How to be an Information Consultant

Marketing

How do you let potential clients know that you exist? Welcome to the wonderful world of advertising. If you're an independent information consultant, it's quite possible that you walked away from your previous place of work with a potential client--maybe even your former employer if you played your cards right. However, even if you come out of the chute with one or two clients, it's unlikely that they'll bring in enough work for you to rest on your laurels and wait for them to call every week. You need exposure.

Before you get started, you'll need to do a little bit of work. Figure out what industry would be most interested in your services. Next, compile a list of companies in that field, along with contact information for the person in each company who is most likely to need your services. If you're a legal researcher, you'll need a list of law firms and contacts. If you're a high-tech researcher, you'll need a list of software and hardware companies.

Because there are so many fields in which information consultants provide services, you're pretty much on your own in finding an initial list of potential clients. Do some research. Leaf through magazines. Click around on the web. Even flip through the Yellow Pages if you think that's where the information lies. Still no list of clients? Not to worry. The following marketing ideas should help you find those first clients.

It's in the Cards

Ah, the lowly business card. It's an often overlooked but extremely effective marketing tool. It's also just about the cheapest form of marketing you can do. Having a professional-looking business card makes your business look like it means business. Keep your card simple. Be sure to include your phone and fax numbers, e-mail address and website address (if you have one). If you work out of your apartment, you might consider using "Suite 340" instead of "Apt. 340." Most information consultants will tell you that a homebased business usually appears less legitimate to clients than a business run out of a suite in an office building. It's all about perception.

Keeping professionalism in mind, you may also want to invest in things like letterhead stationery and envelopes. While these kinds of printed products may seem like they fall into the category of office supplies, they're really marketing tools. You're trying to sell your services, so you need to live, eat and breathe professionalism. Even when you're talking to potential clients on the phone or meeting with them for lunch, you're marketing your business.

Snail Mail Potential

There are all sorts of nifty promotional pieces you can mail to potential clients, from simple sales letters to brochures. First off, you'll need to know what companies to mail them to. Getting information about companies in your field of expertise and finding out to whom exactly you should send printed materials is an excellent exercise to sharpen your research skills before you actually go into business. Search the web. Buy magazines. Go to libraries. Do everything you can to find out who and where your clients are. Got your list? OK, now let's take a look at what you can send potential clients.

  • Sales letters. Letters describing your services and your background are great, especially if you have other information to include with the letter, such as magazine articles you've written on a subject pertinent to the client (more on writing magazine articles later). Keep the letter brief and to the point, and be sure to make it clear that you're an independent contractor. Make the letter as businesslike as possible and be sure to have a resume ready if asked.
  • Press releases. Everyone likes to keep up to date with his or her profession. So another effective way to get noticed is to send out press releases. You can't use information that you supply to clients in your press releases, but in the downtime between jobs or in the months before you start your business, you can do your own research and perhaps come up with key information and conclusions about the market you intend to serve.

You'll want to send press releases not only to potential clients, but also to magazines that are related to your area of expertise. You should send press releases out on a regular basis--maybe once a month--at least until your business is prospering. Be careful not to give away all your findings at once.

Does It Pay to Advertise?

If you're thinking about placing a print ad in a magazine that targets the same field as your information consulting business, take the time to do some research to make sure you're advertising in the right place. If you're hoping to have computer software companies as clients, find a magazine that addresses them specifically. But be careful here. If you want computer software companies as your clients, it won't do you much good to place an ad in a magazine for software consumers. Likewise, if your targeted clients are pharmaceutical companies, it probably won't be in your best interest to advertise in publications for pharmacists.

If you decide that a particular magazine is an appropriate place for you to buy print advertising space, look to see whether the publication has a "marketplace" section. That's the section in the back of the magazine where companies place one-eighth--or one-ninth-page black-and-white ads--in other words, the inexpensive section. Ad space in this section is often very reasonably priced at $100 to $400, depending on the circulation of the magazine. Add in another $250 or so to have a designer create a little text-only, black-and-white advertisement. Keep the ad simple and to the point.

You'll have to test the ad to see if it works for the market you're targeting. Try it out for a month or two and see what happens. Every field is different, so don't sign a contract to run your ad for a year at a reduced monthly rate until you see some results. Even the smallest market that is profitable for a publishing company to serve (around 15,000) adds up to a lot of eyeballs that may see your ad and need your services. So keep in mind that, unless you see tremendous results from advertising, a small black-and-white ad will be just fine.

The World Wide Web: Your Own Private Infomercial

Just about everyone has a website these days. A website can be a valuable marketing tool for information consultants who have enough information about their business and capabilities to fill a computer screen. Since most ISPs give you a limited amount of space for a website, it makes sense to use this space to advertise your business. Remember that your website doesn't need to be complicated. You can hire someone to put together a bare-bones, information-only site for around $500 to $1,000.

Seizing the Limelight

Your goal in all these marketing endeavors is to be an expert in your field of choice, someone who can not only gather information but also make sense of it. In this vein, there are two major steps you can take to show that your skills are up to par: writing magazine articles and books and speaking at conferences. If neither of these things is in your repertoire, that's OK. It's tough to get in front of people at a conference assuming that you know more about a subject than they do. However, even if you don't feel up to the title of "expert," you're not completely cut out of the limelight. Most conventions have panel sessions in which people in the industry you serve discuss situations they've encountered, and the audience gets to ask questions. You don't need to have an expert opinion to be the moderator (read: referee) of a panel discussion; you just need to know enough about the subject to keep the discussion flowing.

There are also alternatives to writing full-fledged articles for publications that serve your industry. Many magazines publish annual buyer's guides that list products that are available to a particular industry. You should be subscribing to these magazines anyway, so why not offer your services to them as an information consultant? If you do a good job, you may be offered other opportunities to contribute to the magazine as a researcher or a writer. However, if you decide to write for magazines, keep in mind that most trade publications don't pay very well. You accept assignments from them based on the fact that they're giving you a byline and exposure to thousands of readers, essentially a free advertisement for your services.

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