Tim Dietrich

Custom Software Developer

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Successful IT Consulting: Marketing

One of the biggest challenges that IT consultants face is finding new business. In a recent study performed by Freelancelift, 61% of their 1,200+ members indicated that they struggled to find clients.

When I was working as a database consultant, getting business was never a problem. In fact, I had the opposite problem: I had more work than I could handle.

Maybe I was just lucky, or simply happened to be in the right place at the right time. But I don't think so, because looking back, I believe there were specific things that I did that brought in business. And I was doing them without even realizing the impact that they were having.

Help Prospective Clients Find You

While I was thinking back to the things that I had done to bring in business, I discovered something interesting:

The things that I did to bring in business didn't involve finding clients. Instead, they were things that helped prospective clients find me.

Maybe that's why I've never had to advertise my business. I posted something to Twitter recently that said something to the effect that "if you are paying for advertising, then you are doing something wrong." I truly believe that. There's really no need to pay for advertising, and from what I've seen it isn't particularly effective anyway. So save your money. There are much better ways to market yourself.

That being said, there are plenty of techniques that you can use to spread the word about your business, to build awareness, and help prospective clients find you. These are what I call "soft" marketing techniques that cost next to nothing, have potentially broad reach, and will continue to attract pre-qualified prospects long after you've initially implemented them.

And before I get to them, I should emphasize that while these techniques helped me build a successful database consulting business, I think they will work equally well for consultants doing other types of work. Whether you're a software developer, a Web developer, a database consultant, an ecommerce consultant - it really shouldn't matter. If you're involved in providing some sort of technology-related consulting services, then I think these techniques will work for you.

Ok, so here they are.

Referrals

One of the best ways to get business is through referrals. I know that sounds lame, but it's true. There's no better source of leads than satisfied, happy clients who tell others about the great work that you've done for them.

In many cases, clients will refer business to you without any prodding at all. In other cases, you might need to reach out to your clients and ask them for referrals. Regardless, I encourage you to give it a try - because leads that come through referrals can be amazing.

Vendor Programs / Organizations

Depending on the type of work that you do, and the tools that you use to do it, there's a good chance that there are vendor programs that you might find helpful. By "vendor programs" I mean special membership programs that many software (and hardware) companies provide to the consultants and developers that use their products.

For example, FileMaker Inc provides the "FileMaker Business Alliance" (FBA) program, which is a resource for developers who create solutions using the FileMaker software platform. The FBA is a membership program, and one of the benefits that it provides is a listing on their Web site. Users of FileMaker products turn to a special area of the site to locate consultants who can help them with their FileMaker-related needs. It's potentially a great source of leads. (I wrote more about the FBA program yesterday.)

Xojo, the company that provides the popular cross-platform development tool of the same name, also provides developers with consulting leads. In Xojo's case, developers who have purchased Pro or Enterprise licenses can receive leads directly from Xojo. If you are a Xojo developer and looking for business, this is certainly something to consider.

Other technology companies provide similar programs. Microsoft provides the "Microsoft Partner Network." Similarly, Oracle provides the "Oracle Partner Network." Do some research and you will likely find additional programs.

While vendor programs can be a good source of leads, they usually provide additional benefits as well. Some give early access to new releases and products, special events, sales materials and training opportunities, and more.

Contributing

"Your greatness is not what you have, but in what you give."
-- Alice Hocker

The other methods that I'm going to share with you all have one thing in common: They all involve contributing to the community.

Yeah, I know - that sounds lame, too. But I've found that contributing to the community has been the most effective way to market myself and if it works so well for me, it will probably work for you as well.

This isn't just about "good karma." When you contribute, you increase your visibility. You begin to be seen as somewhat of an authority - as someone who "gets" the technology. As someone who's figured out how to do something that is complicated or confusing. And that's the kind of person that prospective clients are going to be drawn to, and who they are going to reach out to when they need help.

Best of all, contributing can be easy to do, it can be a lot of fun, and there are plenty of ways to do it. Here are some of those ways, presented in no particular order.

Blogging
Yeah, I know. Everyone blogs.

Or do they? While there are plenty of blogs out there, there aren't many that cover things like FileMaker or Xojo. So if you enjoy writing, this one is easy.

As far as topics go, write about the things you're experiencing. Techniques that work for you. Features and functions that you find helpful. Reviews of plug-ins. Book reviews. Interviews with other members of the community. Anything that you're interested in - because if it's something that you are interested in, chances are it will be of interest to others in the community as well.

Podcasting
This one is very similar to blogging, and it's really the same idea, with the content / value delivered via a different medium. Podcasts are extremely popular these days. If writing isn't your thing, then maybe podcasts are a better fit.

Videos
Again - very similar to blogging, in that it's all about providing valuable, interesting content via a different medium. In some cases, video is a better way to deliver content, especially in cases where the content involves demonstrating something. I was slow to adopt this technique, but now I really enjoy it.

My advice: Find software that makes this easy (I use a Mac app called ScreenFlow), start with a few short videos, and take it from there.

Webinars
This is very similar to videos - and in fact, you should record the webinars so that people can watch them later on. But the big difference is that webinars are typically presented live. That can be a little nerve wracking, because you never know what might happen. But webinars are popular because there an interactive element to them, where the audience can typically ask questions during or right after the presentation.

Open Source Solutions
This one was huge for me. I released a number of open source FileMaker solutions over the years. The trick, I think - and the reason that I believe that my solutions have been so popular - is that I tried to provide solutions to common problems that developers run into. For instance, they can be used to generate maps, calendars, barcodes, and more. One helps with syncing databases. Others can be used to implement signature capture, two-factor authentication, and so on. These are the types of things that developers are often asked to implement. By providing these types of open source solutions, you're contributing something valuable to the community.

The key is to provide solutions that are as easy as possible to understand, dissect, customize, and implement. They should be well documented, well organized, and whenever possible, should demonstrate how they can be used to solve "real world" problems.

A word of warning about providing open source solutions: They often require providing support, and that can prove to be overwhelming at times. So make sure that you are clear about what types of support you are willing to provide. Perhaps some support requests are actually business opportunities.

User Groups
Participating in, presenting to, and/or running a local user group is another great way to market yourself. It's also one of the few ways that you increase your visibility in your own geographic community. And while you might not think that there is a lot of interest in user groups, I think you might be pleasantly surprised. I found that running a local FileMaker user group generated quite a few opportunities over the years. It's a great way to get to know other developers and users in your community - and also a terrific way to improve your presentation skills.

Forums
Participating in online forums is another great way to increase your visibility in the community. You can help other developers and users, whether by answering their questions or pointing them in the right direction. That's a great way to demonstrate your skills and knowledge, and yet another way to increase your visibility in the community.

Newsletter
I was late to adopt this technique as well, and I regret not doing it sooner - because the impact is incredible. I now have several hundred subscribers to my newsletter. When I mail the newsletter out, everything jumps. The traffic to my site. The inquiries about the services that I provide. The number of newsletter subscribers. It gives my business an instant "across the board" boost.

And it's incredibly easy and cheap to get a newsletter started, to build your list, and to perform the mailings. There are several services available. I use MailChimp, and highly recommend it.

Social Media
Whether you choose to use Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc, there's no easier way to connect with others in the community and increase your reach than with social media. It's easy to do, it's free, and it's sometimes a lot of fun. It's also a great way to cross-promote your work. For example, Tweet about a new blog post, and also mention it on LinkedIn, your FaceBook page, etc.

Volunteering
Doing pro-bono work for non-profits is another way that can lead both indirectly, and sometimes directly, to new business. Find an organization that whose mission you feel good about, and then see how you can apply your skills to help them out. Again, this might lead directly to new business, where the organization needs service beyond what you can provide free of charge - and so they might hire you to do that additional work. Indirectly, you might find that this is a great way to network with other volunteers, board members, and so on - which might lead to business as well.

Conferences
There are so many amazing conferences being held these days, and attending them - or better yet, presenting at them - is another opportunity to market yourself. If you have the opportunity to speak at a conference, that's a great way to reach a large audience and demonstrate your skills and knowledge. At the very least, attending a conference is a good way to network with others in the community - and you never know what types of opportunities might come from those new connections.

Books and Ebooks
Publishing a book or ebook is a common way to be seen as an authority on a subject, and it's no surprise that this so effective. However, writing and possibly self-publishing a book takes a lot of work. I know first hand - and it's a long story. (Here's a video by another author whose experiences were similar to my own: What I Learned Writing A Lousy Tech Book)

Here's the big thing that I learned when I wrote my first book: Writing books isn't a particularly good way to make a living. Instead, it's a gateway to other, more lucrative opportunities. What I've found is that book generated a lot of leads - so many in fact, that at times it has been overwhelming.

If you do decide to write a book, whether it's being published traditionally or one that you're going to self-publish, know that it will likely take a lot of time and effort, that you'll need to stick with it, and that it will very likely not result in a huge, immediate payoff in the form of cash. Instead, it's another great way to provide value (your knowledge) to the community, increase your visibility, and potentially lead to new opportunities.

Final Thoughts

Ok, so there you go. I hope this gives you ideas and action items that will help you attract new clients and give your business a boost.

But before we wrap up, here are a few more things to keep in mind:

No single method that I listed is a "silver bullet." While some of the methods might be more effective than others, I think you'll find that you'll get better results if you mix and match some them.

Only use methods that you truly feel good about. If you're not comfortable writing, then maybe blogging isn't for. If you don't like speaking in from of groups, then obviously speaking (and maybe podcasting as well) aren't a good fit for you. Choose the methods that work best for you. At the same time, don't be afraid to try something new - something that pushes you from your comfort zone. I'm probably one of the most shy people you'd ever meet, and yet I pushed myself to present to our local user group. I'm still nervous about making presentations, but I'm getting better at it.

Marketing should be something that you do regardless of how busy you are with client work. Consistent marketing helps build a pipeline of business, which helps flatten the "boom and bust" cycles that many consultants dread.

And one final thought: Don't expect results overnight. Chances are that it will take time to see the impact that these methods will have. Be patient, stick with it, and see what happens. Evaluate your efforts, see what's working and what isn't, and then make changes to your strategy if necessary.

If you have questions about the techniques that I've described here, or have a technique of your own that you would like to share, please comment below.