How do you market a small design studio?

The last time I was freelancing, I was a very passive marketer. For the most part, I relied on people finding me online or through referrals. I managed to win and keep a few clients this way. However, as you can imagine I didn’t really make a living this way. It was lucky I was teaching and receiving students loans at the same time.

This time, I am committed to making my design studio very successful. I am pursuing marketing more aggressively than last time. I need to make sure not to spend all of my money right out of the gate, of course. I want to take a little bit of time to evaluate all my options and decide intelligently. Then gain the discipline to work as hard on getting new clients as I do working for my existing clients.

Here are my reflections and notes from my adventures in marketing so far. This is not cut-and-dried and may ramble at times, but if you are new to marketing you may glean some bright ideas that I learned from others. Read on:

June 18 – Cleaning House
I began by redesigning the home page for Earlier versions put the focus on the blog. I needed to refocus on what I offer to paying clients. So now you will find only marketing items “above the fold” – things that invite visitors to see what I offer in the way of design services. The blog’s still here if you scroll down a bit. I also began the process of prettifying my portfolio. I need to refine it to only five to ten of my best pieces. This is still a work in process. Once I decide  what my niche (target market) will be, I’ll have a better idea which items to include.

June 25 – Finding a Coach
I met with a marketing specialist by the name of Corey Walker. She was gracious enough to give me free advice for an hour. I took copious notes, which I will share with you below. Same of these may pertain to what you do in your business.

Notes from meeting with Corey Walker:

  • for online teaching and conferencing, check out
  • give some more time to networking and building connections on LinkedIn
  • create and use two brochures: one focused on web and one on graphic
  • find a local group to network with on a regular basis – people get more comfortable with you over time
  • check out a local chamber of commerce – maybe there’s one for East Sac; they often send out:
    • email blasts
    • newsletters
  • start up a regular email newsletter
    • include 1-2 articles in each
    • recommends use of Constant Contact
    • each newsletter gets an associated web page
    • post link to web page on Twitter, etc.
    • links can generate additional subscribers
    • content ideas:
      • case studies, redesigns, how a client benefitted
      • simple design tips, design principles
      • how to hire a designers
      • how to take a good head shot for marketing materials
      • what sort of things do I already teach clients about?
      • how a web site comes together
      • tips for copywriting
    • use the lobster as a character with adventures, personality
    • the newsletter does not have to be all-business
    • when I get business cards at networking events, email the person and incidentally ask them if they’d like to subscribe to newsletter
  • make a Facebook fan page for BluLob, and link to it on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.
  • e-Women Network
    • people are really supportive
    • directors are really focused on helping you grow (as opposed to a chamber of commerce)
    • Corey goes to Folsom chapter
    • most meetings generate something, so it’s worth the cost
    • mostly small business owners
    • mention to people that I am also interested in talking to marketing people at larger companies
  • charge less for tri-fold brochure: $650 is more reasonable
  • reconsider whether to list prices on website; maybe use a sliding scale depending on business size and budget; alternately, show two scopes for each item, one low-end and one high-end
  • Corey can provide the following ongoing services for me:
    • copywriting
    • ongoing marketing plan
    • coaching on newsletters
    • checkups on marketing progress
    • keep me focused on continued marketing and networking

I have already followed some of her advice. I also spent some time researching eWomen Network. More on that later.

June 30 – Finding a Coach, Part II
I met with another marketing expert, Brandon Miller of Avaunt Advantage. This meeting was similarly useful, but instead of “to do” ideas, Brandon schooled me about five major components of an effective marketing plan:

  1. Advertising– such as Google AdWords
  2. Networking – such as BNI, LeTip, and various chambers of commerce (check out the Asian Chamber even if you’re not Asian!)
  3. Public Relations – my tutorials here on Blulob count, but this also refers to being a sponsor of non-profit efforts (little league baseball, anyone?)
  4. Cold Calling – terrifying but true: it’s not a marketing plan unless you do it (see notes below)
  5. Database Management – keeping an organized contact list and following up with people I meet

Cold-calling will be most effective if I do it myself, because I’m the one with the expertise to answer client questions right off the bat. A few notes on cold calling:

  • A cold-calling business person has to overcome TWO fears:
    • Your own fear of rejection.
    • A potential client’s fear of making a bad buying decision.
  • Sales is a numbers game. You won’t win everyone over, but you will win over a percentage.
  • A good way to cold-call is to offer a free consultation.
  • The first thing to do is identify a target market.

Brandon offers a few different marketing packages, starting at $200/month for helping me develop all five components mentioned above. He’s offering direction, focus, ideas and coaching. I am taking this under consideration. If we’re successful with this and I’m getting enough money in, I may upgrade to a more elaborate package. This would include marketing analysis and networking training. He described a number of networking concepts, such as “speed networking” in which you meet 20 people face-to-face and spend 90 seconds each describing what you do.

Brandon says his strongest service is “developing a great message”.

July 1 – BNI
I was invited by my plumber to attend a networking mixer for BNI of Elk Grove. Everyone was really nice, and I met a man and his wife, Todd and Hilary Dorff, who run another web design firm in town. Not only do I enjoy chatting with other people in my field, Todd seemed interested in subcontracting to me as the need arises. Hilary invited me to a free networking event the following morning.

BNI has an interesting arrangement. There are usually several chapters in a given town. Sacramento has four. Each chapter can have only one member in any given field. Unfortunately, each of the Sacramento chapters have a web designer already. I could try to find a chapter further away, or market myself there as a graphic designer instead. Initial sign-up costs something like $400 and there are quarterly fees of around $20. I don’t recall the exact amounts. They allow you to attend two meetings for free before you join.

BNI provided free appetizers at On the Border. Yum.

July 2 – a Free Networking Thing at IKEA
I went to a networking event put on by a woman who does financial consulting. It was held at the local IKEA. Hilary couldn’t make it but one of their salespeople did. There were a good number of people from a variety of industries. After a bit of mingling with free coffee and pastry, we sat in a large horse-shoe configuration. Two people had previously arranged to make special presentations of their companies (these guys provided the snacks). Then everyone had a few minutes each to talk about what they do and to pass business cards around.

All in all it was interesting, but I don’t know yet if it will lead to any business relationships. I contacted a few people afterward via email, but have yet to hear back.
By the way, IKEA offers meeting spaces for free before the store opens. The setting is like a large classroom or conference room. I had the notion to teach a basic HTML course there for a small fee.

July 8 – eWomen Network
My third networking event for the month: I went to an eWomen Network “Strategic Business Introductions” meeting. This one was not free. In fact, I paid $75 to go an a non-member. I had two goals: evaluate eWomen before I join, and meet a few more potential business contacts. Other eWomen events have a lot of people, but this one just had nine, two of whom represented eWomen. The small number was intentional, because the idea was to really connect, and to advise each other.

After a brief introduction by each person, we did an interesting brain storming session. Person one described a particulat business need, and then each person in turn would give suggestions regarding that need. After we went around the table, it was person two’s turn to voice a need. For example, one person expressed the need to get articles published about his industry (Bowen therapy). I suggested publishing them on his very own blog as well as in publications.

The need I expressed was the need to find focus: focus on a niche market, and what to focus on with all my business ideas at any given time (design work, blogging, T-shirt design, teaching, tutorials, etc.)

Here are my loose notes from this meeting:

  • One woman found success with Google Adwords; she pays $50 per month and found three clients her first month. I went ahead and singed up yesterday. I’ve gotten 4 click so far but no calls. Patience, patience.
  • A sales expert recommended this method of cold-calling:
    • Have 100 face-to-face interactions within a two-day period.
    • Get to know people – don’t try to sell. It’s about relationships.
    • On a second visit, hand-drop off a card with a box of chocolates.
    • It can take five to seven interactions before someone buys.
  • Tell stories in your marketing. I had the brainstorm to include a sort of story-telling element to my portfolio items.
  • Check out Get Networking Now to find future network events (Sacramento region).
  • Constant Contact offers email marketing and newsletter services, and a free trial.
  • The Small Business Administration (SBA) has “Score” members who coach people with their businesses. (I searched for mentors in California for “Advertising and Marketing”, which came the closes to what I do. I submitted a request for advice from Peter Thomsen in Sacramento.)
  • Interview a number of business coaches before deciding on one (eWomen Network gives you two free coaching sessions – with two different coaches – with your membership.)
  • Check out Stephanie Chandler in regards to professional publishing and producing/selling eBooks.
  • Delegate basic business functions when you can to a service like SimpleBackOffice.

eWomen Network costs $290 to sign up, then $16.95 per month. Events are an additional cost but members get a discount. Members also get access to a large online community where they can create a business profile page. And there’s the coaching service too. A few women whom I met yesterday have already called or emailed me.

I have been working very hard the past two days to digest everything I’ve learned, follow up on suggestions, and reconnect with everyone I met. I’ve emailed a hello to a number of individuals whose business cards I’ve kept since March. I’ve also tracked down a number of them on LinkedIn and requested connections with them.

I think I will budget $200-300 per month for a while to get my marketing really going. I will be going to one more eWomen event next week, then probably go ahead and sign up with them. That will burn up July’s budget. Then I’ll start working with Brandon Miller in August to get those five marketing components going.

I’ll let you all know in the future, with complete candidness, what generates real clients for me with real money, and what doesn’t.

5 replies on “How do you market a small design studio?”

Can’t wait for the followup. I’m also going to go back and study what you’ve posted here again. I do have a Management Certificate in Marketing Communications, but I’ve never been employed in a serious marketing role.

Hi Dawn –

I love your article on marketing yourself and your business. Lots of helpful tips presented in such a logical/measurable way – thanks for sharing with all of us. I’ll check out the links as I can today and try to get to an eWomen Networking event. I met someone from eWomen at a Chamber Mixer a while back and missed out on the next event.

I will look forward to following your marketing results. As direct mail marketers, we are always interested in searching out methods to meet and reach our customers!

Thanks again. I look foward to seeing your more of your work. Love your website!


Some great advice. I’d be careful with SCORE, though.
First time I got an advisor (maybe 60-65 years old, nice guy, retired), true, he was experienced and had made a ton of money over the years, but he hadn’t been in the real mix for quite a while.
He said (this is in 2005), “yeah, it’s good you’re doing web design, but I wouldn’t put all my eggs into that Internet… you should wait for a few years to see if it works out.”

I really like how you outlined this article. I agree that the best way to start marketing is with a small budget and then continue to increase spending on what is working. I have clients that think they should start spending $5,000 – $10,000 during the first month of Internet marketing. We are a Sacramento web design company and unless a client has a very large budget, I recommend to start slow. For larger clients in a big city like San Francisco, Los Angles or New York, they can afford to spend a little more on onlne advertising.
Thanks again for the information.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.