As a marketer of a small firm, you probably don’t have the resources that a 50-100-person firm (or larger) has at their disposal. They may have multiple marketing staffers, while you might have one, or less than one, full-time person focused on marketing and business development. They have money to spend on outside PR or advertising consultants, while you rely on in-house capabilities. And they probably spend money on the production of glossy marketing materials and/or interactive content with a lot more glitz than anything you can generate.
This doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t a lot you can learn from these big-firm marketing operations, including things that don’t cost any money at all. That’s because some of the most potent advantages large firms have don’t come from financial resources, but from the smart planning and resource management that come from taking a thoughtful approach to the marketing process.
So if you want to stay ahead of your small to mid-size rivals, and maybe even snatch some projects away from the bigger players in your niche, try some of these large-firm tactics.
1. Utilize a CRM System
Everyone (hopefully) understands that you need to know who your prospective clients are, but many people don’t recognize that keeping track of every interaction with them is equally important. Customer resource management (CRM) software is the tool that makes this possible. It allows you to keep track of how a prospect got onto your radar and what kinds of overtures they have (or haven’t) responded to, which is what enables the tracking activities that are proposed later in this post, and it also facilitates the scheduling of future tasks for prospects, which will help ensure that you stick with a regular program of follow up.
DesignM.ag had a very good post a few weeks ago that provided an overview of some of the CRM software that is available today. I have had good luck with DayLite, which is Mac only software, although I will say that it doesn’t provide a tremendous amount of guidance on how to set up your database, requiring you to figure out some of the principals of CRM on your own. Salesforce.com offers a little more guidance and is widely regarded as the industry standard, which can have some benefits if you ever want to share your system with someone else or bring in another person to help manage your marketing efforts. Salesforce can be one of the more expensive options out there, but there are a couple of different plans, and it is very rich in features and well supported.
2. Create Systemized (But Not Standardized) Marketing Materials
Reinventing the collateral wheel for every new prospect or project opportunity seems to be a favorite pastime of smaller creative firms. Maybe this is because they don’t have a good system for accounting for the time spent on this activity, and therefore don’t recognize its cost. Or maybe they just don’t have the luxury of forward thought when it comes to marketing, which brings with it the realization that this inquiry actually won’t be the last, and that there will be another, similar request within weeks.
Successful larger firms don’t approach marketing collateral on an ad hoc basis. They respond to inquiries or opportunities by drawing from a deep well of static and interactive materials.
This isn’t to say, however, that you should utilize a generic, one-size-fits-all response to inquiries about your firm and its capabilities. A good system should be thought of as a highly customizable kit of parts, with room for appropriate information that makes it unique to the recipient. This will yield materials that are higher quality, more comprehensive, and less time-consuming to produce than those that are the result of starting from a blank page.
How do you do create this kind of system? Start by looking at what you have sent out in the past year. There’s probably quite a bit of good material there, and you may even be surprised by some of the great content that you’ve produced and forgotten about. Once you’ve identified the raw materials, standardize the formats and create a catalog of your new inventory to help you find things quickly in the future.
3. Look at Leads in a “Funnel”
One pretty standard sales management technique at big companies with a long sales cycle is to view prospects in a “funnel.” The basic idea is that at each stage of the sales process some of your potential customers are going to fall away because they have selected another firm, decided not to buy, been deemed non-qualified, etc. This means that you need a lot of prospects at the wider top part of the funnel (the initial contact) in order to keep a decent flow coming out of the narrow bottom (where they become clients).
A typical funnel, which could be customized to account for the unique characteristics of your industry and/or sales process, might include the following levels:
- Follow up/Consultation
- Contract Negotiation
If you assign all of your prospective clients or projects to various parts of the funnel, and then monitor the funnel contents, you can watch for gaps in the flow of potential work, especially at the top end of the funnel. If you notice a narrowing of the “Inquiry” category, for example, then you know that you need to increase your efforts to add new prospects to the system.
This is another area where good CRM software can be a big help. Some of the more full-featured CRM programs, including DayLite and Salesforce.com, have funnel tracking features built into the system, which makes it easy to set up and monitor your own funnel.
4. View Your Marketing/Sales Process as a Pipeline
While the funnel is a way to monitor the health of your prospect flow, the pipeline model is a tool for actually moving prospects toward becoming customers.
By devising a sequence of interactions that you can have with a prospect, and creating materials to support those interactions, you can accomplish several things. You increase the number of prospects that you can manage simultaneously, improve the quality of your communications with prospects (giving them something of value, instead of just asking them over and over again if they are ready to hire you), and also decrease the instances of prospects “falling off the radar” after an initial inquiry and exchange of preliminary information.
Here’s an example of a very simplified approach to this process:
- Initial contact: Send capabilities brochure
- One week after initial contact: Follow up to answer any questions
- Four weeks after initial contact: Send link to download relevant case studies
- Eight weeks after initial contact: Send invitation to view archived webinar
- Every 4-8 weeks thereafter: Send link to relevant industry news with a personal note
The exact content of this program will depend, of course, on your business and the materials you have at your disposal. It may also be more or less focused on direct contact depending on your personal style. You will also want the ability to break out of this system when appropriate. For example, someone who is about to make a hiring decision may get more information at the outset than a person who is strictly a long-term prospect.
As with the funnel, a good CRM system will help you to manage this process.
5. Measure and Focus
Smart marketers of consumers products measure everything and then focus their resources on the tactics that work. Unfortunately, with business to business offerings (like creative services), it can be hard to measure the effectiveness of marketing tactics. Completed sales are much less frequent, which means less data, and since our web sites generally aren’t transactional, it’s harder to gauge the value of efforts that drive prospects to the web.
Big firms still try to measure what they can, however. They make efforts to find out where a prospect came from, and then store that information during the months that it may take for that prospect to become a client. But small firms seem to do this less frequently, and rarely seem to take action on what they do learn. Instead, they stick with their industry’s standard marketing tactics, regardless of their effectiveness. This is unfortunate, because in reality having fewer resources to work with warrants more focus, not less.
The specific techniques for measuring the value of various marketing tactics are too varied to go into here, but most of them are not particularly complicated. In fact, once you get into the measurement mindset you will find that most of them are actually pretty obvious. Ask people where they heard about you and record it in your database for future reference, use Google Analytics to evaluate the performance of your keyword advertising and SEO efforts, use an email marketing service that enables you to see how many people actually read and click on your emails, etc.
6. Dedicate Time to Marketing
Having one or more full-time staff members devoted to marketing may be the most important advantage that larger firms have over their smaller competitors. Having full-time marketing staff means that more content can be developed, more prospects can be followed up with, and more proposals can be prepared, all without cutting into the time available for billable work.
Even if you don’t have the luxury of focusing exclusively on marketing, however, you can achieve some of the same benefits by dedicating a percentage of your time to marketing activities. Rather than just setting a goal of x hours per week, try setting aside a block of time for marketing (say one hour per day, or two hours on Tuesday and Thursday). Put it in your calendar, and if something else comes up, don’t cancel it, move it.
You may feel like you don’t have enough activities to take up that much time, but that’s just because you haven’t taken the time to come up with a plan. Spend the first week on that, and then you’ll plenty of tasks to fill up your marketing time for weeks to come.
This really just scratches the surface, and I hope to be able to elaborate on some of these items in future posts. In the meantime, however, I hope that this gets you to start thinking about what large, successful firm do correctly when it comes to marketing, and how you now use some of these methods to improve the effectiveness of your own efforts. If you have your own thoughts or recommendations, I’d love to see them in the comments.