How to get web design clients - Without knocking on doors or cold calling
When people first signed up for Content Snare, they are asked one simple question:
What is the single biggest challenge you face in your web design business?
The most common response is getting content out of clients. Given they had just signed up for a tool helps them do this, it isn’t that surprising.
The close second was “getting web design clients” or similar statements like “finding web design leads.” It seems that many of us face this exact problem.
Technically, finding leads and getting clients are different. A lead hasn’t given you money yet. A client has. For now, let’s focus on the first part - getting leads.
This post will show you how to get more clients knocking on your door, or coming to you for development. Importantly, it will not tell you to cold call or start knocking on doors and asking for money.
There isn’t much more demoralizing and draining than cold calling and door knocking. Sure, they can get you clients. But not everyone is cut out for this. If you were the kind of person who could handle this kind of hustle, you’d probably be out there doing it already.
I for one loathe cold calling, and will do anything in my power to avoid it.
Forcing yourself to do stuff that you hate is a great way to kill passion for your business.
You’ll be needing that passion to get you through other tough times, so hold onto it.
There’s a bunch of different strategies and information in this post. Some sections may or may not appeal to you. It depends on what stage you’re at in business, or simply if it ‘feels right.’
If you haven’t got your first client yet, start at the beginning. If you’ve been doing this a while, feel free to skip ahead.
There are different views on this topic. Some people might argue that your number one priority should be to get out there and find clients. Some will spend weeks perfecting their social profiles, website and other assets without landing a single client. I believe you should sit somewhere in the middle.
I stalk people that I’m thinking about doing business with. Others do too. If they go looking for some info about you, it pays to have all the basics checked off so that no warning flags go up.
Hint: If your website looks like crap and you are a web designer, that may raise said flag.
It’s important not to spend too long on all these bits and pieces. All of it can be done in a single day.
Just use a template.
*GASP*, said all the hardcore designers in the room.
Seriously though, in the beginning, you just need something live. Quickly.
You can throw it away in favour of a big fancy design later. For now, just choose something that looks good, that will establish some credibility when a potential client takes a look. Put in a logo and a phone number in the header. Build out the minimum set of pages:
Later you can add a web design portfolio. Put some effort into the about page, as generally it’s the second most read page on your site.
This next bit is really important.
The content on these pages should match your language and style. It should be in the same tone you speak and interact with people. Your personality is your brand, and a major reason why people will do business with you instead of others.
Here’s a story to explain why this is important.
One day I met a guy at a networking event. Halfway through our conversation, he exclaimed “WAIT…. Are you the guy that talks about swearing first during meetings on your website??”
I’d never met this guy before, but he’d remembered one line he’d read on our website. It was on the contact page, where I requested clients to swear first in meetings to take the pressure off me.
The point of all of this is to be a bit more memorable than everybody else. That can be all it takes to get you over the line when a client is ready to choose a designer.
The only other things worth worrying about before getting clients are the social profiles that someone might glance over before engaging you. Those are:
Over years of networking, I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about web developers/designers. They almost always revolve around:
These are some of the biggest frustrations in the web industry.
When we changed our tagline to “Web developers that respond to emails, finish the job and don’t suck”, the response was amazing. It resonated with almost all of our clients because they’d all been burned before.
One of the most important things you can do is make sure jobs get done properly.
Just by doing this, you’ll be leaps and bounds above most web designers and get referrals easily.
You’ll need a combination of two things: process and ability.
A solid process ensures that you and/or your team complete every detail that is required to finish a job properly. Missing things, even the small stuff, leaves a feeling of a half-finished job and will ensure you never get referrals.
In the beginning this only needs to be a checklist or basic management system like Trello.
I can’t stress the importance of this section enough.
With low barriers to entry, there are many web designers that come into the industry without a full understanding of the technology behind the websites they are building. This is a huge contributing factor to many websites going bad, and to the poor sentiments, many people hold to the web design industry.
It’s in your best interests to be constantly learning about your chosen technology. For most people that is WordPress. Do things like:
Without this commitment to constantly improving, you will be left behind.
With all that out of the way, let’s jump into getting leads.
Now comes the time to get off your butt and start talking to people. Unlike cold calling, networking can actually be fun. It’s also one of the most effective ways to get clients when you don’t know anyone yet.
At this point in your business, you simply need to get in front of people. Start looking for meetups in your area that you can go to.
Note: A lot of networking events downright suck. Some are the kind where everyone just throws business cards at each other (don’t do that). Some are full of MLMers. The only way to find the good ones is to try a few, and see which ones you never want to go back to again.
First up you’re just going to research and find as many groups as you can. Here are some places you can try.
Look through the ‘business’ category in your area. Search for groups that are still active by checking when their last event was. There are lots of dead Meetups, so find one that has had an event in the last few months. Join up, create a profile and go to the next event.
Look for “small business” or “entrepreneur” groups in your city or state. Just use the search option. Once you’re in, ask about networking events in the area. You’ll surely get a bunch of responses.
Hint: Just asking can yield great answers. Put up a Facebook post asking for business networking in your area, as some of your friends may already know.
While you’re here, getting involved in Facebook groups is a kind of ‘virtual networking’ that can pay off. Try to help other people out with advice and feedback if they ask for it. Don’t just plug your business like most people do.
I’ve seen people ask for DIY website feedback, only to have a bunch of people post their own links or contact details. After providing a few back and forth comments helping them out, I’ve landed jobs out of it.
Bonus points if you become known with group ‘regulars’ in real life (from networking) - they might just tag you in posts they know you’ll be able to help with.
Go along to some local chambers events and see if they are any good. Many aren’t, but there still are good ones. Like all events, you’ll quickly get a feel for which events are worth going back to.
I used to go to a large local chamber that was known to party. With an open bar at every event, I can’t remember if we got any business out of it, but it sure was a lot of fun.
Loved by many and hated by the rest. Structured networking involves sitting down with a fixed group of people each week, give or take a few guests. Everyone makes a 60-second pitch. One person is chosen each week to give a longer presentation.
The idea is that everyone in the group refer business to each other. These events can be a great way to get started. We owe a lot of our initial success to this kind of networking.
It can take a while to get established in these groups before people understand what you do and are comfortable referring leads to you. Don’t expect referrals immediately.
These are usually paid events, and can seem pretty expensive for someone just starting out. In web design, that price is pretty easy to justify: you only need one or two websites and you break even. Everything else is profit. As they say, sometimes you have to spend money to make money.
The king of structured networking is BNI. There are plenty of others out there, but they are normally location specific. Try Googling and asking around. You will definitely come across a few in your networking travels.
Coworking spaces are great for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, they give you a reason to get out of the house and talk to someone other than your dog.
Secondly, you'll be meeting new people all the time. Those people will ask what you do. You'll give your elevator pitch, and over time get to know more and more people in the space. Knowing more people means more potential referrals.
Get in there often and try to help people when they ask for it (for free). Being well known in a coworking space can be a goldmine.
In case you haven’t done a lot of networking before, here are a few quick tips.
I’m going to start with how NOT to network.
Don’t Throw Cards
Please, please do not give your business card to someone unless they ask for it. People who throw out cards like Lil Wayne (makin’ it rain) are openly mocked and nobody takes them seriously.
In fact, you don’t really even need business cards. A good option is to simply take their card (or just their email address) and follow up with them the next day.
Get There Early
Get to events early and meet the people running the show (they’ll be there early too). These are the people that will introduce you to more people, and be great contacts into the future.
It’s like “influencer marketing” but in real life.
Listen & Just Be Cool
Listen to other people as much as possible, and talk about what you do when asked. If you’ve never done this before, read How To Win Friends and Influence People. This should be a networking prerequisite.
People will inevitably ask you what you do at some point, and you should be ready with your 10 second (or less) elevator pitch. Don’t go into a song and dance routine about what you do unless they probe for more info.
If confidence is not your strong point, know that this will build over time. Once you land some clients, make them happy and feel good about what you are doing, this will come through.
It helps when you actually know what you are doing (many people don’t). By being on top of latest web trends, learning about the best ways build sites and having real knowledge that you can use in these conversations, you’ll be more confident and come across as an expert. This made such a huge difference for me and our business.
When the event is over, the work is not done. Make sure you follow up with everyone the next day. Shoot them a quick, personalized email recalling something specific about your conversation with them.
If they are someone you want to continue to keep in contact with, add them to your CRM. Alternatively you can just keep a list of people you want to keep in touch with, and use a tool like FollowUpThen to remind you to contact them in the future.
Important: Unless someone gave you express permission, do not add them to your email list. People hate this.
In the beginning, Facebook groups and Meetups were almost entirely how I built our local profile. Eventually, you’ll see the same people at different events and start becoming known. This builds confidence. Once you’ve done a few great websites, you’ll build a reputation. This is exactly what happened to me and how we got our ‘start’ in web design.
You may eventually outgrow networking. There reached a point where I had to cut out most networking to focus on delivery, process and automation. This makes sense once you have a steady stream of leads coming from referrals or advertising. In the beginning though, it is one of the best ways to get started.
In the Content Snare initial survey, 75% of respondents did not have an area of specialization or a chosen niche.
Many responded that their niche was “small business”. This isn’t really a niche, because it is still targeting almost everybody. You could call this being a jack of all trades, master of none.
In other words, it isn’t good.
I understand that in the beginning, you’ll take any business you can get. We did the same thing. However, specialization is one of the fastest ways to increase your prices, do a better job for clients and get more referrals. That makes it something you want to do fairly quickly in your business life.
So, why specialize or niche down?
You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of web designers out there. With so many competitors, differentiation can be difficult. Ask yourself: What are you doing to stand out?
Take this hypothetical...
Let’s say I know 50 web designers. One of those only works with vets.
In passing, I hear a vet mentions she needs a new website. Who am I going to refer to?
Better yet, I might just notice my vet friend has a crappy website. Instead of saying
“Wow you need a new website,” I’ll say
“You need a new website, and I know this guy that is freaking awesome at vet sites…”
It is SO easy to refer to someone who specialises. In case you weren’t sure, making it easy for people to refer to you is very, very important.
When you know one industry really well, you can command a higher price. The classic example is seeing a GP vs seeing a knee surgeon. As someone who has had a knee reconstruction, I can tell you which one did a better job of cleaning out my bank account.
You can change more because you can provide a better service. You can provide better service because you know exactly what they need. By getting to know an industry inside out, you’ll know:
This specialized knowledge is worth more to your client. If you have proven results in their industry, that speaks volumes.
The only thing to be careful with is doing similar work for competing businesses in the same geographic area.
When you are continually speaking with people in the same industry, you’ll learn their language.
You’ll learn the industry ‘lingo’ and the language that they respond to. Use this in your marketing to increase your own conversions.
Combined with the knowledge of what works in that industry, you’ll build natural confidence as a side effect of “actually knowing what you are talking about”. That confidence will make it easier to sell your services in both in-person meetings, and your web copy.
Not only will you have better copy and more confidence, but you’ll understand where to go to find your audience. You’ll learn where they hang out, what they do in their spare time and what kind of ads they respond to.
You’ll also know what their #1 problem is, because you’ll have solved it before. Multiple times.
When you are targeting ‘everyone’, your marketing involves guesswork around which networking events you should go to, what social networks to post on and where to advertise.
When you specialize, all of that can be tested and learned until you have a dialed in marketing machine.
So far I have only really spoken about specialisation into certain industries. This is the most common, but there are other ways to specialise. One example is into a certain technology or specific service.
Some examples are:
Combining this with an industry can make you the “go to guy” (or girl) for that space. Maybe you’ll be the “memberships for online entrepreneurs” guy.
Suddenly cutting off your existing deal flow to only focus on one thing can be daunting. If you currently rely on that income, it might even be stupid. Luckily, you can make that transition easier on yourself.
It can be as simple as telling new people your new elevator pitch for your chosen specialty. That applies when talking to people at events, and in your marketing materials.
Your existing network will continue to send referrals which you can accept until your new deal flow is paying the bills.
Note: Even once you specialize, people will still tend to refer others to you, just because they know you make websites. In the beginning when you need the income, you might still take these on. Later, you could team up with other specialist designers to swap referrals.
Depending on industry and location, there may be some government grants available for your potential clients.
As an example, In Queensland we recently had a “small business grant” where the local government would match spending on digital assets e.g. a website. That meant a company could get a $5k website for $2.5k of their own spend.
There was an influx of new web design ads that targeted businesses that could use that grant, even offering them to write the grant application for them.
You can do something just like this. Research what is available and subscribe to any notification services for grants. If one fits your prospects, go through the process so you can advise your clients on the process. It’s a win for your clients, and a win for you.
Referrals from your existing network are the best leads you will ever receive. When someone is referred to you, the referrer has expressed a level of trust in you even if they don’t say that explicitly. As such, the referral will already have a higher level of trust in you than someone they reached out to cold.
That trust makes it far easier to convert them into a client. A referred client is also usually closer to actually getting started.
You will naturally get referrals as your network grows and you become known in your area. However actively asking for referrals will get you a lot more work in a shorter time.
Here’s how you get more referrals.
I know, I know… this sounds too simplistic.
But you’d be surprised how many businesses fail at this most basic concept, so it needs to be said.
To get referrals, start by earning them.
Almost everyone has been burned by web designers. Just by keeping good communication, getting the job done in time and keeping your client happy, they’ll have a better experience with you than most others.
You’ve only got to be one level above crap to stand out
You should always be pinging your clients to see how you are doing, and what they think of you. This is especially true right after you’ve finished their website.
Use a survey tool like Google Drive Forms or Gravity Forms to create a post-website survey. Find out what parts of working with you were the best or worst, what could be done better, and how they rated the experience.
With this feedback, you can improve your services and become more worthy of referrals.
Advanced Tip: If they rate you highly, ask for a testimonial or referrals immediately after the survey.
Some referrals will come naturally. But to significantly increase the number of referrals you get, one simple change to your process can make a huge difference.
It’s simple: Just ask.
Ask your client “Do you know anyone who is in need of a new website?” or “Does anyone you know have a terrible website that could do with a refresh?” These questions can easily be incorporated into your client intake form.
Give them the trigger words to listen out for. That way, when they hear someone say “my web developer disappeared,” they’ll immediately think of you.
If your client has the time, get them to do the email introduction themselves. Ideally, they would first email the referral and ask them if it is OK to introduce you. Cold referral emails that someone isn’t expecting can be plain awkward.
Just like asking your current clients, you can also ask past clients or your existing network. That might be via email, Facebook post or even by phone. Asking people if they know someone who needs a website might jog their memory and cough up a lead or two like magic.
Your client has to go out of their way to refer you to other people. Even if it is only a small effort, that can be a barrier that some people won’t cross.
By providing them with email templates, you make that barrier a lot smaller. Hopefully small enough that they’ll jump over it for you.
You might create templates for these situations:
Mention these when asking for referrals.
“Do you know anyone who needs a new website? If so, reply back and I’ll send you a template you can modify and send them. It should save you a bit of time.”
You can offer a referral fee to those that refer work to you. It may be 5 or 10%, or a fixed fee.
Some people will flat out refuse to take a fee like this, and are just happy to refer to you. Many people I've spoken to find taking a 'cut' a bit snakey and feel better without it.
On the flip side, some people love it any will refer loads of work to you because of it.
You can always float the idea with people and see how it is received.
It feels amazing to get a gift in the mail. Even better if it is unexpected.
You can send gifts to the people that have referred great work to you. It doesn't have to be expensive. Choose something personal that they will love, and include a little thank you card with it.
We've sent things like candy and brownies through to large office items, depending on the person.
Not only will they love you for it, but they might take a photo and share it around.
There are businesses dedicated to this kind of 'professional gifting.' The one we work with is amazing at crafting witty messages to go along with the gifts. See if you can find one in your area.
Partnerships are a different kind of referrals. Rather than one-to-one referrals, you’ll form a relationship with another business that already serve your target market.
Look for businesses that have a complementary, non-competing product or service where a website would be a natural referral.
Going back to the vet example, you could target businesses that sell software to vets. That might be a booking engine, industry specific CRM or even a cleaner that exclusively works with vet surgeries. Those businesses deal with vets on a daily basis, and will likely notice if their websites are rubbish.
You could incentivise those businesses to send you leads for a fixed or percentage fee. In my experience, most people do not care about receiving the fee and are happy to simply refer to someone that they know will not mess their clients around.
Finding partnerships is not an easy task, but the rewards can pay off big time. One partner could refer you 20 clients per year. With 5 partners, that’s 100 per year. Compare that with converting 100 individual websites
Every industry is different, which makes identifying and targeting partners different for every business. So for this, you’ll need to do a lot of thinking. Think about:
To answer some of these questions, you may need to get on the phone or have a meeting with some potential partners. In these meetings you can find out about what issues they’ve had in the past, what they would want out of the relationship and other important information. This information will shape your emails and communication with other potential partners.
You can meet partners in the same way as your usual leads - through networking and referrals.
This section was intentionally left until last. That’s because most people don’t really like reaching out to cold leads. While researching “how to get web design leads”, almost every post told readers to just deal with it and make those calls if they wanted to succeed.
To me that seems like a great way to lose the passion for what you do.
Sometimes though, outreach might be the best option you have, especially when you need clients fast.
Contacting potential leads is a lot easier if you have already specialized. If you haven’t read that section, jump back up and check it out now. With a specialization you’ll know what kind of clients you are looking for, which makes finding them easy.
The first step is to create a list of prospects. To do that, you can try some of the following:
Don’t just go blasting that list of contacts with a generic “do you need a website” email.
Have a look at their sites and see if something is wrong. When/If you find something, let them know in a personalised email.
I’m not comfortable asking outright if they’d like me to fix it, but you might be OK with that. Otherwise you can use a prominent email signature as a mini ad to catch their attention.
Some things to look out for on their sites:
As an example, recording a personal video of suggested improvements to your prospect's website cuts through and might be just what they need to pull the trigger and have a new website built.
The things in this post have helped been used by many businesses to hit their first six figures, up and beyond. It’s all fairly standard business advice. You don’t need anything special trick or tactic to make it in web design. Just build your network, encourage referrals and do a damn good job.
Which of these things have you tried?
Would you like some more detailed info on any of these? Let me know in the comments as I work on a ‘further reading’ list 🙂