Kai and Chris talk about how to get freelancing clients as a developer, designer, marketer, etc, putting your message in front of them, generating referrals, positioning and re-positioning your business, and more!
Chris: And welcome back to another episode of the $100K Freelancing podcast. I’m Christopher Hawkins, your host, and today’s co-host is my pal, outreach consultant Kai Davis. Kai, how the heck are you?
Kai: Hey folks. Hey Chris. Glad to be here, excited to be on the show. Yeah, excited to be here.
Chris: You know, it’s a little odd introducing you, because I’m not completely convinced that “outreach consultant” adequately covers all the different things you do.
Kai: Well thank you so much. It’s an odd title for sure, and I picked it primarily because of positioning. I wanted to have a phrase that was unique, that was memorable. I was just coming out of the search engine optimization space and people were like, “SEO, I know what that is. That’s Black Hat stuff.” So I wanted a phrase that I could own and really create positioning around, and so I intentionally picked outreach consultant, and people often follow up with like, “What the heck is that?” That I find provokes a conversation and lets me get into the types of problems I solve, the types of outcomes I help my clients achieve, which it may or may not be directly within the outreach sending more email space. But yeah, it’s a title I picked and it’s gotten me at least this far.
Chris: Okay. I’m dying to know, have you ever explained to somebody what you mean by outreach consultant, and then had them kind of nod their head and say, “Oh, soooo…SEO?”
Kai: No, thankfully. The way I got into outreach consulting was I was doing SEO and link building projects for e-commerce clients, and I just was not enjoying them. I stared looking around at big lists of different link building strategies and I saw a couple people say, “You know, the thing that’s going to displace traditional link building the next two to five years, is going to be essentially, digital public relations. People doing outreach on behalf of their clients, building relationships, finding opportunities to provide value to an audience, to a community, to a site, to a site owner, and then using those relationships to generate links.”
Hey, this is a perfect example. I appeared on your podcast. There’s going to be a link involved in that, so I jumped onto outreach consulting as my positioning to help my clients earn more links and get more traffic, and when I framed it as, “Well hey, I’m an outreach consultant, which means I work in digital public relations. I help people promote their best product and services to an audience of their dream buyers, or target customers.” People are like, “I want to promote my stuff to an audience of my dream customers. Tell me more.”
Chris: Right. Now you’ve clearly given this a lot of thought. I have to ask, did you get your start in the game in this SEO space?
Kai: Actually as a consultant I started out doing WordPress website development. My positioning back then was … I say it jokingly, but it honestly was this, “If you have money I will build you a website.” And there was no positioning, there was no thought into expense problem. It was as commoditized as possible. I just built WordPress websites for people, and a couple years into that I started thinking about it and said, “Well hey, I want to always have my business be moving closer to where the money is in their business.” One way to figure out where the money is is to identify where they’re having challenges, or problems, or spending money and not seeing results.
So as I grew my client list, as I worked with more people, I just always made a point of asking, “What other types of consultants have you invested in recently? What problems are you experiencing in your business? What’s the highest priority right now?” I discovered for a majority of my clients, it was getting more traffic, or earning links to their site. As I discovered that I said, “Okay so, websites, let’s say they’re pretty far from the money. You could have a site, but it’s not honestly that difficult to have a site, but getting more traffic to the site, that’s an interesting challenge.”
I realized that was a little closer to the money, a more valuable problem to be solving, and reoriented my positioning to focus on that. Throughout my consulting career it’s always been an iterative process of discovering where that expensive problem is, or what a new expensive problem to solve for my target market is, and saying, “Well do I have enough knowledge already to solve that problem?” If not, “What study do I need to develop that knowledge? To learn what I need to know.” Or if I do have enough knowledge, “Okay, great. Let’s move forward and start testing the waters with a new service offering, or a new positioning statement, to target this new aspect of the market, or this new market entirely, and see how it works for my business.” I think just by thinking about, “Well where is the money being spent in the business?” Or, “Where is that expensive problem they’re willing to spend a thousand, ten thousand, tens of thousands of dollars to solve?” It alerts you to opportunities to grow you business and focus on new areas to make money in.
Chris: That’s strong stuff. I talk to a lot of freelancers about being aware of the position they occupy in the value chain in their client’s business, because a lot of us, especially starting out, we don’t think to ask that. That, “If you have money, I will build something for you.” That is the way we all get started, every single one of us, and frankly there’s a lot of money to be made with that approach, if a person is capable of fostering enough relationships, and getting enough clients to repeat that kind of engagement.
But what you’re doing right now I often talk to freelancers about, because I find that A, as you said, you get closer to the money, you can charge better rates, you get more respect, you’re held in higher in esteem, you’re less micromanaged, so on and so forth. I also find that it seems to foster recurring work a lot more so than the one-off, “If you have money, I will build something for you.” type of engagement’s doing. That’s pretty powerful.
Kai: I completely, completely agree. It plays very well into follow up or building a relationship with that client. I think Alan Weiss said it very well. “When you’re a consultant, and engaged on a project, or talking up a prospect, you don’t want to think about the sale that’s immediately in front of you. You want to think of the third, the fourth, the fifth transaction, the fifth project with this client.” And this first project, well this is an opportunity to build that relationship to get to that third, forth, and fifth project, and by focusing on … We might frame it as value-based questions, or just questions about their business, “How does your business run? How do you make money? What keeps you up at night?” You demonstrate an interest in that high level aspect of their business. Is it succeeding or failing? If it’s failing, how so? If it’s succeeding, what could be done better?
And when it comes time to put together a proposal, or pitch your services for this project, re circle back a couple months later and say, “Hey, how is business growing? You mentioned this upcoming product launch, how did that go?” It takes a couple seconds on the front end to collect that information, but it allows you to demonstrate a knowledge and an interest in their business that begets future work. “Oh, this is the consultant we had a great experience with. Oh, they emailed us at the right time and mentioned that big project we’re stressing about. Let’s see if they could help.”
Chris: Yeah. That’s hugely powerful. Be present and be curious. I’ve been to known to ask clients questions about their business almost to the point of annoyance, almost. Truth be told I’ve probably crossed the line once or twice, but I find that that’s a really fantastic way to A, figure out where you are on the value chain, if you don’t already know, because if you don’t know that’s kind of a problem on its own, and also to find out what else is going on in the business. I’ve talked to a lot of other freelancers who have a natural process for this. Matt Inglot calls them strategy calls, Jason Resnick calls them check-ins, I call it following up, so on and so forth. Do you have a specific method of doing that, or is it just a constant effort toward being present?
Kai: I’d say some of both. It’s a constant effort towards being present in the sense that if a client has a newsletter or a Twitter feed, I’ll subscribe and glance at the newsletters as they come out. They release a case study, if they release some article, I’ll be like, “Oh, hey. That was awesome.” And spend a few seconds just to respond back and show, “Hey, I’m still present.” Beyond that, I find that having a systematic, and persistent, and polite follow up strategy in place, and you can definitely start with something super simple on this, helps me get that future work, and helps continue building that relationship.
One very small and simple example of this is, I use a CRM, a contact management software, called Pipedrive, and so for every deal, there’s a person associated with it, at the end of a project, or even once they’ve paid and that project kicks off, I just set a reminder three months out, “Hey, email a follow up and check in with them.” So three months pass by, I might have forgotten about it by then, “I worked on a project with that client?” But the software is smart enough, it will remember for me and it’s like, “Hey, yo, Kai, you need to email a follow up with that person and just send a quick check in. ‘Hey, how’s business going? Anything I could do to help you grow?’”
By offloading that need to remember it to a piece of software, be it a contact management tool, be it an outreach tool like ReplyApp or something else, you make it easier to follow up on a consistent schedule, without needing to remember, “Oh, I worked with 30 clients this year, so I need to be managing 30 different follow up campaigns at the same time.” That can be mind melting. By delegating it to a program, I find it easier to remember who to follow up with, and when is the most appropriate time.
Chris: That’s nice. That reminds me of … I’m dating myself here. Back in the 90’s where I worked as a telemarketer. We had a tickler file. This effectively sounds like a 2017, probably Saas, appified version of a tickler file, yes?
Kai: Entirely. Entirely.
Chris: Okay. I love it, I love it. God, I can’t believe I just dated myself. Yes, I was old enough to be a telemarketer in the 90’s, yes I was enough of a scumbag to be a telemarketer in the 90’s, leave me alone. We all have our past.
I want to loop back around the traffic issue. It’s really interesting that you mentioned that specifically as being a more expensive, or rather, more valuable problem to solve. For two reasons, number one, when it comes to content marketing, the number one thing I hear from younger freelancers … Heck, not even younger freelancers, freelancers in general, is I’m writing all this stuff and no one is reading it, and I don’t know how to get people to read it. And number two, it makes me figure that traffic was probably a problem that you had solved for yourself right off the bat. Am I correct there?
Kai: Yes, very much so. In fact, I sort of take a controversial view to traffic, that traffic isn’t for a freelancer or a consultant, traffic is not the most important metric to be focused on. If you’re selling a product, if you’re running a Saas, if you’re selling an e-book, then traffic becomes I think a key performance indicator for you site, but for most consultants I think a more valuable metric to focus on is number of leads generated. It might be that, you write a great post, it goes viral, it’s the number one post on Hacker News for three months straight, and you get a million visitors to your site, but if not one of those visitors converts into a prospect for your business, or opts in say, to your email list to get more information, to learn more about your process, did you really accomplish anything aside from blowing up your hosting bills for the month?
I argue that the more important thing to focus on, more important than traffic, is client flow. It might be, you only get ten visitors a month … Or ten visitors a day to your site, if that, but every day or two you get another lead coming through, it doesn’t matter that you have low traffic. You have a very nice lead flow that you’re then able to close into projects. So I don’t think traffic is necessarily the number one metric to focus on for a consultant or a freelancer. More important is, “Am I consistently getting new leads contacting me?”
Chris: Okay. This is good stuff. Number one, I like controversy, it’s good for ratings. Number two, I have actually had that thing you describe happen. I had an article of mine blow up a little bit on Hacker News, I got 16,000 or 18,000 visits in a single day, but again, that wasn’t my audience. It may have been my audience, but that was not my target customer, my ideal customer. No leads, no nothing. All I got was a bunch of nasty comments and a bad taste in my mouth. You can’t run a consulting business on a bunch of nasty comments. Here’s the question: If client flow, lead flow, leads generated, is the more important currency than traffic, what can we do when we’re putting out content out in the world, when we’re demonstrating our expertise, to make sure that the right eye balls hit our material, rather than simply enough eyeballs hit our material?
Kai: Good question. I think first and foremost is understanding your positioning as a freelancer or consultant. I have to give a shout out to Philip Morgan, author of the position manual and creator of his free outreach course at FreeOutreachCourse.com … not free outreach course, PositioningCrashCourse.com. Accidentally plugged my own course, I’m so sorry! PositioningCrashCourse.com, that teachers the fundamentals of position, because positioning really breaks down to the target market you want to work with, let’s say it’s realtors, and the expensive problem you’re solving for that. That might be getting more clients, or getting more viewings of a house, or closing more house sales. Whatever that it, you need to understand who that target market is and what that expensive problem is, so you can understand where to find that target market.
If you don’t know who your target market is, you can do content creation, you can do guest posting, you can appear on podcasts, but do you know if you’re appearing on the right one? I think first and foremost, it starts with fundamentally understanding your positioning in the market. Who do you serve, and what outcomes do you help them generate? Once you have those in place, it becomes dramatically easier to say, “Okay, where does this audience already hang out online? Are there podcasts they listen to? Content and authority sites they read? Email lists they subscribe to? Conferences they attend? Twitter authorities, or Twitter lists that they’re apart of?” Whatever it may be, if we want to get the right eyeballs on our content, the right eyeballs being people who are in need of the service we offer, first and foremost we need to understand who that is, and what problem we’re solving for the.
Second, we need to start looking at the market and saying, “Well, where do these people already hang out? Where do they already spend their time online?” If we just wait for them to stumble onto one of our articles, well chances are it’s going to take a little bit of time. By being proactive, by doing outreach, contacting people, building relationships and seeing if you can convert those relationships into means to be present in front of our audience, then it becomes more likely we’re able to get that article in front of the right people. It might be orders of magnitudes different in traffic. You got 16,000 plus visitors off of the Hacker News post, but they weren’t your target market. It might be through outreach and relationship building.
We got a guest article published and there’s a hundred readers of that article, but of those hundred readers, 10 say, “Oh my gosh. I am ready to hire you today Chris, to solve this problem for my business. How do we get started?” So it’s not that we had tens of thousands of more visitors, it’s that we were in front of the right audience segment at the right time to demonstrate our expertise, and that all comes down to positioning.
Chris: Right, and frankly, 10 good prospects, 10 good leads, that sounds much better than 15,000 angry Hackers. Any day of the week, I will take those odds anytime you want to give them to me.
Kai: Heck yeah.
Chris: Yeah, I mean that’s really what it boils down to. We’ve got to find our people. I observed something while you were talking about this. This advice that you’re giving, it sounds remarkably like the advice that is given to start up founders as well, when it comes to marketing a product. I’ve often complained in the past, back when I was trying to be mister start up guy, I often complained that the marketing skills required to move product were very different than the marketing skills required to keep a consulting agency open, but in this particular way I find they’re super, super similar. Is this maybe the place where those two worlds meet?
Kai: I think it is. I dislike some aspects of startup culture, but what I do like in start up or product culture is a focus on, “Hey, let’s validate our understanding of our market before we build the thing, or before we do a lot of content creation.” And that’s something I’m trying to bring over to the freelancer space. Before we write a dozen articles, before we launch a new service offering, before we invest thousands of dollars in a new website, or revamp our messaging, do we understand who our target customer is? Do we understand what problem we’re solving for them? And okay, great, now that we’ve answered those two questions and hopefully we said yes to both of them, now we’re able to move forward with the product creation. In this case for a consultancy, that product creation might be our own messaging, our website, the service offerings we have available, but I think that validation that we see present in product creation worlds, bootstrap worlds, start up worlds, is very applicable to freelancers and consultants in that it helps us identify and validate the problem we need to solve.
Chris: Now you’ve clearly got this problem figured out for yourself, you mentioned doing WP websites, the old, “If you have a check, I will come.” type business model. You moved into dealing with traffic, and then you ended up as an outreach consultant. Was there a transitional stage between the, “Now I’m going to work on traffic.” and, “Now I’m an outreach consultant.” stage? What I’m curious is, can you kind of demonstrate for us … It’s clear that you did not immediately jump to your proper positioning, you evolved into it, and I think a lot of freelancers are probably number one, confused by positioning. I speak to people all the time who are confused by positioning.
Number two, you have the people like me who conceptually get positioning, but look at their own business and say, “Man, I’ve been really successful without doing any of that, so maybe I don’t need to bother.” And number three, when they actually sit down with say, a copy of Philip Morgan’s book – which is excellent, by the way, I’m on my second rereading because I was a poor student the first time and I didn’t actually do any of the work – they think they have to jump immediately to their final positioning, right? I’m not sure that’s even possible. What is your experience been like? Can you fill in some of the gaps in how you arrived at your own positioning?
Kai: Absolutely. In every single case, whenever I’ve switched positioning for my business, it’s been a year long … I use this metaphor even though I’ve never worked in the music industry, like a cross-fade between two tracks, so I start off 100% focused on let’s say, I’ll make WordPress websites for you, or I’ll help you get more traffic. And then I want to bring in my new positioning. I don’t burn the burn the boats, shut everything down, and then switch. I slowly transition, so I’m still getting client inquiries and leads from the old positioning, and I’ll still accept them. I might have a slightly higher bar for accepting them as client. A fewer number of red flags will make me say, “Hey you know what, I’m not the right consultant to help you with this.” But I’ll accept clients from that pervious positioning, that previous marketing channel, while I’m slowly ramping up the marketing for my new positioning. Establishing a new placement in the minds of my customers in the market.
I found that that gradual transition between the two positionings works the best, because it allows me to slowly and carefully experiment with the new positioning. There’s been a number of false starts on my side where I say, “Hey you know what, this expensive problem seems like the one to target.” So I’ll launch a sales page, I’ll put some material together, and nobody buys bupkis, in which case I’m able to say, “Okay. Test failed. Let’s move onto the next idea and see what we could have succeed there.”
When I do start to see some initial success, I remind myself that positioning is nothing more than a marketing chip. It’s saying, “I work best with this type of client to solve this type of problem.” We could always adjust that, we could always change it. Positioning is not permanent and not forever, so I do a slow fade between the two, where I’ll still have field marketing channels, landing pages, sales pages up, and people could come in and say, “Hey I want to work for you.” And it might be positioning that I slowly started fading out a year ago, but I still have those marketing channels in place to accept those clients. Meanwhile, I’m building up new marketing channels in line with my new positioning to bring in new clients who match that positioning. Finding podcasts they listen to, article sites they read, mailing lists they read, finding ways to reach that community and say, “Hey, new positioning. If you experience this problem and you’re in this target market, I could help you solve it this way.”
I found that by doing the slow fade between the two. It minimizes the risk, because if there was a false start, or I head off in the wrong direction, I still have all my old business assets, and all my old positioning, and all my old marketing channels still running, still bringing in leads, while I’m experimenting with something, and it might be a false start, in which case I say, “Okay, great. Let’s go back to the big ol’ list of possible positions, or possible expensive problems, and try number two, or number three on the list.” And just slowly, iteratively work my way through them. Am I explaining that well?
Chris: Kai, in this moment, you are my favorite human being who has ever existed. I want to say to everyone listening right now, this … Rewind the last couple minutes, rewind, listen and … Now I’m really dating myself. Rewind. Good God. Listen to the last couple of minutes again. You do not go to bed Monday night with positioning A and wake up Tuesday with positioning B. It is very, very easy though Kai, for the folks who are reading all the … And there’s tons of positioning type information out there in the marketplace now, it’s being aimed at us, it’s very easy to believe that if you do not wake up Tuesday morning fully entrenched in positioning B, you have failed and you are a bad freelancer.
I really appreciate you laying this out. Number one, the cross-fade metaphor is fantastic, being an audio geek, but the slow ramp down and the slow ramp up taking place at the same time, taking a year, thank you for laying that out there, because that’s not always evident from the material that’s available. I think a lot of the time people feel like they have to pull this off within a quarter, or else they’ve screwed it up. It’s very humanizing to hear that that’s not actually the case.
Kai: Absolutely. Jumping back to the point you had raised earlier in the question about how a number of freelancers and consultants look at the idea of positioning and say, “Well hey, I’ve already built a successful six figure business,” or a “business that supports my lifestyle. Why do I need this positioning thing?” Maybe you don’t. I mean, if we want to get meta, the reason we’re consultants and independent business owners is to live the life we want. If you’re making enough money as a consultant with undifferentiated positioning, you have steady client flow, you like the projects you’re working on, and you say, “Hey, you know what, I like my business the way it is.” And the business is supporting the lifestyle you want? There’s no need to rearrange the deck chairs on the titanic. If you’re happy, that’s wonderful. You have won. You have succeeded at business. You might be able to make more money, or get more clients with a more refined positioning, but if you’re not looking for either of those outcomes, there might not be a need to even monkey around with positioning in the first place.
I recently had a consulting call with a seven figure company that has a positioning statement that boils down to basically, “We make websites if you need one.” And I’m like, “How many people are on your team?” And it’s in the hundreds, and they nailed it. They focus very much on relationship marketing, referral based marketing, and ongoing projects with clients, and so it’s been very successful for them. They’re now starting to evaluate, “Well, can we become more successful with a more refined positioning statement? But they built a very successful, fantastic company on the basis of not really having a positioning statement. I think positioning is valuable. It’s what I think of as a force multiplier for a consultant or a freelancer. It lets you have more of an impact with less force, but if you’re happy with your business the way it is, there’s not necessarily a reason to say, “I need to redo my positioning today.”
Chris: You know, that’s really interesting. This is almost like a therapy session for my own business, because the three things you just named, referrals, relationships, and recurring work, the three R’s, that in a nutshell spells out how my business has been able to operate for the last 15 years. Although I have to admit, I may have had a positioning early on without realizing it. My agency was known as the fix it company, right. Your developer dropped the ball on you, your developer disappeared over night, which is a surprisingly and distressingly common scenario, they deliver broken work, “Hey, I know. Call these guys. They’re really good at picking up broken projects and turning them into something.” Maybe that’s positioning, maybe it’s not, but that’s certainly a reputation that we’ve had early on. You know what the funny thing is Kai, as much business as that brought in the door, and there’s a ton of fix it business out there, I resented the fact that that’s what we were known for. Isn’t that funny?
Kai: Mm-hmm, I hear you on that. Sometimes there is that internal push against like, “I don’t like the thing I’m known for.” I experienced that first hand in search engine optimization. I remember somebody came to my website, subscribed to my list, read a couple of my emails, applied to work with me. We get on the call and the first thing the person says to me is, “There’s two types of businesses I hate.” And I’m like, “Okay.” “Lawyers, and search engine optimization consultants.” The punchline to the joke is my dad’s a lawyer, and I’m doing SEO at the time, and I’m like, “Why do you start the call this way? I don’t understand. Why do you want to hire me? This is very confusing.”
It was actually at that moment when I realized, I wanted to refine my positioning to avoid those types of scenarios. That I disliked somebody having a preconceived notion of what SEO is, what SEO … You know, it’s $300, you get some back links, it’ll work. I know a guy. He’ll help you out. I disliked that framing of positioning and wanted to rebel against it, and move against it, which is why I flipped over to outreach. Similar to how you were receiving a lot of work, but not necessarily happy with what you were known for within the market place, or what those types of jobs ended up being.
Chris: I agree. Number one, that’s really funny, speaking as a guy who once considered going to law school, that’s really funny. Everybody has a … I’m trying to keep the show clean. Everybody has a jerk attorney joke, or you know, “That SOB lawyer.” Nobody has a outreach consultant joke. Nobody has a, “That SOB outreach consultant, all he did was get me on a bunch of podcasts.” Nobody has that story. That’s really funny the way lawyers are just universally reviled like that.
Kai: What’s that quote, I think from one of the Henry plays from Shakespeare, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Chris: “Kill all the lawyers.” Yes, that’s funny. And number two, you’re right. I really did resent what I was known for. Although I have to admit, one of the coolest moment in my career came when one of my clients referred to me as, “the Winston Wolf of software development.” I was like, “Man, that’s going on the website today.”
Kai: That is wonderful.
Chris: Yeah, and I didn’t even have to wear a tuxedo.
Kai: You could!
Chris: Yeah, I felt like I was getting away with something. It was great.
Kai: I think you’re right though, we often think, and I often advocate positioning as being a focus on a market vertical, and a specific problem. Dentists who need more clients, attorneys who need more leads, whatever it may be, but that, since focusing on a vertical is often easier for people who want to get started with positioning … I talk with people who say, “I figured out my positioning. I’m working with, wait for it, B2B businesses.” And I’m like, “That is a very wide range my friend. Perhaps we could narrow the scope.”
Chris: Yeah. That’s, like… every business.
Kai: Every business! I think focusing on a vertical could help, but often times you could develop what we could think of as reputational positioning. “I am the guy,” or “We are the guys who will fix it when it’s broken. Don’t worry about it, we have it covered. We’re the Winston Wolf of website development.” Being known for solving that expensive problem, even if you don’t have it attached to a specific market segment, can work incredibly well as positioning. You get referrals, you create those referable moments. If one of your clients hears one of their friends saying, “Oh man, our developer went on an unexpected six week vacation. The site’s starting to go down, we’re going to lose money.” “I know who you need to call. You need to call Chris. He’s the Winston Wolf of helping people in this situation.” I think that is in itself positioning, it’s just a different form in flavor of the more common positioning we see advocated.
Chris: Right. Right, and it was completely unintentional. In fact, I was unaware that my little firm had that positioning for a few years. It wasn’t until a few people had mentioned it to me, and it kept coming up, that I said, “Oh, so when you guys talk about us out there in the business community, that’s what you talk about us for?” I had no idea.
Here’s what I want to ask you: Let’s say, my typical listener is a freelancer who’s got some clients, they’re got some traction, they don’t feel like they’re killing it, and as the name of the show implies, they have not reached that six figure income mark yet. Some of these folks are trying to experiment with the positioning. Some of them share with me their frustrations. Some of them have even asked if it’s possible to reverse engineer a positioning. That is, as in the case with my firm, I was known for a thing, was unaware of it, was made aware of it, did not like it. It was completely unintentional, I didn’t intentionally create that positioning. Is it possible to look at your existing body of work and figure out a positioning that you either already have, or that perhaps you should have? Is it something you need to talk to client about? Is it something that you can really have control over, or is how we’re perceived by the market place largely defined by our client interactions?
Kai: That’s a great question. I think it is 100% possible to reverse engineer your positioning, and there’s a couple different ways you could do it. Through looking at your previous body of work, through client interactions, through client conversations. When it comes to looking at your previous body of work, what I often advocate is, look through and start scoring projects and clients. I use a simple three score method where I just list every project or every client I worked with in the last or two, and I score it from one to ten on, “How fun was it to work with this project? How lucrative is it to work on these types of projects?” And, “How much do I personally enjoy working with this type of industry?” I’ll just sum up the one to ten scores and sort them by that master summation column and be like, “Oh, what comes at the top?”
It’s interesting to see what might pop out. You might be like, “Oh wow. I didn’t realize that I really enjoyed this type of project that was the most financially lucrative for me. Let me try niche-ing down on that.” And so we could definitely reverse engineer positioning by looking at our previous body of work and cherry picking specific clients or types of projects and saying, “You know what, we’ve got this larger Venn diagram, this larger circle of all projects I’ve worked on, but we’ve got this sub set of projects I loved working on. Let’s focus on those and see what happens.” So you could definitely reverse engineer a position that way.
I think talking with clients is another option. I advocate follow up with clients after a project, and a month or so down the line, one great question to ask in a follow up email, or a follow up sequence is, “Hey, I’m just curious. In your own words, what was the best part?” Or, “What was the highlight of working on this project?” Or, “How did this project help your company improve?” And just let them type as much or as little as they want, or say as much or as little as they want if you’re on the phone with them, and hear the words they use to describe you. Since as you discovered, your clients may already have you slotted into a specific positioning in their mind, you just don’t know it yet.
By opening the door to that conversation, it becomes much easier to be like, “Oh wow. Three of the five clients I talked to described me as ‘The guys to call when everything is falling apart.’ Huh. That’s interesting. Do I want to continue with that? Do I want to try to reset it and reposition myself?” If anything, it’s data that you’re able to incorporate into your thinking about positioning.
The third and final thing I’ll say about reverse engineering positioning is, I think it is possible to brute force reverse engineer a positioning statement, or a positioning for your business. It is probably the hardest of the modes or modalities of positioning, but it can be successful. In my own case, when I made that jump from WordPress developer to, “I’m going to do search engine optimization for e-commerce stores.” I have yet to do a search engine optimization project, and I have yet to work with an e-commerce client, but I thought it would be a strong positioning to pick because I looked at the market place and said, “Okay, of the clients I’ve worked with, or the clients I can work with, who would be the most enjoyable?” And I was doing a lot of reading about e-commerce and Shopify and saying, “Oh wow, seems like these people are investing a lot of money in their businesses. Okay. There’s some cash flow set up here, I want to set up my business next to that cash flow.”
Then I started reading about the types of problems they were experiencing, going onto forums, reading discussions groups, seeing the different articles and tutorials posted, and there was a lot around, “How do I get more traffic to my store?” I said, “Okay, great. Here’s a positioning I could test. If you own a e-commerce store, I will help you get more traffic.” I was able to put that positioning out into the market, contact a couple store owners, engage in conversations with them, close the first of many clients in the e-commerce space and discover, “Oh wow. This is a valuable problem to solve.” But it involved a lot of self study and researching on my part. I think I read six or seven different books on search engine optimization and link building, a number of different guides and articles on the process, a number of different guides and articles specifically about e-commerce stores and traffic, because I knew coming into this new positioning I was at a knowledge deficit compared to other people in the market, and the action I needed to take was study as much as I could.
Honestly, we aren’t talking that much. Five to seven books, five to seven articles, a couple weeks of work at this to understand, “Okay, what exactly do I need to do here to solve this problem?” So there’s a number of different ways we could sort of reverse engineer or back our way into a positioning rather than say, “Hey I’m going to take a stab in the dark at something new out there.” We could look at our own body of work, we could talk to clients and see what they already hear and see us as in the market, or we could say, “Well, I’m going to pick a new target market based on different signs that I see, and I’m going to see what expensive problem they’re experiencing through market research.” And that will become the positioning, that test.
Chris: Now the brute forcing of a positioning, I’m guessing that’s probably a good candidate for the kind of processes you were talking about earlier where maybe you need to let it take a year and very slowly, slowly ease into it?
Kai: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. I think that’s definitely the case where you want to test as much as possible, and I typically advocate setting up a separate landing page on your site. Maybe it’s like “kaidavis.com/e-commerce”, and people are able to go there and see, “Oh, this is the e-commerce stuff her does.” The front page talks about different things that might still be a more generic positioning statement, but I’m starting to test my positioning through that one off page. I think there’s a number of different activities you could take to test that positioning, but even when it’s more of a let’s say, safe but or small adjustment in your positioning, I think taking some time and approaching it slowly and cautiously and saying, “This is a multi month process.”
Just like starting advertising, you don’t start advertising on Facebook and instantly your campaign is a success, you start advertising on Facebook, collect data, synthesize all that data, make changes, and repeat, and it’s that same methodology I think when it comes to revisiting our positioning or revisiting our marketing at large, as a consultant or freelancer.
Chris: Okay, so here’s my question: Once you embark on this process, this process of either, “Oh look, it turns out I have a positioning, now I need to just behave like it.” Or, whether you’re trying to brute force your way into right now, or whether you’re trying to very slowly do your cross-fade technique, how long of a period should it take? How long into the process can you get? How do you gauge whether or not you’re seeing enough of a result to continue to invest in switching to that positioning? What are the signals that tell you, “You know, maybe I shouldn’t spend the rest of the year on this. Maybe I should switch to something else right now.” After one quarter or two quarters, or what have you. How do you gauge whether to continue?
Kai: I think it’s a combination of looking to see if you’re generating referrals, if people are responding to your positioning statement, if new clients are coming out of the woodwork and saying, “Oh we didn’t know you did this. We’re that exact type of company and we need help with that.” It’s a lot of business quantitative figures like that. Are we seeing leads come through these new channels? Are we seeing inquiries for these new types of projects? Are we seeing people seek us out for our new reputation, or our new positioning? Often times what I recommend is trying to generate referable moments. It might be, we choose a new position for our business, and we say, “Okay great, we need to go out there and see how the market reacts to this.” What I advocate is making a list of 10 to 15 business owners, colleagues, past clients, people you’ve worked with, people you know, people you’re friends with, and just sending them a simple email.
You want to create referrals from this email, so you basically say something like, “Hey. Just a quick update. Hope you’re doing well. Wanted to let you know, I’m changing the positioning for my business. I’m focusing in on,” Or, “I’m experimenting with focusing in on ‘new target market’ and helping them achieve ‘specific outcome’ by solving ‘expensive problem’. I’m curious though, I’m doing market research on this and want to make sure I’m focusing on the right things. Do you know of anybody who works in ‘target market’ experiencing ‘problem’ that you could connect me with? If so, I deeply appreciate that referral. If not, not a worry, still love you, hope you have a wonderful weekend.”
We send out these outreach emails to people we already know. Warm contacts. We’re looking to generate referrals from them or response from them saying, “Oh, yeah. I know three people who are exactly like that. Let me make sure it’s okay to introduce you two, and I’ll go ahead and introduce you two.” So by trying to generate referable moments like that, we’re able to increase the number of people coming in, the number of people exposed to our new positioning, and get more validation that, “Oh, hey, this is a valuable thing to focus on.”
Chris: Nice. I like that a lot. I like that a lot. Let’s continue … [inaudible 00:36:45] a case study with the freelancer I described earlier. Little bit of traffic, making some money, has some clients, is not intentionally moving into a particular positioning, and is not yet earning six figure, so suppose they look at their body of work, they go through the exercises that you describe, and they discover, “Oh look, apparently I’m the karate school web design guy.” Or, “Look, apparently I’m the blue collar HVAC repair WordPress site guy.” Whatever positioning a person discovers that they may already have in the marketplace, intentional or not. If a freelancer chooses a positioning, right, whether it’s one that they’ve accidentally backed into or whether it’s one that as you said, they want to brute force, “I’m going to move all my marketing into position to support positioning X.” They’ve never done this before. What’s the very first thing they need to start doing in order to proactively establish that positioning? Take that ground and hold it in the marketplace.
Kai: I think, say the first and most important and most valuable thing you could do is, especially if you’ve looked at your previous body of work and you’re picking your positioning based off of that, email the pervious clients, or call out the previous clients who match that position, who are in that industry, who own HVAC businesses, or whatever that positioning may be, and say, “Hey, it was wonderful to work on that project with you. What I’d love to do is just set up a quick 10 minute call, see how things are going,” and here in your own words, “the benefit this project helped your business achieve.”
The goal is just to learn in the client’s own words, what outcome this project helped them achieve, and that I feel fully informs our positioning statement, because then we’re able to say, “Okay, so I specialize in helping HVAC companies get websites that get leads.” What outcome did that have for their business? “Oh, it helped them get more clients, it helped them hire three new employees because they got more deals, it helped them get more traffic and get more phone calls.” We want to discover, in their own words what the outcome generated is, and from that we’re able to refine our positioning, or say, “Hey, you know what, I’m specializing with companies like yours. I’m wondering, do you know two or three people I Should contact who are in your network, who you would trust, who you think I would be a good fit for, that would be a good person for me to talk with?”
Reaching out to past clients, or reaching out to colleagues or acquaintances from more of a referral based strategy is I think the number one most important action to take. It lets you easily validate the position if people come back and are like, “I don’t quite understand what you do.” You aren’t explaining it clearly enough. If people say, “Hey, I could think of three people I should introduce you to.” That’s a very good early sign that your positioning is resonate with the market, it’s coherent with the pains and problems that target market is experiencing, and aligns with the needs that they have.
Chris: Very nice, very nice. What would be second?
Kai: Second after that outreach I’d say is starting to revise the messaging on your website. So we’ve picked positioning, we’ve done a round of essentially, market research outreach. Does what we’re offering actually match up with what people want to buy? Okay, it does. Let’s either update our home page or create a specific sub page on our site speaking directly to that target market. Our homepage might still be, “We make websites for people that need them.” But on this particular HVAC page it might be like, “if you own an HVAC business and you’re struggling to get more leads and phone calls from your website, let us show you how to double your number of clients.” whatever it may be, and have that specific page talking about the pains they’re experiencing, problems you could help them solve, and the outcomes they achieve when they work with you.
By doing that, it becomes dramatically easier to direct that traffic, direct those leads, direct those prospects to a page that speaks directly to them. We’ve essentially done the minimum necessary to update our position by creating this new page, and we’re only honestly talking 500 to 1,000 words maximum. Include a call to action at the bottom, “Schedule a time here. Contact me through this forum. Email me here.” Then as we engage in conversations with people are either in the industry or could provide referrals in the industry, we have a specific page we could send them to that speaks directly to them and their market. I think that next step is a first round revision of your messaging. Not a full on content rescaling, update all the pages, but let’s just target one page first and update the messaging on that page to be more coherent with the target market, and move forward that way.
Chris: So by this time in the process we’ve already taken some reasonably serious, or maybe I should say, earnest steps to not only change our messaging, but to get that new messaging out in front of the people that it was intended to address.
Kai: And specifically explain, “This is what I’ll be able to do for you. This is how I’ll be able to help you. This is the outcome your business will achieve.” And it allows you to test the water of position. By this point, we’re honestly, the work we’ve done is look at our past clients, see if any stand out as being in industries we want to focus on, picked one of those industries or picked a separate industry, done a little bit of market research, reaching out to people we know in that industry, or people who could refer us to people in that industry, have a couple conversations with people in that industry to say, “Hey, what keeps you up at night? What’s the biggest issue you’re having right now? What’s the latest thing you paid a consultant to help you with?”
Then we fold that information into a single page on our site that just specifically says, “If you’re in this industry experiencing this problem, this is how I could help you.” By being able to share that with clients or prospects in our target market as they come in, we’re easily able to communicate, “Hey, we’re specializing in this. Our entire site might not yet show it yet, but you know what, it always takes a while to update sites, but this is what we’re specializing in, and this is how we could help you.” And after two, three, four months you’re like, “Well, no leads and no conversions and I actually don’t really like this target market at all, they’re all ninnypoos.” Well, then you could say, “Okay, all I really put on the line here was writing one new page of my site.”
We practiced a ton of what I call meta skills along the way. Improving our positioning, doing market research, having conversations with people, and writing a sales page. All of those are skills that will apply next time you test a new position, or the time after that, or the time after that. We are practicing valuable business skills throughout this exercise, so eve if this attempt at positioning does not perfectly work, that’s fine, you are going to become a better business owner by taking the time to experiment in this way. If that attempt in positioning does not work, it doesn’t mean you are a bad business owner, or you somehow have failed, it just means hey, you tested a marketing channel. That’s all that positioning really needs to break down to be. A single marketing channel, and that one didn’t work.
Just like we can look around and identify people who tried Facebook ads and were like, “Nope. That one did not produce a return on investment for me.” Or people who tried search engine optimization and said, “Hey, you know what, SEO is not the game for me to get clients or traffic.” A particular position is just a marketing channel. It’s like having a big billboard that says, “If you’re this type of person, I will help you solve this problem. Sometimes we pick a particular target market and a particular problem that people don’t need help solving yet. I worked with a coaching student about a year ago who picked a fabulous target market, one that routinely hires consultants for six figure plus engagements, and a very, very, very necessary expensive problem.
But as the student moved forward with market research, what he discovered was this was an incredible expensive problem, it would be costing people in his target market hundreds of thousands of dollars per business if they did not work on it, however, the government deadline to fully implement a solution to this problem was not for three years and nobody gave a fig at this point.
Chris: Wow, that’s kind of a heartbreaking example of the sometimes make or break role of timing in any kind of a marketing effort in freelancing. Even something small or something as big as repositioning.
Kai: He was perfectly positioned to move on it and he was like, “Well, nobody really wants to spend money for two and half years, what do I do?” And I’m like, is there another problem that target market is experiencing? Can we sort of hedge your bets that way? And he ended up finding another expensive problem within the same target market, so when it came time 6 months or 12 months before that government deadline, he’d be able to start ramping up the positioning, and ramping up the marketing, and saying, “Hey, you know we’re 11 months away from this big ol deadline that’s going to effect your business. If you want to get ahead of the game, if you want to make sure you aren’t in trouble or aren’t dealing with issues when this deadline hits, we better start talking now.” But sometimes you do get to that market research point and discover, “Oh, the market does not yet have a need for the service I’m offering.”
Chris: Right, so whether your friend was correct or incorrect about his market positioning change, it really doesn’t matter unless he’s also doing this change at the time the market is ready to accept it?
Kai: Perfectly put.
Chris: As if repositioning isn’t tough enough, now we’re just telling stories that are going to create anxiety. My goodness. But all the said, we’re going to need to move towards wrap up. Kai, I know that people can find you on Twitter as @kaisdavis, and also at doubleyouraudience.com. Where else out on the internet can the listeners keep up with you and your projects?
Kai: That’s a great question. If the listeners go to kaidavis.com, they could sign up for my daily newsletter. Every day I email out a tip about freelancing or consulting as it applies to us as business owners. How do get more clients, how to refine your positioning, how to build a better business. So if you go to kaidavis.com you’ll be able to sign up for my daily marketing tip for freelancers or consultants. You could also go to freeoutreachcourse.com. I’ve written two books about outreach, emailing clients or audience owners, building relationships with them and turning those relationships into opportunities for you and your business. If you want to learn more about the process of outreach, just go to freeoutreachcourse.com, and you’ll be able to sign up for a free five day, five part lesson.
Chris: That’s a generous offer. Kai, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Kai: Hey, thank you so much for having me, and I hope the listeners enjoy this episode.
I write a high-quality, daily newsletter about marketing, growth, and lead generation for indie consultants, freelancers, and service professionals.