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The last few weeks (okay, months), my firm has been really thinking over our marketing strategy and the most efficient ways to bring in new business.  As an up-start firm, we have a short, loyal client list; a list we’d like to grow.  So, where to start?  This is a question I posed to Mark R. LePage at Entrepreneur Architect the night we won the San Antonio Low Impact Development competition, and it’s one that keeps me up late a lot of nights.

Going through the motions of “who is our target client base”, and “where can we find them”, is the easy part.  The hard part is “how do we contact them and turn them into paying customers”.  So, like any person under 30, I comb the interwebs looking for answers.  Then, get distracted, and eventually loop back around and look for more answers.

In that searching, I’ve come across a lot of marketing info largely on higher-level propositions like “constantly provide value”, “leverage your content”, and so on.  Through all of that, one person stuck out to me because his message consisted of concrete examples and a “pay it forward” mentality:  Gary Vaynerchuk.

Most of you probably know who Gary Vee is and have an existing opinion either on him, or his work.  That isn’t the focus here.  What I think should be focused on is how the idea that business (via the internet and social networking) is slowly doing an about-face away from mass marketing and mob mentality, and back to face-to-face interaction (or screen to screen) and small-town values.  And, how can design professionals learn from these ideas and turn them into profit?

This afternoon I was watching a live online chat session with said Gary Vee, and he had given me a hard time for answering “no” when he asked who had already pre-ordered his upcoming book.  I knew I was going to buy the book anyway, so when he asked later for phone numbers of people to call and talk to, I wrote “the big fat NO converted and bought” followed by my phone number.  He (shockingly) called immediately.  Gary’s a pretty high-energy guy so I’ll admit I started getting nervous when my phone began to ring :).

We went through the target market and how to reach a client base that is generally at the farther end of the bell curve in tech and social media: small-town city officials.  His advice: don’t try to sell on the first contact.  Find what information you can about them and make your first contact a genuine gift.  Send them a piece of Dallas Cowboys memorabilia if that’s their favorite team.  Show that you’re interested in them and what they are doing before ever trying to sell.

The memorabilia issue gives me pause, especially with public officials, because there are legal and ethical limits on what can be given and still considered a “gift”.  But, are there any other ways to provide a gift, something that’s useful and meaningful?

Always.

As design professionals, we like to think that a lot of what we do is “magic”.  But, it’s not.  It’s process.  We may not have it written down exactly, but we run through a set of processes in our heads.  Add history/research, experience, personal preference, client knowledge/communication, and you have a solution (or five).  It’s more of an equation than a magic trick.

Are there pieces of that equation that we can give away as gifts that will benefit potential clients and what they are currently trying to do?  Absolutely.  So, why don’t we give those away instead of the Dallas Cowboys jersey and see what happens?

If we’re to scale this beyond just one person: why not give away some of our knowledge and expertise via blogs, twitter, or video (the same way Gary just did with marketing knowledge, something his firm sells for tens of thousands of dollars a month)?  After all, it isn’t one piece of knowledge or one piece of the equation that makes the magic.  It’s the combination of all of them.

Showing somebody a quality detail for repairing the soffits on their home, how to properly install commercial-grade stone paving, or how to really evaluate the design of a town square (off-the cuff examples) won’t then render your services valueless.  It only positions you, and the design professions as a whole, as experts.  Helpful experts.

Maybe there are some legs behind this “pay it forward” mentality in business.  Maybe providing value and personal interaction for the sake of bettering society is really the way to win and to make our businesses and us better in the process.  At the very least, a population that understands good design and demands it is much better than one that settles for the Walmart-esque brand of design and maintenance that we see all around us today.

I know that henceforth, as our primary marketing strategy, we will be doing no marketing.  We will do a helluva lot of giving.  After all, if everybody else is selling – and as stereotypically bad business people, design folks can very easily try to compensate by over-selling (I’m guilty of it, too) – we’ll be going opposite of the flow, and providing things of value.  For free.

Give it a try.  It has to be better than zero.

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