Last week, I made the case that web design has become a commodity, for a number of reasons:
Too Much Supply
The barrier to entry is extremely low. Anyone with a computer and some software can offer web design services. A Google search for Los Angeles web designer turns up more web designers than the entire population of L.A.
Too Many Do-It-Yourself Options
The proliferation of site builder applications, low-cost templates, and even higher-end platforms like WordPress and Joomla has brought web design to the masses.
Too Little Perceived Value
When your son or daughter is learning HTML and web design in high school, it’s hard to imagine paying someone more than a paperboy’s wages to have one built.
If you’re going to break out of the commoditization trap, you need to differentiate yourself. Most of us try to do that by comparing ourselves to the lower end of the market. We try to explain to our clients how using his nephew Marvin will result in a badly-coded, non-compliant site.
Unfortunately, that merely compounds the problem. By emphasizing your technical skills, you are only making yourself more of a commodity.
Ideally, you want to differentiate yourself in such a way that your prospect won’t even consider going elsewhere. Building customer loyalty among existing clients is challenging enough. How do you accomplish that on the front end, before the prospect has become a client and you’ve yet to have a chance to prove yourself?
While this topic could fill the pages of a book, here are five steps to breaking out of the commoditization trap.
1. Figure Out Why You Do What You Do
To take a page from Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
In my online profiles, I describe myself as being passionate about helping people and businesses reach their fullest potential and become wildly successful. That’s because my father and uncle started their own business when I was very young, and I saw the struggles and challenges they faced. It gave me an appreciation for entrepreneurship and small business private enterprise.
Those values drive all that I do. It’s the reason I’ve chosen to work for small companies rather than large corporations. It’s why I’m helping my company develop new marketing services to offer our clients. It’s why I train sales people and offer advice on SitePoint and on my own blog. It’s why I love connecting to people on Twitter and hearing that what I’ve written has helped in some small way.
Steve Jobs once said that marketing is about values. You probably hold some fundamental values that caused you to end up in this field, beyond just making a living. Do you know what they are? Do your clients?
2. Get a Personality
Once you know the primary values that drive you, figure out a way to express them that’s uniquely you. Writers talk about finding your voice, which is the key to telling a good story. And in case you don’t know, storytelling is the key to good marketing.
When you know why you do what you do, and can communicate it effectively, you’ll find that what you say and how you say it resonates with others who share your values.
3. Understand How Your Customer Defines Value
Value is simply anything that someone is willing to pay for. Some customers want solutions; others just want products or services. If you fail to identify the primary value drivers of these two very different types of customers, both you and your prospects will be continually frustrated at every step of the sales process.
The commodity buyer is only interested in the product or service, and not necessarily in hearing any advice or wisdom you’ve acquired over the years of working with similar clients. Relational buyers, on the other hand, tend to value the expertise you bring to the table.
It’s up to you whether or not you chose to sell to both types. Just be quick to determine which type you have on your hands, because you can’t sell the same way to both.
4. Be an Expert on the Unique Needs of Your Client
While the solutions we provide may be similar from client to client, realize that each client has unique needs, based on their goals and objectives. One client may want a website for purely branding purposes—it’s all about their existing reputation. Another may want one for the same reason they have business cards—it’s just another marketing tool they think they need. And yet another may have a particular business objective in mind—such as competing on a national level, regaining lost market share, or simply having another marketing channel to reach more customers.
Unfortunately, becoming such a expert requires you to do something most people are loathe to do—target a niche or vertical market.
The reason most business resist doing so is because it takes a tremendous amount of effort. Most are content to target “small to medium-sized businesses.”
The other reason is that many believe the wider they cast their net, the more clients they’ll have—when the exact opposite is true. Remember, that’s what 99.9 percent of your competition does. And it’s why “small to medium-sized businesses” continue to perceive web design as a commodity. No one is speaking their specific language or addressing their particular problem.
5. Go Local
While having clients from “California to Florida” might earn you some bragging points, I’ve found the best, longest-lasting, and most loyal clients were the ones I had a face-to-face relationship with.
I’m not sure where you’d land on a search for web design and your local city, but I’m certain that attempting to drive business from the search engines is the surest way to look and smell like a commodity.
I’m not saying that a top ranking is a bad thing. Maybe you get clients that way. I’m just saying that appearing alongside a dozen or so of your competitors—even if you are on page one—well, you’d better have a very unique value proposition to keep someone from clicking away to another result on the page.
On the other hand, being the local expert in a particular industry is a powerful, commodity-breaking one-two punch. It puts you in front of your target audience without having a dozen of your closest competitors by your side.
Remember, clients aren’t buying your services as much as they’re buying you. That you’re qualified and capable of doing the job is the cost of entry—not what makes you stand apart.
Too often, we hide behind marketing to avoid face-to-face relationship-building and selling. Everything you do must be designed to create conversations with your prospective clients, because all things being equal, people will chose to do business with those they like and trust. So start thinking of yourself and the business as the product. After all, you’re no commodity—you’re one of a kind.
Former owner and partner of web firm Jenesis Technologies, John is currently Director of Digital Strategy at Haines Local Search, a company providing local search marketing solutions to SMBs, including print and Internet Yellow Pages, web design, and local SEO. When not working or spending time with his family, John offers great sales and marketing advice on his blog, Small Business Marketing Sucks.