Trust, sales, and familiarity
"That first introduction is important, but it's only the first step. The introduction generally doesn't build enough trust with the client for them to want to hire you."
“That first introduction is important, but it’s only the first step. The introduction generally doesn’t build enough trust with the client for them to want to hire you.”
Having outstanding creative skills is essential if you want to build a thriving freelance illustration business. We hope that our creative work will speak for itself and be self-evidently valuable to potential clients, but that’s rarely the case, particularly for new illustrators who haven’t yet built up a reputation.
An illustrator with a large following and a strong track record of working with big brands has proven they can be trusted to deliver great work for discerning clients. If a new client sees that the artist has worked for other brands and companies they know and respect, they have every reason to believe that this artist could deliver great work for their own company. It’s like buying a Mercedes – you know what you’re getting is going to be great quality – there’s no risk. For a new illustrator, however, without a proven track record and impressive client list, the client doesn’t have proof that you can deliver. Even if your work is good, you still represent a risk.
New artists hoping to secure a project from a client after sending one introductory email with their portfolio attached are very unlikely to be chosen for a project. That first introduction is important, but it’s only the first step. The introduction generally doesn’t build enough trust with the client for them to want to hire you. It might be the fourth or fifth or sixth or seventh contact you have with this client – where you show them new great work you’ve been making for different causes and companies – that the client will feel they can trust you enough to hire you too. Not every client is in a position to take a chance on an untested illustrator. Going first is a risk.
“On being ignored by a client after this first contact, many illustrators will assume the worst”
If you don’t receive a reply to your first introductory email to a client, that’s okay – it’s only an introduction. It’s just the first point of contact of many. They might not trust you enough to hire you now, but if they see your name in their inbox on a regular (but not overly frequent) basis, they’ll become familiar with you and see that you are persistent and dedicated. On being ignored by a client after this first contact, many illustrators will assume the worst, discount that client as a realistic prospect, and never contact them again. Emotionally understandable, but practically short-sighted.
Salespeople understand that the first contact is unlikely to make the sale. Humans have to get to know something and become familiar with it before they can trust it. This is why advertising exists. Products are introduced to potential customers and presented to them through different mediums (magazine ads, social ads, billboards, etc.). After that initial introduction and increasing familiarity with a product after seeing it advertised in a few places, some of the target market will be curious enough to click the link or pick up the product in the supermarket. Others might go to a review site or YouTube to find out more about the product to see if it’s a good investment. This is a process of discovery.
The Exposure Effect, sometimes called the Familiarity Effect, is a well-researched phenomenon that demonstrates that people grow to like things more the more familiar they become with them. This could be products, music, magazines, food, or even people. This is why some songs or artists grow on you the more you listen to them. It’s why product placement in TV and movies exists. If you see a product in a magazine once, you might forget about it, but if you see it in a magazine, then on a billboard on your ride home, then you hear a podcast host talking about it, and a social media ad for the product appears in your feed, you’re being exposed to that product regularly enough to become familiar with it and to begin to trust it without ever giving it much thought.
Advertisers use this to their advantage, and you can too, by regular contact with clients. If they receive an email from you every three to four months and see your work on social media, not to mention your projects for other clients they might encounter, clients will grow to recognise your name and trust in your skills. You can take this too far—emailing a client every month, for example, will likely be an irritation – but if you show up a few times a year with great work to show, you’re not likely to rub anyone the wrong way, especially if it’s work that could be useful to the client.
Sales is not something that creatives typically find appealing. It evokes images of estate agents, mobile phone stores, and car showrooms. Dealing with salespeople in these environments is frequently an unpleasant experience, so it’s no surprise that many creative people don’t want to be salespeople for their own work. Outstanding creative work will, to an extent, sell itself, and a client may be able to imagine how they could apply it to their projects. If you can also explain to the client why you would be a great addition to their network of creative freelancers and how your work can solve a problem for them, then you can build up that level of trust much more quickly than by waiting patiently for them to become familiar with you.
“Your portfolio should be a collection of illustrations that prove you can solve visual problems”
In order to do that, your portfolio has to demonstrate how you’ve solved problems in other projects, but don’t rely on the client being able to see that for themselves. You have to explain it and sell it. Your portfolio should be a collection of illustrations that prove you can solve visual problems, whether that’s helping to tell a story, visualising data and ideas, or making a product or service more attractive to customers. Whether those projects are real, live projects with clients or not is irrelevant. If you set yourself a project with a problem that needs to be solved, then you solve it, it does what it’s supposed to.
I used to think an illustrator’s portfolio should include very minimal text and let the work speak for itself, but more recently, I’ve come to believe that communicating to a potential client how you’ve solved a problem helps to build trust. Aesthetically, I still think keeping it short and sweet is optimal, but an explanation of the problem and how you solved it can go a long way in demonstrating your value as an illustrator.
Maybe you don’t want to annoy people and you don’t want people to think you’re only after their money. These are common objections to being “salesy,” but think about it as an explanation of the benefits and the value of your work. You can achieve a lot of the same results without being too uncomfortable. People pay for things because they want to solve a problem. If you can not only demonstrate how you can solve a problem for a client (via the work itself), but also explain it well, building trust with clients will be much easier.
When you’ve poured your heart, soul, and skill into great creative work, you do it a disservice by not telling people about it in an effective way. If your work is genuinely great and can solve a problem for a client, if you’re making something useful, then selling your work isn’t about a client doing you a favour. You’ll be doing them a favour by introducing them to work they can actually use.