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Web Design Retainers: The Difference for Steady Income

Updated September 10, 2014
one Comment


Tim Brown

Tim Brown is the owner of Hook Agency, an SEO and Web Design company focused primarily on driving traffic and leads for small businesses, roofers and construction companies.

When you see that your clients are needing regular work done on their website, it may be time for an agreement to be on a web design retainer.

Graphic design teams and marketing teams alike have realized that they can’t live from big influx of cash and work to the next one without a loss of peace of mind and efficiency. To stoke the more clear-headed and less up and down version of web design services we have to learn how to have more clients as steady monthly customers.

Opportunities for Retainers


      • Web design emergencies
      • Audits and help in blogging and general formatting for new pages
      • Offering quick turn around for routine tasks
      • Strategic design advice and branding suggestions
      • If you’re a visual designer as well, you can tie this into small promotions that they need done.
      • There is a massive opporunity to do user testing on a website, and make changes based on the feedback that users make. If you don’t have the budget to organize these tests in house, UserTesting.com will allow you test people remotely for fairly cheap and you can write the questions and tasks for them to try.


As a designer, I find it important to build websites so that the business owner or marketing person can edit the content as efficiently as possible and not spend all my time entering the content. This requires being conscious of how you develop on the Content Management System you are using, and getting better at making it very clear on how to edit different sections of content on the website and training and empowering them to do the things they need to most frequently. If you are making a career out of web design because you are passionate about it and want to make highly functional and beautiful websites, you probably don’t want to spend the bulk of your time throwing up a new blog article for different clients because you built the site in a way that makes it confusing for them to create and post this content.

However there are times when original content might need to be formatted, or visuals created in conjunction with the new content that the business or a team focused on content has created, and this a great opportunity to work this into your design retainer. If you are working in conjunction with a content creation team, then these can be paired together but parsed apart for internal purposes in the mind and books of your agency.

Target your top clients that have done projects with you before.

Your top paying clients will likely be the ones with budgets appropriate for a design retainer.

“Since you won’t have to worry about marketing yourself to gain new clients when you have a few solid retainer contracts, it makes sense to take the relationships with these top tier clients beyond an hourly basis because they can afford it and it will give you an opportunity to spend less time on promotion, and more time on getting paid.”

– Gregory Ciotti


When you take on a retainer client, make them a priority

This is not only important to understand as a designer because of what these retainer clients provide as far as stability of income, but also important to make clear when you are looking to sell these types of services. If the client has to approach you somewhat fresh everytime they need to update their website, the time will vary much more because of your availability and workload from other projects, but if they are on retainer they will be a priority and already have your individualized, ongoing, and fairly immediate attention. Define this in your pitch and make sure to deliver on it when they need you.

Details of a design retainer

Here are some details that need to be defined (Source: Business Tuts Plus )


      • The amount you’re to receive each month
      • The date you’re to be payed by
      • Any invoicing procedures you’re expected to follow
      • Exactly how much work and what type of work you expect to do
      • When your client needs to let you know about the month’s work by
      • What notification you need before the retainer relationship can be ended
      • Anything else that is relevant for ensuring that work is completed in a timely fashion


Don’t have just one

I don’t care how big your client is. If you have only one client and that client goes away it will devastate you. Some have put forward that you shouldn’t have any one client constitute more than 30% of your overall business, and it’s to ensure that you’re not so vested in them that you shoot yourself in the foot. If you have a team of people depending on your client-base, and ‘the big one’ goes away you’ll have to lay off half your team, and that’s sad. Look to diversify.

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Set up some goals for design retainers

After you’ve determined your best client prospects for retainers, have a short and a long term goal for how many design retainers you’d like to have, and how much you’d like them to be at. At that point you can determine internally what kind of services would be useful for clients and that you would enjoy doing at those numbers.

You know what kind of things the client needs done on a regular basis, and perhaps there’s generally more than you’ve been able to really do for them despite wanting to. Now is the time to break those items down over several months and be clear about the kinds of work you’ll be doing to increase the visibility and quality of their online presence.

It should be made clear that your services are an investment, and any company who you feel this ongoing work wouldn’t make twice the money back from new sales, leads or clients, you shouldn’t be selling to.

Seriously designers, and design teams need to get real with themselves when they have an opportunity for a new client. “Are we going to make them money?” If you believe this, than you can price your services at what you’re really worth, considering that to a certain extent what they spend on you will make them back that money and then some. If someone walks in with an idea for an inflatable bathtub, that you think is going to flop hard, be nice but let that client walk away for the good of your business. Besides not needing an inflatable bath product website in my portfolio, I also want my services associated with success and sometimes it’s clear from someone’s idea, that quality design isn’t going to translate into an investment for them. It’s not the design’s fault, it’s the business concepts fault, but a savvy designer will vet clients.

Now you’ve got to sell it to them (Or empower your sales team to sell it to them.)

Make sure you’ve written down those critical details for yourself or to provide to your sales team.

Make a point to explain (to yourself in writing, or your sales team) the things that define you as a digital designer and why what you do is different and is excellent. By allowing your enthusiasm to catch fire in your sales arm (as a freelancer it’s your literal arm, that holds the phone) you can share your goals and the specifics of the work that they’re actually selling. “I want 3 thousand dollar retainers for our company in 6 months,” and moving from there to further goals. It’s important to make the distinction that it’s not on the sales teams shoulders. It’s on us as designers shoulders to define what that looks like, and to enable them with case studies and examples of excellent work so they can be best prepared to present the idea of a web design retainer to your best clients.

Once again, we often know the work that could be done to make our clients websites even more effective. By giving them the opportunity to hire us on a retainer basis we can better enable them to respond to the nature of the internet today and continue updating and progressively enhancing their website for freshness and effectiveness.


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Tim Brown

Tim Brown is the owner of Hook Agency, an SEO and Web Design company focused primarily on driving traffic and leads for small businesses, roofers and construction companies.

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