Oscar Wilde said, "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about."
Marketing is all about connecting with and earning trust from your target market. And when we think about the typical client journey, it's easy to spot your first marketing goal: building awareness of you and your consultancy.
In the consulting industry, many marketing professionals prefer the term earning visibility. But visibility is sometimes linked to other different terms and activities such as reach, lead generation, brand awareness. It all comes down to semantics.
The main objective is clear: Get in front of your ideal clients so they know you exist.
You can't do that if you don't know who your ideal clients are. This is why, before you even think about your marketing initiatives, you must have your overall strategy clear. It includes your targeting, positioning, and value proposition. Unfortunately, most solo or micro consultancies skip this work - and then wonder why their sales pipeline is always empty.
Let's imagine you got that part down. You know who you're selling to, how you will differentiate from other consultancies, and how to communicate the unique value you're bringing to the market. Now what?
Before anything else, you understand that following generic marketing advice is harmful to boutique consultancies. You not selling products or commoditized services. Expert advice is a credence good, meaning it is bought on trust alone. And that trust takes time to build.
This is one of the reasons the funnel model doesn't work well for consulting services. It includes a number of assumptions that simply do not apply to most consulting practices:
The following story is from a large consulting firm, but it's effective to illustrate a different approach.
Dominic Barton had just become a partner at McKinsey when he saw the opportunity to go to South Korea and build a banking practice there. His colleagues said it could kill his career. But he decided to take it.
When he moved to Korea, he didn't know the language. He didn't know the culture. He didn't know any people.
He knew he needed to build awareness and introduce himself to the business community. Yes, he carried the McKinsey brand. But that doesn't change the fact that he was an outsider to the Seoul banking club.
Here's what he did:
"I asked people for help. I wrote ten letters to banking CEOs. I didn't say, "Look, I'm Dominic Barton from McKinsey. I'm here to help." It was, "I've moved here, I want to help play a small role in building the financial system, but I don't know anyone. All I have is my experience from x, y, and z. Can I get some advice from you? Would you help me?" Some of my colleagues were a bit shocked that I would write a cold letter because that's not sort of done, but nine out of the ten CEOs wrote me back. "Sure, come and talk," they said. But I wasn't writing to do work. I was writing to ask for help. This is how I established a network. People would refer me to other people. I got to know people."
A second approach that Dominic took was to write and give speeches:
"I had a weekly column in a kind of business newspaper. I would also agree to give speeches to anyone who wanted me to speak, but I had a rule that I had to meet the CEO before the speech and afterwards to understand the context of what was going on and to follow up."
You may wonder: How was enough to build a multi-million dollar practice?
If you run a consulting practice, the number of relationships you need to build and nurture is smaller than you think. For most of you, a network of two hundred people is all you need to aim for.
If you offer data analytics services for financial institutions, there are two hundred heads of risk who make all the difference in your world. If you provide marketing advice for real estate companies there are roughly two hundred developers who, if they knew and hire you, would keep you busy for the rest of your life.
Two hundred might not be the right number for your consultancy, but it's not two hundred thousand. For McKinsey's Partner Dominic Barton, the number was 500.
Once you understand that, building awareness becomes not only much easier but also much less expensive. There are a few reasons why smaller consultancies should prioritize digital marketing initiatives (mostly to support lead generation, a topic for a future post). But whatever tactic you choose to focus on, your goals should be to:
You can ask for advice. Publish your insights. Speak. Ask your contacts for referrals. Attend conferences. Email or call people. Host roundtables. Write newsletters.
The difficult part is not choosing the right tactic, but finding what fits your personal style and that you can stick with over a long period of time.
In consumer products, advertising is the only way to reach customers efficiently because you need so many of them. With profits on soap measured in pennies, millions of customers are needed. But just as you would never think about sitting down with customer one-on-one if you were a Colgate-Palmolive executive trying to sell more Irish Spring, if you are a sole proprietor, it makes no sense to broadcast advertise.(...)
In thinking how a potential client becomes aware of us, it pays to remember that there are approaches, like picking up the phone or shooting someone an email, that are likely to be more cost-effective, and simply more effective, than hanging a banner in Times Square.
How do buyers search for a new professional service firm? More than 70% of buyers ask a friend or colleague for a recommendation.
Source: Hinge's Inside The Buyer's Brain
Who are the potential partners who can recommend you to the right people, and what are you doing to connect with them?
If the number of potential clients in your target market is higher, your list of 200 people will likely need to include people who can refer good prospects to you.
Here's an example from outside consulting. My brother-in-law is a pianist and founder of several music bands. I got the chance to chat with the marketing agency he hired to promote their work.
The goal is to get in front of the right people. Not those who will listen to your music, or your ideal fans. But those who will sell and distribute it for you.
There's a reason why DJs and radio stations receive piles and piles of new song tapes every day, for years. They are key partners. If you're an artist, winning their sympathy and getting them hooked on your music will make you grow much faster than winning a new fan.
This marketing strategy is timeless. Today my brother-in-law's key partners also include youtubers, bloggers, and online music curators that have a direct line of communication with their potential fans. But the logic remains: it's worth investing time and money to build and nurture those relationships.
This works for consulting as well.
If you have an executive coaching practice that is the perfect complement to clients of a recruitment agency in your area, why not give that agency some free intro workshops "passes" that they can use to thank their best clients?
Putting a sample of my friends' new CD in the hands of 200 key partners is a far smarter investment than spending thousands on ads that don't work.