Everyone has different reasons for starting a blog: for some it’s an outlet to express themselves and be heard, for others it’s making money with all kinds of monetization techniques known to bloggers. Yet there is a growing number of blogs that become an extension of someone’s business, an online promotion of their services.
Ever since I started thinking of going solo (even before putting it down in writing), I was collecting various ideas for effective integration of my design business with my blog. To give you an update, in less than two months I’ll be running my small design studio full time, so I need to be thoroughly prepared for that.
There are many designers who managed to successfully establish an online business presence and gain authority and clients from all over the world. And what is a better way to learn than from the pros? I’ve interviewed six prominent designers to get the insider info on how to effectively blend blogging with business.
Essential puzzle pieces for business promotion online
Choosing the right name for the business is probably one of the hardest decisions we have to make. Do we use our own name for the business and blog or come up with a different one? And what if we already have a blog, but only later decide to promote our services online – do we just add our portfolio to the existing blog, or start a new one?
Aaron Russel recently launched a new blog/site to promote his freelance work rather than using his existing blog. “miLienzo.com was never intended as a platform from which build my freelance activities — it was only ever intended as my geeky experiment into the world of blogging”, explains Aaron. “Whilst miLienzo.com has become a successful blog in its own right, it kind of serves no purpose and a lot of my posts tend to be a bit random or personal — it’s certainly not optimised as a ‘selling’ blog. With the new site, rather than just opening up and writing what I feel, I think to myself ‘what do I want to achieve?’ and I construct posts based on that objective. It’s all just a bit more strategic and serious.”
Of course, the most important piece that every designer needs to add to his site is Portfolio. Prospective clients must know what are we capable of. However, there are a few other things that should be taken into a consideration as well when constructing your business presence online.
“Feature selected work in blog posts, talking about different aspects and challenges of the project. Add testimonials to the sidebar. Thumbnails of recent work in the sidebar are a nice idea too”, suggests Randa Clay, who successfully juggles her design career with blogging and motherhood.
David Airey, the blogger whose name is quickly becoming synonymous with Logo Designer, cleverly included Hire Me and Testimonials pages to his blog. “Portfolios are great for showing the work you’ve done in the past, but for future projects, establishing trust and gathering project details are of great importance”, cautions David. “My ‘hire’ page includes a logo design questionnaire that starts every new project on the right foot. My ‘testimonials’ page puts a public face on those client quotes that are all too often fake in appearance.”
Many businesses started to recognize a great potential in blogs that allow them to add something very important to their web sites that was lacking before. Tara from a popular Graphicdesignblog quickly noticed that and advises others to follow her steps: “What is useful about a blog, for prospective clients, is that not only do they get to see your work but they get to see a slice of your personality — from both how you write and how you respond to comments. I like to show my design case studies now and then as this shows my thinking process to clients. By showing how I work from my own initial sketches (generally not shown to the client) to concepts, to final design prospective clients can get a feel for how their design project would progress. This is especially useful for clients who don’t generally commission design”.
Another useful tip that designers who blog can adopt is to have a business “frontpage” for their site as a starting point instead of the recent blog post. Check out Aaron’s new site as a great example of this approach, who calls his homepage a ‘shop window’:”I’ve dedicated the homepage to selling my services. The design tries to funnel visitors through a path of targeted content and ultimately to my client questionnaire contact form. Blogs are great for slowly building an ‘authority’ and positioning yourself as an expert, but ultimately if someone who has never heard of you is searching for your services and lands on your site through an organic search result, they will want to land on a page outlining what you do and why they should hire you, not your latest blog post.”
Blogging is perfect not only for established designers but for students as well. It is probably the quickest and least risky way to try out some freelancing on a side while you’re still studying your craft. Jacob Cass from Just Creative Design can serve as a role model here. In just a few months this design student from Australia has already built a name for himself not only as a creative young designer but also a prolific blogger with a high traffic blog and over a dozen of memorable guest blogging appearances on several prominent blogs.
“I blog about my design process and teach others what I have learnt”, shares Jacob, “I also have a hire me and portfolio pages. I recently added a testimonials page to show what others think about working with me, which is another great way to gain trust in your new potential clients. To narrow it down to just one point: you should practice what you preach.” On the other hand Jacob admits that “there are so many different ways to promote yourself and each does it in their own different ways so what may work for me may not work for someone else.”
Jon Tan, a respected designer who is well-known for his superb eye for Typography and as an avid supporter of web standards, gives an excellent summary of what are the better ways of promoting one’s design services via his/her blog: “I think it depends on context, audience persona, and business objectives but in a nutshell: Share your knowledge to be employed to implement it.”
How to build a skillful and imposing portfolio
Having an impressive portfolio will definitely boost your credibility and demand as a designer, but what if we were too busy working or studying full time and haven’t had a chance to score that many interesting projects that we could proudly display in our portfolio section?
“Do some pro-bono work, or just make up some dummy companies and design for them and put those items in your portfolio”, recommends Randa Clay, “Title the portfolio that is available something like ‘Samples of My Work’, even if it’s everything you’ve ever done. This is not meant to be a deceptive step, but there’s no reason to advertise the fact that you have a limited body of work.”
David Airey is another supporter of pro-bono work: “Patience is key, and I’d highly recommend pro-bono work for those with ‘thin’ portfolios. Contacting local non-profit organisations and offering your services is great for a number of reasons. It builds confidence, creates local business contacts, offers real-world experience (including valuable feedback), and should also be for a worthy cause.”
Students-designers should definitely check out Jacob’s portfolio to see how he integrated his personal works with the real-world examples. “You should always try to build up your portfolio”, encourages Jacob, though he recognizes that “there are a number of problems behind doing this (i.e. no computer skills, cash problems, etc.)”, so he wrote an article on where to get paid design work for students.
How to differentiate feasible clients from impractical ones?
The first question that comes to mind when getting a business inquiry is how do you decide whether someone who approaches you with a potential design work is a viable and committed client. Everyone has his/her own tactics in spotting when something or someone is too good to be true. Often it’s only a matter of time and experience when we learn how to turn down an offer that we don’t feel too good about.
You might follow Jacob’s advise: “You never know for sure so you should treat all clients with the same respect and then you will start to build a relationship up with them. Ever heard of the 80/20 rule? 80% of your work will come from 20% of your clients.”
For David it’s a simple matter of clients doing their research before contacting him: “Addressing me by my name is a great start. You’d be surprised how many emails I receive that sound cold and abrasive. It’s a common courtesy to start an email with ‘Hello David’ (or something similar). It’s not like my name is hidden away. It’s easy to differentiate a hastily written email from a professional one, and if someone rushes through what they’re saying, chances are good they want a cheap and fast identity design.”
First impression can definitely predict the outcome of an inquiry, as well as the transparency of those who request a quote on a project that we’ve never heard about before.
“It’s easy to get frustrated and bogged down trying to work with people who are not good clients. I rely heavily on the way that they first communicate with me, as well as who referred them to me”, observes Randa, “For example, when I get an e-mail from someone calling themselves ‘Slider’ simply saying, ‘I need a blog design- what do you charge?’, it does not give me the impression they will be a good client to work with. Someone who is likely to be a good client will have a ‘real’ name, communicate their needs well, and have at least a general idea of what they’re looking for in a design. A good client will also not balk at the idea of paying a percentage of the design fee up front. This demonstrates that they are committed to me as a designer and that they understand the value of a designer’s time.”
So looks like we’ve established the two key components that every client should have: they should know our real name, and they ought to sign the email with their own real name, as well as the name and the nature of their business. What else?
Tara takes the initial communication one step further: “When I get asked to quote a design job via my blog I generally send back a list of a few questions about their requirements. Some people don’t bother responding to the questions. If they aren’t prepared to spend the time answering a few questions it’s not worth pursuing. I will sometimes also ask if they have a budget to try and cut out people who want a $50 logo. Once I have the information I need I send a quote to the potential client and have been lucky that the new clients I have made from my blog have been good to work with and pay on time.”
Having a ready to be sent client questionnaire on your site is a quicker alternative to speed up the process of filtering the clients and getting the right and complete list of project requirements in the first place. This is an approach that makes Aaron’s life of a designer much easier: “By asking potential clients to complete a questionnaire form you will automatically filter a fair amount of these less committed clients, but other than that it’s down to intuition. To be honest I think it’s fairly easy to spot the genuine enquiries, but what is less easy is to act on your gut instinct and say ‘thanks but no thanks’ – especially so if you are going through a baron patch when the temptation to take on any work is strong.”
#1 tip for the efficient integration of blogging with business?
I’ve asked my interviewees to give their best tips on effective blogging with business in mind. “Practice what you preach”, eloquently put Jacob.
Once you decided on using your blog as another marketing tool for your business, try not to neglect it and update as much as possible. “The benefit of this is that Google loves WordPress blogs and your site will come out higher in searches”, discloses Tara, “My blog is currently number 2 for Google UK for the term ‘graphic design’ which is something I would never have achieved with a basic website.” Now this is definitely something to be proud about, isn’t it?
“Blogging does consume huge amounts of time”, admits Aaron, “No matter how organised you are, by committing to write a blog you are committing to many hours of work a week. When you add it up this can amount to half a working day to even an entire working day. However, blogging can be a very powerful marketing/publicity tool and best of all it doesn’t really cost anything. Therefore as busy freelancers juggling several projects at once, we need to accept the value of blogging and with that accept the time commitments. Put time aside to strategically think about what your next week’s posts will be, dedicate time to write and proof your articles, and publish them to a schedule.”
Giving a “face” to your business is a strategy that proved to be successful for many designers. “People like to work with people they feel they know and like”, reveals Randa, “Put your picture on your blog, either on your front page or ‘about me’ page. Be personable and likable in your post writing. Use your blog to network with and get to know other designers and potential clients.”
It can never be stressed enough that networking to business is like water to fish — your business can’t survive without networking.
On the other hand, don’t make your business blog too personal. “Keep it relevant”, cautions David, “That’s not to say you shouldn’t add some personality to your blog, but if your business is design, don’t write articles about the local council’s new sewage policy (unless they’ve created a swanky new logo).” From myself I would add that having a good sense of humour can never hurt your business, but only enhance it.
An important concept in any business is to adopt whatever works for you the best. Sometimes narrowing down and focusing on specific services will make you stand out in the competitive world of designers. At first David Airey was offering a broad range of services, but then decided to focus on “logo / identity design”, and that’s when he became a sought after graphic designer. When I asked him whether or not he would advise others to follow his path, he gave an honest answer: “The truth is, logo design is what I enjoy most, so it makes sense to narrow my focus. Advice for others? Do what you love, and put all your effort into it. Spreading yourself thin can lead to project outcomes that undersell your true skills.”
For students-designers Jacob gives this advice: “I know a few student design bloggers, however they post more of just their work, which really doesn’t provide anything for the person reading it, it is mere an eye candy. If you provide your readers with more, such as your design process or some tips or how you went about doing things, then this provides them with something they can learn from.” To see his advice in action check out Jacob’s post on Font Flags Specimen Sheets. By turning this article into a resource, he got it ranked #1 on Google for “font specimen sheet” keywords.
As in every profession designers face lots of challenges. The best thing that can happen is we learn from our mistakes (and hopefully others as well), the worse case scenario is we keep doing them over and over again until one day we get wiser.
For Jon Tan the most challenging things in design & blogging are “Time, learning and the last 10%: Our business moves so quickly, and covers such broad and deep areas of expertise; Finding time to research and write in depth, as opposed to a quick skim of the blogosphere and a bookmark or two, is a problem. I often read material that is not well researched, but audience-hunting or link bait. Properly researched material is a joy, but takes time to absorb, and publish. Our business is 80% science and 20% art. There are a lot of articles published that concentrate on the art, but I’d love to have more time to study the science, and add to it myself. The last 10% refers to polish. In combination with time spent researching and prototyping where the best ideas are born, the last 10% is where they truly come to life. That, and the final 10% is the art, and require more time and serenity of thought than is often available.”
“Trying to get an accurate brief from a client” is one of the most challenging tasks for Tara. “Some clients are great and provide lots of information, others are incredibly vague (even if you send them a questionnaire) and give you very little idea what they want.” Another hard decision to make for Tara, as well as many other designers, including myself, is providing the right quote: “sometimes it’s really hard to judge how long creative work will take, you don’t want to charge too much but also don’t want to undersell yourself.”
It almost became a common problem for every designer: we’re so busy working on client projects and dealing with various business-related tasks on a daily basis, that we hardly find time for our own sites and projects. So many times I’ve witnessed the fact that a successful designer has scrambled to find time only for his/her own web site to have only one page with coming-soon-here-are-my-contact-details info.
“Finding time to work on my own projects” is a challenge for David as well. “I enjoy working with clients, but I don’t intend to do it forever. Ultimately I want to set up some projects that bring in passive income, but I have a way to go yet. Sometimes I just have to tell prospective clients I’m too busy, in which case I’d refer them to another designer.”
Aaron confesses that “new challenges present themselves all the time”. “From a freelancer point of view, one month the challenge might be finding where the next piece of work is going to come from, whereas the next month the challenge is organising your workload due to the sheer volume of work. Then from a designer point of view there are practical challenges like learning new applications, technologies and skills, or often the challenge is wondering where your inspiration has gone and combating self doubt.”
So how should we overcome those difficulties on a daily basis? “All these challenges are dealt with by being adaptable and believing in yourself”, convinced Aaron. “Being a freelance designer requires the wearing of many hats, and to be successful at whatever you do for a living requires a confident and assured approach to your work.”
So here you go, hopefully you found these tips as helpful as I did. Randa, Tara, Jon, David, Aaron and Jacob, thank you all so very much for taking your time and participating in this small research on building a successful online business presence through blogging.
Over to you, my readers, now – what tips do you have for others about some of the ways that you personally found working in building your online business presence?