The common mistakes with online portfolios (and how to tackle them)

An online portfolio is a chance to showcase your work and skills to potential clients or employees. It's the first impression and can make or break whether someone decides to pick up the phone and hire you.

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

The more effort you put into making your portfolio a success, the more chance you'll win new business or impress future employers.

A successful online portfolio is simple, easy to navigate and displays your best work primarily. It entices people rather than puts them off. But what does put people off? What mistakes do people make when creating their online portfolios. How can we learn from them, so you ensure your portfolio is a success? I've put together the following common issues and solutions to help you create a successful online portfolio. But then read on, because I'll then provide the top 10 tips to make your online portfolio a success.

Mistake 1. Your portfolio is trying too hard

In an attempt to impress and stand out from the crowd, you've decided to create an online portfolio that has fancy Flash all over it and pop-up buttons and banners that allow your visitors to interact with your content. But instead of impressing people, you've alienated them. They get frustrated because they can't easily find what they're looking for and the flashing graphics and fancy features are making navigation a pain.

The Solution: Keep it simple. People should be impressed by your work, not by how many features your portfolio has. Don't forget that online portfolios are like websites; you still have to keep the visitor happy not irritate them because they can't find what they're looking for. Make sure your navigation is simple and self-explanatory.

Mistake 2. You confuse the message

Some portfolios get over-excited and want to scream everything they possibly can from the rooftops. It means a visitor will get confused and won't easily understand what your portfolio is about, leading them to bounce off and go elsewhere.

The Solution: Less is more. It's as simple as that. Consider what your online portfolio is about in a short, snappy sentence and ensure that message is prominent. Get your best content, i.e. your work, to the very front and ensure it sits above the fold. When putting your portfolio together, always keep in mind your key message and always prioritise displaying work. For example, if you're a graphic designer and you specialise in logos - say it! And then make sure you show off your latest logo work first.

Mistake 3. You write too much copy, or it's bad

Copy is crucial on any online portfolio because you want to tell visitors about who you are and what you do. But you've written too much and have overwhelmed visitors with too much content. Plus your bad copy is very off-putting, giving a wrong impression of you and your work.

The Solution: Always keep in mind the 'Three Cs' when drafting copy for your online portfolio. CLEAR: Does your copy convey the right message? Is your message easily understood? CONCISE: Is your copy to the point? Have you written your message using the fewest words possible? CORRECT: Have you considered spelling and grammar? Is your copy correctly punctuated throughout? If you stick to these 'Three Cs', you'll be on the right track. Avoid waffle; keep it clear and straightforward. Use short, punchy sentences to offer clear and persuasive messages.

Mistake 4. Your portfolio looks cluttered

Understandably, you want to squeeze as much content onto your online portfolio as possible, but this can leave your site looking like a visual mess. Plus those design aspects you thought would help show off your web design skills are only making your portfolio look cluttered.

The Solution: Be ruthless with your online portfolio by considering every design element. Does it need to be there, or does it distract the eye away from your work? Remember, a successful online portfolio should be kept simple and allows the showcased work to shine through. Adding too many visual elements will only look unprofessional and cause distrust. Don't forget the primary purpose of your portfolio - to show off your work.

Mistake 5. You're lying about your work

It's tempting to bend the truth and say you've worked with people when you haven't but don't do it! It will only land you in hot water when the company in question contacts you and asks you why you've added them to your 'client list'. Or worse, a prospective client calls them and asks for a testimonial. You'll only look stupid when the other person discovers you've been lying.

The Solution: You'll undoubtedly want to build up a portfolio that shows off a wide range of clients that you've worked with. But if you haven't yet got those clients or they're not big enough to shout about, it's difficult to know how to proceed. The solution? Either add a list of clients that you've worked with in a previous job, making sure you get permission from your former boss or concentrate on showing off your skills through your work. Then spend some time building up your portfolio by approaching the kind of brands you'd love to work with and offer discounted rates. Eventually, you will have clients you'll be proud to shout about - it just takes time.

Those are just a few common mistakes people make with their online portfolios. Now we'll look at how to create a successful online portfolio from scratch, so you have the best chance of winning work or getting hired by that high-flying agency you've had your eye on. I've put together the following top 10 tips to get your online portfolio rocking.

1. Your logo and tagline

Add your logo or name in the top left-hand corner, right at the top. It's because visitors in the Western world read from left to right, so you'll want your logo to be the very first thing people see. Don't forget to hyperlink your logo graphic to the 'Home' page of your portfolio.

Once you've got your logo up there, add a tagline. Your tagline should concisely say what you do, immediately telling visitors what your portfolio is about. For example, 'I'm a freelance graphic designer from London, and I love to create logos'.

When writing your tagline, ask yourself what you are, what you do, where you're from, and what you're after - this will help you to come up with a suitable tagline. Just remember to keep it short and summarise what you do.

2. Keep your design and layout simple

People don't want to hear music, flashing graphics and view all-singing and dancing portfolios. They want to see your work. Don't make the mistake of overdoing it to try and impress. Keep your portfolio design and layout as simple and as clean as possible.

Let your work shine and stand out. Don't see your online portfolio as an additional opportunity to show off your skills. That's not what a portfolio is about. You want to ensure your portfolio has a visually pleasing layout, is uncluttered and draws the eye to your work.

Remember the golden rule about websites - they're often a first impression of you and your business, so you want to build trust and look professional at all times. Building that trust includes getting the design and layout right. If you don't, people won't like you and will go elsewhere.

3. Provide easy navigation

Another crucial aspect of good web design is decent navigation. So many people forget to go through their content and present it logically. When designing your online portfolio, you have to consider content at all times.

Sit down and write a list of your portfolio's content, e.g. 'Home, About, Services, Portfolio, Contact'. Now draw a tree or grid to put together a logical structure - something that will make sense to any web visitor. Get family or friends involved and ask for their opinion. Your portfolio's navigation is so important if you want to keep people browsing around your site.

4. Showcase your work

Your portfolio is a portfolio, so make sure your work is the very first thing people see after establishing who you are and what you're about. If your portfolio is just one page, keep your work 'above the fold', i.e. before people need to scroll down, and show your best work first and foremost.

If your portfolio contains more than one landing page, include a separate 'Portfolio' page or section. Make sure snippets from your portfolio are also on your home page, i.e. the first page people will see when they visit your site.

Use high-resolution images that click through to a separate page or bring up a lightbox with more details about that particular project. If it's online work, include a web link to the live version.

When choosing which work to show, remember less is more, so go for quality rather than quantity. You should only show off your latest and best projects because things can become dated and people might think you've not done anything new lately.

5. Add testimonials

Nothing beats recommendations from clients, so if you've got some happy customers, make sure you add their positive comments to your portfolio. You could add them on a separate web page, and you could add them to each portfolio item. It's a very effective way of building trust and encouraging people to pick up the phone and speak to you.

Imagine someone looks at your work and likes what they see but aren't sure. Then they see the actual client's thoughts on the project, e.g. 'Katy was a pleasure to work with and impressed us with her cupcakes...' It adds credibility and makes people trust you and want to work with you.

6. Create additional pages or sections

People always want to know more about the real person behind the work, so ensure you include an 'About' page or section on your online portfolio. About pages are a real opportunity to talk about yourself and highlight your skills and experience. Make sure you write decent copy and keep things short and punchy.

Then what about your services? People want to know what you do, so if you provide quite a few different services, it might be worth adding a Services page or section. Clearly describe what you can do and link to examples of your work if possible. Provide a breakdown and add bullet points to show more specific services, for instance, in 'Graphic Design' you could provide a list of 'logo design, branding, marketing materials' etc. Make it completely obvious what services you provide.

Remember, you're building trust and convincing people that you're the right person for the job. Keep this in mind when putting together additional pages and sections.

7. Don't forget the 'Contact' bit

On every web page throughout your portfolio, you should have a 'Contact Me' section, clearly labelled and standing out. Include your phone number and email address as a priority and have this in your header or footer throughout your entire site. Don't forget to add social media icons to inform people that you're also available on Twitter, Facebook or any other social network you feel is relevant.

A separate 'Contact' page would be a bonus and include a contact form if you can. Bottom line - make it as easy as possible for people to get in touch, no matter where they're looking on your portfolio website.

8. Add a 'call to action'

Firstly, what is a 'call to action'? It's a 'next step'. It's considering what you want the visitor to do next. For example, if they're looking at your 'About' page, you should perhaps add a 'call to action', encouraging people to hire you.

How you present these 'calls to action' is simple. You provide simple, clean button graphics with a concise 'call to action', i.e. 'Hire me' or 'View my recent work' or 'request a quote'.

On every page within your portfolio, consider what people will do next. Lead them on a journey and encourage them to pick up the phone and contact you.

9. Include a blog

Blogging builds further trust with your web visitors because it's a chance to show the real you and show off your expertise. Use your blog to provide tips to other people or chat about things that are happening in the creative industries.

Blogs are also great for digital marketing because they help to drive traffic to your portfolio and encourage people to stick around and find out more about you. They even give people a good reason to return regularly.

Don't forget to provide an RSS feed for your blog and enable comments for feedback. Don't put people off by urging them to register to comment - make sure you keep your blog as friendly and approachable as possible.

10. Finally, get marketing

Once you've established your online portfolio, you'll want to tell the world about it. How you do that is through various digital marketing techniques. Hook your site up to your social media accounts. Get talking on Twitter and Facebook. Start shouting about your site. Include your portfolio's URL on all marketing literature, business cards and don't forget to add it to your email signature.

If you can sprinkle a little SEO magic onto your portfolio site, then do it! Optimise locally to attract work from your doorstep. Consider your meta titles, descriptions and tags. Get yourself listed in local directories. Get chatting in forums. Read this article on 100 inspiring ways to market your business. Spend an hour every day on your marketing and make your online portfolio work as hard as possible.

Don't forget to add Google Analytics (or something similar) to track web visits and identify any patterns or things you might be doing wrong. That way, you can always improve your portfolio and ensure it's doing its magic. Remember this at all times - only you can make your portfolio a success online, so go for it!


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