Can independent consultants successfully market their services outside of their personal network?

The post builds on the discussion in one of my previous articles titled  “The Consultant’s Dilemma” .

In my previous post, I talked about the embryonic days of my first startup, Lewtan Technologies, and how that company started as a consulting firm (with just me) and morphed into a 100+ person product/services hybrid company by overcoming “the consultant’s dilemma” (“When I am consulting, I am not marketing.  When I am marketing, I am not consulting.”).

After posting that article, I received 40 well-articulated comments from readers (feel free to review many of them at the bottom of the article – they make for great reading).  Most of the commenters agreed with the premise.  For example…

David Dunworth said “As a SMB Consultant for more than 20 years, I found it difficult to level out the revenue stream for the very same reasons you state. It was feast or famine, repeat without rinse. I was a true generalist consultant with specific expertise in marketing and the sales process. After beating my head against the wall for many years, I determined my EXACT specialty and decided to stop using a shotgun and switched to a laser pistol instead…”

As we think about marketing for independent consultants (or other subject-matter intensive businesses), I think it is important to hone our strategy like David Dunworth and to bifurcate our review into two categories “Marketing within…” and “Marketing outside your personal network”.

Marketing within your “personal network”

Most successful consultants are effective in marketing their services to their “personal network” which I define to include one’s inner circle including professional colleagues, existing clients, friends, family, etc.  as well as one or two degrees of separation away from the inner-circle including friends or colleagues of your inner-circle.  For example, colleagues of clients, friends of friends, or even the parents of your kids’ soccer teammates.  At Lewtan Technologies, my first major client was my former boss at the Bank of Boston.

This makes a lot of sense because there is an inherent sense of trust between people who can easily reference each other because they frequent the same circles or know people who do. I am not going to spend a lot of time discussing this form of marketing because most consultants already practice it.  But should you invest your time and resources trying to market outside your personal network?  Interestingly, some commenters indicated that marketing outside of one’s personal network is a waste of time.

Tedd Grigg, an independent consultant writes “I’ve been doing independent direct marketing consulting for 12 years now and still haven’t found the secret to getting consistent referrals or volume to keep things steady. It’s either too much, or famine. And in this economic environment, famine continues to lurk at the doorstep. But I have found that Internet driven leads rarely yield quality business.”

In this article, I present the case that you should be marketing BOTH within and outside your personal network, but that you need to go into it with the proper expectations.  I also want to touch upon (with elaboration in a future post) the different ways you can market outside your personal network.

Marketing outside your “personal network” 

Back in the days (boy, I sound old!) at Lewtan Technologies, marketing outside your personal network meant running advertisements in trade publications and classified ads in newspapers (Boston Business Journal, Mass High Tech, etc.), public relations, attending trade shows, sending unsolicited letters, and (the dreaded) “cold calling”.  Those activities required headcount, material cash outlays and a significant time investment.

Today, marketing outside your personal network is less about advertising in newspapers and trade publications and more about online marketing including pay-per-click (PPC), search engine optimization (SEO), online advertising campaigns, etc..   Also, it includes various forms of  “inbound marketing” ( a term, I believe, was coined by the founders of the Cambridge, MA company HubSpot).  Inside marketing involves  the creation of high quality content like blog articles, podcasts, videos, etc. and the use of social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.) to disseminate the content.  The idea is that your content will be so compelling that the viewers will be inspired to “share”  ( or “like”, “follow”, “tweet”, etc.) it with their friends and co-workers.  Perhaps you get lucky and your content even “goes viral” – is shared among thousands or even millions of viewers.  The idea is that this easily shared content helps you get you found on the web and also carve out a position as a key opinion leader (KOL) with the result being that prospects will “raise their hands” as warm inbound leads with an interest in your products and services.  Do online and inbound marketing work for independent consultants and other small companies with subject-matter expertise based sales methodologies?

Independent consultant M.J. Plebon indicates “no” unless you have an expert help you…“We put our attention to the online marketing flavour of the month be it Pay-per-Click, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter etc etc. Many of us get caught up in the number of likes, visits, click through rates, traffic to our websites or blogs and it results in a very confused and dejected consultant. Marketing online is a very difficult job. It changes very quickly. Many try to do it themselves however crash and burn-out due to the complexity of it all.”

My opinion?  Whereas I think it makes sense to have a LinkedIn profile, web-site,  and web-presence,  I think most independent consultants and small businesses will not be successful with an online or inbound marketing campaign unless they are prepared to make a significant investment in money and time.  Typical online and inbound marketing campaigns cost thousands of dollars a month (I am sure I will get some push-back from PPC consultants, SEO consultants, and social media marketing experts on this point) and require a significant time investment reaching out to other thought leaders, writing blog articles, creating audio and video content, and interacting with lukewarm prospects.  Ask anyone who has ever started a blog.  Almost every single one withers on the vine (“littering the ambitious blog graveyard” or whatever cliché  you prefer 🙂 ) after the eager writer has poured his/her hear out in the first couple of blog posts.  Why?  Because it is really hard and takes a lot of time too (remember “the Consultant’s Dilemma”?).

The exception is that I do think it makes sense to use Zintro (or similar services) to generate inbound marketing activity because Zintro is a “free option” that does most of the heavy lifting for you.  Zintro employs best practices in SEO, PPC, social media marketing, online advertising, inbound marketing, and other ways to aggregate leads.  Effectively, it splits the cost of sourcing those leads among the thousands of experts on the platform.  All you have to do is register which takes just a couple of minutes and the leads come to you (in the case of Zintro, in most cases you will have leads delivered to you immediately after signing up).  Moreover, the incoming leads are free or inexpensive if you opt to pay the very modest Premium fee).  Thereafter, you have to figure out which of the leads might be a good fit and respond accordingly.  So, in 15 – 30 minutes a week, you are expanding your marketing efforts outside of your personal network and position yourself to overcome “The Consultant’s Dilemma”.   Moreover, just seeing the “flow” of activity can be interesting unto itself.  The inquiries you receive will give you a better understanding of the pain points in the market which will help you to better adjust your offerings.

When marketing outside your personal network, it is important to go into it with the right expectations.  It is a game of numbers (think about the proverbial “marketing funnel”).  At the mouth of the funnel, it starts out highly impersonal because the prospects do not know you like they do when marketing within your personal network.   Many of the people who reach out to you will not get back in touch with you after your reply.  It is not because they are rude.  Instead, it is because they feel no moral imperative to do so.  They sent an inquiry to you without knowing you.  But as the prospects move down through the funnel , and once you have some back & forth communication with the prospects, the relationships  take on a more “normal” feel.

In my next post, I will share some tricks of the trade for getting the highest volume of quality leads out of an online/inbound lead generation platform like Zintro as well as proven techniques for improving your likelihood of converting those leads into paying engagements.

Comments (affirming or dis-affirming) are welcome.

Stuart Lewtan
Founder & CEO, Zintro Inc.