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From occasional projects to capturing my own niche
Getting by with sporadic projects
I’ve been running my graphic design business, Sharper Creative, since 2002. My focus was on manufacturing and technology businesses, but I took whatever work came my way. That’s how I survived for years, and it wasn’t a sustainable or smart strategy.
Most clients only needed a new brochure every five years, so it was stressful at times. I often wondered where my next job would be coming from and how to get more repeatable business.
In 2012, I learned that a designer friend of mine was closing her business. She began to refer people my way, and this work pretty much saved my company. But I still knew I needed to be doing more to attract and retain clients.
Starting with a few sessions to see a specialty emerge
I often wondered where my next job would be coming from and how to get more repeatable business.
I first came to know Ilise Benun from a HOW Design ad and had been receiving her Quick Tips since then. Soon, I took Ilise up on her free mentoring session, filling out her questionnaire in advance so she could get to know me. (I remember Ilise saying it was the longest set of answers she’d ever seen!)
Ilise and I agreed to start with an initial engagement of a few sessions, where we discussed my graphic design business and what I hoped to achieve. I liked knowing that working with Ilise didn’t require a lengthy time commitment and that I could get her help just when I needed it. She’d encourage me with tasks, breaking things down into small, actionable steps, and I’d get those things completed. Later, I’d circle back for Ilise’s feedback if I needed to.
Over time, I began to see a specialty area emerge: conference marketing. Shortly after I worked with my first conference client, a second one came my way also needing work for an annual event. Soon, my design portfolio was growing and so was my expertise in the area of conference marketing.
What I came to love about conference work is that it’s often repeatable with a new annual event each year. I’m able to build client relationships over time, and I also like that I can do numerous design projects. (One client needed 65 pieces for their event!)
I began to see a specialty area emerge: conference marketing, which offers the repeatable work I was looking for.
Today, this defined niche is represented by a separate division of my company called Conference Creative. Ilise helped me figure out how to best position and grow my new focus area. (Spoiler alert: Marketing is key!)
I knew I wanted to send prospects something tangible that represented my design work — and by mail. She encouraged the idea, and we landed on a personalized approach that was both strategic and easy to systematize.
Spoiler: Marketing is key
Ilise helped me figure out how to best position and grow my new focus area. (Spoiler alert: Marketing is key!)
I created a coloring book for adults that encourages engagement and promotes the idea of stress-free conference marketing. This theme works because, in the world of conferences, my target market tends to be 95% women. (Not that men don’t like to color, of course.)
My direct mail package now includes three items than can be hand-colored — a door hanger, postcard and book marker — along with gel pens, a personal note from me, my company’s brochure and my business card.
Everything goes in a clear, cellophane envelope. For extra wow, I ship it in an orange bubble wrap envelope that matches my Conference Creative brand.
Over time, I streamlined the mailer to make it even easier to package and more economical, too. I even hired someone to handle the fulfillment for me — a big step! — which frees me up to do the follow-up.
Marketing takes time and follow-up
Marketing takes time, and I’m willing to put in the work.
My goal is to send five packets a week, though sometimes I do less. Or if I’m swamped, I might skip a week … and that’s okay!
I follow up with several touches after the mailing goes out. Initially, I did seven, but I’m doing five follow-ups now. (Again, I streamline and refine my approach, as I go.) I send follow-up emails and, if I don’t hear back from the prospect, I’ll call them.
Even with creative, ongoing outreach, it still takes time to build interest. It took more than a year before one of the first conference contacts I mailed my package to hired me. I know marketing takes time and I am willing to put in the work.
My successes to date include a conference client who gave me multiple deliverables for a big annual event. I also won a client who was so impressed with my creative direct mail, that she wanted me to design a creative direct mail piece for her company, despite having a graphic designer on staff.
Ilise also helped me improve my email marketing. Initially, I only sent my newsletter to conference clients and prospects. I decided to distribute it more broadly because, even with my niche, I still enjoy doing most any kind of design work.
Snail mail proves an unexpected approach
Direct mail may seem old-school, but it’s working for my business. It’s unexpected and it can be personalized, creative and affordable.
If your plan is to send your marketing messages to a mailbox instead of an inbox, here’s my advice:
- Determine which prospects are worth the effort. Think about your VIP prospects and what you want the outreach to accomplish. Pick a manageable number of companies to mail information to, so you’re not overwhelmed.
- Go for the unexpected, so you stand out. We all receive lots of mail and emails — but a special package in the mail gets our attention. What is this?, we wonder. Generate interest right from the start, even before the mail is opened. That’s why I chose an orange envelope — it’s unexpected. What could you send that makes a big impression?
- Develop a repeatable process. Even with a personalized approach, you can still standardize the process. Have supplies on hand and use templates or standardized wording, so you’re not reinventing the wheel.
- Make time for marketing. It’s easy for time to get away from us, because we’re busy working with clients all week. That’s why I started “Marketing Wednesdays” — that’s the day I do my follow-up outreach and my assistant sends out new packages.
- Follow-up is key to any outreach. If you’re investing time and money in direct mail, it can’t be a one-time effort. People may not be interested in your services right away, so your process needs to include ongoing outreach. You made an impression, now keep the momentum so they don’t forget you.
Trying new approaches, and exploring small group coaching
I know for certain my direct mail outreach opens doors for me. I’m getting bigger clients with more substantial budgets, and I have Ilise to thank for the qualifying process I use to determine my best prospects.
Even though this process is working for me today, I’m interested in trying new approaches, including setting up auto-responder emails to attract the attention of companies who are in conference-planning mode.
I hope to continue working with Ilise in the months to come and plan to check out her small-group coaching, which I hear good things about.
If you’d like to learn even more about my outreach to prospects, listen to my interview with Ilise on her Marketing Mentor podcast, How to Build a Simple Marketing Machine with Sue Harper.