Time for a harsh truth: You can be the best designer in the world producing stunning user interfaces, but it doesn’t matter; you can be the most accomplished coder who develops ground breaking techniques, but it is irrelevant; your work will not speak for itself, you need to promote it. Do you think the big names of the web industry are the best coders, the best designers? I can tell you they are not. They are just the best you have heard of. The ones that have built a reputation by speaking at conferences, writing books and through self-promotion. In an era of social media and the niche market, building your reputation is the secret of success. This is especially true if you are a self employed web designer.
The benefits of a positive reputation
Reputation isn’t just an ego massaging exercise. It’s not even about getting on the radar of potential clients. It has a profound impact on every aspect of your business and career. Not only will a good reputation ensure clients have heard of you, it will also increase the chances of you winning work. If they have seen your work, heard your opinions and had you recommended, then this will make the world of difference. In fact often it will allow you to bypass the competitive tendering process. This will make your projects more profitable because your sales cost will be near zero. A good reputation will also help once you have won the work. If the client is aware of you and how you work, it will make projects go much smoother. The client already understands your working practices, but they also perceive you as an expert. When the client sees you as the expert it makes the world of difference. Clients who feel their project is in expert hands relax. They stop worrying so much about the project and trust you to do a good job. They also are less likely to argue with you or endlessly iterate the design. In short a good reputation makes projects more profitable and easier to win. But to build a reputation that provides these returns will take time and effort.
Is it ever worth it?
Building a reputation doesn’t happen overnight. I have seen many web designers who launch a blog and then give up because nobody reads it. I see others complain that they are never asked to speak, but have made no effort to promote themselves. For many of the names you know in the web industry they have taken years to build their reputation. Years of blogging week in and week out. Years of speaking at conferences. Months of slaving over their latest book. Then there is building relationships over social media, in forums and at meet-ups. Building a reputation and following takes years of effort. With such a big commitment required you might wonder whether it is ever worth it. In truth many do not do it for the return. Many just do it to contribute to the community. But, if you want to build a reputation for commercial purposes, you will need to be more tactical.
Focusing your efforts
It is easy to put a lot of effort into reputation building without seeing much return for your efforts. You write blog posts every week. Record a podcast once a month. You even submit guest posts to sites like this and yet nobody remembers your name. The problem is that you are using a scattergun approach. You are pushing out content onto the web and hoping for the best. The web is a big place and your voice will not be heard in the noise. You are a small fish in a vast ocean. Instead you need to focus your efforts. It is not enough for somebody to read just one of your posts. They need to hear about you time and again. Only then will they remember you. Only then will they consider following you. But if you are pushing out content far and wide this will not happen. That is why you need to focus.
How to focus
There are two basic ways of focusing your reputation building efforts. You focus on an area of expertise or on an audience. If I asked you who was the biggest name in CSS, who would you think of? Maybe you would think of Chris Coyier or Brad Frost. That is because they have focused on this area. That is the main focus of their writing and speaking. They have built a reputation in that area. Chris Coyier has built a reputation as a CSS expert through his site CSS Tricks. If I asked you to name somebody who is an expert in SEO you might think of Joost de Valk and his famous Wordpress SEO plugin. He has built his reputation by giving away this plugin for free. What is your area of expertise? Are you an iPhone user interface specialist or a Drupal expert? If you are unsure what your area of expertise is then consider what you most enjoy doing. What kind of work would you most like to come in? Write about that. Promote yourself as an expert in that area. The thing is it is hard to build a reputation on being a jack of all trades. But if you are like me and hate the idea of focusing just on Drupal or CSS, then there is another way. You focus on building a reputation with a specific audience. In fact focusing on building your reputation with a specific audience is very effective. The chances of that audience encountering you many times goes up and you can become a big fish in that small pond. You do this by focusing your efforts on a particular sector. For example you could build a reputation within the charity sector or among higher education institutions. You can do this by writing posts relevant to that audience. Or by participating in forums dedicated to that sector. Take a look at your client list. Are there any reoccurring themes? For example have you built more than one site in a single sector? If the answer is yes then that maybe a good sector to target. Failing that, see if there are any clients who are likely to be a part of a strong community. These are clients who work in a sector that is not particularly competitive. For example, schools do not compete with one another and so tend to share a lot. This leads to a strong community. The great thing about targeting a strong community is that they talk to one another. They will pass around your content or recommend you to a colleague in another institution. Before you know it your reputation will grow by word of mouth with no work from you.
The two secrets to a great reputation
At the beginning of this post I said good work does not speak for itself. That is not entirely true. Once word has spread and you have established your reputation, your work will start speaking for itself. People will recommend you based on good work you have done. But you need to have built that reputation first. To do that you need to focus. You only have limited time for self-promotion so the scatter gun approach is not going to work. You need to pick an area of expertise or a sector to focus on. The two secrets of a great reputation are these. Build a reputation through focused effort and produce outstanding work. Featured image, Boagworld Big Breakfast via David Roessli.