In my initial conversations with our prospects, there is one question I always get––what do your most successful clients do? My answer is always the same. The three key characteristics shared by our most successful clients are:
- They’re sharply positioned.
- Their firm regularly and effectively expresses empathetic, educational expertise.
- They are on the scene, physically.
From my vantage point over the past few years, that third one seems to be the most elusive for most firms.
By now, a critical majority of firms have accepted that they need to be well-positioned experts if they want to significantly improve their business reality, so they’re willing to do what it takes to check box number 1.
We’ve been coaching firms across North America and beyond on their content strategy for a long, long time now, and I’ve been very impressed with how many firms are willing and able to do that well, with the right help. Our ‘average’ client is creating a higher volume of more insightful content than ever before. This allows them to get the maximum value from their website and outbound marketing efforts. In some ways, this can be seen as a natural outcome of point number one. Without that, this would be impossible.
That third item, though, is still a tough one for a lot of firms out there, and I’d like to see that change.
When a principal tells me about their firm’s positioning, one of the first things I think about is whether or not their target audience congregates. I see this as one of the dividing lines in a firm’s ability to successfully market themselves. If there are publications and events that already exist to serve the target market you serve, the room has been set up for you, so to speak. And if that is the case, as it is for many well-positioned firms out there, I believe it is your professional responsibility to be in those rooms.
Notice I didn’t say that it was your responsibility to speak at those events. This is an important distinction that I think might be the key to convincing more of you to take some action on this front. Ideally, yes, you’d be the expert on the stage giving the premier keynote to an audience of adoring fans. That’s an excellent and, for many of you, achievable goal. But today, for many firms, that’s a reach. In my experience, you will get at least 80% (if not more) of the value from an event just by being there. I’m also not talking about having a booth, or even sponsoring. I’m talking about just being there, in a very active, present, but decidedly attendee-based way, and interacting with your prospects in as helpful, empathetic, and––at all costs––not at all sales-y way.
There’s a case to be made that this approach might be even better than speaking. When you speak at an event, there’s an intrinsic distance between you and the attendees. Certainly, you get more exposure and ideally build more credibility with more people at a much faster rate if they’re simply made to sit and listen to you for an hour or so. But will that actually generate more business for you than you would have gotten if you were just there as a fellow attendee?
When you’re the speaker, some people might not want to bother you with conversation because perhaps they think you’re too busy or important. Maybe some things you said rubbed some of them the wrong way and you’ll never know. Maybe, since you’re the speaker who clearly serves them as an audience, some will be concerned that you’re going to try and sell them something if they engage you in conversation. Maybe, since you’re the speaker, you don’t work as hard during the rest of the event to have the one-on-one conversations that ultimately yield the most return for your firm. These maybes add up.
I want to be clear that this is, in no way, a case for not speaking at events. I want you to do that as much as ever. My intent here, though, is to convince you that simply attending could potentially be just as powerful. Over the past 12 years, Chris Butler, Lauren McGaha, and I have given many dozens of talks on big and small stages all over North America. We’ve also attended about the same number of events as ‘normal’ attendees. I’m not sure which we’ve ultimately gotten more business from, but I do know that the numbers are very, very close. I wonder if that surprises you as much as it surprised me when I figured it out.
The 5 Steps to Getting Out There
Warning: this is the part of the article where I feel like I’m giving away too much. Since that’s what we’re always encouraging our clients to do, I suppose I have to as well.
- Dedicate your firm to an audience population that congregates.
- Create a substantial digital thought leadership machine through your content strategy, website, email, and highly targeted ads.
- Identify the events you’d most like to speak at one day.
These are the events that attract your highest value prospects. The big, easy, dangerous, all too typical trap here is to attend events that are geared toward your peers, and to suffer from the illusion that you’re somehow marketing your firm by doing so. Attending those events to learn, or to give back to the community, is wonderful and important. Just don’t tell yourself that you’re fulfilling your marketing/biz dev responsibility by doing so, because you’re not.
- Research the people running those events, introduce yourself, and see if there’s a fit.
Because you have by this point built some credibility in your space as a generous expert, you will probably have a pretty easy time getting a call with the event planners/owners. Humbly introduce yourself via email or, better yet, a connection. Take the time to learn about them, what struggles they have, the pressures they face running an event (they make it look easy but it’s incredibly hard to do well; these people are saints). Event organizers are also permanently hungry for content. They need experts like you because without speakers, there’s no event. Be honest about the fact that you would love to speak at the event one day, but for now just ask if it’d be ok to pay your own way and attend. Once you’re there, make sure you get at least a tiny bit of time with them, in the lobby between sessions or something, at their convenience. Don’t ask them to schedule a time to be with you. They are in the middle of what’s probably their busiest few days of the entire year. Catch them when it looks like they have a moment, thank them for allowing you to be there, make a few smart, supportive observations, and move on. These few minutes of in-person time with the person who is going to start putting together next year’s event agenda when they get back to the office next week are invaluable.
- Be on the scene: Attend the event as a fully paid, happy, compliant, non-entitled attendee.
Go to everything at the event–every breakfast, lunch, dinner, cocktail hour(s), breakout, all of it. Be helpful. Don’t sell, ever! Talk about what you do only when asked by someone who genuinely wants to know, and keep it brief. Even if you never speak at this event in the future, and don’t get any interest or business from the attendees, you are going to learn more about what’s really going on with your target audience in these few days than you will throughout the rest of the year. When your prospects congregate with their peers, they’re there to talk about the real stuff. They’re in a deeply open, honest frame of mind and you’ll hear truths from them then that you’ll never hear on the phone. Simply being in that room is an incredible opportunity for you and your firm.
Yes, it’s hard.
I completely understand why so many of you aren’t doing this. It takes you away from the comfort of your home and family for many days––just that alone is an understandable non-starter for lots of people. It’s expensive, it takes a ton of energy, your real job doesn’t get put on hold while you’re gone. All of this is true.
I’ve sacrificed a great deal over these past 12 years of being on the road so often. That’s a fact. If I, and others at various times, hadn’t done this to the degree we have, Newfangled would probably look a lot like it did 12 years ago, if that kind of stasis is even possible now. I think we all know it’s not.
What’s more, despite all of the struggles and hardships listed above being entirely true for me, I enjoy it. I love it. I’m great at it. It’s part of my unique ability. The principal of your firm doesn’t have to be the one who’s the road warrior, but it does have to be a key leader, and if it’s going to work as part of your long term strategy, it has to be people who are built for it. There aren’t many of those people out there, and your firm only needs one or two of them. What’s more, you can’t lose sight of the fact that the people who aren’t out on the road are, of course, every bit as critical to the firm’s success as those who are. Like with so many truths of different peoples’ unique abilities, there is no hierarchy here. Many different deep skill sets from different people are essential to creating and sustaining an exceptional firm. I thought it was important to write this article because I’ve seen that there are too many firms who simply aren’t getting out there enough. If you want your firm to excel, you, or someone, has got to be out there, with your clients, with your prospects, with the tribe you serve. This is not optional.
…but it’s also pretty great
Lauren McGaha and I have been on the road quite a bit so far this year. In the first six weeks of 2020, we spent literally hundreds of in-person hours with hundreds of great clients, peers, and prospects in Nashville, Tulsa, New Orleans, and Miami. The other truth is that, since we do spend so much time on the road, so many of these people have also become great friends.
When we got to Miami a few weeks ago and checked into the hotel, we went out on the back porch and found Blair and Colette sitting there, and we sat down and talked for a bit. Blair remarked on how crazy it was that we had just seen each other three days prior in New Orleans, and he came to the same realization I had: our community, and many of our closest friends, are part of a national and international network. When we were young, we imagined our community being the people we lived near. For some of us that’s true, of course, but when you put yourself out there, and do the intimidating, hard work of leaving the comfort of home to be with the people you serve, a new community gets created. These people are your clients, your prospects, your peers, your teachers, and some of the most loyal friends you’ll ever have.
You have to get out there. Sooner or later, you’ll be glad you did.