How to Market Yourself as a Creative Professional
Are you doing the work you want?
If not, why not?
If so, which projects and clients would you like more of?
If you don’t know the answer to these simple questions, or if you are just taking what comes along (or think you’re lucky because you get word-of-mouth—which isn’t something you can control), it may be time to think again.
The work you want isn’t going to magically find you. You have to know who you want to work with, and then find those clients.
In between that, a lot of creative professionals get bogged down in the what of marketing.
There are so many ways to approach clients that it’s easy to get overwhelmed:
Positioning Your Creative Business
I firmly believe that marketing gains momentum over time when done consistently. But before you start running campaigns and deciding which tools to use, you need to decide who you serve.
Effective marketing requires focus: You have to position your products and services to stand out amongst your competitors.
Otherwise, not only will you waste time and money, but your ideal clients won’t listen when you’re speaking.
Everyone is so overexposed to advertising, our natural instinct is to cup our hands over our ears.
Properly positioning your business is how you show your clients, “Hey, we’re the solution for you.” And personalization is the key to hearts and minds.
Plus, knowing your own position will show you who your best prospects are, as well as who they aren’t. And eliminating ill-fitting prospects, companies, and marketing efforts is the key to a simple and efficient marketing plan.
Once you’ve decided where to focus, you’ll know which people to approach, which companies to target, and which events and campaigns are worth spending your money on. And you’ll know which ones aren’t worth the time, money and effort.
Every marketing dead-end you eliminate today is energy you save for good prospects later on. Plus, continuous positive interactions are going to be a multiplier when stacked together.
Your clients respond to confidence and happiness. And in turn, those clients tend to agree to more lucrative projects. Good positioning positively reinforces all your other marketing efforts.
What do you think? Doesn’t good positioning sound better than bad positioning, or more likely, no position at all?
You Have to Choose
We talked about focusing your business. One of the first steps in that direction is researching your market.
You need to be looking for new & better prospects, and finding new places where you can meet with the people who are in a position to engage your services.
Where do you start?
I recommend beginning by exploring 2-3 areas or industries.
Ideally, you’re looking at areas in which you already have a strong combination of experience, connections & examples of work to show.
As you explore, look and listen for the specific needs and challenges of the people and the organizations in those markets. That information will become the substance of your marketing.
First, Look at the Markets
A successful business is centered on the needs of the market, not around the business owner’s personal wishes and desires.
Don’t start with “Who do I want to work with?” Instead, ask, “What does the market need and how can I satisfy that need while doing something I love?”
How do you find out what the market needs? You do that by following business trends in the news and watching where investors and the government are investing.
Ideally, your desires will overlap with the needs of the market in a Venn diagram of sorts that will lead you to an effective positioning.
Look Next at What You Know.
Whenever possible, don’t start from scratch. The foundation of your business should be rooted strongly in something you know well and in which you already have some experience and connections.
Even if you’re just starting out, you’ll get further faster by building on past career experiences, a recent pro bono or freelance project, or even an extracurricular passion or hobby.
You must be able to confidently say to your prospects, “I understand your challenges and can help you.”
Look at the Industries You’ve Served in the Past
Your clients need to know that you not only understand the specific challenges they face, but also that you have explicit experience that will help them.
For example, if you have done a lot of work for hospitals and medical practices, although they’re both in the broad “healthcare” world, you should target each market with a slightly different message that emphasizes your direct experience, perhaps even with a competitor.
Choose Growing Markets
Don’t focus on markets that are on the wane, no matter how much you love them. Look for the growth, whether in the markets you know or in ancillary areas.
For example, the publishing world continues to be in flux but is unlikely to disappear altogether. How is it changing? Where are the growth areas that you could move into, even if it involves learning something new? (Hint: think e-books and interactive publishing.)
Choose Markets With Money to Spend
Most creative professionals who rely on word-of-mouth also seem to get a lot of prospects with little-to-no budget to spend or tiny budgets coming directly out of the business owner’s pocket.
If this is fine with you and satisfies your needs, then build your marketing plan on those same markets and you’ll do well, as those clients are easy to find.
But if you want to grow and find better clients, look for markets with budgets to spend–and not their own money. If they can’t pay what you need to charge, don’t even put them on your short list.
How do you tell if a market has money to spend? You can usually tell pretty quickly by looking at the web sites and marketing materials of a range of companies in that market. If they value your type of service, they will invest money in it, and it will show.
Also, as part of your research, go to a trade show and collect marketing materials. Take that opportunity to chat with the people, because the best way to really find out if a market has money to spend is to ask the actual people directly.
Remember, this is research, not sales at this point. So you can ask, “What are your budgets for X or Y?” This type of research can also be done online where your prospects gather or are members, especially in LinkedIn Groups.
Once you’ve chosen a few markets to explore, here’s what else you need to find out:
There may be data available from a trade association to help answer these questions; you may have to ask questions of people in the markets and you may be able to deduce certain facts from what you see.
For example, you may find that the healthcare technology market has thousands of prospects nationwide, average projects with healthy budgets and a regular need for promotional materials, which makes it a very promising market.
On the other hand, if a local industry has no more than 15 companies that only need updates to their web site (and 13 of the 15 clearly show no evidence of valuing web design, steer clear.
Let it sink in a bit.
Connect and Grow Your Business
Once you’ve chosen who to pursue, it’s time to connect with them. These connections are the keys to growing your business and finding new clients. This can be done in many different ways. Here are a few of the most effective:
Relationships are everything when it comes to business. Networking is the tool that allows you to develop the strongest relationships.
Try to attend at least one event per month where you can meet real prospects. Joining a trade association is the best way to do this.
If there are no local events for you to attend, you might have to travel or connect virtually. Either way, be patient. This takes time, but is fruitful if you do it properly.
Make sure your profile is up to date and speaks to your best prospects. Then leverage your existing network by connecting with everyone you have ever known and some you’d like to know.
The more people in your network, the more access you’ll get to others. It makes sense to build it and to accept invitations from others.
Also, join groups on LinkedIn that are related to your target markets. The icons and group names will show up on your personal profile, thereby enhancing your positioning.
Warm Email Prospecting
Start by using email to introduce yourself to people you want to work with. Take the time, though, to find a shared connection, so you can approach them with a personalized message and a reference they will recognize (that’s why it’s warm and not cold).
That connection could be a mutual contact or simply the fact that you love their brand and want to work with them. Then, your message will seem just like it’s written for them, because it actually is!
Follow up with a phone call, followed by snail mail. Don’t worry if only one or two out of ten prospects actually respond. That’s normal. Just stay in touch unless they tell you to stop.
Let it sink in a bit.
Cultivate Your Leads
Once you’ve connected with your prospects (especially those who’ve responded), you need to cultivate those connections. They need to get to know you better and remember you when they’re ready for your help.
Remember: Timing is everything when it comes to marketing. If you neglect to cultivate your connections, they’re essentially wasted.
Here are a few of the marketing tools that do a great job at cultivating and developing those burgeoning relationships:
Send a regular message to your growing opt-in list of prospects (monthly if possible, quarterly at a minimum).
As you connect with prospects, you should also be building your list of people who’ve granted you permission to stay in touch. Quality trumps quantity here: The list doesn’t have to be huge.
Stay in touch by disseminating relevant information and examples of your work, further demonstrating your understanding of their needs. This is content marketing at its most basic and it keeps you top of mind so that when they have a need, you are easy to remember and easy to find.
The trick, however, is to be consistent. If you stop, you are quickly forgotten. So plan ahead and get help developing this content if you can’t do it yourself.
Don’t try to be on all the platforms. Instead, focus on those most frequented by your prospects. In business, it’s usually LinkedIn, Twitter or sometimes, Facebook.
Whichever networks you focus on, make sure your profiles are up to date and consistent with each other and with your web site. Use them as one more way to demonstrate and reinforce your positioning in the markets you serve.
Build your own following by following and connecting with others. Most will reciprocate.
Start by passing along useful material by others—a daily retweet is plenty to start with. This creates good will as a by-product.
Build from there by re-purposing (i.e. posting) the content from your email newsletter for those who missed it and/or aren’t on your list.
Go through your list of prospects on a monthly basis and reach out with a simple “Hello, are you ready yet?” message.
Even if they don’t respond, you’ll know that you are staying in touch and they will appreciate it. Plus, it shows you’re organized and interested.
Don’t fill that mental vacuum with negativity that sounds like, “They don’t want to hear from me, I’m bothering them.”
And when they do respond, I'll bet they will thank you for staying in touch. They may even apologize for not responding!
Building Credibility Through Marketing
Building your credibility is the most effective marketing effort you can make. It’s also the most elusive and practically impossible to measure!
Credibility can precede you and prime your prospects so that all you have to do is show up and they’re ready to buy. It can also be used to weed out the tire-kickers and demonstrate your expertise.
Here are some of the active marketing tools that build your credibility:
Post on your own blog or offer to be a “guest blogger” on industry blogs where your prospects go looking for advice. Than take that material and post it on LinkedIn’s publishing platform for wider reach and visibility.
Expand your blog posts and email newsletters into longer form articles and submit them to online and offline publications in your target markets.
Re-purpose your written materials (blog posts, email marketing messages and articles) and turn them into presentation topics. Then submit them to associations and conferences where your target market gathers, in-person or virtually. Or, organize and sponsor your own networking or educational events (even webinars) on topics of interest to your market.
"Unofficial" (But Essential) Marketing Tools
When I ask creative professionals how they market their services, many say they don't, that they get all their work through word-of-mouth. But when we I probe a bit, I find out they are in fact using the "unofficial" or more passive marketing tools, such as an "elevator pitch" or a website.
Along with your active marketing efforts, you want to make sure your passive efforts are helping build credibility, too. Those efforts include:
It must be up to date. If it’s not, you might as well just forget about getting clients who need anything related to their web sites. You’ll either be too embarrassed to send them to yours or they’ll go there and be unimpressed by what they see.
Here are the top five things your web site must have
- 1Strong positioning: You must communicate clearly on the homepage who you best serve and how. For example, the positioning statement at Marketing Mentor is: “The go-to online resource for creative professionals who want better clients, bigger budgets and better projects"
- 2Good SEO/keyword usage: You must offer useful content that addresses your client’s business needs, integrating the language your best prospects are using to search for your services.
- 3Intuitive navigation: The site mustn’t confuse your visitors with “creative” ways to find what’s on the site.
- 4Calls to action: You must tell visitors what to do and where to go, taking them through a path that will generate qualified leads for your pipeline.
- 5Up to date technology and social links.
One formula that works when it comes to answering the question, “What do you do?” is this:
"Who you help + what they get/you provide for them?"
Here are some examples of blurbs:
Getting the Blurb Right
If you want a certain type of work, adjust your blurb (on the fly, even) to mention those services specifically. In fact, mention them first and see if that grabs your prospect’s attention.
If you’re a designer, talk about designing web sites or WordPress or direct mail pieces with pURLs or whatever is trendiest at the moment (because that’s what they’ll think they need).
If you’re a writer, talk about writing for the web or creating content that creates loyalty or generates sales.
If you’re a marketing strategist, talk about the latest digital marketing tools.
The point is: Include your specialty in your blurb so you don’t inadvertently alienate those who are looking for it.
So the blurbs above could be modified as:
And don't worry if you’re not an “expert” yet. Talk about “moving in that direction” or “doing more and more web design work” or “exploring social media marketing.”
Download my Elevator Pitch Worksheet! It will help you get your blurb right:
Elevator Pitch Worksheet
Make sure you have a presence on the social networks most frequented and used by your prospects.
For most professionals, it’s LinkedIn, but Twitter is very popular for business, and some also use Facebook for business purposes.
Use social media as an extension of your in-person networks.
Whichever networks you focus on, make sure they’re up to date and consistent with each other and with your web site. Use them to demonstrate your position in the markets (vertical industries) you serve and be sure to mention specific services you offer, as in your blurb.
Join groups on LinkedIn that are related to your target industries as well. On your profile, the icon and group name will show up and become part of the impression made by your profile, thereby enhancing your positioning.
Bottom line: If you do marketing well for yourself, it’s obvious that you can help your clients with the same. You must practice what you preach, especially when it comes to interactive or digital media.
Networking Isn’t What You Think…
Networking is scary for a lot of people. But if you’re scared, then networking isn’t what you think.
Networking is actually a way of seeing the world.
And that way involves seeing all the potential opportunities in front of you and connections you could possibly make, and then deciding (on a case-by-case basis) which ones you want to act on.
Here is some information that will help you recognize good opportunities, and take the right steps to maximize their benefit:
Four Contacts You Need in Your Network Now
It’s impossible to do everything by yourself, especially when you’re self-employed and trying to grow your own business. That’s why networking is absolutely essential to your success.
But networking isn’t about tacky events, schmoozing sales people and uncomfortable socializing; it’s simply a way of looking at and living in the world.
Your network is your most important asset. But it has to be intentional, rather than happenstance.
You must know what and who you need, then figure out what’s missing, so you can find it.
The first step is determining what you can do yourself and what others can do better than you can.
This takes practice, but once you figure it out, you will need to develop different categories of relationships within your network.
Make a spreadsheet with the following four categories and begin to fill out names of people you know in each to determine where you might need more connections.
Clients and Customers
Many people don’t think about clients as part of their network, but they’re actually a very important part. First of all, they pay you and you couldn't do your work without them. Secondly, if you develop strong relationships with clients, you can keep them around for a while rather than always having to look for new ones.
Think about which client relationships you can build on. Who can you offer more to?
When was the last time you were in touch with clients you’d like to continue working with? If it’s been a while, reach out today.
Peers and Colleagues
If you have a hectic project and no manpower or are looking for a new perspective on a challenge you’re tackling, you should be able to reach out for help to someone from your network of peers and colleagues.
They can help you with overflow and you can help them (just don’t confuse peers with competitors).
Paid or unpaid, formal or informal, near or far, mentors come in all shapes and sizes.
Which traits make them mentor material? They’ve been there before and they can guide you.
Too many people are unjustly embarrassed by what they don’t know. This prevents them from looking for help, which inhibits growth.
Don’t be stubborn. Seek the guidance of a mentor and you’ll accelerate your success.
Any of the people above can be referral sources, too.
The best referral sources are the people who know you well, understand your strengths, and recognize the kind of assistance or customers you need.
They are open, always networking and love to help. Make sure to invest time with these people. Identify the "connectors" in your network and get to know them better over coffee or Skype.
Networking in Person? Do This First.
If you’re attending an in-person networking event, showing up isn’t the first thing you should do. These four easy actions will give your networking a head start.
A Week in Advance, Connect With Them
Back in the 20th century, not only were you in the dark about who’d be there, you also couldn’t connect in advance. Not so in the 21st century.
Now, because of all the information available, there are multiple ways to reach out in advance to lay the foundation with choice prospects for a potentially fruitful connection. You can:
Connect on LinkedIn
Because you are both attending the same event, you have a genuine reason to connect and a built-in opening to connect with. Simply write, “I see you’re attending the X or Y Conference next week. I am too and would love to connect and meet you there. I think we might be a good fit.” (And choose “colleague” when asked how you know them.)
Start a Discussion on LinkedIn
If the event or the group hosting the event has a LinkedIn Group, join it and use the opportunity of the upcoming event to initiate a discussion on a topic related to the event topic or simply to ask who’s going. That way, you’ll already know a few people when you get there.
Follow and then send a tweet to anyone you want to meet, especially the speakers. This not only buys you some mental real estate; it also establishes goodwill by giving them visibility to your followers. In less than 100 characters, you can say, “Looking forward to meeting at the conference. I’ll be there too and will say hello.”
Follow Them on Twitter or “Like” Their FB Page
Facebook is generally used more for personal than for business. But it can’t hurt to connect there too, if it seems appropriate.
Real networking is an ongoing effort to cultivate relationships. Forget about awkward interactions and stale cheese plates. The best way to create a great network is to be open and authentic in your daily dealings with people. Strive to help others yourself and it will come back to you tenfold.
Marinate in these ideas. It takes time to change bad habits.
One Marketing Effort Every Day
When I ask creative professionals how they market their services, most say, “Word of mouth.” And they say it with pride!
This makes me cringe every time.
Because word of mouth is not a marketing tool!
A marketing tool is something you do. It’s active. You control it.
Word of mouth is the opposite.
It happens to you. It’s passive. And you can’t control it – at all!
In fact, “word of mouth” is nothing more than a euphemism for “taking whatever comes along.”
It’s true that, sometimes, what comes along isn’t all that bad; it may even be really good. But if that’s all you’ve got, if that’s the foundation of your business, you may be in trouble and not even know it – until it dries up.
That means you are at the mercy of whatever -- and whoever -- comes along, and that forces you to take on any project, whether it’s right for you or not, even the clients waving bright red flags in your face.
In the last recession, too many designers (and all kinds of creative professionals, for that matter) took a big hit when their biggest clients pulled back & took the work in-house (or their clients disappeared completely).
People like you were left with almost no work. They had to scramble and take whatever they could find. Some are still in that position.
This is no way to run a serious business. You don’t have to rely on word of mouth – indeed you can’t.
But there is another option.
All it takes is one marketing effort per day.
Discipline yourself to fit that effort in—first thing if necessary—before your day is hijacked by client work.
You know now you need to be marketing your services regularly. You just need a little help—a kick start, a nudge, a prompt.
And here it is! Download this marketing check list:
The Marketing Mentor Weekly Marketing Checklist
I truly hope this guide is going to help you make a few improvements in how you promote yourself.
My goal was to help you get a good grasp of what it takes to get new high-quality clients.
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