What would be the best (in terms of producing results) way to get freelance clients online (mostly small businesses): a stand alone website, a platform of some kind (like Upwork and similar things), social media (TikTok or Instagram), LinkedIn, Pinterest, or something else entirely?
Sub question would be: does working extremely on SEO of your own website produces better results, than for example, creating Instagram content, or using some other kind of platform?
What are your thought, experiences, ideas, stories?
Your question pertained directly to online, so this isn’t the answer you’re looking for, but I have the best luck finding new clients through direct, personal contact; networking; and word-of-mouth/referrals.
On the other side of the coin (as one who hires freelance designers), I have hired folks off of Upwork. If you go that route, you are going to be one of hundreds, if not one of thousands, competing for a job. Maybe there is someone else who has had positive experiences getting work through Upwork can chime in. I’ve also hired freelancers off of Behance. The folks I’ve hired off of Behance have been illustrators, and it was all about finding the person with the right skills and look for what I needed.
Assuming your work is good and appeals to potential clients, “Upwork and similar things” will result in work. Most will not be good-paying work, but the work is there. Three years ago, after a 40-year design career, I decided to do full-time freelance work. In addition to contacts from those 40 years, I tried UpWork and landed about half the jobs I applied for. The problem is that 95-plus percent of the work listed on UpWork is for amateurish clients who want stupid things. Over the several months of being listed there, I still have three very good clients who continue to send me work, even though I’ve given up on UpWork. However, as I mentioned, I have decades in the business, which gave me the credibility to land those clients. Most people, I suspect, won’t be as lucky because of what @Steve_O said: they’ll be competing against many others.
If your mention of “similar things” includes the contest-driven crowdsourcing sites that require you to submit ideas before being paid, you’ll find work there too, but most of it will be wasted effort. The occasional job you do get will be little more than pocket change.
As for social media, think about it for a minute. Who visits your social media accounts? Your friends and family and maybe, on occasion, their friends and family. With this group of people in mind, do any of them own businesses that need graphic design work? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely to result in much work.
Some people have good experiences with LinkedIn, but you need to put some effort into it. And that effort needs to be consistent and competent in a way that signals to others that you’re an expert in your field and a good fit for their needs.
Does anyone go to Pinterest looking for graphic designers? I doubt it. People go there looking for cool stuff to look at. They’re probably not your customers.
A personal website is a must, but not because potential clients will find it in a Google search.
The best SEO possible won’t get your portfolio website ranked highly because traffic to portfolio websites is very low. It’s a Catch-22 situation, Landing on the first page or two of a Google search requires that your site has high traffic, but you’ll never get that high traffic until Google places you on those pages. I’m not saying that SEO isn’t important; it is! I’m saying that it’s not a silver bullet that will solve the problem.
Perform a search for graphic designers in your city to see what comes up. The first page will be loaded with high-traffic paid-listing sites, such as Clutch or Expertise. The others will be job sites, corner printers, crowdsourcing sites, various clickbait nonsense, and paid Google listings.
The reason you need a website isn’t because potential clients will stumble across you or find you via a search engine. The reason you need a website is because everyone considering you will want to look at your work before they ever contact you directly. So how do you get potential clients to consider you? The old-fashioned way: self-promotion, word-of-mouth, references from previous clients, cold calling, checking in with old clients, and other proactive efforts. Passive efforts, such as putting together a website or tossing a few things onto social media and hoping that people will find you won’t get the job done.
Exactly what I’ve done for the last 20+ years. I’ve never chased after internet strangers. Seems like a huge time suck to get low-value, one-time clients.
There is a segment of the market that will pay a premium for good customer service. Look for local businesses that need help. Meeting people in person, touring their business, and taking them out to lunch is how you cement long term relationships, and that’s how you prosper.
Every city in the US has a Chamber of Commerce. Check out their event schedules. Do some networking. Get out there face to face. I get that today’s graduate lives on the internet, but that is not how the current market is working. Designers are a dime a dozen (maybe even a dime a gross these days.) Doing a random web search is not a first option for clients worth your while.
We contract with designers we’ve known for years. Or if they are busy, someone they know. Another avenue of getting work is to do good file prep for your local printers. If someone asks the printer for a good designer they know, they are going to offer names of those that breeze through their production process. I know I give out names quite often of those I like working with (and not the ones that cost me hours in file heroics to get something of theirs to print.) Follow your printers’ guidelines and if there are issues, post mortem the job to find out how you can improve either your files or your communication of details.