If you're like many IT consultancies and managed service providers (MSPs), you don't just serve small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) -- you are one yourself. A healthy SMB requires a healthy flow of new customers, but many smaller shops' IT consulting marketing relies almost entirely on word-of-mouth -- which is another way of saying they don't market.
That may be fine if you're working alone or with just a few other people, but to grow your business, you'll need to develop an active plan for reaching out to new prospects.
"We're about 30 people large; we couldn't begin to turn the lights on here if I had to rely on vendor referrals," said Steve Lubahn, vice president of sales and marketing at LOCKNET Inc., an MSP in La Crosse, Wis.
Many consulting firm owners come from the technical side, and they often distrust marketing, said Robin Robins, president of Technology Marketing Toolkit Inc., an IT services marketing consultancy in Franklin, Tenn.
"People think if you're good, honest, you're reliable, you do a good job -- then that's going to equate into a successful, thriving business. And you do need all that," Robins said. But to run a good company, she said, "you've got to have the right entrepreneurial mindset, which is revenue and profits. True entrepreneurs don't just have a business to have a business. They have a business to make profits."
With that in mind, follow these five steps to build a thriving IT consulting marketing campaign.
1. Target your audience
One of the first steps you should consider as you organize an IT consulting marketing campaign is to go after a specific vertical. That lets you target your message and value, instead of just being yet another IT services firm. For instance, Alpheon Corp., an MSP in Morrisville, N.C., focuses its message on healthcare companies. Although about a quarter of its clients aren't in healthcare, it's harder to get a new customer on the general merits of IT services alone, said the company's president and CEO, Greg Donovan.
"The rest of that pie doesn't have a hook. The healthcare industry has a hook, and that hook is HIPAA," he said.
Being able to speak in a lead's lingo and knowing the usual concerns their industry faces also help when dealing with officers outside of the IT department, Lubahn said. LOCKNET targets itself at financial companies.
2. Develop a message
The bottom-line goal of any IT consulting marketing program is to provide a compelling reason for clients to sign up with you rather than a competitor -- and this is especially important if you aren't ready to target a specific audience. Robins said you should identify the main concerns your target prospects will have; for IT companies, this is often response time and quality of support. Your IT consulting marketing materials should make guarantees to alleviate your leads' concerns, and if possible, you should supplement those guarantees with customer testimonials.
And of course, you shouldn't make empty promises -- your reputation gets around, especially when you're dealing with verticals. If you can't keep promises about the issues your customers are most worried about, before you launch an IT consulting marketing campaign, you should work on those business fundamentals -- and revisit the marketing campaign after those issues are addressed.
3. Start mailing
The most basic form of advertising is direct mail marketing. For good leads -- again, target the audience -- you can follow this up with a phone call.
One common mistake is to send out a "pretty" postcard with a gimmicky message, Robins said. Companies often send these figuring that prospects will be more likely to read a short postcard than a lengthy sales letter, but a postcard is more obviously an advertisement and could get chucked by a secretary before a decision-maker even has a chance to see it, Robins said.
Lubahn said LOCKNET does occasional postcard-style mailings, and while they do get the company some name recognition and a bump in Web site visits, they don't usually result in many calls from interested leads.
On the other hand, Donovan said one of Alpheon's most successful mailings is a three-page package containing a business letter, an information sheet about the company and a sheet about its services.
4. Establish yourself as an expert
Another successful IT consulting marketing technique is to establish yourself as an expert to your target audience by speaking at trade shows and publishing free articles. A typical conference costs about $5,000 -- including flight, hotel and sponsorship fees -- and the worst-case result is one new customer within 60 days, Donovan said.
You should spend a significant amount of time educating your customers on any terms they don't understand. For instance, many consumers don't yet know what constitutes managed services, so Alpheon educates them on what a proactive service entails and how it helps their business.
5. Form partnerships
Partnering with a noncompeting company can be a good way to help build your business, but there are some things to watch for, Robins said. The success of a joint-venture marketing campaign will depend on how enthusiastic the other company is about the project, how complementary your markets are and how close it are with its clients, she said.
Predicting your partner's relationship with its customers is hard, Robins said. For the joint venture to be successful, your partner's customers should be extremely happy with them -- not just have settled for lack of a better option. Since that company is essentially vouching for you, you'll want its advice to carry weight.
When you're closing a deal, it may also help to have your vendor on the line with the prospect -- so long as it's not competing with you for the sale, Lubahn said. Since a vendor's sales representatives have in-depth knowledge of the company's products, they can often answer questions more readily. Many vendors rely significantly or exclusively on the channel, which reduces your risk of having the lead poached; you should also check to see whether their channel program has deal registration.
This was first published in December 2007