10 uncommon ways to find more web design leads

18 min read
Andrew Claremont

Finding new freelance web design leads sometimes feels like you’re stuck on a hamster wheel.

You’re constantly chasing the next project, competing with hundreds of other designers for the same jobs, and fighting to break through the noisy inboxes of your potential clients. Every idea you come across for generating more leads is already being tried by dozens of other freelancers.

Sure, you’re getting referrals here and there, but you still run into the inevitable dry spell. And when you do, you might have even considered trying freelance gig websites like Upwork or Freelancer—but you don’t want to join in the race to the bottom on price.

So how can you stand above the noise? How can you build a steady stream of quality leads to help your business grow when the usual lead generation methods are overused?

To help you out, we’ve put together 10 unusual and underused sources of web design leads for freelancers and agencies. Pick a few ideas, try them out, and soon you’ll have a thriving pipeline of potential prospects knocking at your door.

10 uncommon web design lead sources

  1. Teach everything you know
  2. Create a gateway product, like a short ebook or email course
  3. Start an email newsletter
  4. Become a podcast guest
  5. Specialize in a particular service or niche
  6. Take advantage of your LinkedIn profile
  7. Lean on past clients
  8. Write detailed case studies showing how you help
  9. Partner with other freelancers
  10. Start a side project

1. Teach everything you know

Creating and sharing free, educational content isn’t new, but it’s certainly underused. Instead of trying to convince prospects you’re the right web designer to hire, content marketing lets you show them how you’ve helped other business owners just like them in the past and how you can help them achieve the same results. Sharing everything you know might feel counterintuitive, but it will attract potential leads who would pay to apply your expertise and knowledge to their business.

Jennifer Bourn, a web designer and agency owner, recommends blogging regularly as a great way to find new freelance web design leads:

While blogging these days is more about quality content than quantity of content, it is still critical that you publish new content to your blog on a regular basis. Blogging regularly demonstrates your credibility and reliability to your audience and it helps your site stay relevant in search results.

The biggest reason most web designers avoid blogging? They don’t know what to write about. Instead of trying to come up with ideas on your own, start with what your clients and prospects already want to know. Answer questions that come up over and over, and share your answers where you know potential clients are already spending time like LinkedIn, Quora, or other social media and industry-relevant sites. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • What do you wish every client knew about the work you do?
  • What questions do clients keep asking over and over?
  • What are some case studies or success stories you’ve had with past clients?
  • What valuable resources can you share with potential clients?

If you aren’t a great writer, don’t worry—try creating short videos, audio recordings, or podcast episodes instead. Ask your past clients which formats they prefer, and pick the one you enjoy the most!

2. Create a gateway product, like a short ebook or email course

The best way to prove you’re the best web designer for your prospects’ needs is to show them you know how to — not just that you can — solve their problems. Blogging helps, but creating a small digital product, like a short ebook or an email course, can help establish you as an expert web designer, giving you something to market and grow your audience and proving to prospective clients that you’re the one they should hire.

Digital products also act as a “gateway” into your more expensive services. Pricing your product as an impulse buy makes it easier to turn prospects into customers, bypassing the potential risk of investing in high-cost services upfront—buying a $5 ebook is a much easier decision than buying a $5,000 site redesign. Once customers have seen how much value you provide in your product, it’s much more likely that prospects will choose to hire you for their project.

Interface designer and SaaS founder Amy Hoy lists examples of products web designers can create:

  • Themes
  • Templates
  • Resource packs
  • Tools
  • Workshops and webinars
  • Online courses
  • Ebooks

Starting small is okay. In fact, when your goal is to create an entry-level product as a gateway to more lucrative freelance services, it’s worth starting with the smallest product you can think of. The return on the time you invest can be tremendous since you can sell your product over and over again without investing more time.

3. Start an email newsletter

Once you’ve created your content or gateway product, you still need a way to get it in front of potential clients who may not yet be ready to start a web design project. One of the best ways to share content and nurture prospects is by sending out an email newsletter on a consistent schedule. In exchange for receiving your best content in their inbox, clients are gifting you their attention (and their email address)—and in return, you get to provide huge amounts of value that proves you’re the right web designer for the job.

Newsletters keep you at the top of clients’ minds even if they’re not quite ready to work with you on a web design project. Owning your list means you’re not subject to changing social media algorithms or the ever-increasing cost of paid advertising. But the most important reason to start an email newsletter is to build trust. Email lets you have more personal conversations with many subscribers at once, opening a two-way dialog with prospects and earning their trust before asking them to start a project with you.

A few tips on how to create a great email newsletter:

  • Newsletters should have a fixed cadence—make sure you’re sending your newsletter at the same time every week, or every month, so subscribers know what to expect.
  • Be personal—share a mixture of personal stories and anecdotes, your own educational content, and curated content related to the industry you serve. Remember: people hire people, and you want to help clients get to know youas well as what you do.
  • Make sure each newsletter includes a subtle call-to-actionfor your web design services. Don’t go for the hard sell; instead mention that you’re available to take on new web design clients, and they’ll naturally reach out to you when they’re ready.

4. Become a podcast guest

Podcasting is popular. Building your own podcast audience takes time, though—and time is of the essence when you’re seeking freelance web design leads. Instead, take advantage of other peoples’ audiences and become a guest on podcasts your prospects are already listening to.

Becoming a podcast guest instead of starting from scratch has a number of advantages. Podcasting helps you establish credibility with potential clients who naturally see you as the expert. By “borrowing” this credibility from hosts, you can grow your audience much more quickly. Podcasting also brings many SEO benefits to your business—it’s faster than writing guest posts, but you still receive valuable backlinks to your site, and hosts often help promote each episode. Most importantly, though, podcasting helps you reach pre-qualified leads—choosing the right podcasts lets you quickly reach a pre-made audience of ideal clients.

Start by finding the right podcasts to target. Ask past clients which podcasts they’re already listening to, or search iTunes, SoundCloud, or Spotify for industry-specific keywords. Next, reach out to each host—make sure you don’t just describe what you do, but instead focus on how having you on their podcast will benefit their audience.

Once recording day arrives, be a great guest. Share valuable web design tips, tell stories about how you helped past clients, and let your personality shine through to help attract your ideal clients. At the end of each episode, provide a clear call-to-action for listeners—ask them to visit a dedicated landing page on your website to find out more about your services. After the episode is published, make sure you help promote it—share it with everyone you can, include a link in your email newsletter, repurpose the content into a blog post (with permission from the host, of course), and help get your voice out there.

5. Specialize in a particular service or niche

Being a jack-of-all-trades web designer might feel like it gives you a little more project variety, but marketing yourself to potential leads is much more difficult when you help everybody with everything. Instead, consider choosing a niche or specific service to target with your messaging. This could either be a particular vertical, like websites for dentists or coffee shops, or a horizontal service you can offer across many different industries, like Shopify store design or custom WordPress themes.

Brennan Dunn recommends on his site Double Your Freelancing that web designers choose a specific niche, not as a way of limiting their business but as a positioning and marketing tool to help potential leads understand how you can help them:

"If you think telling the world that you’re a web designer is going to help, you’re right… but you’re only going to help companies who already know they need a web designer.

"But if you decide to share with the world that you specialize in helping online stores increase sales by creating human-centred designs, you’re now speaking to anyone who runs an online store. (And you can then educate them about how design, done right, can help increase sales.)"

The reason freelancers avoid choosing a niche is because they’re scared they’ll exclude everyone else who could also benefit from their services. They’re afraid that choosing the wrong niche will lead to boring and monotonous projects. Don’t let this hold you back—if you find you aren’t enjoying the niche you chose, you can always change niches later.

Start by seeking out any unfair advantages you already have—clients you’ve enjoyed working with or areas where you’ve helped clients the most. Don’t stress about ignoring clients who don’t fall within your niche—you can still take on clients outside your niche. Instead, concentrate on focusing your messaging on that one ideal client, and you’ll find your marketing becomes much more effective.

6. Take advantage of your LinkedIn profile

In the past, LinkedIn has felt a little like the awkward cousin of more popular social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Many employees and part-time web designers only update their profile when something big changes—usually the start or end of a job.

But over the past few years, LinkedIn has become one of the best sources of leads for web designers and other freelancers. It’s a channel that’s underused: out of over 250 million monthly active users on LinkedIn, only 3 million share content on a weekly basis.

It’s also much more effective for generating leads than other social networks. Potential clients are already searching for freelancers on LinkedIn—since visitors are in a business-oriented mindset (unlike Facebook, say, where they’re probably looking for photos from friends), posting content is much more likely to lead to engaging conversations and potential leads. In fact, a study by HubSpot found that visitors from LinkedIn converted at nearly three times the rate of those from Twitter or Facebook.

Image via HubSpot

Jake Jorgovan runs a LinkedIn lead generation service called Lead CookieHe recommends that freelance web designers begin by optimizing their profile before reaching out to clients directly and use LinkedIn’s Sales Navigator tool to connect with potential leads and share valuable content. He suggests not pitching people immediately but instead send a casual connection request to each prospect, for example:

Hi {},

I was browsing your profile and noticed we are in a similar space, so I thought I would reach out to connect.

Jake Jorgovan
I help agencies and consultants win their dream client

This non-salesy approach has worked well for his clients and also works well for freelance web designers looking to reach out to prospects. Just make sure you have your positioning and niche well-defined before you start!

7. Lean on past clients

Most freelance web designers rely on referrals as their biggest source of leads—and past clients are your most obvious referrers.

Unlike cold emailing, you already have an “in”—asking past clients to draw others’ attention to your work is often as easy as sending off a few quick emails. Past clients have seen the high quality and value of the work you produce, and they know which leads would be a good fit to work with you.

The best time to ask for referrals is right after you complete a project. Make a habit of asking for one to three recommendations or introductions when you send your final invoice. Most clients will be more than willing to help you, although you can test offering discounts on payment or other incentives in exchange.

When asking for referrals, be polite and keep the focus on the client as much as possible—you don’t want them to feel like you’re using them to get to their friends and colleagues. Instead, make sure they’re happy with the work you’ve done together, and politely ask if there’s anyone else they know who could benefit from the value they’ve seen you provide.

Here’s a template to get you started:

Hi [client’s first name],

Hope all is well! I’m glad you’re so happy with the results of our project together. [Insert something here about specific results and value they’ve gained from your project.]

Since things are going so well for you, I wanted to reach out to ask if there’s anyone else you know who might benefit from the kind of value you’ve seen me deliver.

Do you know anyone you could introduce me to? I’d very much appreciate any suggestions you may have, and I’d love to help them achieve similar results.

Thanks again!

[Your name]

If you don’t hear back straight away, make sure you follow up a few days later—your prospects are likely very busy with other efforts, and if they don’t reply the first time, a short and polite follow-up can do wonders for your response rate.

8. Write detailed case studies showing how you help

In terms of bang-for-your-buck, it’s hard to beat a good case study as a marketing tool for web designers. Case studies let you turn your customers’ success into sales for your freelance business, helping you attract and convert potential leads and showing them the value you can provide. Unlike educational content (see Idea #1 above), case studies should explain both the results of your work and specifically how you achieved those results.

Conversion copywriting expert Joel Klettke, who runs Case Study Buddy, a service that helps businesses generate leads, describes the value of a well-written case study on the Write Life:

When done well, case studies combine all the best elements of social proof: A customer your lead can empathize with, testimonials and quotes that substantiate your claims, and a clear narrative our brains find easy to follow. They show leads that a business just like theirs got the results they want by choosing your service, and hammer that home in a story format that follows a before, during and after arc. For a moment, leads join your customer on their journey and see themselves in it.

Your case studies should showcase past clients before, during, and after you worked with them. It’s important to focus not on the work you did (again, you could use this content in email courses or educational ebooks), but instead, describe the benefits and value they experienced as a result of that work. For example, as a web designer, don’t just say that a client came to you wanting a new website. Make sure your case study answers the following questions:

  • Why did the client come to you in the first place? Did they want to attract more leads for their business? Did they need help converting those leads into paying customers? What’s the problem they needed to solve?
  • How did your design work help them achieve that goal and solve that problem?
  • What was the outcome for their business after achieving the goal?

Once you’ve written your case study, share it on your website, and send it to prospective clients when they first inquire about working with you. Case studies can amplify your marketing and sales, and they’ll help set you apart from the pack.

9. Partner with other freelancers

You might be a first-class web designer, but no one can be great at everything. Collaborating can be a great way of both strengthening your work and generating web design leads.

Partnering with other freelancers who offer complementary services, like copywriters or graphic designers, lets you play off your own strengths and share work in areas where you might be less comfortable. Even partnering with other web designers can be valuable—instead of seeing each other as competition, send each other work when you’re overloaded.

Kaleigh Moore, a freelance copywriter, suggests finding online communities where other freelancers hang out:

There are so many different Facebook groups, Twitter chats, Slack groups, etc., that bring groups of freelancers … together. These groups are places where you can build relationships with like-minded individuals (that can eventually turn into referral sources.)

Participating in these groups can help you build up a network of connections—and freelancers are known for being huge generators of referrals. In fact, Freelancers Union found that as many as 81% of freelancers refer work to each other, while 52% partner up on projects.

It’s worth reaching out to other freelancers not just to find new leads but to make new friends, build relationships, and have real conversations. Once you have a network of other freelancers to back you up, the referrals will start coming in naturally.

10. Start a side project

Side projects can be another great way of getting yourself in front of potential clients, even if they don’t directly lead to sales.

Starting a side project lets you show off your design talent and expertise. Without the usual constraints that come with client projects, you can go deeper and have more fun when you’re building the project on your own. Sometimes side projects become so popular, they even start to outpace your main business—Unsplash, for example, started as a side project before becoming the popular photo-sharing platform it is today.

Jon Yablonski, Director of Digital Experiences at AIGA Detroit, explains in Smashing why side projects can be so valuable:

Personal side projects are a cornerstone of creative growth and discovery. While they might not always result in financial gain, the long-term benefits are often much more useful. Benefits such as personal growth, creative exploration and generation of professional opportunities are some of the reasons to engage in them.

There are thousands of great examples of side projects started by web designers—some interesting and creative examples include the Web Field ManualSpecies in Pieces, and the World’s Longest Invoice. The World’s Longest Invoice is a great example—a side project from Freelancers Union, it helped attract new members to their community, brought in lots of media coverage, and also acted as a lead generation tool since users needed to enter their email address to get their results.

Image via Freelancers Union

Side projects are all about reaching new people—but it’s important to retain your connection with them. Use your side projects to drive leads back to your web design services. Look for ways to capture contact details so that you can nurture your new leads, and you might even end up with more work than you can handle.

Bonus tip: Talk to everyone you can, regularly

No matter which tactics you use to generate new leads, business is all about relationships, and freelance web design is no different.

The best way to find new leads is to talk to everyone you can—from potential clients to friends and family, work colleagues, and fellow freelancers. Ask about their problems, and talk about how you can help solve them with design. Let people know you’re out there, and you’re willing to help. Give free advice. Get to know people on a personal level. Try the above tips—see which methods you enjoy the most and which methods bring in clients, then double down on what works.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. But freelancing often requires that you do unpaid work to find more paying work. Establishing more web design leads takes time, effort, and perseverance. You can do it!