Vitaly Friedman September 13th, 2010

Calculating the Return On Investment (ROI) on Marketing Your Design Skills

By Thursday Bram If you want to make a living as a web designer, there's no option but to market your services. As much as you might hope clients will drop out of the sky, you have to take the steps necessary to make sure that those prospective clients know that you can help them and can easily find you. But the options for marketing web design skills seem endless: you can network, blog, advertise, cold call and promote yourself until you're blue in the face. You can spend hours trying to line up clients and be unable to tell if your efforts are having any effect at all. Are the majority of your clients finding you through a specific ad? Or maybe through an article you contributed to a magazine? [fblike] If you know what marketing methods are actually helping you to land design clients, you can often focus your efforts on those marketing projects that are the most effective. If something time-intensive, like a blog, isn't actually bringing in new clients, wouldn't it be nice to stop investing time in it? All of that boils down to the fact that, if you're marketing yourself as a web designer, you need to be calculating the ROI of the time you're spending on your promotional efforts. ROI โ€” or the return on investment โ€” is a matter of determining if the work you're bringing in is enough to cover the cost of the time you're spending on marketing, at least for web designers. For certain organizations, it can get a lot more complicated, but for a small web design shop or a freelancer, that's really the question that determines if your marketing is worth your while.

Your Business Website

For many web designers, your own website is central to your marketing plan. It may be a beautiful design that walks clients through every step of the process and showcases your portfolio, but you have to get traffic to your website in the first place. You can't just take a 'build it and they will come' approach.

Considering that many web designers rely heavily on online marketing techniques, such as newsletters or social media, it is significantly easier to measure the effect your efforts are having online than off. It can be a matter of installing Google Analytics or another analytics package on your website and actually diving into the reports.

SEO and Traffic

The odds of optimizing your site for terms like 'web designer' and ending up on the first page of the search results are not good. But it's certainly possible to rank well for more specific terms like 'web designer' and your town. Measuring the results of your SEO projects is just a matter of looking at those analytics reports and seeing which search terms are actually sending traffic to your site. More complicated to track are in-bound links. In-bound links can provide targeted traffic that can include prospective clients actually interested in hiring you to design a website. Of course, it helps if you have links in the right place. When you're looking through your analytics reports, take a look at what other websites are sending you traffic. If you're using an analytics package that lets you do so, see if you can track conversions on your site (most likely contacting you to discuss a new project) and see if particular sites are sending you traffic that converts better than others. There are a couple of categories the links sending traffic to your site can fall into, including the following:
  • Past clients. You may be surprised how well a link in the footer of a client site can promote you as a web designer. But the fact of the matter is that someone who clicks that link is probably already impressed by your skills as a web designer.
  • Giveaways and articles. Whether you offer up a free icon set or submit a guest post to a blog, you can establish your expertise as a web designer by promoting your work on other sites. However, it's important to consider what kind of traffic these links send you. Depending on where you're establishing your expertise, it may come more from other designers than from prospective clients.
  • Professional links. It's entirely possible that someone will mention you in a blog post that refers to you as a person, while linking to you as a designer. While that link might get some clicks, it's generally not nearly as valuable as a link that refers to you as a professional.

Social Media

While you can track much of the usefulness of your efforts on social networking sites simply by looking at how much traffic Twitter, Facebook and all the rest are sending to your own website, but it's also worthwhile to look at the conversations you hold on each site. Do particular sites help you connect with prospective clients in such a way that they send projects your way? It may not be easy to answer that question, but if you can, you can often focus your social media efforts on the one or two sites that are actually helping you land clients. Similarly, with blogs and email newsletters, you'll have access to plenty of numbers: how many of your emails have been opened, how many sites have linked to a blog post and so on. Translating those numbers can again require looking at conversations, however. If someone is engaging with you after you've posted to your blog, you can get a clearer idea of whether that post is winning over clients or whether prospective clients are even finding your blog.

Games and Apps

Offering a game or a web application or some other sort of project that showcases your design and development skills can bring your web design skills to the attention of a prospective client. The Langton Cherubino Group created Masterpiece Yourself as a way to showcase the firms interactive design skills and the extent of their capabilities. The app allows users to add their own photos to famous portraits, like the Mona Lisa, and then share the results through social media. Since the launch of Masterpiece Yourself, the Langton Cherubino Group has seen traffic to its website increase by 61 percent. It hasn't been easy to translate all of that traffic into new clients, though, says Langton. The firm is still working to decide how to best direct that traffic. But the app has proven to be an ideal way to showcase their skills, leading existing clients to ask for games of their own. The case study of how the app was created has also been useful in landing new clients.

Word of Mouth and Other Hard-to-Measure Marketing

John Wooton, of InspireMedia, found his first big client through a very close bit of networking: it was the website for his wife's photography business. The ROI for the marketing that it took to land that particular client is impossible to measure. Networking and other types of marketing can be tough to measure, at least in part because you often have to get your name in front of a prospective client several times before that client will actually hand you work. It may be a combination of seeing an ad, a recommendation from a friend and actually meeting you in person at a networking meeting that wins over a client. But that doesn't mean that figuring out the effectiveness of your efforts is out of the question.

Ask Your Clients

It's easy to over-complicate the measurement process, but there's one simple step you can take: ask your clients how they found you. Many of your clients will happily tell you, especially if you ask as you're getting ready to start the project. Wooton's mix of marketing methods have made asking his clients about where they heard of him crucial: in addition to networking, he uses social media and some local online advertising. Wooton has also added signage with his business information to the back and the side of his car. He asks each new he works with where they learned about him and track the responses so that he can tweak his marketing efforts. Even an informal survey of your clients asking where they found you and, if possible, why they chose you over the competition can help you focus your marketing plans. Wooton puts an emphasis on networking to promote his design services, but he doesn't go to every networking event out there. He focuses his efforts: "I've found it helpful to participate with business networks that engage with new businesses or with people who are looking to start their own business." That's a fact that might not be readily apparent if Wooton wasn't paying attention to what was driving clients to him. New business owners will almost certainly need a new web design, while attracting a prospective client with an existing web site on a re-design is a much tougher proposition.

Encourage Referrals

Off the different ways to market a web design business, word-of-mouth can seem like the toughest to track. But if you push for very targeted mentions of your web design skills, you can land new clients and track where they came from easily. The secret is promoting referrals. Offering a discount for existing clients who send a new client your way, you can get the best sort of word-of-mouth traffic.

Start Measuring Now

With marketing, it often seems hard enough to actually plan and complete marketing projects โ€” especially when you have work you could be doing for your clients. Adding measurement on top of the work it takes to get your marketing efforts in motion can be tough. Just the same, it's necessary. Having information about the effectiveness of your particular marketing strategies can help you decide what's really working for you and what isn't. Once you've got some numbers in hand, you can focus on those marketing methods that you know are bringing you the most clients, letting you get the best return on the time you invest. You will likely even be able to save time and money on the process in the long-run, making calculating the ROI on your marketing efforts crucial to your web design business in the long run.

About the author

Thursday Bram is a full-time freelancer who has been working on her own for more than seven years. She writes about the business side of freelancing and maintains her own website at [fblike]


  1. It is indeed hard and at the same important to track every marketing effort by itself to see what works and what doesn’t.

    One small obvious way is to give different discount codes for every marketing effort.

  2. Hi Bram,
    a good article on measuring your roi of the design skills.

    Offline is something that is indeed more difficult to measure, but something that works for me is doing things locally (local newspaper, radio ad local news station).

    And if you don’t have a budget, go wild and think of a guerilla campaign that would put your business on the map.

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