Mitchell Finally Writes a Marketing Plan: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lead
It's true. All these years I have believed I was reducing or belittling potential clients by referring to them, even internally, as leads or prospects. It felt disrespectful to speak of someone who was going to become our partner in the development of something new on the web, with all the pain and suffering and fun and joy that entails, as a 'lead'. It felt the same to me as calling my wife a 'chick' or my father a 'dude', diminishing the person on the other end of the label. I have changed my mind though. And so this year we have begun using suitable marketing and sales language to talk about the part of our company that exists prior to a client signing a contract and sending us a deposit check. If I don't encourage the use of proper marketing language within my company and establish good marketing practices, eventually there will be no company.
Yes, I am a bonehead. I am not afraid to admit it to you. Solspace has been extremely successful for the 15 years leading up to this point and it has done so with a reckless dismissal of the notion that some coherent and consistent sort of marketing is necessary. We have gotten away with it all this time due in some part to luck, but mainly due to the fact that we know who we are and we are genuinely excellent at being that. Who are we? We're a team of killer developers who can breathe life into virtually any website or web application design. We transform the idea of the thing into the reality of the thing. We know the why and the how. And now we need a plan.
It’s not that we weren’t doing anything at all, in fact there are a number of marketing initiatives sort of loosely under way. We're redesigning our home page, we are preparing to launch a monthly newsletter, I write weekly blog posts, we advertise here and there, and have some limited visibility in social media. However, there’s no comprehensive big-picture plan guiding the efforts, and no clearly identified goals. Almost every other million-dollar company has a marketing plan, why not Solspace? I didn’t have a good answer.
Once I made this initial commitment to marketing at the beginning of the year, I quickly realized that marketing and sales needed to be part of the company culture, woven into everything we do each day. I reflected on a passage I recently read in a great marketing book by Harry Beckwith called Selling the Invisible.
"More than half of all Japanese companies do not even bother to have marketing departments, because they believe that everyone in the company is part of the marketing. Marketing is not a department. It is your business."
Quite a few marketing and sales conversations have taken place since the beginning of the year, and now that we’re in September I can see our company culture beginning to change. There is now a CRM in place that captures and tracks leads. There is now an actual real live human whose job it is to field and follow up on leads, turning them ultimately into clients who are signing contracts that are then handed off to the implementation groups inside Solspace. We’ve made some improvements in the area of marketing as well. But it was only earlier this week that I finally wrote my first marketing plan.
As I began to write the plan I discovered that we had all of the pieces for the plan already. They just needed to be unified into a complete narrative. Here's how I went about it (and I write this to you because if you go through this exercise yourself I think you will find it as rewarding and confidence boosting as I have…)
First, I followed the advice Pete Sena shared when he appeared on my podcast which is actually Simon Sinek's approach to marketing. I started with “why?” — Why does Solspace do what it does? We build websites and web software because we like solving problems, on the web, through websites and web software. That's just what we like doing. For everyone on the team it is fulfilling in a deep way. We get to help people, by building stuff with code on the interwebs. It feels obvious to us, perhaps not to you. But to us the “why” is what matters.
Next I looked at our history. I looked specifically at the history of our “why” and I did so in the context of a concise little article on marketing plans I found here. This article lays out the basic shape of a marketing plan, beginning with a situation analysis then moving on to discussion about identifying your target audience and marketing goals, marketing strategies and tactics and then finally to budgeting. The situation analysis is the present tense narrative of the shape and scope of your current marketing efforts. Where are you right now? How’s that working for you? The target audience narrative breaks down who you are selling your service to. The marketing goals describe what you hope to achieve through your efforts. The tactics and strategy section describes how you will get there and the budgeting bit talks about how you will source and feed your efforts.
The juiciest part of the exercise for me by far was the discussion of target audience. We were clear about our “why”, now we needed to understand our “who.” Before I committed to doing this exercise we had just a sense of who our clients were. After doing the work, and recognizing the many patterns and consistencies, we realized we have an embarrassment of riches in terms of client relationships. Which translated into straight up embarrassment, because it was immediately evident how much opportunity we had missed over the years by not better understanding them.
The client profile (target audience) section of the marketing plan that we created broke out into three distinct segments. Our first primary client type is what we decided to call an advocate. This person is a decision-maker inside a larger organization who is on the hook for building and delivering stuff on the web. They need help in the form of trusted experts they can call upon to define challenges, recommend solutions, and reliably execute on time and on budget without fail. They need a friend who will make them look good. As it turns out, this client profile has been so consistent over the years that I blush when I think of how long we went without realizing it. Now that I see it clearly, the long list of possible marketing efforts and initiatives to reach and serve these people is obvious. There is an easy rapport between us and our advocate clients, and that relationship is enduring and follows them wherever they go, even if they leave one job and take on another somewhere else.
The second of our client types is what we call the retainer client. These are individuals or organizations for whom Solspace or another developer has built something complex that needs ongoing maintenance. There is significant overlap between the advocate segment and the retainer segment, but there is not a default connection. This retainer client profile revealed to us what should have been obvious years ago, namely that we needed to develop a maintenance program to simplify life and reduce friction for people who need help maintaining websites or web applications. Defining and formalizing this type of client relationship clears the way for us to move on to other thoughts and actions in this sphere. Now that we understand the opportunity, we can move on to bolstering the services we provide to this very desirable and sustainable type of client. The retainer client is one who taps into our love of maintaining long-term relationships with people. They need us and we need them. We say so out loud, and in so doing we clear the way for a more mutually valuable and satisfying relationship.
The third client type is the designer, either an individual running their own business or the decision-maker on a team. Once again, the act of asking and meditating on the right questions instantly exposed a client profile that we should have identified and defined long ago. Not having done so meant we were under-serving someone important to us and we were under-serving ourselves, mostly by denying ourselves a prosperity that we had earned.
Our designer client is that person or persons who specialize in the design of websites and web applications first and foremost. They may be able to build what they have designed, but only to a point. They do not necessarily know how — or want to know how — to build an e-commerce system, an API integration to connect to a social media platform or a CRM like Salesforce, or an integration with a single sign-on system. The designer client wants to design, execute and launch their deliverables, and they sometimes have to say no to a job or lose out on a bid when they do not have the backend coding chops to complete all of the components of the project.
Our designer client is also what we refer to as a lead-generating relationship. This has been the case for years, we just never said it out loud. When Solspace has a very strong relationship with a designer, it’s an organic next step for them to fold us into their sales pitch and proposal process so that they can get bigger and more interesting design jobs. When they do, their leads become our leads, and the designer client becomes a channel for us. They do the heavy lifting of acquiring new projects and then in exchange for supporting the process, we do the heavy lifting of making sure the solution they design for their client can actually work in real-world production. This type of relationship flourishes when there is open communication, mutual respect, and a clear handoff of the client from the design group to the Solspace team. The designer designs it. The relationship is transparent to the client as we all work together for project success. During the life of the project, the client develops a relationship with us and we maintain that over time so that when the client needs more design work, they come right back to their designer and hopefully again around to us.
What I most want to emphasize in this post is the real power of simply and honestly doing this reflective exercise of looking at who you want to serve. Once that picture develops, even as it is just coming into focus, the right marketing tactics and strategies emerge. Once we know who we have served well in the past and want to serve in the future, we can start thinking clearly about how to reach them. This is the other really useful bit about the client profile exercise. As you are thinking through the profile, you have a filter in place that constantly asks, "Where does this person hang out or look for solutions? Can I connect with them there? What conversation would we have?"
The success of this profile exercise depends on whether you’ve really identified appropriate client types to work with (and who want to work with you but don’t know it yet.) Suppose your client profile was the hermit living in the woods in need of a backpack. That's an awful client profile. How can you reach that person? Google ads? No, they are not online. Billboards? No, they're in the woods. Cold calling? No, they are a hermit, with no phone, in the damn woods. This is not a viable client profile. You can't reach them.
But our designer client is an excellent profile because not only can we serve them well and happily, but we know just where to find them. They are online, because that's what they design. They are on Dribble. They are on Pinterest. They sit at a desk in an office somewhere and they receive mail. They respond to design and quality working relationship are important to them. So a gift sent in the mail that is well-designed and thoughtful may just have the right kind of traction with them. (Sidenote: If you receive a couple of those cool all-black Solspace folding grocery bags in the mail, know that you are an excellent designer that we think would be a great Solspace partner.)
Of course there is a lot more to the marketing plan that describes strategy, tactic, budget and all that, but for me the coolest part is defining this target market piece. Getting that right and revising it well over time seems to just automatically spawn great marketing ideas. And really, if I am honest, one of the things I like most about the client profile exercise is the part where I am trying to get to know someone better, if only in the abstract sense.
We are all about relationships at Solspace. That's what matters to us most, first and last. We like building stuff, but only when in service to the human relationships that we cultivate and find so rewarding. So talking and meditating on who our client is also turns into an exercise in trying to know someone better, to care for them more, to be more of a friend to them. This has great meaning to me and everyone on my team.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that I’ve been wrong all this time, and marketing work like this actually honors the individual human rather than simplifying and reducing them. The words 'lead', 'prospect', and 'marketing' are now officially part of our vocabulary.