Stories about Software


Marketing 101: Marketing Isn’t What You Think It Is, Freelancers

I’ll admit that I’ve been beating around the bush for some time in my business of freelancing series.  Ever since my sales 101 primer, you all have been asking me to talk about marketing.

Specifically, this bit from the end of that post was of interest:

Which means that the key to a good, honest sales process, is a good, honest marketing apparatus.

So forget outsourcing your sales to unpaid or conflicted affiliates and don’t go overboard on warm or cold outreach.  Instead, start asking yourself the fundamental question, “how can I help good prospects find me on their own?”

A lot of people like the idea of prospects finding them.  And understandably so.

But I’ve demurred a bit, mainly because marketing without niching is kind of nonsense.  Generalists are commodity laborers, which means the only way to get prospects to come to you, really, is by being the cheapest option on a platform like Upwork (at least in terms of total cost of ownership since, remember, “I’m the best” == “I’m the cheapest in the long run.”)

So I’ve suggested that we need to work through some niche case studies in order to really get into the meat of marketing.  But I’m realizing that we don’t need to get into the meat for me to start teaching you a bit about it and to start you understanding it.

In that vein, today, I want to help you understand what marketing really, truly is, at its core.  And to do this requires clearing up a fundamental misunderstanding.

Marketing By the Book

I want to start out going a little text book here, since I’m not sure that I’ve earned the right just to unilaterally redefine terms.  Here’s a definition of marketing:

Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

Man, that’s a lot of lists in one sentence.  Let’s ratchet down the confusion level a little by eliminating the unnecessary bits and saying “marketing is communicating your offering to the public.”  You make people aware of what you do.

Simple enough.

If You Explain It, They Will Buy?

The problem is, the “by the book” definition of marketing leads software-developers-turned-entrepreneurs (and others) to create insufferable marketing.

They hang out a shingle or maybe build a SaaS, and then set about explaining why the offering’s features are “The Right Way” and thus everyone should buy.  The newbie entrepreneur then assumes that, defeated by unassailable logic, prospects will admit defeat and signify surrender by handing over their money.

I think of this as the “troll under the bridge” style of marketing.

In our content business, I bump into this all the time with technical founders.

They’re looking to commission content that talks endlessly about how great their offering is and why everyone should buy it.  These days, if I can’t talk them out of the approach, I decline the business, telling them that we’re a content marketing partner, not an ad agency writing jingles.

Understanding How You Buy Things

Don’t see the problem?

Well, bear with me for a moment.  I just have to get through today’s sponsored message, and we can come back to this subject.

Did you know that you can lose up to 30% of your house’s heat through inefficient doors and windows!?  And did you know that this can cost you up to $50 a month in extra heating and cooling bills!?

Well, today’s sponsor, Scams and Dams Efficiency will come in and do stuff do your windows for only $2,400!  You read that right, ladles and jelly spoons, your brand new windows will pay for themselves in only 4 years!  At this price, you can’t afford NOT to buy it!

Alright, now that you’re back from making that $2,400 purchase, let’s talk marketing.

Wait.  What’s that?

You weren’t ready to ready to just make that purchase?  Even though my logic was absolutely unassailable, you’re not holding your credit card while reading this sentence?

Come again?  You’re not in the mood to research a major purchase like that, vet Scams and Dams as a vendor, and generally do a ton of legwork right this moment?  You just came here to kill a few minutes and read a blog post, which is a completely different kind of activity?

Yeah, that’s fair.

And it’s also the problem with the bridge troll approach to marketing.  You’re talking at people when they’re not in the right frame of mind to listen to your message.

Serendipity is Not a Strategy

Your future customers will almost never encounter you for the first time when they’re in “purchase this service” mode.

To make this a little more concrete, consider my erstwhile static analysis niche practice.  They didn’t encounter me by googling “static analysis consultant” and seeing me come up.  And they didn’t encounter me by searching “static analysis consultant” on Upwork.

Customers that are doing those things — searching Google or a labor brokerage for a service — are in “buy” mode.  And encountering people in “buy mode” when you’re in “sell mode,” while seemingly ideal, has a couple of huge obstacles for you:

  1. It means that you have a commodity offering.  If customers can grok what you offer well enough to google it and expect a bunch of competing vendors, you’re in a race to the bottom.  (This is a topic for another day.)
  2. It’s SUPER competitive.  People in “sell mode” pay good money to get to the top of the Yellow Pages (or Google search results) and thus first in front of people in “buy mode.”

Now, because we’re going to help you niche and because you don’t have the ad budget that a generalist labor mill agency has, you can forget about getting in front of people who have their credit card out and are actively googling “static analysis consultant” or “window treatments for energy savings.”

You’re going to get in front of people when they’re doing something other than trying to buy your labor.  And banking on them randomly being in the mood to buy from you when they first encounter you is a terrible strategy.

So don’t do that.

What Marketing Really Is

I’ll close out this introductory post by explaining, quite simply, what you do instead.  And what you do instead is what marketing really, truly is at its core.

Marketing is really about capturing someone’s attention initially and then getting them to remember who you are later, when they are in “buy mode” for what you’re offering.  So, yes, in the most basic sense, marketing is “communicating what you offer to the public.”

But it’s really about holding their attention long enough to care what you offer and to believe that you can help them.

Say I were still selling static code analysis.  Marketing might involve an approach like this:

  1. Write an article about the strongest signs that you have a codebase with so much tech debt that it’s a total.
  2. Invite readers of that article to sign up for an application portfolio management mailing list, where I send out weekly tips for promoting application health from the director level and above.
  3. Periodically work in a mention of the services I offer on the weekly list.

It’s a little crude, but hopefully you get the idea.  My goal is to remind them of me just often enough so that later, when they could use my services, I’m the first person they think of.  And that is the true essence of marketing: “think of me in that specific moment when X becomes your priority, on your terms.”

I truly, profoundly realized this in my capacity selling Hit Subscribe, our content business.  If I do cold outreach and say “hey, we can bring you a whole bunch of traffic to your company’s site through google,” that message tends to go nowhere.  Everyone is more less aware of this as a possibility, and if they’re not doing something about it, they’re probably busy with other stuff.

So rather try to bridge troll them into submission, my real goal is to basically say, “hey, when your leadership makes organic traffic a KPI and you’re set up to tackle that project, think of us first.”

And, you know what?  They do.

Stay Tuned, and We’ll Really Dive Into Marketing

As I continue to do niche case studies, I’m going to continue to dump my bucket about marketing.  After all, I do own a fast-growing marketing business, and have retired from my former consulting practice.  So I’ve learned a good bit about this stuff.

But I also don’t intend to just idly drip out content about marketing here as the mood strikes me.  One of the things we’re going to be rolling out in 2021 is a community focus on helping current and aspiring engineer moonlighters and freelancers niche and market.

(Don’t worry, I’m not gearing up to hawk some info-product.  I’m talking about Hit Subscribe making this a contribution to the broad developer community.)

I don’t have specifics yet, but I do invite you to stay tuned.  We’ll be talking a lot about niching, establishing, finding and closing business going forward.