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Designshops.com: Startup Your Marketing

The Following essay appeared on Designshops.com (a Miller Freeman property) in 1999.

So, you've been in business for a year or so. You've caught your break and actually get paid to produce sites for a local business or two. They refer you to their customers and you create sites for them and so on. Now you've got a portfolio, a few regular clients, and you figure that the referrals and your stellar reputation will carry you to retirement. Right? "Wrong," say the experts. You need marketing, no matter how good you are.

Why would you need a marketing program? Designing Web sites is a sellers' market, right? Besides, your clients love your work and your reputation is spreading. Well, according to David Baker of ReCourses, a management-consulting firm that works with small providers in the communication industry, marketing is "not about growth. It's about control." Think of reputation and referrals as a railroad. Get on that track and you don't have a lot of choice. You'll tend to travel in one direction and one direction only. You can only hope that the tracks are going in the direction you want to go.

If that were not risky enough, experts like Cameron S. Foote, editor of the Creative Business Newsletter, says that reputation and referrals usually result in a downward spiral. Clients rarely refer you up to better-paying clients. They also have a habit of telling referrals your fees, making it hard for you to raise your price. So, if you want to pick the market you serve, get better clients, and be able to name your price, if you want growth with control, you need to market yourself, Foote says.

Marketing is active and strategic. In a strategic marketing program the goal is to bring on more and better clients. Taking control of your business in this way involves three steps: (1) finding your position, (2) finding your clients, and finally, (3) winning them.

Finding Your Position

The first and by far the most important step in your marketing plan is to find or position yourself. A company that understands its position in the marketplace is focused, and has a far greater chance of success than one that will take any job that comes along. Ask yourself the following questions: Which businesses are you most familiar with? What, outside of the work of design, do you know well and like to learn about? What kinds of clients make you the most excited? Knowing your clients and their work is very important. They will want to know that you are an expert in their niche, and that you will be able to communicate to their potential clients.

Also consider what the majority of local businesses are selling and how you might be positioned to help. In Silicon Valley, where I live, knowledge of the high-tech industry is essential to taking part in the economic boom associated with the computer industry. A hundred miles north, it's knowledge of the wine industry that will help you serve the dominant market of the Napa Valley. If your strengths lie in markets not represented in your area, you might have to move your shop or take a class on some aspect of the local specialty.

In The Business Side of Creativity, his book on how to run a creative agency, Foote says, "Remember that most clients don't actually buy creativity; they buy solutions to business (or communications) problems." You must learn to sell more than design. This is the essence of positioning.

Finally, consider the size of client you can handle. For example, if you are young firm with a good-looking portfolio but not a lot of experience, you'll probably serve smaller companies better than larger ones. Knowing your limits without downplaying your talents will help you position yourself effectively.

Searching for Clients

Once you've decided on what the market's needs are and your firm's ability to meet those needs, it's time for the second step in your plan - the search for clients. There are several ways to build a list of potential clients. Your target will probably belong to trade organizations. Search for these in the Encyclopedia of Associations or the National Directory of Trade and Professional Associations. A reference librarian can help you find these or other directories, from which you can glean contact lists.

Another helpful resource is an electronic database such as iMarket. This CD-ROM catalogues more than 10 million businesses, and you can customize the lists according to your market. How you customize your list will depend on how you've positioned yourself. To make sure the companies can afford you, filter them by annual revenue. To target a geographical region, filter the list by state, region, or city. To target a specific industry or industries, filter by SEC code. All the codes are defined on the CD-ROM.

From these and other sources, develop a large list of qualified clients, those who are in the right niche, have the right size budget, and so on. It could number between 250 and 750 companies, depending on your aspirations and budget. As you prepare the list, consider the cost of mailing a promotional piece to each address. With this list, you now are ready for the third step of the marketing process: winning your clients.

Contacting Potential Clients

From this overwhelming collection of hundreds of potential clients you must pull names of companies with whom you have some connection. Do not cold call. All your calls should be warm, says Baker. That is, they should be to clients that you have some connection with or who have somehow responded-even with a hit on your Web site-to your promotions. This introduces the questions of which promotions you should use, how you can know they'll be effective, and how a contact turns from cold to warm.

Contrary to the practice of most agencies, Baker and Foote say that the most cost-effective marketing tool for design shops to start with is a direct-mail piece. Many design shops will enter the market with an ad of some sort, whether in newspapers, magazines, or worse, on the Web. The problem, both men experts say, is that these ads such are expensive, they're not targeted, and they return unqualified responses. In contrast to this, a direct-mail program, although labor intensive, is relatively cheap and perfectly targeted. You know that the respondents will be qualified; the clients will be able to afford you, and you'll enjoy working for them. You know this because you made the mailing list.

These mail campaigns can be very effective when executed systematically and followed up with phone calls. A direct-mail campaign exemplifies the value of a strategic marketing plan: the potential for growth with control. Ads can come later as a supplement.

Your mailer could be a postcard, some kind of three-dimensional piece, or a holiday greeting. The piece should be simple, but powerful, and should drive the prospective clients to visit your Web site or to call you. When prospects respond to your mailer, they're showing interest. At this point, they're no longer merely qualified clients. They're now warm, qualified clients. Setting up a meeting to show them your portfolio will be much easier. And you should meet with each prospective client in person. Even though your entire portfolio may be online, it is far better to sit down with the client and talk through why your work for goodcompany.com was just what was needed, and then to interact with the client's concerns.

If you do decide to cold call, you'll have a tougher job. Call with solutions. Do your research. You will have somewhere in the neighborhood of three seconds to turn a cold call into a warm call. Do this by mentioning their the client's Web site or other promotional materials, or an upcoming event or product release that it might want to support with a temporary Web site. Don't try to describe your work over the phone or rely on your Web site to sell you.

Keep on Marketing

So, now that you have an idea of how your marketing program will take shape, there's one final consideration. How much effort should you devote to this process, seeing that you already have paying jobs that more than fill your time? Cameron Foote notes that you should devote up to 20 percent of your labor hours (all the hours of all your employees) to your marketing effort. By the time your shop reaches four or five people, you should consider hiring a full time sales or marketing person.

For long-term planning, know that an average of 2 percent of the companies you mail to will respond in some way, so you'll want to be fairly regular about mailing your promotions. The more the potential clients see your nicely designed pieces come across their desks, the more likely it is that they'll remember your name. Direct mail is cheap enough that you can get away with this. Consider mailing something quarterly and even breaking the mailings into small groups so that you can watch for responses, calling your warm clients before they turn cold again. This might not be possible if you send out all 500 pieces at once.

Don't forget: Marketing is active, not passive. You'll work hard, but you'll be rewarded with greater control of the direction your business takes.