Resumé or dog whistle?

dog1What’s one of the first things you do when you launch a business? Get a domain name and set up a web site on a platform like WordPress. You pick one of the popular templates, write up descriptions of your services, grab a few stock photos and you’re good to go. No-brainer, right?

The problem with this approach is that you wind up creating an online presence that often just looks like a glorified resumé. Most business web site templates encourage you to create lists of things — what your services are, what your background and credentials are, frequently-asked questions and so on. If you are writing your own marketing content instead of using a branding professional, it’s easy to get sucked into thinking that all you have to do is write up a description of yourself and your services, and the clients will come. This approach forces everyone who comes to your site to figure out for themselves why they should care about what you do. You’re making your prospective clients do all the work.

Instead, create content that speaks directly to your ideal clients. Don’t tell them what you do; talk about what amazing things happen to your clients when you’re done. Focus on outcomes, not activity. For example:

  • A temporary staffing agency could say We make sure you’re always ready when your customers need you.
  • An eldercare consultant could say I help you be there even when you can’t.
  • A graphic designer could say We help you show your clients who you really are.

How do you figure out what those outcomes look like? What is it that your clients value the most about you? Why would they work with you instead of any of the other people who offer similar services? HINT: it’s not your background or extensive experience in the field. It’s because you are focused on what your clients care about. By talking about why your clients use you instead of what you do, you turn your web site from a resumé to a dog whistle that directly calls to your ideal clients.

If you want to find that priceless description of the magic that happens when you work with a client, you have to ask them. And what they tell you will undoubtedly not be what you expect. A hedge-fund consultant who helps investors avoid the next Bernie Madoff found out her clients value her flexibility with changing investment priorities more than they care about the specialized resources she uses or her professional certifications. So on her web site she emphasizes her ability to shift based on changing market priorities rather than her extensive background. She knows what matters more to her specific clients.

One easy approach to learning what your clients really value is to ask them how they would describe you to a colleague. Most clients will respond not with a recitation of the kinds of work you do but with a story of why they need you. I’ve heard answers like “We call Mary Ellen when we don’t know how to reach out to our customers” or “I use Mary Ellen when I’m starting a project and don’t even know what I don’t know.” Priceless!

And what if you don’t have any clients yet, or if you want to expand into a new market where you don’t know your clients’ biggest concerns? It’s time to roll up your sleeves and do a half-dozen reality-check interviews. These conversations are invaluable tools for finding out what your potential clients really care about and what words they use to describe their biggest concerns. When your web site addresses the issues that resonate most with your market, they come to you already sold on your value to them right now. Yes, it takes time to conduct this type of primary research, and the reward is a web presence that speaks to the people you want to hear you.

Using Google Trends for CI

On Nov. 25, the Wall Street Journal had an article about finding the best “door-buster” items for Black Friday and Thanksgiving weekend sales. A graphic accompanying the article caught my eye – it showed dramatic spikes in Google search activity for a particular brand of women’s boots every year at the end of November… just around Black Friday.

This graph was generated by Google Trends and, while it wasn’t the focus of the article, it got me thinking about the usefulness of Google Trends in identifying marketing opportunities. Imagine what you would learn if you searched for your key products or services, or those of your competitors. If you learned that your customers were looking for information about a competing product during a predictable time period, wouldn’t you want to time your communications to be talking with your market right then?


Logo or no?

I used to advise new solopreneurs to invest in a professionally-designed logo – something that reflects well on their business and conveys a certain permanence. And while I have one that I use for invoices and proposals on letterhead, I haven’t used a logo on a business card for years.

Why? A couple of reasons. First, my goal is always to be building my word-of-mouth referral network and that means people remembering my name. I cannot think of an instance in which I remembered a professional because of the person’s logo. In fact, I often can’t remember a person’s business name, but I always remember the individual’s name. So I want to make sure that what my contacts remember is my name and not just a splashy logo.

Second, customized business cards are getting better and better. I order new cards every six months or so, based on my marketing focus and what events I will be attending. Sure, I could slap my logo on a card and just keep printing copies as I run out, but I really like the designs available through companies like and The layouts are clear, the designs eye-catching and professional, the options for card stock almost limitless.

I was surprised when I was showing some colleagues my latest business card and, after handling the heavy card stock, rounded edges and thought-provoking quotes on the back, they all asked for a card to keep for themselves. They all knew who I was and how to get in touch with me, but the card felt like something worth keeping. (It was MOO’s “You Can Quote Me” design.) Note that the design and layout are eye-catching enough that I didn’t need a logo to make the card worth keeping.

So, while a logo is nice to have, I would probably invest more on business cards you really like and less on a fancy logo that you don’t use much.



Improving your ca$h flow

Summer is a slow time for many solopreneurs; our clients are on vacation or taking Fridays off, and they just aren’t calling as often as they do during the rest of the year. That means that many solopreneurs are facing a cash crunch this summer. Our recurring expenses — utilities, ISP, health insurance, etc. — still need to get paid, but the income isn’t coming in. If you were able to anticipate this slow-down, you put money aside to cover your basic expenses when your income is not coming in. But even with preparation, it’s nice to get the cash flow going again. The following are a few thoughts on how to ease cash crunches.

  • Request prepayment of all projects. Many of us do this routinely, or at least get a certain percentage of the not-to-exceed budget up front. However, if you really don’t want to wait for payment 30 days after the end of the job, consider offering a 10% discount for prepayment in full.
  • Learn the name of the Accounts Payable person for each of your clients and contact him or her to find out what you can do to expedite payment. Is there a billing number or cost center you should reference? Do they prefer the invoice electronically? I have found that the smaller the client, the faster I get paid, as long as I’m on a first-name basis with the A/P person.
  • If you don’t already, obtain a merchant account so that you can accept credit card payments seamlessly. Many companies offer this service now, including PayPal, Square and Stripe; while they charge a fee of a few percentage points, you get the money in your bank account within a few days.
  • Include bank wire transfer information when you send your invoice. Your bank or credit union can provide you with this information, and many Accounts Payable departments prefer paying electronically.
  • Pay your expenses with a credit card instead of a check as long as you can pay the credit card bill in full every month. Not only does this postpone payment, but it is much easier to get a refund on a purchase if it was paid for by credit card. Of course, this assumes that you are not carrying a balance on your business charge card. If you have a balance on any of your credit cards, cut up the card and focus on paying down the balance before making any other discretionary purchases.
  • Pay invoices just before they are due. The most efficient way to ensure that no invoice slips through the cracks is to pay bills at single sittings, either weekly or semimonthly. Set up automatic payments when feasible.
  • Don’t take any actions that would suggest to a client or vendor that you are short on cash. So, for example, don’t cancel your business phone line, your web site or any online services that you depend on. You want to always present yourself as a business that will be around a year from now. And remember that your revenue will rise in a couple of months. If you have to spend time re-establishing accounts you canceled, you haven’t saved much in the long run.
  • And finally, take this time to work on some of your long- and short-term marketing projects. If your business is slow, then you have plenty of time to focus on creative ways to remind your clients of why they can’t live without you.

A tag line that works

cleaning-fairiesI just saw a car with a large sign for a local housecleaning service, The Cleaning Fairies. The tag line was perfect:

We give you your weekends back !

I live near Boulder, and there’s nothing Boulderites value more than free time we can spend in the mountains — skiing, hiking, kayaking, climbing, biking — anything to enjoy our 300+ days of sunshine every year. (And yes, when I saw their car, I was playing hookey and on my way up to the mountains, just because I’m self-employed so I can.) The message I took from the tag line is “I know how much you value your free time, and isn’t that worth way more than the cost of a cleaner?”

What better way to sell the value of your service than by reminding people of a better way they could be spending their time?

How do you describe your service to prospective clients? Do you talk about what you do or how you do it, or do you talk about the amazing thing that happens when you are done? And see this post about understanding and speaking effectively about your value.

Speaking Effectively About Your True Value

I recently gave two presentations on key survival skills of solopreneurs and intrapreneurs. While both were from the perspective of information professionals, many of the concepts I covered apply to any solopreneur.

While we know the impact info pros can have on their clients’ success, being seen as indispensable takes work. This means finding out how your clients see you, what they don’t even know you can do, and what their biggest unmet needs are that you can address. Then it takes communicating that value in a way that people hear and understand.


Successful entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs share certain characteristics. They ask “why?” a lot; they ask “why not?” even more. They focus on the future rather than the past, and seek out opportunities to improve and enhance their services. They are results-oriented rather than process-focused; they ask forgiveness rather than permission. In an info world where everyone sees themselves as expert researchers and the reaction to a page of text is TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), info-intrapreneurs must think creatively to get and keep the attention of their clients and prospective clients.

In addition, check out the recent white papers I wrote for Dow Jones on The Accidental Intrapreneur, at, and The True ROI of Digital Content, at

Marketing Through Vignettes

Antique Greek OratorHave you ever struggled to describe what you do so your prospective clients really hear you? Do they look at your web site and say “Oh, that’s nice” or do they immediately recognize you as the person who can help solve their most important problem?

One way to talk about your services memorably is by telling a story. My 10-Vignettes Exercise, which takes no more than an hour or two to complete, helps clarify how you describe who you are and what you do for your clients. And if you don’t have any clients yet, use this as an exercise to picture your prospective clients.

Here’s how it works:
Write 10 stories, each of no more than three sentences or about 100 words. Each story will describe a situation a client is in, what the client got from you at the end, and how the client benefited. You don’t discuss how you did the work, what resources you used, or even what kind of work you did. The truth is that your clients don’t care what you do or how you do it. They just want you to solve their problem.

These vignettes don’t have to describe actual client situations; in fact, they should be sufficiently anonymized that a client would not recognize her own project. Provide examples of what happens after your clients engage you. And while you’re at it, include the budget you think represents the value you offer your clients for this kind of work.

Here’s what a vignette might look like.

[describe your client’s situation] My client was considering moving into the organic personal care market.

[describe what your client gets from you] I provided my client with a customized analysis of the market, with the key issues and strongest competitors highlighted.

[describe what the client does as a result of your work] My client decided to focus on organic baby care products, realizing this was the one area in which they had a clear advantage.

[describe the budget] My client paid $6,000 for this report. (Don’t include this last item in your marketing material; just use it to stay focused on how you can provide the highest value to your clients.)

The virtue of this exercise is that it takes the focus away from you and your services and puts the attention to where it belongs – what your client values. An additional benefit is that you can put these vignettes up on your web site; they are a far more effective way to showcase your value than just listing your services.

20 Ways to Kick-Start Your Marketing

Checklist paper and pen.Every business experiences lulls, times when it seems that you barely have the energy to drag yourself into your office, and you can’t stand the thought of having to go out and generate business. This happens to everyone, and it often happens at the end of the year and during the middle of the year, as people are out of the office or in vacation mode and not doing a lot. Here are some of the actions I add to my marketing plan when I need to rev my marketing efforts up a notch.

1. Directly ask for referrals from your existing clients and prospects. “Who do you know who needs to compete better in their marketplace, who I might contact?”

2. Get in touch with your clients, just to check in. I never cease to marvel at how effective this technique is. Our clients often have a need for our services, but need our prompting to engage our services. Remember, our clients have already shown that they are sources of business.

3. Revisit your existing client list and evaluate who your best clients have been, in terms of project budgets, repeat business, and referrals. Think about what these clients have in common and how you found them. Where could you find other clients like these?

4. Look through your social networks. If you have not established connections with all of your clients, now is the time to do it. And see who their contacts are; if you see any that you think may use your services, ask your client for a connection or introduction.

5. If you identify a new issue or concern to your clients’ businesses, design a specific research product or service that would address your client’s specific needs, and send a (hard copy) letter to your affected clients, telling them about your new offering.

6. Write an article for a publication your clients read. It need not be long, and it should be practical and non-technical. Offer tips on staying updated on new web resources in their industry, or review a new information source.

7. Write ten blog posts and queue them up for posting over the next couple of months.

8. Prepare for and conduct three reality-check interviews with prospects in an industry that is new to you. Learn what their specific pain points are and develop an approach to market to this industry.

9. Identify a current topic of interest to your client base: “Best Practices for Using Social Media for Business Intelligence”, “Most Significant Competitive Intelligence Blogs” or “Best Uses for Twitter”, for example. Conduct your own survey of your network; this is a great time to ping your clients, colleagues, and prospects. Write up the results into a white paper, promote it on your website, and notify all your clients of the availability of your resource.

10. Look through all your projects from the last six months or year. Follow up on the issues that are regular concerns for your clients and send them a recent article on the topic with a note to the effect of “I saw this and thought you might find it useful with regard to {our recent project}”.

11. Commit to three networking outings a week. This could be anyone from a colleague to a prospect to a client. Take a friend to lunch and focus on building your mutual networks. Ask him what kinds of leads he would like to hear about; depending on what he does, that might be sales referrals, job opportunities, leads for good employees, or client projects. Tell him what kinds of clients you are specifically looking for. These kinds of meetings are great ways to hone your 15-second “here’s how I will help you make strategic decisions” speech, and they keep that word-of-mouth network humming.

12. Use an obscure holiday as an excuse to send out greeting cards to your clients and vendors. I remember a family friend who sent out cards for Groundhog’s Day every year; if your contacts are familiar with this North American holiday, this can be a fun way of staying in touch. The Spring or Fall Equinox, the Queen’s Birthday, Mardi Gras, or even something as silly as International Respect for Chickens Day (May 4) can serve as a reason for sending a card. And yes, these are real cards, that get stamped and put in the mailbox.

13. On a related note, check the social network profiles of your clients. If they list their birthday, be sure to send a card. And yes, that’s a printed birthday card, not an ecard.

14. Call a fellow info-entrepreneur. Ask her how her business is doing. Ask her what was the most important change she has made to her business in the last year. Share an interesting resource with her.

15. Call someone who is reliably upbeat and positive. That kind of energy is contagious.

16. Commit to reading every issue of several business newspapers or magazines for a month. Cut out at least two articles from each issue that a client may find useful. Send a hard copy, along with a couple of business cards, and a note along the lines of “I saw this and thought of you.”

17. Identify one new association that your prospective clients are likely to belong to, join it, and evaluate how you can volunteer strategically in a member-facing capacity.

18. Attend a Meet-Up or local chapter meeting of an association you find interesting, even if you do not expect to find clients. Consider the visit to be professional development, not just marketing. I sometimes find my best clients when I am not looking for them.

19. Schedule a meeting of your advisory board. If you do not have one, this is a good reason to set one up. Identify four or five people whom you respect, who understand the issues of running a professional services business, and who are willing to give you honest feedback. Ideally, these are people who live in your general area, and can meet with you. If that is not reasonable, build a virtual advisory board that “meets” online.

20. Review all your professional listings, in the professional associations you belong to, on your social networks, and anywhere else you have your company listed. Upgrade and freshen up your listings, revising them to target your current market and to reflect your clients’ current concerns.

The Anti-Elevator Speech

When someone asks you what you do, do you freeze up or start stammering? You need a concise, memorable response prepared for all the times when you’re asked about your work. This is sometimes called your “elevator speech.” Why? Imagine stepping into an elevator with your biggest prospect. She turns to you and asks, “So, what exactly do you do?” You have 30 seconds—the time it takes for the elevator to get to her destination on the 25th floor—to describe yourself in such a way that she immediately understands why you are the solution to her problems.

Unfortunately, most people see their elevator speech as an opportunity to tell their life story and rattle off a laundry list of services they provide to their clients. All this does is serve to notify the victim, er, the listener that this person is more interested in talking about himself than about what he can do for his clients. Instead, create an anti-elevator speech that focuses on results instead of activity. Three alternatives I recommend include Elevator Q&A, Elevator Ping Pong, and Elevator Story-Telling.

Elevator Q&A
Paul and Sarah Edwards, the authors of a number of books about home-based businesses, describe a useful formula for developing your 15- to 30-second introduction. The template they use is this:“You know how [describe typical clients’ problem]? Well, I [solve problem] by [doing this].” For example, “You know how frustrating it is when you have to make a strategic decision without all the information you need? Well, my company helps you make better decisions by providing you with insight on your competitors.” Or, “You know how hard it is to care for elderly parents when you don’t live nearby? Well, I coordinate local care for my clients’ loved ones throughout the Puget Sound area, and consider each one to be part of my family.”

Elevator Ping Pong
Instead of developing a speech, remember that you just want to get a conversation going. So, when someone asks you what you do, give an answer that invites further interaction. A business researcher might say “I keep my clients from making big mistakes” or “I help my clients look brilliant”.  (I learned this approach from a man who sold automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and would tell people that he was in the human jumper-cable business. If that doesn’t invite at least a “what?” from the listener, nothing will…) Think of a way to describe yourself that is intriguing, thought-provoking, or even startling.

Elevator Story-Telling
We humans are innate storytellers. An effective way of describing yourself so that you are memorable is to tell your listener a story in just three sentences. The first sentence describes the client’s situation; the second sentence tells what your client got; the last sentence says what your clients were able to do next. An example from my own experience is, “A product director was considering a move into the organic personal care market. I provided an overview of the market, with the key issues summarized. My client decided to focus on organic baby care products, an area in which they had a clear advantage.”

Keep the following in mind as you work on your personalized version of the answer to, “So, what do you do?”
•    Avoid industry jargon or buzzwords such as “solutions.” Word of mouth travels a lot farther if people outside your field understand and can describe to others what you do.
•    Keep it short. They’re asking you for a reason to use your services, not your life story or a laundry list of services.
•    Make yourself recession-proof. What are your clients’ critical needs—things they view as essential, not just nice to have? (Don’t know? Conduct some reality-check interviews and find out!)
•    Focus on benefits that provide clear added value. Talk about services that your clients can’t or won’t do for themselves and that solve a problem or help them achieve their goals.
•    Make sure you can deliver your introduction with enthusiasm. If you’re excited about your business, others will be as well.

Practice your 15-second introduction with everyone you encounter and watch their responses. If you get a blank stare, well, you just learned one way not to describe yourself. Keep at it until you’ve found a few intros that feel genuine, you can say with passion, and that the other person understands. Everyone can be part of your word-of-mouth network if you learn how to effectively convey why people love your product or services so much.

Are you an accidental intra/entrepreneur?

I recently wrote a white paper and gave a webinar on behalf of Factiva on The Accidental Intrapreneur: Becoming the Knowledge Center CEO. They both look at the different approaches necessary for those of us who are running our own enterprises, whether within or outside a larger organization. (You can get a copy of the white paper here and you can download the slide deck for my webinar here.)

In both, I focus on the need for constant, effective communication, and that applies to any reluctant entrepreneur. So here is the super-distilled version of effectively communicating your value.

Are you sure you really know what your clients value?

I hear it all the time — Oh, of course I know what my clients value. I’ve been doing work for them for years! The fact that clients use your services doesn’t mean you are providing them with the highest-value (and, if you’re a solopreneur, highest-priced) service. Clients only ask you to do what they think you can do; they have no idea what else you could be providing them unless you tell them.

And the only way you can find out what they would value most is to conduct some Reality-Check Interviews. Yes, they take some time, but what you learn from them will enable you to create a competition-proof product or service that is fine-tuned to providing the highest value possible.

Reality-check interview questions that I have found effective in discovering that unique something that can set me apart include:

  • How do you prepare for a strategic decision?
  • What’s keeping you from achieving your most important goals?
  • What do you wish you knew about your stakeholders or competitors?
  • What information/research/analysis services would support you strategically?

And, to find out how to most effectively describe your services to prospective clients, ask:

  • Why do you use my services now?
  • How would you describe my services to a colleague?

Pay attention to how they describe your value; I promise you you’ll hear something you didn’t expect.

Talk about WHY, not WHAT

When someone asks you what you do, it’s easy to talk about activity — what you do. But activity isn’t inherently valuable; what you do is important because it enables something else to happen next. Whenever entrepreneurs are asked what we do, we talk about our clients’ end results, not what specific things we did to enable those results.

Compare the focus and impact of these examples of answers to the question “What do you do?”:

I have access to unique online resources.
I provide insights from experts.

I provide research services.
I enable better decisions.

My expertise is in organizing information.
I make critical research findable.

Think about the reason behind what you do for your clients — what they will be able to do because of your services — and talk about that instead of the specific activity that gets those tremendous results.

“But they don’t listen!!!”

There are times when it seems like you and your prospective clients are speaking different languages. You think you are telling them about the tremendous services you provide, and they aren’t responding by beating a path to your door. Whenever this happens to me, I know that the problem probably lies in one of these areas:

Your audience—WHO you are talking to. Are you sure you are getting the attention of people who need and value (and, if you’re a solopreneur, will pay for) your services?

Message—WHAT you say. Are you sure you are using compelling language that resonates with your market? Are you incorporating the language you picked up from your reality-check interviews?

Method—HOW & WHERE you say it. Are you getting your message out on a medium that your prospective clients are watching? Do your clients read newsletters? monitor Facebook? watch webinars? attend conferences? Have you asked them lately?

Timing—WHEN & HOW OFTEN you talk with your market. Are you in front of your prospective clients when they are paying attention to your message? Are they hearing from or about you frequently enough that your name is familiar to them?

Reflect on each aspect of your communication strategies — who, what, how, where, when and how often — and start modifying them until you get the results you want.