The web designers' guide to winning new clients

South by Southwest in Austin, Texas is a great way to start networking with like-minded people

So you've finally taken the plunge: you've left your cosy, salaried job to strike out on your own. Whether you're going freelance or teaming up with others, you're taking a step into the brave new world of being your own boss.

Be honest: why should anyone hire you – a newcomer to the market?

One answer is to do something to get yourself known. Yes, it's time to start networking. It's free, and while it's not necessarily easy, it's often the best way to get yourself on the radar. Networking involves filling up your contacts book, meeting like-minded people and letting others know you're ready and willing to work.

Even if no commissions are generated immediately, it's all about making yourself and your skills known. Four months down the line, a company may decide they need a web designer or web developer and remember meeting you or receiving your business card. (You don't have business cards? Add it to the to-do list. You don't have a to-do list? Write one.)

There is an ever-increasing number of web conferences, so try to attend as many as possible when you're starting out and then perhaps be more selective when your business is established and thriving. Some may be local events such as a Drupalcon, others require a bit more spending. But the longterm rewards are likely to be greater too – you get out what you put in.

The annual SXSW (South by Southwest) festival in Austin, Texas is a great example of an event that attracts like-minded people from all over the world. On a smaller but more local scale, check out Refreshing Cities to see if there's a like-minded community of web designers and developers holding regular events near you.

Another tool not to be underestimated is contributing to and interacting with your market. For example, if you're a studio that designs websites but has a strong focus on user experience design, then write a company blog about that subject.

The benefits of this are twofold. Firstly, if you're providing relevant, and more importantly, free content, then chances are your website will see an increase in traffic. Secondly, your page rank in Google will also increase. Giving a little quality content away for nothing may make the difference in landing that next big project.

Blogging is as good a place as any to start. If you're in a creative industry then the chances are you'll have plenty of opinions and knowledge to share. The people you admire are probably blogging too, and prospective clients might be as well. Having your own blog enables you to reach those people, to start a conversation with them, and to post on their blogs.

Of course, it can become time-consuming, particularly when you have a lot of people commenting and asking questions. This is where other social networking sites prove their worth. Facebook, though it seems to have reached its peak, is still a great way for people to interact via groups and events. Twitter seems to be on everyone's agenda at the moment, brought to the fore via celebrities such as @stephenfry and politicians like @barackobama.

The concept (state what you're doing in 140 characters or less) may be alien at first but stick with it and it can be used as a very powerful networking device. My experience of Twitter has been overwhelmingly positive. My company, Mark Boulton Design, used it recently to both market and manage the sale of a PDF book, and we continue to use it as part of our customer service offering.

My own account allows me to tweet about anything that takes my fancy – narrative theories, what I'm eating, cool websites I have stumbled upon. As I work on more projects, I meet more people, so naturally I follow more people. Throughout the day I have a constant stream of tweets on my screen, which ensures my knowledge of the industry continues to grow and it provides an increased opportunity for me to contribute and interact with other people involved in project management, design and the web.

Ultimately, whatever method you prefer, it's all about immersing yourself in the industry. So long as you're commenting and contributing, you won't fail to meet and connect with the right people. These days, the focus for many clients is interactivity and user generated content, and what better way to understand your clients' needs than by using the very platforms and services they want to integrate into their new website?

Crafting proposals

Okay, so here's the scenario. You've been blogging for a few months, you're relatively well known on Twitter, you're starting to carve a name for yourself in the industry and you now have a few enquiries about your services. But despite the prospective client approaching you, it doesn't mean the job is in the bag – you have to fend off the competition.

This is where communication, and carefully considered and crafted proposals, are fundamental. From the moment you receive an email from a prospective client, the whole process is a reflection of you and your organisation. It's also the start of a conversation, which may become the start of a long-term professional relationship if your bid for the project is successful. This is worth keeping in mind.

At Mark Boulton Design, whenever we receive an email enquiry about new work, we send an acknowledgement email. In this we say thanks for the project brief, ask any questions that may have arisen from their email, and let the client know when we aim to get our response back to them. If you find later on that you won't meet that proposed date, let them know.

I've found that a friendly email to keep the conversation going works wonders. These emails are also a good opportunity to ask questions. Asking incisive questions is important, partly because you'll need the answers to write an effective proposal, but also because it shows you've carefully considered and thoroughly read their brief.

In my company, we pride ourselves on attractive, easy to read proposals. Often, the proposal will be the major factor in deciding whether you've been shortlisted for the project, so every minute invested in perfecting them is a minute well spent.