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Personal Branding

A Portfolio for Clients: A Beginner’s Guide to Getting More Gigs

Because nobody likes cold calling.

When people land on your personal website, what happens? Do they request your services? Or do they quickly leave? Many freelancers believe that simply showcasing their work is enough to get leads. But there’s a subtle, and often overlooked, question that creatives must ask when constructing their portfolio: Who is it for? 

Thing is, most of us build a portfolio website to attract our first employer, not our first client. An employer, especially when hiring for a junior role, is on the lookout for someone with their preferred aesthetic style and the ability to learn and execute the work assigned to them. They want to know the skills you possess and the software you’re capable of using. A client? Not so much. A client doesn’t care what software you’ll use when working on their project. They only need someone to solve their problem, a tiny but crucial difference and one that is the difference between a steady stream of customers and an empty inbox. The framework for accomplishing this revolves around two simple, but important approaches: Be specific when targeting clients and demonstrate tangible results.

Define your target client

Potential clients must immediately understand what problems you will take off their plate and how working with you will help grow their business. This, of course, is only possible if you use the right language and give people content they are looking for. And to use the right language, you must know who you are speaking to. An easy way to figure that out when starting is by trying this exercise:

Take five pieces of paper and draw/write on each one what your ideal clients look like, give them names, say what they are trying to achieve, what matters the most in their businesses, and what they are struggling with. Those in the UX business know these as “user personas.” While this might feel a little silly, it will help you review your own content. As you plan out your website, it will be easier to ask yourself, “Will this make sense to Susie, the flower shop owner?” or “Is this really what Bob, the accountant, is looking for?” 

If not, rephrase it. Find a way to talk to your prospective clients as you would talk to them in person (and indeed, it helps to interview prospective clients and to pay attention to the phrasing and words they use). When writing copy for your website, state directly who you are addressing, what problems you solve, and what your work process looks like. Make your website easy for the five people that you have targeted to say “yes.” Your website shouldn’t feel any different from talking and working with you directly.

Your website shouldn’t feel any different from talking and working with you directly.

For example, designer Jenni Schwartz immediately lets you know that while she is flexible and works with clients from various industries, she specializes in helping clients from within the healthy lifestyle branch.

Go beyond simple work samples

Only after you’ve clarified your target client can you begin to frame your work appropriately. When selecting work samples to showcase, pick projects that demonstrate how your clients benefited or how their sales increased after working with you. Remember, client work is useless if it doesn’t solve a problem.

Remember, client work is useless if it doesn’t solve a problem.

If you have created corporate branding for a company, include a hashtag in your design and track how many people shared it on Instagram after the launch. If you have helped organize an event, ask the attendees for their opinions and publish these references with some gorgeous photos as a case study. If available, include links to press articles that mention your efforts. Your work samples should explain the successes of your work, not just the end deliverable. For example, Nick Scola, a Chicago-based developer, showcases references given by his former clients. He also explains his personal approach to each and every one of the projects he takes on.

Ask your former clients how they enjoyed working with you, and what they liked the most about your collaboration. Ask them what they are most excited about and proud of from what you have delivered. You can also follow up a couple of months later and ask them what their customers told them about the work you have done for them.

If it feels uncomfortable to ask for a reference, you can also write a reference for your clients first, publish it on their LinkedIn profile, and then ask them to return the favor. This might be especially helpful if your contractor was another agency and you weren’t working directly with the client. It’s easy to then copy references from LinkedIn (like this site by designer Karolis Masilionis) and publish them on your website or include them in a blog post that you publish as a case study.

Another strategy to help you position your work and add more relevant keywords to your website that relate to the work you do is by writing case studies. It’s a way for you to explain to people what you are good at. Nevertheless, if writing is not your strong suit, you can document your work process through  images and complement them with short captions. When creating your case studies, don’t forget that a case study explains the results of your work. It’s not just about showcasing what you did, but instead what your work led to. Jo Petty, for example, shows you an overview of her former clients and once you click on the icon, she explains the brief and the results. 

Make it easy to be contacted

By now, your portfolio should be coming along nicely. You have a description of your services and a couple of expressive case studies with references from your previous clients. Another must-have feature is a call to action to reach out to you. It may sound obvious, but the obvious stuff is easy to miss when undertaking something as complicated as building your portfolio.

Any friction in this process can be a deal-breaker. Invite people to discuss their challenges with you over Skype or in person. A simple “Work with me,” such as on the website of Diana Ovezea, an Amsterdam-based type designer and art director, will do the trick.


Remember, as a freelancer, your website is there to trigger an action; the action of a prospective client reaching out to hire you directly. Don’t let prospective clients slip by because they don’t realize that you do what any good business does: solve problems.

How about you?

What tricks for capturing clients have you learned from your portfolio site?

Monika Kanokova

Monika Kanokova is a freelance community strategist and the author of This Year Will Be Different: The Insightful Guide to Becoming a Freelancer. Her heart belongs to good design and delicious filter coffee. If yours does too, follow her discoveries on @kathmo or visit to learn more about her approach to community and product strategy.

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