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Expanding Your Consultancy

I’m a member of a creative design business-focused discussion group, where every other week I join a moderated phone call with other ’solopreneur’ design firm owners. Together, under the tutelage of Ilise Benun of Marketing Mentor, we work on our business challenges.

On a recent call we had the pleasure of welcoming super-polished and inspiring guest Heathere Evans-Keenan of Keenan PR, which provides integrated marketing/media relations services. We invited Heathere to join us to discuss the notion of running a virtual agency, whereby teams of high-level talent are custom-assembled for each client and project, teams that may be geographically remote from the team leader, the client, and each other – and how to unabashedly and eloquently introduce and explain the clear benefits of this concept to our clients, prospects, and referral partners.

The topic originally arose because all of us in the MM group recognize the need to grow our agencies beyond ourselves, but do not want – for a myriad of reasons – to run a traditional brick-and-mortar agency with employees, workstations, and all that this entails. What is the next step once we have too much work to do ourselves? Heathere coached us to:

1. Identify our services range and where we want to grow. Beyond graphic design, this can include social media, web & software development, brand strategy, full-service marketing, public & media relations, and more.

2. Identify our preferred partners/subcontractors within that list of new offerings.
How do we find good people? She suggests we strive to keep our network alive – these are people we know or once knew, and people we meet. Surround ourselves with those we know and trust. Keep tabs on good people we knew from the past. For instance, I just recently became re-connected with a woman I worked with years ago on a website project, an excellent new media consultant. This took place through LinkedIn, when she saw and responded to a tweet I posted on Twitter – since my tweets get funneled to LI as ‘updates’. Social media makes this easier than ever before.

But what if we need a person in a field of expertise we are not that familiar with? This is riskier. Heathere advises we reach out to local and national networking/membership groups, like the PR Society of America, the PR equivalent of our professional organization, American Institute of Graphic Arts. Top contributors in any field are members of these kinds of professional groups. A lot of the effort is just talking with people – but we’ll find that word gets around.

3. Position our firms.
Define ourselves. Proudly and unapologetically use the term “virtual firm” (or as they say at thebauhub.com, a variation on the creative agency model, “Your global collective of senior creative minds”). The benefits are manifold:
Senior level talent. Each person has at least 10 years experience.
Flexibility. To organize a top level team and do it quickly; and to change the team from project to project.
Personalized service. One of my clients told me recently that the large branding firm they’ve been working with for several years sent their top execs to the first few meetings, but after that, meetings and phone calls were run by staff members who did not seem to be familiar with the client or the project. With the virtual agency model, there is no bait & switch from a senior team member to a junior-level person once the project is awarded. The team on the original call is the team you work with for the duration.
Value. Virtual agency rates are more reasonable and competitive as compared to medium and big and firms.

Some clients will always be more comfortable working with a firm in the conventional model of a Landor or Edelman. Let them go. A client who ‘gets’ the benefits of a virtual agency model is a client we want.

Since we’re all now thinking about how this translates into day-to-day details, Heathere shared a few tips on logistical details. At Keenan PR:
• each team member operates as part of the brand name of the firm
• they have their own phone number, but get a Keenan PR email address
• team members are 1099s subcontractors
• team members have a partner agreement, with a noncompete clause
• they utilize free or cheap online services that facilitate working within a virtual community, like dropbox.com, a free-portal for large file sharing; or efax.com, where faxes get sent to your email in-box

Her final suggestion: read The Distance Manager: A Hands On Guide to Managing Off-Site Employees and Virtual Teams

What is your experience running a traditional firm or a virtual one? Or are you on the client side, and want to share the pros and cons of working with one or the other?

Week before last I gave a presentation on self-promotion and marketing strategies to Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty members, a lively – but not particularly tech-savvy – audience of farmers, wineries, small specialty food processors, and restaurateurs. I knew the group especially wanted to learn about online social networking, so a large part of my talk centered around the Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter triumvirate.

Here’s three of my main points, distilled:

triumvirate1
1. WHICH ONE? All three sites afford opportunities to interact with users and share text comments, photos and video, so if you’re new to online social networking, how do you know which sites to try? Each one has a distinct personality and culture. Facebook can be compared to an informal block party where you mingle with neighbors and friends. It often feels busy and chaotic. LinkedIn can be likened to a chamber of commerce mixer where it is all business all of the time. Twitter is more like a huge cocktail party where you wander around amongst clusters of people, deciding whom to listen to and who to pass on by.

(Credit for these apt metaphors goes to blogger Hildy Gottlieb. Among the overwhelming abundance of articles on online media, I find her writing holds great appeal for the non-techie networker).

2. BUILDING COMMUNITY These online social outposts are great for community-building and developing relationships. Your audience is out there, socializing with like-minded folks about such things as their favorite hobby or brand, and now you have this unprecedented opportunity to meet, greet, and chat them up, in a way that is personal and genuine. This approach is the antithesis of mass-market media campaigns of the days of yore.

Occasionally I get direct messages via my LinkedIn account from vendors such as printers and photographers looking to sell me their services. The hard sell turns people off, including me. Save other mediums for selling, such as your website and email newsletter.

3. TELL YOUR STORY All of these sites require you to set up a profile, which can simply be a few lines about you or your business or organization, or an extensive curriculum vitae with pages of links, photos, video, and more. Before you throw something up there, think carefully about how you want to represent your organization, which further ties into developing your brand.

branding?

branding?

Branding is the first step to getting the word out about your organization. But first you need to know, what is that word? You must be able to identify your company’s personality, objectives, and audience, then you can utilize various online media to disseminate your brand’s story, and branding is all about storytelling. Does your organization have an interesting production technique? Is there a charismatic figure in your company’s history? People love to know this stuff. It helps them personally connect to your brand because it’s what makes you unique from the competition.

Once you settle on what this message is and how you can use it to set up your online profile, be sure to keep it up to date, and consistent from site to site, and also consistent from online venues across to your other ‘traditional media’ marketing strategies.

If you’d like to view the presentation in its entirety – which goes on to cover email newsletters, blogs, branding and more – click here. If you’d like to listen to an audio recording, click here. Heck, listen and watch both together, it’d be like you were actually there at the event itself (minus the delicious lunch!).

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