The first blog in this series shared some of our early experiences in the new world of content strategy. Five months after our launch, it’s time to re-assess how content and social media marketing fit into our new company’s marketing strategy.
As a one-man team with little marketing experience, limited social media expertise and no budget, marketing strategy is a challenge.
Especially as we learn, over time, that content strategy isn’t sufficient on its own. Content is not the whole marketing strategy, only part of it. Good content on its own will not do the job. We need to deploy it, smartly, to support other networking and promotional activities.
The big question for my company is still how to convert leads to clients? Difficult for any start-up and this one is no exception.
In this blog we explore this question further and ask whether investing in a professional social media marketing platform is part of the answer for our particular business.
Definitions and questions
A quick reminder of how we defined content strategy in our last blog:
Content strategy: a clear, well organised, mindful approach and plan for generating and distributing online content, consistent with and reflecting the Prism-Clarity brand; which will nourish and grow the brand into something customers need and want; whether they know it yet or not.
This definition is still OK, though we aren’t yet seeing many tangible leads or conversions from our online activities.
Below are the questions we posed at the start of our Content Journey. [Though the actual words used have changed as we got to understand the questions better.]
– What content and channels do we need?
– Who are our potential clients?
– Do we need to put so much focus on content?
The questions remain valid and we will keep asking them, in view of what we’ve experienced so far, supplemented with a further one:
– Do we need a social media marketing platform?
The rest of this blog takes on these questions one by one.
What content and channels do we need?
There is a simple answer. Any that will lead to potential clients commissioning work – or converting leads.
Who the potential clients are – and why they should entrust Prism-Clarity with their commissions – we will come on to.
But first let’s focus on content.
Is content enough on its own?
The original Prism-Clarity business plan assumed that our content, however delivered, would be a kind of live skills advert, an illustration of the qualities of writing and presentation that clients could expect when they came to Prism-Clarity.
There may still be truth in this. But now we know the relationship is more indirect. What people see online is a taster, an example, an illustration, but not the main deal, the ‘driver to convert’. In a way it’s a kind of checkpoint. If a client is minded to commission work they might check our online content from a due diligence point of view. Does it give them any reason not to hire Prism-Clarity? As opposed to, from a positive standpoint, reinforcing why they should? Either way, the substance of what we publish online isn’t going to help get many commissions directly, only indirectly.
So what else is needed?
What’s more important is the client’s need, the knowledge we can use to address that need, our ability to deliver against the need. If the output is beautifully written and presented that is a bonus but not the main aim.
This has implications for our financial sector business. It means emphasising different things: technical skills, depth of experience, knowledge and reliability rather than writing skills in their own right. Perhaps starting to sound more like traditional consultancy than copywriting.
Taking this view, you start to see why documentation in the financial sector is often the by-product of wider consultancy work, rather than a main objective or work programme in its own right. Since we launched we have also seen evidence of this in other UK sectors, for example the voluntary and charities sector (VCS) where value-for-money is a critical constraint. To ensure value-for-money, why trust a generalist who can write, above a technician who can’t?
The glib answer is that Prism-Clarity aims to provide both – written clarity and technical expertise – in the same package. But I have to acknowledge our business model is a bit different. It’s a niche, if you like, that may take some time to be accepted by commissioning clients. Certainly the technical expertise piece of the equation has to be beyond doubt in the client’s mind.
What about potential clients outside the financial sector?
A similar picture emerges for the other clients we are targeting, in the traditional freelance editing and proofreading sector.
The content may be nicely written and presented, the samples clean and technically proficient. But however many blogs we publish about English language, grammar, punctuation or whatever, they can’t substitute for a wider and deeper marketing strategy.
On this side of the house the strategy is to train up and get certified by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) as fast as possible. Our aim is to start competing with – more likely at the start picking up scraps from – the numerous well-established professionals already doing copy editing and proofreading work for clients. Breaking in is tough. You need a lucky break. What a potential new entrant to this field has to ask is whether writing neat blogs and tweets all over the place will improve their chances. It may not harm them, but again is unlikely to be the ‘driver to convert’. That is going to be something else. Proofreading and copy editing in the UK is not a web or social media-driven business. It is a relationship-driven business. The website and tweets are a nice pointer but no more.
Now let’s look at channels.
Our business plan envisaged three main online channels which would deliver content to the unsuspecting public: the website (supported by traditional tools such as SEO and a newsletter), LinkedIn and Twitter.
This is still the approach, but it has evolved to reflect the realities of the market we are operating in, versus our initial expectations.
Given the niche, hybrid nature of the Prism-Clarity business model – halfway between a copywriting, editing and proofreading agency and a specialised risk and regulatory consultancy – it doesn’t lend itself to traditional SE optimisation and traffic-generating techniques. Looking on Google Adwords you won’t find high-frequency searches for the keywords that really sum up Prism-Clarity’s business. But these days you need a website, regardless of your business model, and a good one at that. In our case it’s a repository of expertise, a library of blogs and other content, the online embodiment of the Prism-Clarity brand. Yes, we hope over time it will attract more traffic. But that is not on our critical path to success.
LinkedIn is a powerful network, but one you need to really work at and engage with if you are to get meaningful leads and conversions. I have seen a few comments to the effect that it’s hard to know how to best use the platform once you have got the basic set-up right. Participate more actively in groups (commenting, liking, posting). Sniff out topics of broad interest on the groups and use those as a source of future blogs. And In-mail both warm clients and cooler clients to pitch awareness of both your products and your expertise. Of all the channels this is the one most directly relevant to our potential client base; and the one that deserves most attention if we are to increase leads and conversion rates.
Twitter feels important given the immediacy and reach, yet doesn’t really feel like it is going to be a direct driver to convert. Perhaps more to help build a wider network, build a name, awaken interest from people who don’t yet know Prism-Clarity but might potentially visit us. It’s a taster, a glimpse, a flirtation almost. The ‘cocktail party’ analogy I prefer to the ‘radio station’, which doesn’t quite work if you still have relatively few followers and are still building your base. The cocktail party analogy does work: we want to make a good impression, abide by etiquette, be warm, witty and wise, and have some fun. Who knows where it will lead or who with?
Overall there’s work to do on all three channels: in addition to more direct marketing work with potential clients, which we will cover next.
Who are our potential clients?
This is still the key question for Prism-Clarity, which we are still in the process of working out.
On the face of it that sounds strange: why set up a business if you don’t know who your potential clients are?
Part of the answer, again, is the fact we are running a hybrid business. We do financial sector documentation (especially strategy, risk, regulatory, governance) but also work for clients outside the financial sector, whether copywriting, editing or proofreading. This is a basic principle of Prism-Clarity. We work in all those segments, not just some of them, and not just the financial sector.
Proofreading and copy editing clients
So there is a raft of potential clients out there we don’t know much about yet. And we don’t yet have many natural leads. But we will find each other. In the meantime the approach is to improve our skills through training and mentorship, and gradually increase our visibility as we reach higher levels of professional development. By then – and by developing better social networks with other freelance professionals – we hope to gradually discover more clients in this wider field.
How does content fit in with this particular strategy? Well, for a newly-established lead hopefully the website, Twitter and LinkedIn show evidence of our capability and expertise. For that reason alone, we continue to feed and nurture all three channels with blogs, tweets, posts and general engagement. You are who you seem to be. Accordingly you need to be – and seem – professional, committed, accurate, reliable, skilled and good value-for-money.
Financial sector clients
And what of the financial sector? Who are the potential clients there and how best to reach them?
One way of looking at it is to take stock of existing clients and analyse how we got them, with a view to doing more of whatever it was. Another way is to look at ones we nearly got – or haven’t yet got – and try to work out why. A final way is to look at some things we haven’t yet really tried, in terms of hitting a pool of potential clients with need.
There have been two main sources of successful pitches:
(i) Warm leads we knew already and contacted at the right time to hit a need they had, where there was an obvious match with the Prism-Clarity skillset. The learning path from this is to make more proactive contact with other warm leads speculatively, to draw their attention to what we might be able to do for them. Warm leads here means the most central network: friends and former colleagues, organisations we know having worked there, people who already know Prism-Clarity’s capabilities without even needing to visit the website.
(ii) In-bound marketing via LinkedIn: a new client contacted us as a direct result of the LinkedIn profile, resulting in some small but valuable paid commissions. Here content, broadly defined, was important. But more to do with a good profile than anything we wrote specifically in blogs, posts or tweets.
These are harder to analyse. You don’t always know why they were unsuccessful. Or that they won’t come back as successes later. Again they fall in two categories.
(i) Someone invited us to pitch but in fact we weren’t suitable for the commission. There have been a few instances of these, but there is no point pitching for work outside your skillset or experience. Though we emphasised that we’d be only too happy to pitch again if further work came up that was more suitable. Keep the door open, keep in contact with the commissioner, who now falls in the category of warm lead, even though we haven’t converted them yet. At least they have goodwill towards us for turning down an unsuitable commission upfront, thus avoiding wasting their time. Use that goodwill. Put them on Linkedin as leads so you can keep an eye on what they are up to.
(ii) We approached a warm lead but, so far, to no avail. Again we have a few instances of these, which haven’t converted for different reasons. First, it’s hard to get on to the Preferred Supplier List (PSL) for some organisations, which can be a barrier to entry regardless of your suitability. Second, in some cases it is hard to get to the ‘right’ lead, and in some cases the warm lead we approached isn’t – or isn’t close enough to – the commissioning lead. The warmth of your lead dissipates out across organisations, so you are relying on an introduction or someone else to do the marketing on your behalf. Third, sometimes your approach just gets ignored, for reasons which aren’t transparent. In these cases, if you have made the approach directly yourself, sometimes it’s better to leave things be and not necessarily seek explanations: not yet anyway.
Pitches not yet made
This category represents a universe of possibilities, doors that for now remain tantalisingly open. The big questions really are who to approach, when and how.
Who? The warmest possible leads, either commissioners of work themselves or close to the commissioners, in the target organisations that look most like successes you have already had. It isn’t always possible to know exactly who that elusive person (the commissioner of work) is. Do your best.
When? Ideally, at the time most likely to endear you to the client, their time of greatest need. This will vary and won’t always be transparent, but try your best to find out via intelligence, other contacts, LinkedIn lead information, the press or whatever means you can.
How? This is the biggest question. No-one likes cold calling, and cold e-mailing isn’t much better. LinkedIn Inmail is an idea because it is a socially acceptable form of cold e-mailing. But this needs cautious treatment. There are lots of possibilities: don’t rule any of them out but don’t assume one approach fits all.
This is the area where we are doing most preparatory work and thinking. The idea is not to rush into a false move. Our approaches will be at a time that is comfortable and legitimate, rather than hasty or random, to avoid the door closing early and permanently.
Do we need to put so much focus on content?
It’s another obvious question but remains a good one.
Last time we came up with a couple of explanations why we needed good content and lots of it. Financial sector clients need a high degree of confidentiality and data sensitivity. My company can’t go round sharing examples of work we have done without absurdly heavy redaction. So our online content becomes a way to convey technical knowledge and writing skill. Blogging and other parts of my website try to fulfil that need. If the blogs are good and look good, potential clients can work with that, without needing to see concrete examples of our portfolio, which are difficult to share on confidentiality grounds.
The website really represents a back-up, reference content which new leads can look at, in the public domain, if they are still positive about you after your approach. Thus it had better be good. There is too much risk of the door being closed forever if not. This is a good reason for focusing unwaveringly on good content, regardless of what you think its immediate impact or value will be. Its impact and value may come further down the line.
Also, as a new entrant to the freelance editorial and proofreading sector, we need to be able to show our understanding of what the sector is all about, without having much of a concrete portfolio to show off. The editing and proofreading samples on the Prism-Clarity website aim to demonstrate this in a simple and visual way.
Even so, the question remains. Do we really need to be so focused on content? The truth is we actively want to be spending time writing blogs for their own sake, as well as for commercial reasons. It goes back to Prism-Clarity’s desire to be a hybrid consultancy-cum-writing agency, as noted a few times in this blog. We are not afraid to be presenting an unusual business model. The activities that lie behind that business model are what we really want to be doing. Helping people both improve their business and get good results via excellent documentation. And writing good material on its own merit, irrespective of how many leads it generates.
If that hybrid approach gives rise to more business, client growth and material success, that is well and good, but not the sole objective.
In short – no – we probably don’t need to be putting as much emphasis on content as we do – but we will continue doing so for both commercial and more personal reasons.
Do I need a Social Media Marketing platform?
Recently we took the plunge and signed up for a trial with a prominent social media marketing platform, to just test out whether our business could benefit from it at this early stage of its development.
The platform in question (call it System Y for short) offers integrated customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing tools in a neat intuitive package. CRM is a tool used to manage and analyse customer interactions and data throughout the customer lifecycle. With the goal of improving business relationships with customers, assisting in customer retention and driving sales growth. CRM systems are designed to compile information on customers across different channels – or points of contact between the customer and the company – including website, phone, chat, direct mail, marketing materials and social media. As well as useful information on customers and their habits, preferences and concerns.
After the trial it was clear that at this stage of Prism-Clarity’s development we do not need a CRM system. We don’t have the volume of customer interactions to justify it, and for current levels of activity we can and do manage the records just as easily in a spreadsheet.
So what else can the integrated System Y platform offer us? There is something to be said for having all your content, reports and contacts all in the same IT environment and fully aligned to the social media platforms where you are publishing your content. It lets you streamline the publishing and get integrated reporting on who is doing what with your content, and when. It enables you to prioritise the social media users who are most important to your business by showing you who is engaging most actively with your content. And irrespective of social media platform, you can get all your content out to followers and customers at times that drive the most impact.
This is all very well. But, inescapably, for this kind of system to have value you need enough customers, potential customers and followers to warrant the automation. This is the issue for us, one of scale and timing. We don’t yet have the critical mass to justify a system.
Especially as the System Y platform was complex to use and to integrate into your website without significant involvement from your web developers. We learned from the trial we don’t have either the in-house web skills to do the integration ourselves, or the marketing skills to make the best use of the platform. It is – as the name suggests – for marketers. Not for sole proprietors who can’t afford to spend all day on marketing.
Having enough time
Because, as sole proprietors, we have to spend our day running the company. Doing the work. Writing the content. Getting and staying in touch with potential and existing customers. Doing the bookkeeping. Investing in our own skills and training. Generally being all-round business superheroes while maintaining work-life balance. Something has to give and, for now, it’s the social media marketing platform.
The salespeople for System Y would probably look aghast at the above paragraph and tell me this is precisely why Prism-Clarity does need System Y. We will keep it under review, but someone is going to have to make it a whole lot easier to make the decision. Not to mention the spend. The marketers are fond of talking about Return On Investment (ROI) but for sheer practicality reasons, without hiring a new marketing/salesperson into the team – significantly skewing the whole ROI equation in itself – it won’t work.
So that’s the answer. Do we need a social media marketing platform? No, at least not yet. The System Y salesperson responded to this as expected – i.e. not at all – but we can’t really blame her. She was barking up the wrong tree with us, for the time being.
That’s where we’re up to.
We are on the Content Journey but have realised it’s not the main journey we need to be on.
We will continue trying to produce excellent content alongside finding more leads, conversions, and clients. And we will continue developing our marketing strategy to maximise our chances of success in the range of different fields we want to work in.
In the next Content Journey blog we will given an update on progress and the results of some external advice we are taking currently on both our marketing and content strategies.