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Aspiring Towards Auto-Pilot: Automate Your Business Marketing

Andrew Neitlich

Many owners of Web design firms wonder how they can spend less time marketing their work so that they can focus on delighting clients. They often ask:

  1. How can I be as efficient as possible in my marketing so that I don’t waste time or money?
  • How can I spend less time on activities that I don’t like (e.g. marketing and sales) and more time on activities that I love (e.g. Web design)?
  • Every time I get busy with clients, marketing falls behind, so I end up with a "feast or famine" cycle. How can I avoid the frustration of being swamped with work one month and famished the next?
  • How can I get clients to come to me instead of having to chase them?
  • One answer to the above questions is to develop automatic marketing systems that do your marketing for you while you do other things.

    When your marketing is effective, and runs on autopilot, you enjoy a number of benefits:

    1. You spend more time on the tasks you like to do (which usually are those that got you into the business in the first place)..
  • Clients come to you, and already know about your expertise, so you don’t have to chase them.
  • While you’re busy delighting current clients, you’re still getting the word out about your services, so you can smooth out the "feast or famine" cycle that plagues so many service professionals.
  • "Automatic Marketing" Defined as a Continuum

    In the world of marketing, the word "automatic" is part of a continuum. There are two ends to the spectrum:

    • "Set and forget" marketing.

      Borrowing from the famous infomercial for an oven roaster, this kind of marketing is as automatic as you can get. You invest time and money once, and your system takes care of itself. The worst case is that you have to update your marketing collateral, budget, or targeting from time to time.

    • Semi-automatic marketing.

      At the other end of the spectrum, there are some marketing tactics that allow partial automation. However, you still need to invest time to customize these programs each time you implement them. Manual work is required on an ongoing basis in these hybrid strategies.

    As we begin to talk about specific examples, I’ll use a four-point rating system to help you navigate between 100% automated marketing tactics and those that fall towards the hybrid side of the spectrum. The four levels of this relative system are: highest automation, high automation, medium automation, and low automation.

    Ideally, you want as much of your marketing as possible to be of the "set and forget" variety. Unfortunately, as the next section will show, this ideal is difficult to achieve for professional services firms like Web designers. Put another way, automatic marketing is not a panacea.

    Therefore, before we get specific, please read the caveats that follow…

    Give Up the Myth of the Silver Bullet

    Many owners of professional service firms, Web designers included, are looking for a silver bullet. They want a single, quick, no-hassle answer to persuade clients to come to their door. Some will go to the grave believing the myth that somehow, someway, there was something out there that would have made all their marketing and sales hassles evaporate.

    Classic silver bullets include:

    • hiring a superstar sales person who will require no guidance or management on your part (hah!)
    • engaging a marketing consultant for a direct mail piece that will generate a 20% response rate
    • throwing lots of money into traditional advertising campaigns and waiting for the phone to ring
    • assuming that your excellent work speaks for itself

    The myth of a fully automated marketing system is another silver bullet that some owners assume, or hope, exists. Sorry.

    Here are some key elements that you must have in place to begin to automate your marketing processes:

    1. A coherent process from the time someone learns about you through your service delivery. A good marketing system is like a pearl necklace: if you pick up on pearl, you pick up the whole necklace. Each piece of your marketing system needs to be effective and work well with all the other parts. For instance, what good is a 5% click through rate on Google AdWords if your Website doesn’t encourage prospects to request more information?
  • A sound marketing message that sets you apart. Few Web professionals do an adequate job to differentiate their services and results from those of their colleagues. Without a solid marketing message, your automated marketing system will simply make people aware that another generic Web designer is trying to sell something to them. The Sitepoint article Why Small Web Design Firms Should Think Big explains how to create a compelling marketing message.
  • The ability to persuade interested prospects to work with you. Automated marketing attracts prospects to you, but it won’t close the deal. You still need to know how to have effective selling conversations with prospects to assess fit and persuade them to hire you.
  • A willingness and ability to create the system up front and continue to improve it. A fundamental principle of any marketing system is that you must keep testing, learning, and improving. The goal is to optimize your system. You can’t get complacent and neglect to try new ways to get better, more efficient results.
  • An understanding that professionals always need manual marketing channels to remain visible and demonstrate value. You can sell products almost automatically on the Web. However, marketing and selling professional services still comes down to the quality of the business relationships you can forge with your prospects and clients. While automated marketing systems will help you to attract new clients, face-to-face methods to stay visible are almost always the most powerful strategy to get the word out about you. You can automate pieces of these methods (as this article will soon demonstrate), but not everything.
  • Patience. The article How to Market Your Business on a Shoestring showed how to market your business the manual way. Those manual strategies are powerful no matter how new or old your business is, and they get relatively fast results. Many automated marketing methods can take more time to work. That’s because they are a bit less personal, and can take longer to make an impression on prospects. In my own practice, it took about 4-6 months before people started contacting me via the automatic marketing channels I set up. So, you need to be patient.
  • Top Automated Marketing Strategies

    Following is a list and description of the top thirteen automated marketing strategies. How well do you stack up? Which have you developed, and which will you launch soon?

    1. A Web presence that does more than show off your portfolio.

    One goal of any professional service firm’s Website is to entice prospects to leave their contact information and to want more information from you. They will do this if you set your site apart with more than just your portfolio and client list. Prospects want to see solutions that educate them and immediately bring them value.

    Provide visitors to your site with educational materials about how your solutions can help them make more money, reduce costs, or eliminate hassles. The more focused your target market, the more deep and interesting your materials can be. Examples include: pre-recorded seminars you have led, online assessments, explanations about what makes a good web site, executive briefs (three pages or less) detailing ways that Web technology can enhance the bottom line, tutorials about navigation strategies that increase response, and case studies about how other companies have succeeded and the lessons learned. Or, when you exhibit your portfolio, point to specific things that you did and why those increased the project’s success.

    At the same time, it is essential to make low-risk offers that your prospects can’t help but accept, and that persuade them to leave their contact information. That way, you can follow up over time. A newsletter is one way to do that, albeit a bit generic by now; however, if you can offer a newsletter with demonstrable value that no one else offers to your target market, you can get plenty of sign-ups. An offer for a free 9-point Web/ecommerce assessment might be another way to get prospects to contact you.

    By posting educational materials and valuable offers on your Web site, you automatically and constantly get people to want more information from you.

    Automation rating: Highest.

  • Automated and systematic ways to drive traffic to your Website.
  • If your Website is the hub of your automated marketing system, you need plenty of these spokes to drive people to your site. You already know this, and hopefully already have experimented with Google AdWords, Overture, and various Search Engine Optimization strategies to bring people to your site.

    At the same time, many Web professionals fail to take full advantage of the numerous other ways to attract people to their Websites. A partial list includes:

    • Write articles that are accompanied by link to your site. Every professional should write articles in publications that their target market reads, be it the local Chamber of Commerce newsletter or large trade journals.
    • Use your newsletter to bring readers back to your site, by posting new information or valuable offers.
    • Speak in public and offer to sign people up for your newsletter or take advantage of a valuable educational piece that you offer on your Website.
    • Use direct mail and advertising that doesn’t advertise your services, but does point people to your Website, where they will find free, valuable information. Remember — people want to learn about you gradually. This is why most direct mail pieces do not work.
    • Tell anyone you meet that you will add them to your newsletter, and send them an email with a link to your Website.
    • Make an offer on your business card that drives people to your site (e.g. a free online assessment or article).

    Automation rating: Medium. Many of the above tactics can be put on autopilot, while some cannot.

  • Autoresponders to stay in touch with prospects and clients.
  • Once you build a database of prospects, you have an incredible opportunity to follow up with them on a regular basis. You can create auto-responders (see 1shoppingcart.com for an example that I use) for different prospects, and send them a different message every few weeks. Each message should make an offer for something that they will find valuable, and that costs them little or nothing. Otherwise, they won’t bite.

    You should also put your newsletters on auto-responders. That way, you don’t have to write a new one every week. Prospects get their first newsletter when they join, and move through a sequence of newsletters as they go.

    Automation rating: Highest. Once you write your autoresponders and newsletters, you are essentially done (other than tracking which ones pull well and which ones don’t).

  • A contact manager with "ticklers"/reminders to follow up with prospects and clients, and (ideally) a pipeline management system.
  • ACT and other contact managers allow you to schedule times to get in touch with prospects and clients: birthdays, holidays, periodic "touches," and other interactions. At the same time, salesforce.com is free for one individual, and allows you to track your contacts to a specific pipeline. You can track all your sales activities, contacts, and marketing campaigns with one system! Sign up today, if you haven’t already.

    Research shows that the average prospect needs at least five positive interactions with you before they buy. Ticklers and autoresponders are a way to ensure that you provide those interactions — while your competition gives up after one try.

    Automation rating: High. You have to update your tickler system and pipeline, but the rest runs on its own.

  • Marketing collateral that you create once, expand to different media, and make available to your prospects.
  • If you create a single executive brief that your target market will value (e.g. "A Navigation Scheme that will Double Your Law Firm’s Client Base"), why stop there? Expand it to different media: a PowerPoint presentation with synchronized voice over, a Webinar, a video, an article in a local publication, an online assessment, etc.

    You can then publicize each of these pieces of collateral to other prospects who might prefer the new media you have created.

    Automation rating: Medium.

  • A marketing calendar.
  • Every Web professional should have a calendar that specifies which activities they will do, in what frequency, and by when. That way, marketing becomes a habit, part of your regular routine, and not an interruption of client work. Schedule all your activities: referrals, speeches, seminars, trade shows, direct mail, advertising deadlines, writing, and other campaigns.

    Automation rating: Medium to Low. The calendar and habit help to automate your activities, but you still have to actually complete the specific tasks.

  • Outsourced marketing services.
  • For manual activities, you can get the same effect of automation (e.g. leverage your time) by outsourcing to somebody else. You can outsource periodic mailings, telemarketing to set appointments, and even automatic birthday card and thank you notes. If you have a budget, why not take advantage of these services?

    Automation rating: Highest.

  • Referral systems.
  • People think of referrals as a manual process, when usually they are not. There are dozens of ways to make automatic referral systems a part of your marketing strategy, so that referrals come to you without much work on your part. Examples include:

    • Joint referral programs, through which you send an endorsement of a professional (e.g. an accountant) to your prospects and that professional endorses you in exchange. This type of program works best if you make a specific offer or provide a discount exclusive to the list.
    • Affiliate programs, just as you might do with products on your Website.
    • Lead exchange programs (e.g. BNI, Inc.) that you attend regularly. The attendance part is manual, but as the contacts get to know you, referrals will flow.
    • Ask for referrals on every invoice, proposal, and piece of marketing collateral you have.
    • Contact one or more referral sources a day, no matter what, to exchange potential leads.

    Automation rating: Medium.

  • Billing systems.
  • With a credit card gateway or Paypal, a good bank, and a shopping cart with recurring billing functionality, you can come close to automating your billing totally. It costs more than receiving and depositing checks, but saves time. You have to do a cost/benefit analysis for your situation.

    Automation rating: High.

  • Templates of proposals and marketing collateral.
  • You should have templates of best-practice proposals and marketing collateral ready to go, so that all boilerplate is already filled in.

    Automation rating: Medium to High (you still have to make your proposal sing for the specific prospect).

  • A habitual way of interacting with prospects and clients.
  • As you become more experienced in your business, you will find that you have a gut instinct about how to interact with prospects in order to win more business. While one-on-one interactions are a manual process, effective habits are a form of powerful automation. Essentially, you have programmed yourself instead of a computer.

    To give an example from outside the Web services arena, younger physicians tend to order many more diagnostic tests than older ones. As they become more experienced, they rely more on habit and instinct, and order fewer tests without compromising decision-making. I believe that sales and marketing process works in a similar fashion.

    Automation rating: Medium (only because you still have to interact).

  • Your delivery system and methodology.
  • Stop reinventing the wheel on every project. If you haven’t already, develop a methodology that you can re-use. That way, you can charge more money for less work. Also, you can promote your methodology as something that sets you apart and guarantees consistent results.

    Automation rating: Medium to High, depending on how much customization you still have to do.

  • Reputation and raving clients.
  • Over time, the most automated marketing tactic might be raving clients and a solid reputation. Ford Harding’s book Rainmakers implies that reputation grows in a geometric, not straight-line, fashion. When you first start out, few people know you, and your reputation is nil. However, as more people come to know you and value you, they spread the word in a way that grows exponentially.

    It might seem odd that reputation is a form of automated marketing, but it is. In fact, I know plenty of mediocre professionals who have all the business they can handle simply because they’ve been at it so long. So hang in there, delight your clients, and be patient. Of course, the other techniques described above will help you accelerate this cycle.

    Automation rating: Highest.


    So, how did you stack up? Seasoned veterans should be employing almost all of these strategies, while rookies might have to use more manual methods to establish a quick foothold.

    At the same time, the list shows the limits of automation in marketing your services. Like it or not, you still need to make marketing a top priority, and invest time and energy, during good times and bad, to manually grow your visibility in your target market.