Giving away "free samples" is a time-honored marketing tradition, one that is very alive today.
It is also one of the excellent habits common to many successful freelance consultants. In fact, I'll argue that sharing "samples" with prospects may be even more important for the consultant than for many other types of businesses.
Of course, you have been on the receiving end of many samples. Perhaps you nibble and graze on free offerings when you go to the grocery store. You might have received small samples of cosmetics or other items, either through the mail, or handed out in various settings.
You're getting a free sample when you read a book excerpt before you order it on Amazon. And you may not realize it, but you are getting samples when you sign up for newsletters or "special reports" and articles from web sites.
Why are all of these businesses willing to give away items of value, with no assurance that you will buy something?
While there is no guarantee of landing any individual buyer, businesses have known for a long time that giving away samples -- items of real, if sometimes small, value -- works. It brings in customers.
The Why Of Samples
Long before there were e-products, manufacturers gave away samples of their goods to boost sales. There's nothing like handling, even trying out, a product, rather than just reading about it in a catalog.
And even though that "catalog" may be entirely online today, sharing samples still works. When people get samples, they try them out, rather than tossing them. If the sample is good, it goes a long way toward convincing the prospective customer that the actual product (or service) is worth trying on a larger scale.
Even in these e-days, samples are powerful incentives that influence consumer behavior.
For instance, in a 2009 survey conducted by the U.S. Postal Service, 81% of respondents indicated they would try out a sample when they received one. And 61% of them said that getting a sample was the most effective way to get them to try a particular brand.
The Promotion Marketing Association recently ran a poll showing that 75% of consumers had become aware of a product by receiving a sample. The Association estimates that samples are sent to 70 million households in the U.S. every quarter!
Many of these samples come from some of the most successful consumer product companies on the planet. These companies are not fools. They maintain the huge investment of creating and mailing all those samples because they get a good return on that investment.
Even in these e-days, samples are powerful incentives that influence consumer behavior. In the Postal Service poll, 84% of respondents said that they would probably log on to a web site to get samples, after receiving a post card telling them how to do that.
We all like to get something for nothing. We all like to try before we buy.
And those principles apply even more clearly to the consulting business.
Consultants Need Samples
It is easy to see why samples are such persuasive marketing tools. You might think about buying a particular brand of cupcake, but you're not sure how good they are. You taste a free sample and become much more confident that the cupcakes you buy, of that brand, will be just as good.
It's a matter of trust, then. You have a certain faith, after your sampling experience, in the product and the brand.
Now, if buying a cupcake is a matter of trust, think how much more strongly that applies to hiring a consultant!
Sharing ideas of value can demonstrate that you understand their needs and can communicate around those needs.
The prospect who hires a consultant is largely buying intellectual and interpersonal skills. In other words, they must feel confident that you can size up the situation, generate good solutions, and deliver those solutions. Your ability to communicate and your familiarity with the typical needs and challenges of prospects are the deciding factors.
Are you asking prospects to sign on the dotted line without any evidence that you do understand their world, that you have handled problems like theirs, and that you can communicate effectively throughout the consulting process?
Unfortunately, you don't have anything as tangible as a cupcake to hand out.
Nonetheless, you can make "samples" of your consulting services available as a way of trying you out, so to speak. Sharing ideas of value can demonstrate that you understand their needs and can communicate around those needs.
I am not talking about a brochure or web site describing you and your infinite charms. Samples are not about you.
They are about the client experience. Whether tasting a cupcake or reading a white paper, a positive experience for the prospect moves them a little closer to trusting you with some of their money.
The What Of Samples
Most consulting samples are either written or spoken content. That's why you hear so much about "content-based" or "content-driven" marketing. Wise consultants make sure their prospects have plenty of opportunity to learn, not just what the consultant knows about, but about the consultant's style and communication skills.
What kinds of samples can you offer your consulting prospects? There are many, many options, limited only by your imagination.
- "White papers" or "articles" or "special reports" are among the most effective tools (the name varies mostly by what your prospects are used to, but they're all more or less the same). We're talking about written material, usually a few pages long, that discusses key issues your prospects face, and points them toward solutions.
- Additional written pieces can include lists of tips, or simple diagnostic tools or quizzes, or, especially helpful, case studies. Make sure your case studies are about the client's situation, a "before and after," not about how brilliant you were.
- Much of this content can also be offered as an audio or video podcast, of course.
- And articles published in trade journals and magazines are always great sources of reprints to share with prospects.
- Naturally, your web site can provide a lot of content (including downloadable articles). But a web site that is packed with bells and whistles, but little real information of value to the prospect, doesn't build trust. Or one that is all about you and how wonderful you are. Your web site helps the prospect decide whether to trust you when it offers information about client situations, when it talks about the client's world, and when there is enough content to be of actual value.
- Free introductory workshop sessions are another great approach, whether in person or as a webinar or conference call. You might help your prospects recognize some common problems and discuss them as a group, leaving the solutions to those problems as part of your paid services.
- Newsletters and blogs can also provide free value to prospects, but they bring some special challenges that we'll look at in a moment.
What all of these options have in common is that they offer something of value to the prospect. Some consultants are afraid of "giving away the store" and are very stingy with their knowledge. That will not earn a prospect's trust. Like the physical samples in the store and in the mail, you have to give people something useful to get them to turn around and give their trust to you. Don't be cheap with your skills and knowledge.
Newsletters, Blogs, and Sustainability
As you have wandered about the Internet looking for marketing advice, I'll bet you've encountered many an offer for a free e-mail newsletter. Just put in your e-mail address and look forward to regular samples, if you will, of great advice.
The problem is, you never see anything, or you get two newsletters, then there's a month or six weeks of silence, then another one pops up. Or you look in their archive of past newsletters, and there are only a couple of issues ... from 2004!
Blogs and e-zines certainly are samples of your thinking and communication skills, but keep a couple of things in mind. The first is that other samples, like an article or tipsheet, are often the best way to get them to look at your blog or sign up your newsletter in the first place. Then you can use regular posts or e-mails to maintain visibility with that prospect.
The second is that writing something of value to the prospective client every week or two weeks is a lot of work. Can you maintain that?
An abandoned newsletter or blog is a "sample" of your work, too, but those are not the kinds of samples that are going to bring you new business.
And the great thing about the written and media samples consultants create, unlike a bit of cupcake or a free bar of soap, is that they can be used again and again.
The How Of Samples
Let's say you publish an article in a journal (hopefully, one distributed by the trade association of the industry that is your target market), and then use reprints of that article with countless prospects for years to come. That's return on investment!
Now, the investment can be significant. A good white paper is rarely whipped up in an afternoon, even if you like to write. Many consultants who are ridiculously comfortable speaking and facilitating live discussions are terrified of the blank page in their word processing program. If they are smart, they spend the money to hire professional writing help, knowing that having something of value to give away again and again, to prospect after prospect, is well worth the investment.
To recoup that return, the right expectations are crucial. The purpose of samples is to manage a selling conversation, not to produce an immediate sale. You don't publish an article and then sit back and wait for the checks to roll in.
As mentioned, you publish an article, and then systematically leverage it in countless conversations with individual prospects. Samples are powerful marketing tools because they give you a legitimate reason to engage the prospect in another round of discussions.
Consider the situation where you meet a prospect for the first time and talk a little bit about what they do, and about what you do. Naturally, you want to talk to them again, to move them along the path to trusting you enough to buy your services.
- Give them a link to your web site, where they will get a visually exciting overview of your services and a lot of promises about how wonderful you will be to work with.
- Hand them your business card and a little brochure that is all about you.
- Tell them you would like to send them a special report on "5 Common Obstacles to Productivity in the XYZ Industry" (their industry) so they can see if their most pressing issues are among the ones others in their type of business deal with.
- Offer to send them a case study showing how a client rather similar to them overcame a problem that came up in discussion.
Two weeks later, you contact the prospect by e-mail or on the phone. Are you welcomed?
Prospects that got #1 or #2 in the list above will recognize your name and expect a sales pitch. Their defenses will be up, and it may be hard to get a response.
Prospects that get #3 or #4 already recognize you as a source of useful ideas, and are much more likely to be willing to discuss those ideas. It is just infinitely easier to extend the conversation with, and earn the trust of, prospects who have received something of value from you, something that shows, not just tells, what you can do.
By the way, even if some (not all!) of your samples are downloadable from your web site, send your prospect the article or white paper as an attachment, or send them a link directly to your podcast. Don't just make them find these goodies on your site by themselves.
Why? Every time you send them a specific item of value, you have a chance to engage them. Ask questions about their needs and issues. Ask them for feedback on what you gave them earlier. Manage the process. If you have two appropriate case studies, you might send one, follow up on it, and use that follow up contact as an opportunity to send the second one.
Forget about the one-time sale, where the prospect sees your site or gets a sample and instantly books your consulting services. Plan to create a conversation that will play out in several installments, and then create the materials that will give you the most control, the most flexibility, the most leverage in managing that conversation.
That's what gives you the extended "face time" with prospects that turns into a trust relationship. That's what gets your prospects to make that leap of faith to book your services for the first time.
Patient Giving Brings Success
Your prospects must get to know you before they will invest in you. Giving them information of real value, not just a sales pitch, and then leveraging that gift into an ongoing selling conversation is a powerful marketing strategy for the freelance consultant.
It's not an easy one. Creating marketing content takes time, effort, thought, and sometimes, money. Deploying your "give-aways" or "samples" effectively takes planning, patience, realistic expectations, and disciplined follow up.
It's worth it. It works.