Many freelance consultants have a rather hit-or-miss approach to marketing their services. In truth, quite a few consultants do not learn to market themselves in the early days of their businesses because they are lucky enough to start out with business in hand.
That is, they leave a corporate environment, only to do their first few projects for their former employer. They moonlight until a solid long-term project comes along, so that when they give up their day job, they don't have to do any selling.
Eventually, of course, they run as far as they can on their existing network and referrals and they have to start getting the word out about what they can do for new clients. They read a lot of books and blogs, and even take some seminars, on how to market themselves. They collect a lot of good ideas, maybe even plan some good steps toward building visibility and earning trust among their target prospects.
But I often see some unspoken assumptions underlying the details of those marketing action plans, myths about how marketing works that seriously undermine the results consultants achieve. In my work helping consultants be more effective in marketing and selling their services, I have seen several of these myths over and over again, perhaps because in some ways, freelance consultants are particularly susceptible to these assumptions.
Before we look at five of the most common marketing myths believed (if not admitted to) by consultants, let me just mention that I'm using "marketing" broadly to cover the entire selling process.
Some people like to make a strong distinction between marketing and selling, and those are often different functions in larger organizations. But when you're a one-person shop, handling the entire process, it should be easy for you to see my references to "marketing" in a wider context.
Myth 1: Marketing Is All About Making More Money
Most of the time when I hear a consultant say, "I need to do more marketing," that person really means, "I need to make more money." They say this when their business hits a lull, or when they are doing some kind of end-of-year review and they start thinking about improving their incomes.
Good marketing allows you to continually move your portfolio of clients closer and closer to your ideal.
The purpose of marketing is to give you choices, specifically, choices between clients. It allows you to take one project rather than another, and -- something too few consultants ever think about -- to replace existing clients with new ones.
Maybe the only choice you ever make is to select the bigger project, the higher-paying client, over the smaller project. That's fine, but some consultants who have pursued a "money is all that matters" strategy have found themselves working on projects that bore them with clients who annoy them. What's more, they find that they are working so hard, such long hours, to earn those good revenues that they don't have any time to enjoy the freedom that is supposed to come with running your own business!
Consultants accept this myth easily in part because, as I said, they often start out with a successful run and when that first dry spell hits, all they can think about is money. That's normal, but too few of them ever stop to re-think the situation, to recognize that they didn't start their own businesses just to make money.
Good marketing allows you to continually move your portfolio of clients closer and closer to your ideal. It definitely means dropping existing clients, by whatever criteria, for better ones. But there are lots of ways to compare your options.
What if you could make the same amount of money from two similar projects, but one of them would take much less time? Or what if you could see that a project that produced a little more revenue would generate a lot more hassle from an unreasonable client?
Without prospective clients waiting in the wings, you have no way to step out of your least satisfying client relationships, and you have little control over your free time and your stress. Instead of equating "more marketing" with "more money," put marketing to work for you to generate choices that will lead to greater overall satisfaction with your consulting business.
Myth 2: Marketing Means Telling Prospects All About You
Few consultants sell a "thing." They sell services, that is, advice and action on behalf of the client. And above all, they sell themselves. Without some personal level of confidence and trust in the consultant, the client never books the business.
Given the intangible nature of what consultants offer, many struggle to explain their services, why they are the best choice for the client, what they do. That leads to a cycle of more and more comprehensive descriptions -- self-descriptions -- of the consultant's actions, approach, principles, experience, and so on.
Most consultants cannot resist talking about themselves, what they do, and how they do it. Unfortunately, consultants who talk about themselves all the time are about as appealing as dates who talk about themselves all the time.
What your clients and prospects need to hear about is their world. They need to hear their issues and challenges mentioned. They want to detect signs that you have dealt with their industry or their situation, that you understand things from their perspective. They need to have confidence not only that you offer solutions, but that you realistically take into account the constraints they face -- personal, financial, legal, and others -- in implementing solutions.
Clients love it when they come to a website, or read a white paper, or skim a blog and see themselves, as if in a mirror. When they find clear evidence that the person behind that information truly understands their world, they want to work with that person.
When you are dating, spending a lot of time talking about your date instead of yourself is a good strategy for getting invited out again.
The same thing is true of your marketing messages for prospects: the more they show the prospect's world, instead of yours, the better your chances of keeping the conversation going.
Myth 3: Your Passion For Marketing Determines Your Success
"Passion" is a word that's thrown around a lot by business gurus, especially when they are talking to independent professionals like freelance consultants. And you may indeed feel a certain passion for your consulting work, for helping clients become more successful in their businesses and in their lives. Your drive to meet your clients' needs is one of the foundations of your success, and you know that your "passion" separates you from many (by no means all) workers in corporate cubicles.
Somehow I doubt you love to do your taxes, or any of countless other mundane business tasks, yet these tasks — some of which can be quite demanding — get done.
It is easy to assume that the same enthusiasm should apply to all aspects of a business that you own and operate by yourself. And more than a few gurus hint that if you just learn to love marketing, you'll become good at it. They figure if you learn some basic marketing skills, and have some success, all your reluctance around marketing and selling will evaporate.
And then, when it doesn't, you feel disappointed, even guilty. You come to believe that you "should" like to market your services, that there's something wrong with you when you don't ... something that will prevent you from ever achieving the success you desire.
People are often very successful at tasks they dislike. Many exercise regularly without really loving to jog or swim, simply because they greatly enjoy the benefits exercise delivers.
Somehow I doubt you love to do your taxes, or any of countless other mundane business tasks, yet these tasks -- some of which can be quite demanding -- get done. Not doing them would be so painful for your business that you find a way to get these things accomplished, even if you'd be happy if you never had to do them again.
It is true that as you learn more about marketing, and get better at it, you may learn to like it.
But it doesn't matter. Like doing your taxes, an effective marketing program is fundamental to a successful consulting business. You can learn to do the marketing you need without letting your feelings about it hold you back in the least.
Myth 4: All Marketing Is Online These Days
We all live online these days, and it's a rare freelance consultant who does not put up a website where prospects can go to validate that the consultant runs a real business. Meanwhile, you're probably doing a lot of research online, as you look for marketing strategies. That means you are constantly reading about blogs and podcasts and social media, at the very least. As consultants try to educate themselves about marketing strategies, they get a diet that is overly rich in online flavors.
You won't read nearly as much about calling a client on the phone! And you certainly won't see much discussion of direct mail, yes, using the original physical postal services to connect with prospects.
But those approaches might work for you. The mistake here is to accept a one-size-fits-all approach, to believe the gurus who say that everyone needs a blog or that every business needs a page on Facebook.
Look at your target market very carefully. Consider how they get their information. And be open to a mix of strategies.
For instance, recently a new client of mine received a proposal from an "online marketing expert" to help him introduce his software to his target audience. Now, the decision-makers in his target market are 55+ year-old executives of banking institutions. The chances of them following a software company's Twitter feed, as proposed by the expert, are vanishingly small.
Even if you are heavily engaged in blogging and maintaining an appealing and up-to-date website, the old-fashioned personal touch can make you stand out. One of my clients spends a couple of hundred dollars, every two months, to send out several hundred post cards to past and prospective clients. Unlike the e-mail pitches that get deleted before the prospect has finished reading the subject line, it turns out that most people who receive a post card take a moment to look at it. And maybe that's the reason that couple of hundred dollars has consistently generated several thousand dollars of work, every mailing.
Some consultants hide behind online marketing. When you put up a website or blog, you have little chance of explicit rejection, the way you do when you call someone or mail them a personalized letter or note.
But that personal touch can really make you stand out ... if, again, it is appropriate for your market. Do the hard work to figure out what kinds of messages and which delivery formats fit you, your business, and your target market. And then create whatever level of online presence, a little or a lot, that makes the most sense for your unique consulting business.
Myth 5: Consulting Success Demands the Optimal Marketing Plan
Consultants are usually good at learning, good at doing research, good at taking problems and matching them with solutions. That's why they love to do.
And they love to do it even more when it helps them avoid something they do not like to do!
I've seen many a consultant on a quest for the perfect marketing strategy. Sometimes that means they research, and research, and research, and ... never take action. Perfecting their plan is a great way to keep from putting them in action and facing the results.
Sometimes it means that they start with one approach, then see something new and jump to that, so that they never continue any one strategy long enough to have even a chance at decent results. As a consultant to consultants, one of my most important services is to show my clients when they are behaving in those ways, letting the search for the perfect plan undermine effective action.
One of my most strongly held principles of marketing, especially when you're doing it all on your own, is the following:
A good marketing plan that is well executed will always outperform a great plan that is poorly executed.
Get a plan, and then execute it as reliably and consistently as you can. Stick with it for months, or for several cycles, until you have some real data to indicate how well it is working, and whether or not a few tweaks would make a big difference.
Don't get suckered into looking for the perfect solution before you take action. If you have not done much marketing yet, the best marketing plan is the one you are most likely to implement well. After you have been at it a while, the best marketing plan is probably an incremental step forward from where you are today. Not a miraculous leap, a step!
Your consulting solutions rarely bring your client to perfection. But they make a huge difference to the client's success.
The same considerations apply to you when you are your own client, designing marketing solutions for your own consulting business.
Have you fallen prey to any "marketing myths" that have held you back in your consulting business?
If there are other myths that have trapped you at one time or another, take a moment to share your experience -- and, especially, how you overcame your belief in the myth -- through your comments on this post.
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