What I learned about getting clients without looking desperate
If you’re running a business, be it as a freelancer, a consultant, a startup, an agency, or as someone selling products, you must always make marketing strategies a priority.
I learned this the hard way.
It was 2014, and I was scraping cash to pay my monthly mortgage debt and credit card bills. My baby was just one month old and I was half a million dollars in debt. How could I not be desperate?
We all have to start from somewhere to promote ourselves even just a little. But, how do you win against those guys who are spending tens of thousands of dollars on ads each day, paying countless ghostwriters to churn out blog posts for them, and putting up pretty pictures on Instagram every day?
How do you stand out just like those cool dudes and hot babes who get millions of views on each video they post, but you get zero views when you say the exact same thing during the same period of time?
After a decade of not doing much marketing, this year, I’m finally rolling up my sleeves and starting to act. I figure, as entrepreneurs, it’s something we’ll have to keep doing and testing, until the day we end our business for good.
Here’s what I’ve been doing to promote my business for free. Anyone can do these too.
Decide Your Customer Channels
There are tons of platforms where you can post almost anything you want at any time. But if you’re doing this on your own, there’s only so much time you have. Hence, don’t attempt to post everywhere first.
You may or may not wish to limit yourself to one channel. What I’ve learned from Nat Eliason’s blog (the only SEO expert I follow) is to decide the channels you’d like to use for acquisition, engagement, and retention.
Here are the channels I’ve been using:
- Customer Acquisition — Content and SEO
- Customer Engagement — Linkedin
- Customer Retention — Email
Your choices depend on where the best place is to reach your target audience. In my case, I’m running an unlimited graphic design service to make life easier for corporate marketing directors to support their in-house designers.
I’ve been asking my network what they do when they need graphic design help. They said they’ll first look to their closest friends and connections. If nobody is available or suitable to take up their scope of work, the next thing most of them do is search on Google.
Hence, I’m putting most of my marketing efforts on content to provide as many answers as possible for those looking for information related to design. Though content is king, I find that it’s dead if nobody can find it. If you’re also creating content, it’s wise to optimize it for at least one search engine.
Getting started is a lot of work, and I did that by thoroughly learning content marketing from Daniel Daines-Hutt: #Retargeting Nerd… and SEO from Nat Eliason. Then everything else is execution on what I’ve learned.
Chances are the business you’re running isn’t unique in this world. If you find your industry competitive, it’s a good indicator that there’s a high demand for your service.
Looking where that demand lurks and showing up is key to reminding your prospects of your existence. That’s where engagement comes into play. Instagram and Pinterest may score highest for visual content, which is good for graphic designers, but I didn’t want to get buried in the crowd of sameness.
Since many of my customers browse LinkedIn regularly to read industry news and get connected with experts they follow, I’ve put a lot of time into using LinkedIn to build my profile, connections, and relationships with anyone who needs help in the graphic design area.
Email has worked best for my business so far. I’ve never had a weekly newsletter or email sequences, but once we create a content team, this may happen. Meanwhile, we’ve been touching base with customers and prospects regularly by offering our help in a personal way.
You have to first understand the needs of your customers. In my case, I know a customer who loves to post image quotes but has no time to do it himself. Hence, I make it a point to check in with him via email by sending inspiring quote images related to his niche.
Most times he will respond to ask for my help on his quotes. Doing this personally with hundreds of my customers isn’t easy, but we do it as regularly as possible because it’s our mission to help as many of them as we can.
Add Your Site to Free Business Listing Sites
I didn’t place my site everywhere, but it’s something you can do. In my case, I’ve placed it in both free and paid listings. The paid ones didn’t bring in a single visitor, while two free ones helped to increase traffic to my site to about five times compared to the days when I did zero marketing.
In my case, the majority of the above spike between May to July came from Service List and Google My Business. With just these two sites, I had a dozen enquiries each month, and I worked with at least two clients from the enquiries.
Submitting your business to lists takes a lot of time. Hence, I optimized my efforts by only submitting my business to the ones where most visitors may come from. I found that by first checking out the listings of a few of my top competitors. Then, I use a tool called Ahrefs to check the backlinks of these competitors.
Out of the different backlinks, only one stood out and it’s called “Service List.” That’s when I decided to submit my business to the list. Not everyone who came from there purchased from us, but it gave us a chance to find out more about them and build a long-term relationship for future work opportunities.
If you aren’t able to find any common backlinks from your competitors, you may wish to submit your business to as many online platforms as you can via Submit.co, which was created by Marc Köhlbrugge, founder of BetaList.
Make an Irresistible Offer
You should be marketing your business consistently. But your first contact with your prospect doesn’t need to involve money. Getting anyone to exchange money for your service takes trust and a whole lot of it. If you were to personally ask them if they need your service at first contact, you may seem like a spammer even if your business is authentic and legitimate.
I did an experiment recently on my LinkedIn account by posting a crazy offer. It’s a service to design anyone’s LinkedIn profile banner for free, no strings attached. Here’s the post I did that received 3669 views and counting:
What’s so irresistible about this offer is not so much that it’s free. Knowing what we can do with Canva on our own, this offer isn’t an expensive one. Many people can create their own LinkedIn profile banner without my help.
Some of them responded because they’ve probably never seen such an offer on LinkedIn before. Others may have reacted because I was doing something presumably “dangerous.” Many people would have thought that working on 20 LinkedIn profile banner designs is no joke.
If it takes an hour to create one banner, 20 banners may take 20 hours. The varied reactions to my post led to more views. These views and engagement, in turn, lead to people having more trust in me and my brand.
You might ask why I did this and if I knew that I could gain customers from this post. In fact, I didn’t expect sales from this. My purpose was to help spruce up my network’s profiles, get connected with those not initially connected, and just help as many people as I could. Once they commented that they were interested, I messaged them personally to ask for more information on what they want on their banner.
Although I limited it to 20 profiles, a total of 47 people ‘raised their hands,’ but only seven people responded to my personal message. Out of the seven people who responded, two of them signed up for my service. That’s a 4.2% conversion rate, a bonus to me in my opinion.
Publish Tons of Quality Content
If you’re new to this, don’t be too self-conscious about if your content is valuable or not. Why? Don’t you need to create content with awesome quality? The short answer is “yes,” and the long answer is also “yes.”
But if you’re only allowed to publish something when it’s of quality, then may I ask, what does it mean to be of good quality or bad quality? This answer depends on the responses you gather from the questions mentioned above.
Value is in the eye of the beholder
One time, I had to create a book cover design for a customer. I did more research than I used to do and took about half a day to complete it. But the feedback on it was really hurtful. She told me it looked like a design she could have done herself in less than an hour, and it was unprofessional and cheap. “Please don’t be lazy and spend more time on it. Redesign it,” she said.
Redesign, I did. This time, I learned my lesson and spent less time doing it and more time asking her questions. Eventually, I redesigned it in just an hour. Strangely, she loved it!
You may not understand how this works — me neither. Though this example is not about content, the point is, you’ll always be your own worst critic if you keep researching what’s out there and comparing your own work. Realise that you’re not buying the work — someone else is. The only way to sell is to do what these people want, and not what you think is good for them.
It’s not that you should be lazy and deliver a half-baked bread. What I mean is, some people just prefer half-baked bread while there are some people who love darker toasted ones.
They will come
Back to content — it works the same way. I’ve wanted to publish tons of content since 2014, and I finally started in January 2019. Between 2014 to 2018, nobody came to me organically to speak with me about my business. Suddenly, in 2019, people want to know more.
Why did I take so long? Simply because I was afraid people will judge and criticise the way I write, and so I didn’t publish anything. The internet was already so crowded with what I wanted to say, and so why would people read what’s on my mind?
I realised it’s not so much my mind that people want to read from. Most people just want to learn as much as they can to generate more ideas, dig for answers, or just to be entertained. By consistently creating content, you’ll learn what is considered “quality” to the group of people who are about to consume your content.
You’ll discover how to write your social media posts to introduce what your content is about, and you’ll learn how to explore online spaces to find who needs your content the most. This process allows strangers to trust you more to eventually work with you.