As most successful solos will tell you, networking is the key to your long-term viability as an independent consultant. We've talked about some foolproof excuses to reach out to your network, but where do you go to make new contacts?
You don’t have to attend every Chamber of Commerce meeting to make – or reinforce – valuable connections. Here are 10 proven methods to network that will help yield quality clients and relationships for years to come:
1. Your Former Employer
You didn’t tell them to take that job and shove it when you left, did you? A surprising number of successful consultants (including yours truly) retained their former employer as their first client. If you’re a consultant because you were recently laid off, or if you haven't talked to your former colleagues in a while, don’t be afraid to reach out and offer your services to help the poor overburdened folks still there trying get the work done.
2. People You Once Worked With
Don’t neglect those who were “junior” when you worked with them. The recession prompted many companies to find creative ways to reward less experienced (but eager) employees who remained following forced separations, and those less seasoned may now have more decision-making authority. Talented junior staffers also advance on their own merit, of course. Everyone begins without experience, but most eventually rise through the ranks — this is an important long-term strategy for your business.
From former co-workers to one-time classmates, referrals are a prime source of new business leads. A positive experience – say, witnessing your negotiation and communication skills first hand, even as members of a charitable committee – serves as a foundation for someone dropping your name in a casual (but important) conversation or making a direct introduction. Make sure everyone you know is aware that you're now consulting — you never know where that next lead will come from!
4. PR Agencies
Few newly solo communications professionals can claim a four-star client roster. One way to gain access to influentials at cornerstone companies is to subcontract with established agencies. In addition to providing an income stream today, if the client's budgets drop (or if a new prospect presents itself that the agency isn't interested in), the agency may recommend they work with you directly.
5. Social Media
This is a well-covered topic, but if you still aren't using social media to show your expertise, you're missing an opportunity. Do you use LinkedIn as a means to gain exposure to people in groups you target? If not, consider spending time initiating intelligent discussions in the open Q&A area and responding to questions posed by others in specialized groups (like the Solo PR Pros group). Twitter, Facebook, and other networks also offer ways to showcase your expertise. You don't have to be online 24×7 to use these tools as part of your strategy — regular, periodic updates (even just once a week) can make a big difference.
6. Professional Organizations
Most of us bring a special skill to our PR and MarCom work. Whether your forte is writing, social media, event management, customer experience, or some other discipline, there are likely professional or trade associations, beyond PRSA and IABC, that cater to that area. For example, media relations experts can participate in the Press Club, while advertising and marketing communications pros may make new connections through the American Marketing Association (AMA) or Advertising Federation (AdFed). Participating in these types of groups is an excellent way to expand your network, and you may find yourself uniquely representing the PR viewpoint – establishing your expertise to a whole new audience.
7. Targeted Trade Organizations
When looking to grow your list of contacts and develop leads within the specialty market of your choice, remember to fold trade organizations into your business development strategy. Just as professional organizations can help you advance in your craft and network with similarly career-minded types, trade organizations are a way to get involved with key issues, policy makers, stay abreast of breaking news and technology, and strengthen relationships within channels. You could come in contact with key executives from companies that just might need the unique combination of your subject matter expertise and specialized skills.
Local non-profit organizations typically have marketing committees staffed primarily of volunteers. Committees may handle everything from PR to newsletters to events. Pick a cause you’re passionate about, and chip in your time and leadership pro bono. Make some new marketing contacts (often leaders in your community), gain valuable experience and do some good to boot!
9. Strategic Partnerships
We’ve talked about the perils of trying to “do it all” – remember that in the long run, as you build your business for the future, you’re better served by focusing on your areas of strength. Some projects call for work outside of your purview, like graphic design, scripted photography, animation, or mobile app development, and you can earn yourself a hero badge with your client by having established relationships with complementary vendors already in place. But here's big key bonus: you can develop a long-term relationship with these vendors that can result in them referring work to you, as well. Many indie consultants cite these partnerships as the cornerstone of their successful businesses.
10. Former Clients
Did you do a good job, but your regular contact moved on to another company? While new personnel can potentially narrow your funnel projections, remember that your former consulting clients can be a source of new revenue once they’re comfortable in their new positions elsewhere. And if you have the foresight to develop rapport both laterally as well as vertically at most of your clients (and you should), you may find your client base just increased by one, even if your biggest champion made a career move elsewhere.
What are your tried-and-true methods for attracting new clients? Let us know in the comments!