Design entrepreneurs who don’t yet possess the resources to hire full-time marketing staff must do the job themselves: Be the expert, get that message out, and business will come to you.

Design entrepreneurs who don’t yet possess the resources to hire full-time marketing staff must do the job themselves: Be the expert, get that message out, and business will come to you.

We recently heard the following advice from a young person on how to market to his demographic: “We don’t want you to come to us. We want you to give us a reason to find you.” That comment is the essence of the adage “Business comes to the expert.” Your audience needs to be aware of your knowledge and expertise. If they are to seek you out, they need to perceive your knowledge and expertise as beneficial to them.

To build that awareness among your customer constituency, it is essential that you share your knowledge through the vehicles your audience is paying attention to — advertising, newsletters, e-mail, blogs, columns, articles, panel discussions, or seminars. To promote both your firm’s and your designers’ expertise, first understand the knowledge your firm possesses by assessing it. Next, you’ll want to distill that knowledge into easily digestible pieces before disseminating it through the appropriate vehicles. Then, informed by your clients’ and prospects’ needs, you will be able to take your knowledge into the marketplace and create awareness of your firm as the go-to experts.

Getting Started

Designers typically begin the marketing process by using their natural entrepreneurial instincts. They start broadcasting the fact that they are in business through their personal network, but eventually they recognize that they have reached a point at which they need to create a formal marketing plan. This is often prompted by aspirations for more sophisticated clients, higher income, a wider geographic range, or more complex projects. To reach those goals, a focused plan becomes necessary.

We recommend setting aside specific time to devote to your plan. Focus on completing research and then on accomplishing your stated goals. Because a successful marketing plan requires that someone be in charge, you must be willing either to be that person or to give that authority to someone who will manage the plan and report to you. Marketing is a team effort, but the best results are realized when the leader leads. Even with a well-defined and fully-staffed marketing department, the principal in charge of marketing must be prepared to stay on top of marketing decisions and activities, from attending annual conferences to conducting publicity campaigns.

Often, firms go through the planning process, conduct the research, and write the marketing plan only for it to end up on a shelf, never to be looked at again.

The missing piece of the scenario is managing the execution of the plan.

The plan you write will result in a simple management tool we have all used — the to-do list. You will develop this list of tasks, responsible parties, and deadlines, using it as a daily task reminder as well as the agenda for weekly marketing meetings and a guiding light for all of your marketing reports. And the great thing is that once you use it as your annual plan, it is the basis for next year’s plan, with modifications, of course.

Managing marketing is as important as the marketing itself. Without management of this function, you will not achieve all you are capable of in marketing your firm. Your plan should not gather dust on a shelf but will, in fact, be a dog-eared, scribbled-on to-do list that will be the first thing you look at each morning when you arrive at the office and the last thing you look at each night before you leave.

If you attack your marketing challenges armed with an overall approach, not just single strategies for building your business, it will be that much easier for you to meet any marketing challenge. Let’s look at concepts that can help define a marketing strategy.

Personal Marketing Experience

You may know more about marketing than you now imagine. For your entire life as a consumer, you have been one half of the marketing equation. What you know as a consumer is as critical as what any professional marketer knows, and that knowledge will help you achieve marketing success. You know which marketing approaches you like and which ones you do not like. You read, watch, and listen to various media outlets, whether they are consumer, business, or trade. You know how you like to be reached. Recognizing that you already have some expertise in marketing is critical since you will be able not only to bring all of this information to bear on what you will do to market your organization, but you will have the confidence to carry out your marketing tasks.

Start with Knowledge Management

It’s not listed on the balance sheet, but knowledge is one of your firm’s greatest assets. The knowledge you use to design buildings is what you use to signal to the marketplace that you possess what the prospect is looking for. Use your firm’s knowledge to create the messages you disseminate. It builds awareness of your firm as an expert resource. It brings business to your door. In short, knowledge is the foundation of marketing your design firm. To use that knowledge to maximum benefit, it must be managed. It needs to be catalogued and stored for ready retrieval, distilled into easily digestible pieces, and regularly disseminated to specific audiences via a range of vehicles.

Book of Knowledge

One way to think about knowledge management is in terms of your firm’s “book of knowledge.” Knowledge is stored in employees’ heads, in computers, and in reports on the shelf. Additional knowledge pours into the firm on a daily basis: lessons learned from projects, articles in the daily paper, conferences employees attend, research studies the firm conducts or can access, and the like.

All of this knowledge — that which is currently in the firm and that which will come into the firm in the future — can be stored in your book of knowledge in a way that facilitates easy retrieval and makes it readily available for use. You will discover through your research that clients and prospects are paying attention to certain media and you will learn how to reach them through those vehicles in the most convincing way.

The knowledge in your firm will ultimately be structured in a way that gives you access to relevant, applicable data and associated graphic materials. When press releases, speeches, or interviews are on the agenda, you will have topical facts and figures at your disposal. Your knowledge, as it is disseminated by your firm, becomes a marketing tool at two levels: first, by building awareness of the firm’s expertise, and second, by creating a position in the minds of clients and prospects that your firm’s employees are the go-to experts.

Knowledge as Stories

The world may not be interested in your entire book of knowledge, but your research will point out the specific information your audience is interested in and the ways you can effectively share that information. Review the knowledge you currently possess and distill it into story ideas. “Story ideas” is a standard publicity term to describe any idea that will capture the attention of your audience: an innovative design, a national trend that the firm is on the cutting edge of, or new research, for example. We suggest developing a story idea archive as well as an image archive that will allow you to retrieve information quickly that is appropriate for all types of communication, from e-mail queries to newsletters to press releases.

Designers as Celebrities

Along with knowledge, another of a firm’s greatest assets — also not listed on your balance sheet — are your employees. What we refer to as celebrity gets at a key point in marketing a professional services firm and that is the marketing of specific employees and their expertise. Establishing employees as celebrities is one of the goals we suggest you work into your plan. By putting a spotlight on the specific expertise of employees, you will be personally branding individuals, not just the firm.

Imagine a conversation in which a prospect asks someone in the community for the name of someone who can build a state-of-the-art hospital facility and the instant response is your name or one of your employees. This does not happen by chance. It is the result of planning and appropriate dissemination of critical information to your audience.

Use Chemistry to Win Work

Another key point about seeing employees as one of your greatest assets is chemistry. A decision maker at a large medical facility once told us that all of the designers who responded to the hospital’s requests for proposals had an appropriate level of expertise and that what influenced his decision regarding which firm to bring on board was the chemistry between the hospital team and the design team. In the post-interview meeting, he always asked his staff, “Do we want to spend the next few years with this design team?” Conversely, it is important that the design team feels the positive influence of chemistry as they work together and as they establish relationships with prospects and clients.

Market in Concentric Circles

A helpful way to envision marketing is concentric circles. Imagine doing business first with your friendliest contacts and those closest to home — the inner circle. As your client base expands, imagine, sticking your big toe out into the second concentric circle, all the while maintaining a hold on your inner circle as you develop the new customer base. You can apply the concept geographically — for example, start in Boston, move out to New England, then to the Northeast. Or you can work this tactic vertically, expanding from one market to the other. Either way, the concept of concentric circles will help you assess where you are in your firm’s growth and continue moving out to a broader base.

The Courtship Continuum

In the world of fundraising, it is not uncommon to rank prospective donors by temperature. Stating how cold or warm prospective donors are at various points in the fundraising process is the clue to how close they are to becoming donors. Another way to do the same kind of ranking of prospects is through a courtship continuum, by which we gauge where the relationship with a prospect stands and what the next strategy is for moving forward along the continuum.

More specifically, if signing a contract can be seen as getting to the altar, then we can back up and see that in order to achieve that goal, we have to become engaged, and before that we have to go on several dates, and before that we have to ask someone out on a first date, and before that we have to meet the person, and before that we have to identify who that person is. You may want to put this information into a matrix so that you can see where you should focus your efforts (typically, on those you are already “engaged” to) and how you should focus your efforts (by using the specific strategies associated with moving someone along in a relationship).

Follow the Money

The highest priority of your marketing efforts is to find people with cash who will turn it over to your company. It sounds obvious, but it bears comment. We tell students and clients to take the approach espoused by Deep Throat in the film All the President’s Men and “Follow the money.” Nonprofit fundraisers are quite familiar with this way of thinking, and we propose that for-profit businesses should be just as comfortable with the concept. Research and industry trends will help you define your target markets as well as tell you how to position your firm to capture clients and meet their needs.

Market One-to-One

A firm-wide marketing plan can often seem overwhelming. So also consider narrowing your focus and doing a smaller marketing plan for each vertical market that can telescope your efforts even further. You may even consider a mini-marketing plan devised for one prospect at a time. It may sound quite narrow and seem like more work, but if you rank prospects according to the courtship continuum, you can then isolate the strategies you need to move each one closer to the altar.

‘I Know What You Want and I’ve Got It’

Although the old pink phone message slips are no longer used, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from them. In our marketing experience, we always imagined our prospect returning from lunch to a pile of telephone message slips, and we wanted to make sure our call was returned first. A consultant suggested we shape our message as “I know what you want and I’ve got it.” Not only did that format work for getting phone calls returned, but we suggest it as the structure of your positioning statement.

Be the Expert

Become an expert. Devise a plan that makes your audience aware of your knowledge and expertise. Continually inform clients and prospects that you are aware of their needs and have the skills they are seeking. By doing so, you will build your reputation as the go-to firm.

This article is adapted from the book Business Comes to the Expert: A Proactive Marketing Plan for Professional Practice Firms, by Brenda Richards and Kathleen Soldati.