I recently recorded a podcast on freelancers’ biggest headache: marketing.
Interestingly, many of the marketing questions from the Freelance Heroes community echoed those I hear from business owners who have been up and running for years. And ultimately, they highlight that having a defined marketing strategy in place is essential whatever size your business.
Below I’ve loosely transcribed some of my answers to 7 of these common marketing questions, but if you’d like you can listen to the full podcast with Freelance Heroes Ltd co-founder Ed Goodman. Look out too for my follow-up blog with answers to some of the other questions I address in the podcast.
What should be the first step in establishing a marketing strategy?
Marketing is one of those things that many young businesses put on the back burner and think ‘I’ll do it when everything’s ready to go and focus on getting things set up first.’ But there’s some really important steps you can take early on to make that set up easier. You don’t need to invest a huge amount of time, but asking some simple questions can help. I call them the three Cs: customers, competitors and circumstances.
Firstly, think about who you want to target and what problems you’re solving for them. You might have a great idea or think: ‘I could do that. I love that type of work’. But what specific problem are you going to be able to solve for which people or businesses?
The next thing is to look at competitors. A lot of people may not want to go down that route because they don’t think they’re competing as such. But it can be really helpful to see what else is out there and what other substitute services or products are available, so that you develop an idea of how you’re going to stand out.
The third question is circumstances, another term for the ‘marketing situation’ – in other words, what’s going on politically, economically, socially and technologically that is likely to affect the running of your business? And your own circumstances as well. You might know that you have strengths in certain areas, but you’ve also got to be realistic about your weaknesses and where you might need some extra support.
What are the most common marketing mistakes?
One of them is not prioritising marketing or waiting too long to start it. Often clients I work with will say, ‘we know we’ve needed a strategy for a long time’; they’ve just not had the investment opportunity to do it or day-to-day business has taken over. If you haven’t got a strategy it’s very difficult to keep things going. So, a lot of businesses will just throw themselves into the tactics, think: ‘I’ll set up my Facebook profile, my Twitter profile. I’ll go on all social media channels.’ And they almost do too much. So, there’s that contrast between not doing enough and sometimes doing too much, because that can often take time away from the business. And you probably don’t need to be doing all those things.
That’s where the benefit of having a strategy in place is. It gives you that direction on which channels are where your customers actually are.
I think another mistake is having a perception that marketing is a cost. But actually, if you have set financial objectives around your marketing, then marketing should save you time and money rather than being an additional expense.
If, for example, you’ve decided that you want to turn over 50K, and you need 10 clients and an average project of £5K, then it’s much easier to start putting targets against how many leads you need to get those ten clients. So, if you expect to convert one in five, you know you need 50 leads. Then you can put a figure against the number of prospects you need, and work out the value of each prospect and leads in the marketing funnel. So, it’s much easier to justify spending on advertising or some external support and SEO etc. because you know you’re going to get it back.
Not having that strategy and defined objectives is probably the biggest marketing mistake, and it’s not something that is unique to people starting out either. I work with organisations who have been going for some years, and breaking down their objectives into something that’s measurable and has a time limit on it is still a challenge for them.
What’s the difference between marketing strategy and marketing tactics?
There’s often some confusion between marketing strategy and marketing tactics. Strategy is how you’re going to go about reaching your market, the tactics are where and when you’re going to do it.
Strategy is partly about segmentation, targeting, positioning: looking at your target audience, which segments you can best support with your product or service. And then looking at your brand position and how you stand out compared to competitors. It’s also looking at your partnership strategy and processes, and how you’re going to integrate the various software that you’re working with. The tactics come after that.
If you spend time looking at your target audience and really getting to understand them and understand what they need from you, it’s much easier to know which tactics are going to work. Often, it’s easy to just dive straight into the tactics and just hope for the best – because time is short. But actually, it’s worth just taking that stocktake and coming up with a plan, because in the long run that will save you time and money.
How do you find out whether there is a market for what it is you’re offering?
There are lots of different ways of going about it, and there are tools that you can access quite easily. With secondary research, for example, the Office of National Statistics have got great data on businesses. If you’re looking to work with consumers, then looking on sites like Acorns or Streetcheck can give you a good sense of volume and geographical spread and so on.
But primary research is also important; talk to the people you want to attract. There are some great tools like Google forms and Survey Monkey you can use to run surveys. There are even free focus group tools like FocusGroupIt, which is a bit of a middle ground between face-to-face group discussions and surveys. You can use these tools to ask some basic questions about what problems people are facing and what their frustrations with similar services are, and then use the results to build your business around trying to address some of their answers.
How do you establish who your target audience is?
It is a challenge, and it seems a little bit overwhelming when you look at the whole market. A lot of businesses will say it doesn’t matter really; whoever’s going to buy my service is my target audience. And while you can understand that, with marketing less is more.
There’s a famous marketer called Seth Godin and he talks about the minimum viable audience, and I think that’s a really useful concept. The minimum viable audience is basically the smallest number of people you need to reach to make your business work.
So, if your goal is that 50K target within year one: who are those ten clients or customers who you need to reach? The more specific you can be about them, the easier it is to achieve that goal as you can really narrow down and hone down on ‘who are these people?’
In terms of getting to that stage, there’s the STP theory: segmentation, targeting, positioning. It sounds a little bit scary, but segmenting is looking at the characteristics of your target audience that you should separate them by. For some people it’s fairly intuitive; it could be age or gender or life stage, it could be geographical – people within a certain location to you – or businesses of a certain size with a certain amount of turnover. But it’s often the case where there’s not enough difference in those areas, and you need to look more at behavioural characteristics or psychographic characteristics. So, people who value the same things but vary by age. And then there might be another little subsection who, again, regardless of age, have a different set of values. So, what are those dimensions that you’re going to use to separate people?
Once you’ve got an idea of the target segments that are most going to benefit from your product or service, then you can really start to develop those target audience personas. Personas are really fun; I really enjoy this bit of marketing workshops with clients – bringing out all the stock imagery, putting an identity against somebody.
It’s something any business can do – you don’t have to be a big business: find a photo that represents your target audience and bring them to life. Start talking about them as though they were a person. They’re not going to be perfect; they’re going to have little niggles and frustrations and objections to what you’re trying to offer. It’s really important to understand all that and understand them as a whole, and if you can do that then all your marketing decisions become a lot more intuitive. You can say: this person reads this website or goes on Twitter, doesn’t like LinkedIn and doesn’t use Instagram. Then you can start working out where your focal points need to be and overcome that often overwhelming step in narrowing down the audience.
Can you focus too much on target audiences and miss others in the process?
Yes, it’s important to keep it in perspective. What I would advise doing is having around three or four segments maximum. And then each of those segments you can create a persona for, but bear in mind that it is an ideal; not every client is going to fulfil that specific persona, but what it can do is give you a general idea of what that group of people will be looking for.
You could go above and beyond, and some companies spend so much time breaking down segments into hundreds and hundreds, but as a freelancer or a small business it’s not a useful use of time. Just remember, they are examples to help rather than stop you reaching out to other customers as well.
How do I know whether my marketing is working?
It’s a really good question, because again monitoring is something that’s often overlooked. There may be a lot of plans to do marketing activities, but no mechanism in place to actually measure whether it’s a success or not. I would recommend doing this right from the get-go if you can – just setting up a simple spreadsheet of KPIs (metrics) looking at things like your reach, your engagement, the number of followers. Even if you haven’t yet got to the stage of putting goals in place, just being aware of how you’re doing will help inform what you do the next month.
The value of having a marketing strategy is it helps you know what not to do as well as what to do, and what you should be measuring to see if it’s working or not. If you’re toying with the idea, then please feel free to get in touch for an informal chat.
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