Self-Promotion Tips for Creative Freelancers

Self promotion is the practice of telling potential clients about what you do. With it you build your brand, engage prospects and find clients. As a freelancer, you should include self promotion strategies in your marketing activities and do your marketing regularly. In fact, you should make marketing a top priority if you want to have a consistent stream of work. Self promotion can be used to target a particular type of client or showcase a particular type of work. It is quite effective for breaking into a new market.

Begin with your web site.

Your first tool for self promotion is your web site. Owning your own real estate on the Internet where you can showcase your portfolio, present your working philosophy, resume and point of view is a must. Not having a web site under your own branded domain reduces your legitimacy in the business world. The cost of domain registration and hosting is minor – usually less than $100/year.

How do you get a web site?

If you’ve never considered what goes into owning a web site, there are three aspects: the domain, the hosting service and the actual site. Think of your domain as your car registration. It identifies your business, reserving that name for you alone. Your web site is like your car. It is your means.  The hosting service is the parking lot where you park your web site. Most web hosting services offer domain registration and include that service when you purchase your hosting. Then there is the matter of how to build and manage your site. You can hire a designer or build it yourself. Updating and managing your web site should be a weekly activity.

Some options for the do-it-yourself web site

Squarespace is a self-managed hosting platform with drag and drop features, customization options including portfolios, commerce and blogs. is a free content management framework with a variety of themes and plugins to choose from.

Wixis another drag and drop web site building and hosting option, and is free with the Wix branding.

Weebly  also provides no-cost levels and drag and drop site building.

Formatspecializes in portfolio sites for creatives and offers a 14 day free trial period.

PortfolioBox offers portfolio, blog and ecommerce options with a high degree of customization.

Popular Website Building Software is for self-hosted sites (not on This powerful web site software is augmented with plugins, themes and scripts, and can be used on any hosting platform. Premium and free themes are available. It requires a basic understanding of basic HTML, CSS and LESS to adapt a template to fit your needs.

Joomla is another self-hosted web building software that is, in my experience, more technical than WordPress, and, like WordPress, is free. Free and premium themes and plugins are also available.

Bootstrap is optimized for mobility. Developed by the folk at GitHub, it allows you to build a site easily with minimal coding that scales for devices and desktop (it’s responsive).

Be sure to submit your web site to search engines for indexing and to set up SEO. Whether you are hosting on a shared or a dedicated server, install firewalls and security scanning features. Update software regularly.

To submit your web site to search engines (letting them know your web site exists), follow the links below. You don’t have to submit your site, but doing so will help you get found more quickly. Your site will benefit from submitting a sitemap, an xml file that acts as a sort of table of contents for search engines.

How should I display my work on my web site?

Art buyers like to look at portfolios at their own pace. Your online portfolio should be scrollable. A slide show that cannot be controlled by the viewer is not an ideal format. For each piece in your portfolio, include a description about why the work was created, and who for, if it is a client project.

Portfolio Directories

A secondary tool for self promotion is a portfolio or directory site. These include Behance, Creative Hotlist, Core77, Dripbook, and Dribbble. Some of these offer free memberships, while others charge an annual fee or are by invitation only. These are not your own real estate, so the idea is to use them to expand your social proof. Always strive to get people onto your own web site.

You can acquire followers on these sites, and also follow others. Many of your followers will be fellow creatives. Think of these more as a creative community than a business networking opportunity.

Creative Directories

Workbook is a paid directory. Creatives buy ad space in print and online editions, and have access to database listings of art buyers, creative directors, publishers, design firms and ad agencies. You can search directory listings by region, job title and industry. The Workbook is tied into Yodelist.

Local Business Listings

Business listings are virtual phone directories. Bare bones listings are usually free. Branded listings and advertising are premium (paid) options. There are many options on the Internet. Some have already grabbed your information and invite you to claim it by registering on the web site. Some of the more popular listing services are:

Yelp  Yelp listings have become a standard for businesses and customer reviews.
Manta focuses on small businesses and entrepreneurs
ZoomInfo is a business-to-business (B2B) service that gathers data from around the Internet on businesses, owners, industries and focuses on lead generation.
YP is Yellow Pages on the Internet. It helps you get found by its users. It caters to both businesses that work with businesses, and business that work with consumers.

Superpages is another directory for businesses and consumers.

I recommend using a shotgun approach to virtual listings. Get a free listing with as many as possible (free is free, after all), and always include your web site URL. Doing so will increase incoming links to your web site which helps with browser rankings. Claiming your listing on as many directories as possible also ensures the information is accurate and updated.

Targeted Email and Direct Mail Promotions

Even with all of the above in place, clients and projects will not just show up on your doorstep. Those that do show up will not always be the kind of client or project you want to take on.

Don’t rely on your prospect to come to you. Instead, put your work directly in front of potential buyers and clients on a regular basis to let them know what you offer by targeting. Targeting uses a rifle or single shot approach. Identify your target, load up, take aim and fire.

Targeting requires an offensive (that means pro-active, not insulting) strategy involving direct mail, email and list building. Email campaigns (via services such as Mailchimp and Constant Contact, coupled with direct mail (via the Postal Service) remain the most effective means of self-promotion. Deliberate effort that you continue over the long term will result in becoming known and landing clients.

Your promotional mix should include email, direct mail, social media and a personal web site where you can build your list. As a freelancer, you should always be engaged in promotion.

What should your self-promotion contain?

Self promotion is a low or no cost means of sharing your message. You can start a newsletter. Send new project announcements, promote new products, news, and holiday greetings are all good fodder for self-promotion. Plan campaigns that target segments of your market. For example, I send different promotions that target book publishers, magazines, children’s book publishers, and self-published authors. I plan my campaigns – what I will send, to whom and how often – at the end of each year for the coming year. Always showcase your best work, and brand your promotions consistently.

Your contacts should be thoughtfully curated, which means research is necessary. Don’t simply toss contacts onto a list, or buy a list and send the same promotion to everyone on it. Match contacts to the type of work you do, and categorize contacts according to what they do. Create a variety of lists. If you are an illustrator targeting ad agencies, you should not include agencies on your list that buy only photography. Pick and choose your contacts based on how appropriate your work is to them. To do this, look at the current work on their web sites.

Freelancers should always be marketing.

Whether email or snail mail, your promotions should be informative, memorable and unique. Mailers can be simple, such as postcards and posters, or complex, such as miniature portfolios and view books. Art buyers and editors receive dozens, if not hundreds, of promotions a day. How will you stand out from the rest of the pile?

Where do you get a list?

You can buy lists or build your own. Whichever way you go, list-building and marketing need to be a regular business activity, no matter how busy you are with creative projects. Promotion is not an activity that is reserved only for your slow periods. Always be marketing to keep people aware of your work. List sources for creatives include:

Artists Market and Writers Market are annual directories of editors and art buyers, and include a great amount of information in each listing. The web site is a bit cumbersome to navigate, and many email addresses and art buyer names are not included. But you can put together a reasonable list for both email and direct mail promotions. There is no cost to register on the sites and begin browsing for prospects. I also recommend purchasing the print edition each year, to make notes, highlight and attach sticky notes.

Yodelist is both a list service and an email service offering listings by category, the ability to download or save lists online, email templates, distribution and analytics. Basically, you create a list (even include your own contacts) and set up email campaigns. Cost: $99.00 per month with a 12-month minimum.

Abase is for illustrators, photographers and art reps. It is free to register, but access to the database of 60,000+ art buyers costs $89.00 per month.

Workbook Directory is a resource for creatives from designers to copywriters. You can browse all categories and listings free of charge, but to access contact names and email addresses you need to subscribe to the directory or advertise in the Workbook. It is a good starting place for list building if you don’t mind making phone calls to get contact information yourself. Workbook is affiliated with Yodelist.

Industry directories. Do a browser search on keywords specific to you. For example, ad agency art buyers, magazine editors, marketing VPs.

Is is better to use printed or emailed promotions?

Use both. Art buyers and editors can receive around 100 emails a day from illustrators and photographers. HTML emails with images and linked info get better response than text-only emails which include a link. The immediacy of the image in the email creates less effort for the art buyer, who can make an instant decision whether to delete or save your promotion.

If you do not have a rep (most freelancers do not), evidence of previous professional work – meaning you created it for a client – is helpful. A simple mention of the client will suffice.

How often should you send promotions?

Once a month is probably the best frequency. Four times a year is the minimum if you want to be remembered. More than once a month can be excessive. Decide what frequency is the best fit for your marketing plan, and be consistent about it. Send at regular intervals and be sure to follow through. Calendar your promotional mailings.

Should you send the same promotion more than once?

Do not send the same email or card multiple times to the same contact. Develop a series of promotions. Think of it as a campaign. For example, if you send 4 times a year, create 4 different promotions. They can be a series of 4, but each promotion should be unique.

What should the promotion include?

A clean, consistent look to all your email and mailers is the goal. You should visually brand your business, and your promotional efforts need to align with your brand. Size, format, color, fonts and layout should be consistent. If you send cards and emails, the designs should be recognizably similar. You don’t want a recipient thinking they’re receiving your promos from different people.

Text should be minimal. Let the illustration or photo do the communicating. A single image, or one large image with 2 or 3 smaller ones works best. When you include more than one, keep them the same or similar subjects. Make the mailer easy to understand and file.

Include your name, phone number, email and web address. Include your social media handles: Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google+.

What kind of direct mail works best?

Postcards seem to be the preferred direct mail choice among the art buyers who were interviewed. Brochures, query letters, anything sent in an envelope require more work for the recipients and cost you more in postage and materials. Postcards are simple and cost-effective.

Many art buyers sort and catalog promotions by style and subject. Postcards are sorted into categories and may be kept for years. Websites are bookmarked and categorized as well. There is a strong hint for you in this. If you send email, help the buyer by including a category name in your subject line. For example, Food Photography… or Celebrity Portrait…  Fill in the blank with an expanded description just to make it exciting. For example: Food Photography: The Latest in Hand-Held Desserts shot by (insert your name here).

Include an ask to encourage a response from your recipients. You may not get one, but ask anyway. If the recipient responds you have made a next-level connection. Types of asks I have used are for a follow on Instagram or invitation to join my email list.

Here is one more thing to consider: You do not need a huge list of contacts. A smaller list that is targeted well is more effective than a larger list with a broader scope. Even if your list is has only 15 contacts on it and one of them is your mother, start sending promotions. Get the the habit going. Start small. Grow big.

Your turn: Do you have a favorite self-promotion tactic you would like to share? Leave a comment below.