I have never been a great fan of golf. As far as I can see it is a silly game that ruins a perfectly good walk. For the longest time I didn’t get why so many people played it. I especially did not understand why successful business people wasted so much time hitting a small ball around in a field.
One day I mentioned my dislike of the sport to a golfing friend and his answer surprised me. “I don’t like it much either” he replied. “Then why do you play it?” I asked. He responded by telling me that he played with potential or existing clients. In short it was a sales tool. Golf is a boring slow paced game that allows ample time to for “networking”. My friend had plenty of opportunities to subtly sell his services.
Personally I don’t care how good a sales tool it is; I have no intention of taking up golf. However, as a diehard geek/web designer I have developed a number of other techniques that allow me to network and sell my skills.
Most of us have already heard of Linkedin (www.linkedin.com). Aimed squarely at the business community its objective is to connect you to new business contacts through mutual acquaintances. At its heart, it is all about sales. It gives suppliers a chance to connect to potential customers through referrals, while buyers feel more confident in the supplier because it comes as a recommendation from an existing contact.
However, although it seems great in principle, I am yet to win any work through it. As somebody who isn’t really a sales person it feels heavy-handed and slightly aggressive.
An alternative is to make use of one of the many social networking sites out there. The first that springs to mind is myspace but no self-respecting professional would be caught dead there, so we need to look a little further. The answer seems to lie in facebook that appears to have exploded in popularity recently. I am continually amazed at just how many of my clients have a facebook page and just how many new contacts I am making through my facebook account.
The reason facebook works well is that it is not as formal as a company website. It is your “personal” page and people respond better to individuals rather than to organizations. It is far easier to ask a quick question of a person on facebook than complete a contact form on a website and risk being hassled by a sales person.
Of course you have to give people a reason to add you as a friend on facebook. They have to see a value in the relationship. What can you offer them? What do they get out of the association? This brings us nicely on to the “aren’t I clever” approach of social networking.
The “aren’t I clever” approach
Making contacts through sites like facebook is not enough in itself. Although it gets your name in front of people on a semi-regular basis it does not associate that name with quality work. Some degree of self-promotion is also needed.
Telling the world how great you are is always difficult. The problem is that if you do it the wrong way you come across as arrogant and nobody wants to work with somebody like that. The best approach is to not directly promote yourself at all but allow your knowledge and expertise to do the talking.
The most common way to achieve this is through a blog. By writing about your experience as a web designer you will naturally start to communicate your depth of expertise in the field. Blog posts demonstrating your experience are reassuring for potential clients because they show that you “know what you are talking about.” If you take the time to write your posts in plain English and avoid web design jargon then you will also be educating potential clients at the same time. This adds real value from their perspective and makes them more likely to subscribe to your posts.
Of course not all of us are great writers. However, there are alternative ways of promoting your expertise. If you are a designer your blog might consist mainly of example designs that you have produced with short explanations of your approach. If you are a coder you might want to focus on releasing code snippets that others can reuse. The important thing is that you express your knowledge and passion for the subject.
For me a podcast worked best. I found myself frustrated by only blogging as it was much harder to express my enthusiasm for the subject. By podcasting more of that passion comes across. Another advantage of podcasting over the written word is that people get to know you better. They feel like they have made a real connection and that helps when generating sales leads. However, podcasting is not for everybody and you need to discover what is right for you.
Giving away your genius
Although it is great to demonstrate your knowledge, many people are concerned that this gives away their competitive edge and intellectual property. The reasoning goes that if I tell the world how I code a particular solution or how I approach a certain aspect of web design, then my competition will use that knowledge.
To some extent this is a legitimate concern. Indeed, I know that many of my competitors listen to and learn from my podcast. However, ultimately I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Prospective clients respond so favorably to an open attitude and the knowledge you communicate through that approach that it wins far more work than is lost through loss of competitive advantage.
Another important point to consider is that the more you blog and talk about your expertise the higher your online profile and the more likely you are to be found. If you post content online it will help your search engine ranking and if the content is good then you will find more people linking to you. On the other hand if you fail to post for fear of losing your competitive edge then people will not discover you in the first place. Don’t allow a fear of your competition to hamper your marketing strategy.
Of course the danger with blogs, podcasts and social networks is that we hide behind them. Sooner of later we have to confront the real world.
Don’t forget real life
As I said at the beginning of this article, I consider myself a geek. One of the things I have observed about geeks is that many of us find face to face interaction difficult, especially when it comes to self promotion. We tend to shy away from such opportunities and hide behind technology. However, this is a serious mistake. If we are seeking to generate new business and increase our profile then we have to get ourselves out there meeting people.
There is certainly no shortage of opportunities available from conferences to meet-ups. Start by engaging with the web design community. Sure, some of them will be the competition but many will work for in-house web teams or agencies in search of outside expertise.
Conferences are a good way to meet people but meet-ups are even better. These informal gatherings of web designers are superb for networking because they provide many opportunities to chat and socialize. From Barcamp to Refresh there are literally thousands of these get togethers all over the world and they happen on a regular basis. The best place to start is by searching on “web design” at upcoming.org.
One problem you might encounter is that you may have to travel. Many events like these tend to focus on larger cities so if you live in a more rural area you could find a lack of events nearby. Personally, I live in the middle of nowhere but I still make the effort to go up to London because I am persuaded that face to face meetings are important.
So you have attended a meet-up and made a few contacts, the question is how to keep in touch and build those relationships? That is where twitter comes in.
Take a moment to think about the problem. You have met somebody for a couple of hours at a meet-up. You get on well and feel it is worth keeping in touch. You could swap telephone numbers but why would you call them? You certainly don’t know them well enough at this stage to call for a chat! You could exchange email addresses but what reason would you have to write? People get enough junk email as it is without you pestering them. What you need is a lightweight and informal way of keeping in touch so that the next time you meet you have something to talk about. Twitter is the answer.
By adding a new contact to your twitter list (and vice versa) you can track each others thoughts and activities. My contacts on twitter post about their work, where they are going, their home life, all kinds of random pieces of information. By following this information I will have something to talk to them about next time we meet. I will know that one contact failed his motorcycle test or that another has just enjoyed a holiday in spain. It gives us something to discuss.
Equally, if they are following my twitters then they will know about my life and I will remain in the forefront of their mind. That way, the next time work becomes available for which I might be suited, they will remember me.
In short twitter keeps the relationship fresh even when there are long gaps between physical contact.
Of course, this technique only works when both parties are on twitter. However, more and more people are joining up to services like this and certainly many web designers are already using it.
Quick fire tips to social networking
So there you are. The geek alternative to golf. Social networking sites, blogging, podcasting, meet-ups and twitter. However, let me leave you with three pieces of advice that have been invaluable to me in my online interactions.
First, resist the temptation to actively sell. When it is so easy to block you the last thing you want to do is push your luck. If the prospective client can see your talent through your blog and is in regular contact with you through twitter or facebook then they will come to you when they have work available.
Second, use an actual picture of yourself. When registering for facebook, twitter or any other social website there is a temptation to use some clever icon or cartoon as your profile picture. Resist the urge. If somebody has met you for the first time at a meet-up they may well not remember your name when you ask them to be a friend on one of these sites. However, if they see your picture they are much more likely to recall you and hit add instead of block.
Finally, never dismiss anybody. If you become focused on sales and networking you may find yourself judging people by their potential value. It is a mistake to shun somebody because they are “just a student” or a junior designer. I have learnt from personal experience that anybody has the potential to bring in business. A junior designer can recommend you to his or her boss. A student will one day graduate and work for a company. Everybody has a value to your business and you should not ignore anybody. Anyway, to do so would be downright rude!