Freelancing
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Jul 9, 2015

6 tips on ethical self-promotion

Find out how to get the word out about your work without annoying others—or yourself.
Whether you’re a freelance designer looking for clients or you’re hunting for a full-time gig, you’ve got to promote your work. But it’s not like it’s easy to self-promote effectively, let alone ethically. (And by ethically, I mean, without annoying the interwebs.) Here’s a few tips to get you started.

1. Don’t just share your work. Share your expertise.

Instead of tweeting out a link to your latest amazing website—no matter how beautiful—write something about it. Walk people through your process, share lessons you learned along the way, sources of inspiration you discovered, even the problems and limitations you ran into.

It’s hard to overstate the value of this. You’ll give prospective clients and colleagues a preview of what it’s like to work with you. You’ll demonstrate your understanding of the design process and that you’ve developed your own best practices and techniques. You’ll show people that you approach your work with a care and thoughtfulness they’ll want to see in their own projects. And you’ll start to develop a reputation for helpfulness among your fellow designers.

You'll get noticed not just for your work, but also for your insights.

Be results-oriented

Remember that design isn’t all about how things look. It’s also about how they work. And in the case of prospective clients and colleagues, it’s often about how well they work. So don’t just share screens so beautiful people want to lick them—share your results!

[Design is] not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.STEVE JOBS

Did your latest landing page improve conversion 150%? Awesome: share that. Blog redesign cut bounce rates in half? Great. Tell the world. As much as you might hate to hear it, these kinds of stats will go a lot further in getting you work than the gorgeousness of that 72pt headline set in Neue Haas Unica.

Where to share your expertise

The web abounds with places to publish and share your thoughts. (That’s basically why Robert E. Kahn, Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee, and/or Al Gore invented it, after all.) From your personal website to Medium to Smashing Magazine, there’s no shortage of fora waiting for you. And each one can help you build your brand to a greater or lesser degree.

Here’s a wildly incomplete list of places to publish, along with the pros and cons of each:

With almost 2,000 articles as of this writing, Luke Wroblewski nails the art of sharing his expertise.

Your portfolio website

It doesn’t get any easier—or harder to find—than your very own web property.

Pros of publishing on your personal site

No approval process: Only you determine if your post’s good enough to go live

You’re master of your own domain: You control almost every aspect of your users’ experience on your own site: look and feel, advertising, voice and tone, etc.

It looks good to employers: Recruiters and hiring managers like to see you blogging. It shows you care about your personal brand, and have thoughts to share.

Cons of publishing on your personal site

No approval process: Yep, that again. You won't have anyone to help you make your posts amazing.

Difficult to find: Unless you’ve invested a lot of time in building authority on a topic or optimizing your SEO, people aren’t likely to just stumble across your post. That means getting the word out is on you, and you alone.

Low readership: Unless you’re already famous, you probably haven’t built a community of readers around your blog. You can overcome this with dedicated marketing, which we’ll cover elsewhere.

Julie Zhou's done an amazing job building a following with her insightful Medium articles.

Medium

Many debates about publishing on Medium have sprung up, so I’ll keep this quick. Note too that I’m using Medium as a stand-in for all community publishing sites, so substitute “Svbtle” or “Blogger” as needed.

Pros of publishing on Medium

No approval process: Again, you’re your own editor in chief. Thankfully, it’s easy to invite friends to help you shape up your draft.

Built-in readership: Medium’s got a big community. Which could mean more readers for your content.

Chance of earning an Editor’s Pick: Getting a Medium editor’s attention could be the closest thing you’ll ever get to “virality.”

Everybody else is doing it: Content aggregators and newsletters share Medium posts almost daily. And when you rub shoulders with giants, there’s a chance you’ll get noticed too.

Cons of publishing on Medium

You don’t own the experience: Your Medium post looks and feels like everybody else’s.

Everybody else is doing it: When you run with the crowd, it’s hard to stand out.

You’re writing for Medium: Everyone who writes on Medium is essentially working for them. For free. But then, you’re also doing that on Facebook. So ...

Don't you want your very own author page on A List Apart?

Industry blogs

They’ve got editors. And readers. And you can finally say you “got a byline” (publication credit) somewhere.

Pros of publishing in industry blogs

Serious cred: Getting published on sites like Smashing Magazine, UX Booth, etc., can go a long way toward building your authority on a topic. Plus, it’ll look really good on your resume/portfolio site/LinkedIn profile.

Approval process: Professionally edited publications will work with you to turn your idea into an amazing article. It’ll take work, but it’s well worth it.

They’ll spread the word for you: Unlike Medium, where you’ve just got to hope an editor will find your work, the magazine will do the promoting for you. And they’ve almost certainly got a bigger following than you.

Cons of publishing in industry blogs

Approval process: First you’ll have to pitch your idea. Which may get rejected. Then you’ll have to write it up. Then begin the rounds of edits. It’s all worth it, like I said, but you’ve got to be prepared to work.

Now, you may be thinking, “There’s no way they’ll publish me on Smashing.” But let me assure you: design-industry blogs are always hungry for more content. There’s no harm trying. And if you do get published, it’ll look great on your portfolio, resume, etc.

How to get published on a design industry website

Here’s a quick sketch of your workflow for getting published on an industry site:

1. Have an idea

This is the hard part. Your concept doesn’t have to be revolutionary, but it should be fresh and grounded in your expertise/experience.

2. Research publishers

There’s little more annoying to a busy editor than getting pitches that don’t fit the publication. So do your homework: read past posts on the site, get a sense of the type of content they like (lengthy, research-driven editorials; quick think pieces; etc.), and know their audience. You’ll also want to learn their editorial style.

3. Figure out their submission requirements

Many industry blogs have a ContributeSubmissions, or Write for Us page, so find it and figure out what the publication looks for in a pitch. If you can’t find the page, try googling “write for X.” If that doesn’t work, it’s time to put your social media stalking skills to good use. Just try not to annoy the editors.

4. Write your and submit your pitch

Write a short paragraph defining your topic, angle (your unique perspective), and the point you want to make, plus an outline of your article. Some publications also accept drafts in various states, but unless youknow you want to write the article whether or not it gets picked up, stick to the pitch and outline.

5. Work with the editors

If your pitch catches their interest, it’s time to start writing, rewriting, and rewriting again. Throughout the editing process, be respectful, responsive, and open to input. Act on suggestions you agree with, and if you disagree with something, explain why. Just remember to pick your battles: pushing back on every little thing will just cause trouble.

To get a better sense of what’s required, check out the submissions pages of A List ApartSmashing Magazine, and UX Booth.

Pro tip: If you work at a company that publishes content (and what company doesn’t these days?), ask your blog editor or content marketer if they need articles for the company blog or external placement.

Wherever you decide to share, remember the process doesn’t end when you hit the Publish button. After that, it’s time to tweet, update, post, share, email, etc. More on that in tip 4.

Be relevant, not spammy

While you might be tempted to find industry blogs and forums and link to your work in the comments, this won’t get you anywhere but banned, blocked, or flamed.

Instead, look for places where it makes sense to reference your work, and start slow. Participate in the community and build a reputation for being knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. That alone could get you work—even without sharing your work.

2. Promote others

I know—this seems counterintuitive. But if you’re familiar with the Golden Rule, you get it. The more you cheer on your peers, the more likely they’ll be to cheer you on too. So find work you love and shout about it from the rooftops.

Here’s an example of this working from my own career: a few months back, one of my Twitter followers tweeted about the difficulty of finding articles on in-product content strategy, tagging me and a writer at Facebook. Intrigued, I started researching her work and dug what I found. So much so that I eventually reached out to her about a role I was looking to hire for. It didn’t pan (through no fault of her own), but it sure got my attention!

As a bonus, the search for great work by colleagues can both expand your network and uncover new sources of inspiration. And as Steve Jobs once said (paraphrasing poet T.S. Eliot):

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

–Steve Jobs

3. Show, don’t tell

Luckily, designers enjoy a wealth of sites designed to help them self-promote. And they tend to be happy to applaud others’ skill, diligence, and creativity. Between Dribbble, Behance, and too many others to name (including Webflow’s very own community), you shouldn’t have any trouble finding venues for sharing your design work.

Just remember that, if you’re looking to catch prospective clients’ attention, your audience probably doesn’t consist of other designers. So find out where your audience actually does gather—and where they go to look for designers—and make your presence known there. If you’re stumped, some time spent searching Google, LinkedIn, and Yelp could prove rewarding.

4. Help others promote you

If you’re leery about shouting your own name from the rooftops, look for ways to get others to spread the word about you. Submit your work to awards sites like Awwwards, curators like Sidebar, and inspirational blogs like Really Good EmailsLittle Big Details, and Empty States.

Finding inspirational blogs like these can take time and a little effort, but it’s worth it. I discover new ones by combing my Twitter feed, using reading apps like Feedly and Prismatic, and setting up Google Alerts for terms close to my heart, like “content strategy,” “UX design,” and “web design.” 

Just remember that your work will actually need to be amazing for this to work out, and even if it is, it might be a long, slow grind before such techniques gain you traction.

5. Promote passively

All this active self-promotion can get exhausting, so don’t skimp on the passive methods.

Add links to your portfolio site wherever you can: your social profiles, your email signature, your business card, etc. Oh, and have a business card. And actually pass it out. People expect it at events.

If you blog regularly, consider setting up a newsletter. You can automate this with a plugin, or make it a little more manual with Tiny Letter. Or if you’ve got a bigger, bolder vision, try writing and distributing an ebook on your area of expertise. So if you’re a freelance restaurant website designer, you could write a short book on best practices for restaurant site design, then set up a landing page and gather emails in exchange for downloads.

Paul Jarvis’ Creative Class email course shares his insights on making it as a freelancer.

If you want to think a little outside the box, consider actually advertising yourself. While I was at LinkedIn, many of us started seeing ads for a young marketer in our Facebook feeds. I don’t know if we ended up hiring her, but she sure made an impression!

6. Always aim for face time

You promote yourself and your work for one reason: to get work. And few jobs are secured over the internet alone. Eventually, you have to get yourself in a meeting, even if it is over Google Hangouts.

So rather than badgering people with promotional tweets and emails, cut to the chase and ask for a meeting. Even if your dream company or client isn’t hiring, they might be willing to carve out a half-hour for a chat. They might even appreciate the interest, which could give you a big leg up when they are looking for new talent.

Remember: you get what you give

No matter how you choose to self-promote, remember that you’re not advertising: you’re speaking to human beings. Don’t do anything that would annoy you, and you should be good to go.

Think of your self-promotional activities as your effort to help your community and you’ll end up helping yourself too.

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John Moore Williams

Head of Content Strategy at Webflow. Nice to meet ya. Follow me @JohnAMWill.

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