Two self-marketing mistakes

There are two common misperceptions surrounding self-marketing that often trip up small business owners and freelancers.

The first is the perception that ‘word-of-mouth’ is part of the self-marketing mix, and the second is that self-promotion is best organized only during periods of down-time.

Word of mouth: the ultimate marketing ploy?
When I ask freelancers and small business owners how they market their business, the response is often: “My business relies on word-of-mouth” (defined here as the assumption that clients will recommend without prompting—not to be confused with any proactive promotion such as social networking, which can be a valuable self-promotional activity.)

I have found that this kind of ethic is shared amongst a significant number of freelance designers. And I have noticed that those designers who follow this ethic tend to be less busy than those who actively promote their services.

Sure, your reputation will contribute largely to your success. If you produce good enough work, your clients will recommend you. But sustaining a reputation is a principle that drives most entrepreneurs in their pursuit of perfection. It is not, and never will be, a true marketing ethic.

Word-of-mouth is something you have no control over. If you want to take control over your business, you need to toot your own horn.

Down-time: the best time to market your business?
Here’s another question I ask freelance designers that often elicits a familiar response: “When do you promote your business?” The usual answer: “When the work has dried up”.

The problem with this ethic is twofold. First, it results in stressful peaks and troths in workload, where some months you have to work all day, all night, weekends, and holidays too. Other months, business is depressingly slow and you struggle to pay the bills. By promoting yourself only in those slow periods, you are simply fuelling the peaks-and-troths cycle.

Secondly, self-promoting during periods of down-time can feel like an uphill task. For a client on the other end of the phone, it is very easy to detect a sense of desperation in the voice of a cold-calling freelancer. Unfortunately, clients prefer to hire in-demand freelancers than those who struggle to find work.

Self-promotion doesn’t work when you’ve waited too late to do it. If you want a steady, manageable year and a consistently high monthly turnover, you need to integrate self-promotion (and other marketing activities) into your weekly schedule–even during those busy periods.

The bad news: you may have to refuse work from time to time–and no one likes to turn down an assignment. But the reality of business means there can be no middle ground. It’s much better to turn away clients because you are too busy, than frantically call people in desperation for work because you haven’t been busy in weeks.

At the end of the day, refusing clients isn’t such a bad compromise. Of course you’re in demand. That’s because you’re good at what you do. Clients will understand that, and that’s why they’ll be back later.

If, however, you find that you are consistently getting offers for work that you are too busy to accept, the stage is set to 1) increase your fee; and 2) expand your business and hire a junior. That is one big step towards setting yourself up as a full design agency.

And it all hinges on your marketing.