People aren’t just going to come to your website, so you need to be active in places your potential clients hang out online, and then attract and funnel them into your website. But how do you do that?
Solo consultant and freelance software developers often tell me building client relationships online can feel like a pointless treadmill of activity or just a big unknown to them.
I tried blogging for a while, but it wasn’t working and I let it fizzle out. And as for social media, I just have no idea where to start with that.
But here’s the good news.
With online marketing, you can learn replicable, simple processes, so that with a bit of organisation it can be easier than face-to-face marketing – you control everything from your desk.
And your software development background puts you at an advantage for operating online.
Let’s have a look.
If the thought of marketing worries you, go back to basics – it’s about building relationships and helping people.
Acquiring consulting clients is totally dependent on building solid relationships, not making sales. Trust is the key to strong and healthy relationships, and trust is the honest-to-goodness belief that the other person has your best interests in mind. – Dr Alan Weiss, Getting Started in Consulting
For many people, the internet is the first place they go to solve problems. So it’s actually a good place to start to build trust.
The real issue with online marketing is it takes time to build reputation, and there are many different tactics, so which ones do you use?
Below are three ways to start building client relationships from scratch online. I’ve also listed them in what I perceive as levels of difficulty.
How it works
Keeping in mind we’re in the business of, “building solid relationships, not making sales,” you can use forums like Quora and Reddit to start to connect with people. (Or search for niche online forums that people in your target market use).
You look for a question they’ve posted where you have expertise, add your answer to that question, and when likes or responses start to come back, engage with the community in that thread. It isn’t about posting a description of your business, a link to your website, or a deal-of-the-day. It’s about delivering value and building trust.
Your audience is already there, and they’re looking for answers. You’re in the business of advising people, and forums like Quora and Reddit exist explicitly for people to talk about their problems and seek advice.
When you’ve posted your answer to a question, anyone who looks up that question will be able to see your answer, so the usefulness of your response continues. Once your response has been published, as long as it remains on the internet, it helps you build your online presence and reputation.
It can take time to become an online expert.
#2. Guest blogs
How it works
You look for existing blog sites where your target audience likes to hang out, and that you thoroughly enjoy reading (this last bit is important). Then you build a relationship with the blogger or the person who manages that site – primarily by reading their blog, engaging with them (commenting on their posts), and then asking if you can support them with content.
Then you pitch a blog idea to them. It needs to be an idea that appeals to the blogger, because it offers them (ergo their readers) an interesting insight or follows on from a post they’ve already written, and that benefits to you, because it tackles challenges your potential clients want solutions to. If that person says yes to your idea, you draft up the post, ask to include a link into your website, and submit it to them for posting.
You’re using someone else’s traffic. You don’t have to spend months (or years) creating your own traffic to your own blog.
You can pitch a guest blog as often or as seldom as you like – you chose your timing. When you run your own blog, you need to keep it alive by posting regular content. The blog treadmill can be time consuming.
Once you’ve built up a relationship with a blogger, it becomes progressively easier to pitch ideas to them. Pitching to bloggers is not as difficult as you think. The larger blogs – often ones not run by a single individual – need, and look out for, fresh content.
And once you can pitch to bloggers, you can pitch to journalists and begin your journey into PR. If you ever want to offer expert comment or opinion pieces (oped) to a journalist, you’ll already know how to do it.
When the guest blog has been published, as long as it remains on the internet, it helps you build your online presence and reputation. And it creates an artery of traffic back into your website.
One day, the guest blogger might take down your post and you’ll lose the traffic.
You can’t get stats on the traffic to the blog without asking the blogger, (but you can get stats on the traffic from that blog into your own website if you use Google Analytics).
#3. Social media
How it works
The approach you take is not dissimilar to forums. You use social media to search for questions people have posted, respond to them, and begin to engage with them. Again, it isn’t about selling your business. It’s about giving advice, delivering value and building trust.
Gradually, you might want to create a Facebook or LinkedIn group for your audience. Or you might want to use your social media in combination with your own blog on your business website – a place where you can post in-depth solutions. This is one of the reasons why social media is #3 in terms of difficulty.
Millions of people are on social media and chances are your audience is out there. And, among other things, they’re discussing their problems like they do on forums.
Social media can be a great funnel into your website, because so many people are are using it. But …
Finding the right people to advise and engage with can be time consuming. Their questions aren’t laid out like they are on forums.
Growing a community of followers can take months or even years.
If you go down the blog + social media combo route, generating the content behind the social media – the blog posts – can be time consuming.
Without the lure of more content, like blog posts, it’s difficult to tempt people into your website using social media posts alone. A 140-character tweet has got to be pretty powerful to make people click on it and visit your website. That’s why a social networking site like Twitter works best in combination with blogs and other longer pieces of content.
This is the destination of all your work building relationships online – your website. We live in a time when the internet is so central to business, it’s hard to avoid having a website. It’s just considered weird (especially if you work in technology) not to have some kind of online presence.
Plus, these days, the first thing someone will do if they’re thinking of working with you is Google you. While you’re talking to them on the phone, they’re scrolling through a page of information about you.
Your website doesn’t need to be flashy, but it does need to contain certain important elements. See: What should your website include as a business development tool?
Once potential clients are in your website, how do you keep growing that relationship?
Ideally, it’s through a clear call to action, probably email capture. If you’re relying on people remembering to visit your website, you’re on the back foot. You don’t control when they visit. If you have their email address, you have an invitation to contact them when you want to. And as long as you send them helpful information, you can start to really build a trust relationship.
So how do you get their email?
There are two obvious ways – again, one less time consuming than the other.
1. One good piece of content, probably a how-to
You research the most challenging problem your potential clients face and produce one good piece of content, probably a how-to. It might be the top question you keep seeing on forums. You PDF your how-to and post it on your webpage, so people can only access it by giving you their email address.
2. Your own blog
Instead of one good piece of content, you produce regular content that solves your potential clients’ problems in the form of your own blog. There’s no doubt, a well run blog can be the engine of building a good email list, but it’s time consuming. Blogs are like pets – they need regular feeding and plenty of attention.
The thought of creating client relationships from scratch online can be overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be if you don’t dive into the difficult stuff like blogs and social media first. Start at the edges and work into this kind of content marketing.