Building & Marketing a Web Design Business

What’s the best way to market a web design business, get more clients and build a business that stands the test of time?

I often use the words design and develop interchangeably. Especially when talking about a large community of people who are working either full or part-time in the website building business.

In the perfect scenario, you’d develop a business plan, a marketing plan, and a financial plan before doing anything in this business. Think about startup companies and the pieces they need to have in place to attract investors?

If you’re going to do something big, you plan all the way to the end. That’s the perfect scenario. Did I follow that path? Not even close.

The Not So Perfect Scenario

Now, let’s take a look at the not-so-perfect scenario. You build a website. You like the experience. You experiment with web creation software and build a few sites for friends. You get paid, but not much. But, they do promise to spread the word.

Then, you learn some more and discover, you have market your business. So, your education expands into other areas. If you’re fortunate, you’re not the sole income provider in your household.

Business plans? I wrote mine on the back of a napkin. I actually didn’t, but I might as well have.

Marketing plans? Mine was to create a good product at a good price and offer great, ongoing support. Does that count as a marketing plan?

Yes, that was my plan!

That’s how I got started. The financial plan? Basically, my plan was to keep the lights on. It’s pretty crazy when I think about it now.

Believe it or not, I would say more people than not got started in this business as I did.

They jump in and work.

I won’t sugar-coat it, I worked long days (and nights). Sometimes I found myself taking two steps forward only to take one step back.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but in the early years I dabbled with an approach people refer to as, “Intuitive Marketing.” I didn’t realize what it was or that I was even doing it until others put a label on it many years later.

After several years, I experimented with something that was more of a “Classical Marketing” approach.

Definitions aside, it was word-of-mouth marketing that took hold and the rest, as they say, is history.

Getting Back to Plans and Strategies

So, as I was saying, there weren’t any formal business or marketing plans on the table when I first got started in the web design business.

And, when I finally started formalizing things a bit more, the results were less than impressive.

Having a piece to the puzzle and taking a step of faith, that was more my style.

All the plans, strategies and systems I studied sounded great on paper. But I found all of them to be somewhat lacking when I applied them in the real world. Plans and strategies are just a starting point.

At best, they made me realize what areas of my business needed my attention of focus. At worse, they made me think I had more control over certain outcomes than I actually did.

Going Around, Through or Over Your Obstacles

Let’s focus on some of the challenges you’ll face in the web design business. If you’re more of a designer than a developer, you’ll find certain site builds more challenging than others.

The question is, is it worth your time to become an expert with CSS? Five years ago, I would have said, “Yes.” Not anymore. If it’s not a process you’re going to repeat over and over again, you can ask for assistance in a Facebook group. There aren’t any shortages of Facebook groups for web designers.

Beyond that, there are scores of people from free to paid who willing to step in and help.

When faced with technical obstacles, you have a choice – you can go around, through, or over these obstacles faster than ever before.

Maybe you’re a master of HTML, CSS, PHP, and javascript. If you’re pure, blood and guts tech… if code is your form of poetry, what happens when you need to produce cutting-edge design? Once again, you have multiple options available to you. You can reverse engineer a template layout, mimic a design, or outsource it and let someone who lives, breathes and eats design do it for you.

There are a lot of things in the web design business that used to be time-consuming that aren’t anymore. The plus to this is, time equals money. The minus is, your superpowers aren’t exactly as super as they once were.

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister become the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes. He was an instant celebrity. Today, over 500 men in America alone have done the same. What was once thought impossible has now become commonplace.

What Comes After the Site Launch?

Don’t Be Easily Replaceable

I believe today’s challenges really begin to take front and center stage after the design project has been completed. After the site launches.

For a web design business to STAY in business, I believe the value it brings to the table must go beyond what’s quickly becoming a commoditized service.

Sugar, corn, wheat, and coffee are all examples of commodities traded on the commodity market. So is gold, silver, and platinum, but let’s stick with the edible stuff. Commodities are never worthless. They’ll always have value. The question is, how much?

Imagine this – Website designers $2.99 a pound?

(I’m visualizing a bunch of web designers piled into one of those glass cases at the meat counter.) Maybe next to the cold cuts? Can you visualize a $2.99 sticker on the bottom of someone’s shoe?

Yeah, being valued as a cheap commodity is a lousy place to find yourself.

There are alternatives. Here’s one; consider adding an additional product or service into your mix that increases your value and keeps you from becoming just another cookie in the jar.

For example, offering your clients web hosting with site backups will, at the very least – extend your relationship with the client indefinitely into the future.

Unless you do something stupid or they determine down the road they’re paying too much for what they’re getting, you most likely have a client for life.

Offering Services

Webhosting is a service, but I understand, it may not be a good fit for you.

Services are a great fit in today’s economy and for the foreseeable future. Everyone has too much on their plates. No one seems to have the time to get things done. Consider your clients. Most likely, they don’t have time to much of anything beyond their day to day business activities. Nor do they want to.

I used to teach business owners digital marketing. Those who followed through (the few) usually found they no longer want to invest the time a few months down the line.

Most web designers start out with more time than money. As a struggling web designer, it’s pretty much the same. The silver lining that’s running through the test and trial you’re facing is – you can learn to develop a new skill that compliments your web design abilities.

That skill then translates into a new service offering.

A great option that will help you learn that new “something” quickly and efficiently, believe it or not, are the Dummies Books. Way back in 1991, DOS for Dummies was released. It was the first book of its kind that presented the DOS operating system as a “reference for the rest of us.”

Simple, direct, to-the-point, the Dummies books have sold over 300 million books on a wide range of topics since there.

The advantage of learning through a Dummies book is – the teachers all have years of experience in their fields. The Dummies style makes learning enjoyable for the most part. Summaries, visual cues, and more – the books and the teaching approach are really well done.

If you’re looking to learn how to use a specific software product, video courses might be a better option. Or, even YouTube videos to solve a specific problem. But, when it comes to learning a TOPIC from A-Z without having to wade through pages of useless filler, consider buying a title from

Go to the site, click on the START button and search for the topic or keywords from there.

If you’re self-taught, recognize there may be holes in your process. You may have a few missing blocks in your foundation, even if you’re comfortable with advanced topics. A Dummies book can fill in a missing piece or two.

It can complete your process (I kid you not!).

Most People, Given the Choice, Want it DONE FOR THEM

Most of my entrepreneur friends started out as do-it-yourselfers. Whether you’re a newbie, somewhat advanced, or a grizzled veteran of many online battles, time is the one thing you don’t have an unlimited amount of. What’s spent can never be replaced.

Although we know that’s true and it seems to be common sense, our actions sometimes dictate the exact opposite. We bury ourselves in activities geared towards moving the needle tomorrow, not today.

When I got started, I had a little bit of money but a whole lot of time. Success, however, changes everything.

You’ll find yourself having more money than you do time… and the things you once did yourself you’ll now happily pay someone else to do.

My friend is a master chef. He “paid his dues” running a huge kitchen on a cruise line.

From there, he opened his own restaurant and trained his staff – just as he had on the cruise liner. They learned his system.

Your clients may enjoy seeing how something is done. But, when you get right down to it, they really don’t want to do it themselves. Not unless they really have to.

They want a done-for-them solution.

In the offline world, this was once done with teams of people. Today, machines, computers, and AI can replace a team of people.

Again, we’re talking about marketing a web design business by adding an additional service (or two) that increases the overall value you bring to your clients.

This can be accomplished by using systems that automate tasks that were once done by hand. It’s also accomplished by finding ways to do what you do faster and more efficiently.

Page builders replace hand coding.

Plugin updates are automated.

You oversee the machine and occasionally step in if it jams to restart it.

Marketing Yourself More Efficiently

I enjoy face to face meetings. It’s the easiest way to really connect with people and build relationships. To this day, it’s my favorite way to connect with people.

But, it’s not the only way. There are audio and video options that make the connection process work well, too.

Audio and video can also serve as a great “cold-calling vehicle” when done correctly.

I’m talking about the kind of audios or videos that are short, to the point, and are made for one person. You can upload them as “unlisted” on YouTube and send the person the link. It’s shorter than a scheduled meeting and it’s also a great way to keep in touch with existing clients in a more personal manner.

Let’s keep it real. You are your business. Market yourself and you’re marketing your business.

Again, I can’t stress this enough… keep it short when communicating with decision makers. How short is short? Think about how much information is packed into a TV commercial? If that doesn’t work for you, then make sure you don’t take more than five minutes of their time.

To be effective, get to the point and don’t explain anything in more depth than necessary. They can always contact you if they want clarification on anything you’ve said.

You don’t want to get to the place where you’re out of sight, out of mind. You don’t want to find yourself being easily replaceable if the bosses son, daughter or nephew develops an affinity for web design. That makes sense, right? You want to be a valued asset to their business.

Think about your own loyalties.

Of all the personalities you deal with, it would be harder to talk you out of doing business with certain people than others. Why?

What makes them different or more difficult to part ways with?

Answering those questions will give you insight into how you need to position (or reposition) yourself in the real world. It’s not about what you’ve done in the past, it’s about what you’ve done (or haven’t) lately. That’s how people think.

Maybe a monthly or quarterly newsletter would be well-received by your clients?

Simple things like this are a great way of marketing yourself effectively. You may not think of it as marketing in the traditional sense, but that’s exactly what it is.

You’re building familiarity with people. You’re establishing and cultivating ongoing trust.

You’re not – out of sight, out of mind.

Tastes Vary Greatly, Plan Accordingly

My other half is an artist, builder, and designer. She’s designed restaurants, loft apartments, and other things.

One of the things I’ve learned from her is – tastes vary greatly from one person to another. This was a dilemma I faced earlier on in my own business. A portfolio that’s totally state-of-art (design-wise) can be a total turn-off to a prospective client.

Especially when you consider the fact that they don’t keep up with the changes in the industry as you do.

If your designs are too conservative, they may see you as a boring, unimaginative designer. And if you cater to one industry, everything may look more or less the same.

To get around this, I’ve learned to ask the clients to show me examples of designs they really like. It makes it much easier to get on the same page with them.

Building a Business That Stands the Test of Time

If you make it to the five-year mark in this business, even part-time, you’re doing something right. What will separate your business from the competitors (think local) is YOU.

You have the ability to build trust, provide ongoing value, and become “known” in the process.

If you’ve done it for one person, you can do it for another… and another… and another.

Figure out a system that will help you connect with your existing clients regularly.

For me, short videos work well. They are well received.

Going over site stats and making suggestions (within a short video) works well, too.

Offering email marketing services is a personal favorite of mine and has proven to be a winner since 2002.

Many businesses underutilize their websites and struggle with ongoing content creation. Once again, a void presents itself that you can fill.

Be willing to figure it out. Realize up front, you’re the one that needs to take the initiative to put this together.

What would it take for you to create additional value without investing a lot of time?

Let’s Sum it Up

Web design brings clients to the table. Additional “extension services” help increase and maintain the ongoing value that’s beyond what the competition is offering.

Here are a few ideas for you. Pick one or two and focus on these for the next 10-months). Why ten months? In my experience, that’s what it takes to establish a new service and really gauge its potential accurately.

Some of my own services have gotten off to fast starts only to fizzle out down the line. Others started slowly but have proven to be winners over time.

  • Add a specialty social media service that focuses on one platform (Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.). Dig deep. Digging wide doesn’t work nearly as well.
  • Offer webhosting.
  • Offer monthly content updates, backup services, plugin updates, etc.
  • Create a monthly training audio for your clients (insert it on a landing page)
  • Create a monthly video training for your clients (insert it on a landing page)
  • Review a client’s site stats and offer guidance, direction or insights.
  • Add email marketing and/or newsletter design, writing or sending. (Use Mailchimp until the client outgrows it)
  • Create an online marketing plan for your clients
  • Offer copywriting services for blog posts, specials, newsletters, etc.

Ideas or thoughts to add? Feel free to comment below.


Picture of Jim Galiano

Jim Galiano

Jim Galiano is an Internet consultant, web developer, author and podcaster who started doing business online in 1998. His consulting, marketing and publicity services have been used worldwide since 2002. Jim has been interviewed by a variety of media sources including the Wall Street Journal and CBS News in New York.

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About Jim

Jim Galiano is an Internet consultant, web developer, author and podcaster who started doing business online in 1998. His consulting, marketing and publicity services have been used worldwide since 2002.

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