Creatively Marketing Your One-Person Business

I am frequently asked by people (amazed that anyone can make a living as a freelance writer) how I find my clients. Whether a struggling writer themselves or another one-person business owner looking to expand, they are usually surprised when I tell them there is no one good way to market your services, but dozens of them. Trust me: I have gotten work using all of the methods discussed in this article.

As a single-person operation, you have a number of advantages. Unlike larger corporations, there won’t be any miscommunication to potential clients about what you can deliver because the engineering and marketing departments weren’t talking. Since you are also the one- man (or one-woman) creative department or widget department or service department, you can answer potential clients’ questions knowledgeably and promptly.
Also, because the money you spend is probably your own, you are less likely to fall prey to overly costly options that don’t offer a decent return.

But what is a decent return? And what realistic options do sole operators have when it comes to marketing?
Postcards are one relatively cheap source for advertising. If you can design a simple postcard yourself (saving design costs), sending out 200 postcards to potential clients will cost you just under $100. The advantage to postcards is two-fold: You don’t send out an expensive media kit to uninterested people, and busy people who are interested don’t have to plow through tons of literature to make a decision to contact you. (Nor do you need to buy address lists: Go to www.yellowpages.com or the web site of your local chamber of commerce, picking out businesses that are your most likely customers.)

Postcard forms are usually available at most office supply stores, and they will feed through your printer just like regular paper. For the software, you can use any of a number of packages. Most word processors have templates. For more control over the design, however, you might want to purchase good basic layout software, such as Microsoft Publisher(TM). (You can also use this software for things like laying out your web site.)

As for web sites as marketing tools: You should probably have one, but don’t count on it to bring lots of customers to you. Think about the web sites you frequent. How many took out television ads, billboards, banner ads on other sites, or other fairly expensive kinds of advertising to get your attention? Most of them. Do put up your web site, but think of it more as your electronic business card/brochure, not a way to reel in clients directly.

Web sites are important, though, says Marc Korody, who runs a consulting firm just for small businesses. “The web site is a credibility issue. You need to have it as part of your ‘look’,” Korody explains, along with the other visual flags that show you are professionally in business, including letterhead and business cards.

Ken Loyd, a one-man, one-stop graphic design and printing operation called Keness Designs, agrees about web sites. When I ask him what tools he does use for marketing his business, he replies, “Up to now, it has been one hundred per cent word of mouth. I would advise anyone starting or marketing their small business to tell everyone they know. Their friends, acquaintances, relatives – everybody – should know they are now in business for themselves and should know what they do.” Loyd, who operates out of San Francisco, added that he is going to be doing a postcard mailing later this year.

Gerry Takano, an architect who specializes in historic preservation of buildings, agrees with Loyd’s assessment of networking. “With so much competition out there, a person is more apt to go with you if they have met you personally. That personal knowledge of you and your services gives you the extra edge.” He adds, however, that he also does mailings on a regular basis. “You have to do both,” he explains.

Telling everybody you know is a wonderful form of networking. The word “networking” though, can seem too vague to a business owner who wants customers, and wants them quickly. If you are just starting your business, be sure all of your co-workers know why you are leaving your day job. (Doing just that turned into a long-term writing assignment for me.)
Look for groups to join where networking is a key component. I have joined a number of groups and renew those memberships based on the fruition of their networking opportunities. Whether you join a group or not, see if it needs speakers for its meetings. Get together a basic “here is my business ” presentation which can be revised (if needed) to suit the particular audiences. Think of it – free of charge, you will have the rapt attention of all meeting attendees. (To see which groups usually have a meeting with a speaker, check in your local paper.)

The element of surprise will be evident in at least some of your marketing opportunities, so be prepared. Your business card should always be with you, ready to hand out – you never know when the person sitting next to you on the subway or waiting with you at your dentist’s office will be the source of a new customer.

Another creative way to market is to barter with people you know. Bartering helps to keep costs down, and can help you market yourself. I have traded articles for design work, web site hosting, and other services to help publicize my business. If your business is fairly new, bartering gives you a client reference, and the beginnings of your portfolio.

For those of you wondering where freelancing web sites are in this piece – here they are. Do freelancing web sites work? Yes, to some extent. What are the best ones? That depends on what services you offer and your own personal likes and dislikes. Using your favorite search engine, do a search for your type of business (e.g. “freelance writing”, or “writing jobs”). Visit web sites regularly, remembering the standard caveats: You should never have to pay up front to get work (that means it’s a scam); and whenever possible, talk to other people who have used a particular web site or worked for a particular client.
With so many marketing possibilities, it helps to keep track of who you meet, where, and when. If your budget is tight and your computer skills are up to it, you can set up a small database in your favorite spreadsheet program. Or, you can invest in contact management software, such as ACT!, which will also provide you with reports and graphs showing closed and potential business, both past and future.

Not only does this software give you a way to recognize people when they call (usually out of the blue six months later), but it also will give you information about who your customers are, how you found them, and how much business you generated. After all, with so many possible marketing opportunities, you want to be sure that you only continue to use the ones that work for you.

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