Posted by randfish
Starting up your own consulting agency can be quite a difficult process and often times the most challenging step to your endeavour will be finding new customers or clients.
In this week's Whiteboard Friday we will be covering some tips and tactics that you can use to get referrals and win customers. Don't forget to leave your own advice in the comments below.
Happy Friday Everyone! Enjoy!
Howdy, SEOmoz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Last week I got an email from a Moz fan who said, "Hey, Rand, I am trying to start up my SEO consulting business. My network is not that great yet. How am I going to find clients? Can you point me to a blog post?"
We've done several over the years, but I thought it was a great time to refresh and offer some practical tips and tactics for finding new business. I know there are a lot of folks out there who are seeking clients, who are considering going out on their own and starting their own consulting business, who've had success in-house, who've had success at other agencies. Let me give you some of the things that worked for us when we were in consulting and that work for a lot of the folks that we connect with in the field. Obviously, nearly 40% of SEOmoz's membership are folks who do consulting and agency work, the other 60% being in-house. Of course, we get to interact with a lot of these people and hear their stories of what works well for them. I thought I'd start with a few of those.
So number one, if you're just starting out and you have nothing else going on, I strongly recommend building a handful of case studies. What I mean by this is having a few sites and pages and projects that you can point to, even if you're very early stage. Even if you're saying, "You're my first professional customer," that's fine, that's okay. But have a few things that you've done in the past to show off your work.
So your brother has a hobby site, great. Maybe you've helped him to rank for a few keywords. Maybe you've helped him to build up a powerful Facebook fan page. Maybe you've helped him with some web marketing efforts on his Etsy store, whatever it is. Your friend's got a LinkedIn profile. Maybe she needs some help outranking some other people who are ranking for her name. She knows that she's going to be on the job market. You want to help her get position for that. You're going to help her create other profiles and write some guest pieces and all this kind of stuff that's going to help her show up highly in Google for her particular name. Maybe there's a personal blog, either one that you're running, one that someone else is running, a family member, a friend, and you can help optimize that site, get the right things installed in WordPress, get it moved over from Blogspot, get the post titles, doing some keyword research, having a few of the posts go hot. Great.
Now you can point to all of these case studies when clients talk to you and say, "Well, let me tell you about some of the things that worked well for this. Go to Google and search for this, you can see this page ranking, the reason that it's ranking so well are these different things that I did. I can help you with that kind of stuff." Having those case studies in your back pocket makes you very credible and believable, even if you are a very first-time consultant.
Of course, if you have a history of working with clients, one of the biggest problems that the SEO field has always had is that a lot of clients say, "Hey, I don't want you discussing my particular project. I'd prefer you didn't share and disclose which types of things you've worked on for me or what you've done." That's okay, and that's another great reason to have this handful of case studies that you can show off so you can say, "Hey, here's a few clients we've worked with" or "I can't tell you who they are, but if we sign an NDA, I'll be happy to disclose the names, and then they can serve as references, and then you can see the projects publicly that we've worked on, and those include some of these other ones."
A great follow-up to this is to actually offer some pro bono work, and there are two types of organizations that I strongly recommend this for. The first one is local charities or non-profits. It could be national non- profits and charities if you have a high profile and you want to do that. So here's Adorable Adoptions. It's an animal shelter. It's not actually an animal shelter. It's an animal shelter I just created in my mind. Lives here in Seattle on this whiteboard only. Fantastic, right? So you can do some SEO work to help them rank well for adopt a pet, or thinking about what to do with my pets, or those kind of things.
The other one that I think is a really good option is when you see small local startups kicking things off, so maybe it's somebody's personal project, something they're putting on Kickstarter, or something that they're launching for the first time and some friend of yours through a network or through Twitter or through Facebook, you've seen that they're launching this product through the TechPress. Great. Especially if they don't have a lot of venture backing and they're kind of on a tight bootstrap budget, maybe the founders still have day-to-day jobs, offer to kick in and help out. "Hey, do you need some help with your web marketing? I've done some things. I'm trying to build a portfolio, and I would love to show you guys how I can kick ass and then maybe build up some referrals in your network." They're going to be very, very grateful for that, especially those early stage folks who don't have time and energy to focus on the marketing components. So I really like those.
But I have a pro tip here. Make the offer very specific, and make your pens work too. Make the offer very specific. The reason being here is that if you offer to do some work, you can find yourself in these pro bono types of situations where there's just a lot of demands on your time, and as your business gets going or you have other projects you need to work on, those demands can become problematic. It can feel like a big conflict. So make sure that when you commit to something, you're committing to a very specific project that has a clear end date or that has a very clear end point. So once that project or that date has been reached, you can reach back out and say, "Hey, really loved working with you guys. I hope you'll recommend me in the future. I'd love to be able to use you as a reference for some future clients that I might get." Fantastic, but you've made that closure happen and sealed that deal. Of course, if they need more of your time, they can ask for it and those kinds of things, but you want to have that built in from the start. If you don't, you can get into a messy territory.
Number three, be a connector of people. Maybe you're an introvert or you have introverted tendencies and you don't love to go networking, that's okay. That's fine. But help people to find each other. Be on top of your local ecosystem in whatever world or niche you're in and whatever geographic region you're in. By being on top of what's happening in the field, you can say, "Hey, I noticed that you said you're looking for some software to help you with recruiting. I heard about The Resumator last week via TechCrunch or HackerNews or whatever. I'd be happy to make an introduction because I reached out to the founder there when I heard about it." Don Charlton, the guy from The Resumator probably doesn't need SEO help, but just as an example. And then help put those people together. If you have friends, if you have colleagues from former jobs, if you have people that you know through friends or family that have needs, putting them together and making those introductions can be fantastic. That becomes a referral source all on its own, and you will quickly see that other people who you've connected in the future will say, "Hey, you should meet so and so. She helped me connect with this person in the past, and she knows SEO stuff. So you should talk to her." Great way to get business.
Number four, choose a specialty. For goodness sake, especially right now it's critical because the field of web marketing is so crowded. There are so many people doing so many things that if you can choose a specialty and focus on it and then write about it and become known for it, this can really help your career.
I'll give you a great example. So this guy over here who I'm going to label AJ Kohn. So AJ, right, San Francisco-based SEO guy wrote what I consider the definitive guide to Google+ for marketing and SEO, and does a fantastic job of posting on there regularly. He's the only person I see in my stream who's really posting six, seven, eight, nine times a day, posting a bunch of interesting stuff, a bunch of fun stuff, personal stuff, whatever it is, great photography stuff that he always posts. He's made his topic area very unique. He started on Google+ in the very early days, was an early adopter of that. He wrote the definitive resource for it. By the way, he also wrote the definitive resource for Rel=Author and setting that up for sites, which I think is a great offshoot of that specialty. He contributes continuous updates to that and to other sites, like SearchEngineLand. He offers, obviously, to guest write for others, and he's showing off his skills by actually winning in that arena. When I do a lot of searches inside my Gmail account, which is the one that's connected to Google+, there's AJ, the stuff that he's Plus 1'd and shared and all these things, always ranking on page one for me because he shares so much content around the things that I consume. So he's done a great job of this.
There are tons of areas of specialty that still need or could use people in them. I would still say even old school kinds of things, like we need a new update to the old masters of curated research, guys like Dan Thies and Richard Baxter. We need someone who's getting into that world. We could definitely use someone to talk about the great advantages of Pinterest or LinkedIn. Chris from 97th Floor, Chris Bennett, does a phenomenal job with link-based still, infographics, interactive graphics. Once you get that association and are known for those specialties, people remember you, you have that branding, and then you're going to get recommended for these things. So find something you love and find the unique angle on it and the specialty. Phenomenal way to get content out there on the Web and get your name known.
Number five. This seems counter-intuitive, but when you're most desperate for business is when you make a lot of mistakes as an SEO consultant. I did this myself all the time, and I've talked to so many other people from the consulting and agency world who do this as well. They go, "Well, we have some people time free. I have some hours free. We really need the revenue coming in." So you expand to take on projects and customers that you normally wouldn't. The problem is that a lot of times, remember with accounts receivable, you're not getting paid with a credit card up front here. So you need to count on that trust factor and the likeability factor and the familiarity to make sure. It's actually a great idea when you're desperate to be able to say to someone, "Hey, I'm sorry. This is not in my wheelhouse. You're not the right kind of customer for me. I hope that you'll refer business my way, but let me point you over to this other person who does this work and who I think would be a fit." That interaction is oftentimes going to be much more positive than, "Yeah, let's start some client work. Well, I can't pay you that much, and besides I know you're desperate for business. So I'm going to offer you pennies on the dollar or 50% your normal rate. Then you're going to be locked into a contract with me, and by the way I'm unpleasant to work with." This makes for very frustrating stuff. So be cautious not to be accepting everything, to be cutting your rates, all that kind of stuff early on or when your business is struggling on the consulting side. A lot of the times, particularly in our field, you can take on some personal projects that are likely to either win you business over the long term or can actually be a channel for direct revenue, so anything from an affiliate project to a blog that sells advertising, this kind of thing.
Number six, my last recommendation and probably the best one I've got, this is via Wil Reynolds over at SEER Interactive. Help people. Help everyone you can and not just in the ways that are around marketing and SEO and social media and inbound. Help everyone you possibly can with anything that you can possibly do for them. So you see somebody who has a problem on Twitter, someone needs help moving something and you go, "Man, that guy's pretty cool. I'd really like to know him. You know what? I've got a van. I'm going to offer to pick up that chair that he needs at whatever furniture store. I'll reach out over Twitter or maybe I'll reach out over email." Fantastic, right? You have a friend who's out of work. I know you're struggling as well, right? You're trying to find clients. You obviously don't have a position for them, but it doesn't matter. As you're looking across clients, you're meeting with someone, maybe they don't take you up on it and you say, "Hey, I know that we didn't end up being your SEO agency. I didn't end up being your consultant, but I have a friend who's really good at project management and you said you were looking for a project manager position. I'd love to make the introduction." Fantastic, just by helping people in any way you can. There's a new local news site out there. There's a new neighborhood blog. Fantastic. Offer to contribute. Get to know all the people in the space. As you build up a network of people who know you and like you and who you've done nice things for in the past, you will have no problem winning clients and influencing referrals in the future.
All right everyone, I hope you've enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday. I look forward to maybe seeing some tips from you down there in the comments, and we'll see you again next week. Take care.
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