that are trying to use the CC to actively hard-sell to smaller businesses all the time, and a "Hey, I'm gonna be around for a while and really want to be involved with you because of you, not because I look at you and see a bag of hundred dollar bills" attitude really works with them. Local entrepreneur's groups (Mine's the Oregon Entrepreneur's Forum) work the same way.

Network with other people that do the same things. Sometimes it pans out, sometimes it doesn't. I've had someone screw up badly with a customer and refer them to me, and I rescued the client for both of us.

To summarize: You never know what's going to work, but sitting on your ass posting to AxMe (self link or not) will not help you get more business ... going out and talking to people whenever you're not actively working on things WILL.
posted by SpecialK at 2:42 PM on April 11, 2005

Err. The first thing was use your contacts and past business to get new business, and the second was meet people, make friends, and influence them.
posted by SpecialK at 2:43 PM on April 11, 2005

<snark>You could post a self-link on oh--right, besides that.</snark>

One of the best ways to grow a service-based business is to place an ad in the local phone book. Ads aren't particularly cheap, but that's where most people still go when they want a service provider. Don't splurge on a fancy display ad at first. At least in most markets, most people will go through the entire "Web site developers" section and get price quotes from each. Also, a physical address (and a nice public office space, for that matter) are very important. You'll find many clients won't deal at all with the "coffee shop" or "I'll meet you at your place" set.

Mostly though, do a good job. The word of mouth you generate will be priceless when it comes to sustaining your business (and your cash-flow). If your customers are happy with the service you provide, they will, without question, tell others about you.
posted by maniactown at 3:23 PM on April 11, 2005

I'd second the phone book idea and also recommend you put your web address in it so people can look at your portfolio.

I guess I'm straight-laced or something, but you should really think about redesigning your site if you want business clients. It looks too much like a personal site in my small-town tastes.
posted by MegoSteve at 4:05 PM on April 11, 2005

My business is very similar to yours, except I'm probably a few years further down the road than you. My experience is that new business comes from old business -- do a good job, your name gets around. Piss someone off, your name gets around a whole lot faster. Just do the best work you can, let nature take its course and be patient. Advertising my design shop has really only ever brought me a flood of resumes and sales calls. I've never gotten a single new client that way. However, sometimes existing clients allow me to put a small credit link in the footer of their web site, and I have occasionally earned a bit of new business that way.
posted by spilon at 7:17 AM on April 12, 2005

Thanks everyone for the advice. You've convinced me to worry less about advertising and focus more on networking... More than anything just talking to my clients more and encouraging them to send other people to me.

I'll be making use of some of the other suggestions as well... Once I'm back in Michigan I'll probably put my address back on the site, and get an ad in the phone book. I'll look into the Chamber of Commerce as well.

Thanks again!
posted by robotspacer at 10:11 PM on April 14, 2005

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