Advertising blimpI asked a new client recently what he had been doing to market his professional services. “Everything,” he said. “I’ve been running pay-per-click ads online, I hired someone to write a sales letter and mailed it to a list of local companies, I have a banner ad in my professional association’s directory, I’ve even been posting flyers around town… and I still have almost no business.”

“Ah hah,” I replied, “I think we’ve uncovered your problem. You actually haven’t been marketing your business. What you have been doing is advertising.”

It’s a common mistake for professional service providers to make. You don’t have a background in sales and marketing, so when you try to figure out how to get clients for your business, you copy what you see. You look around at what other businesses are doing and you see ads everywhere, so you think you’d better have some, too. But what you’re seeing is not the whole story.

Advertising is only the tip of the marketing iceberg. The much bigger picture of marketing is underwater, much less visible. When you view other businesses on the surface, you won’t see all the different marketing strategies they are using underneath. If you want to copy their success, you’ll have to copy their marketing, not just their advertising.

Marketing is everything you do to get people to buy your services. In its broadest definition, it begins with defining what your service is, who will buy it, and how much you will charge for it. Once you know those things, the main focus of marketing becomes finding people who might become your clients, letting them know what your service can do for them, and building their awareness and trust to the point that they choose to do business with you.

For a professional service provider, marketing might include activities as varied as having lunch with a colleague, giving a talk to a trade association, writing a guest blog post, participating in a leads group, publishing an ezine, posting a helpful reply to a query on social media, or calling a former client to say hello.

All these activities that you may never know about build on each other to form that professional’s “marketing iceberg.” The ad you happened to see that person run in an industry bulletin is only the iceberg’s tiny tip.

It’s easy to be persuaded into thinking that advertising is more effective than it really is. For one thing, vendors and media outlets constantly try to sell you advertising. Google, Facebook, your professional association, and magazines you read will all try to convince you that running ads with them is essential for the success of your business. Copywriters suggest you must have a killer sales letter, conference organizers insist that a display ad in their event program will produce results, and so on.

The reality is quite different. Most successful professionals in fields like consulting, coaching, training, design, business and financial services, accounting, law, real estate, and healing professions report that they get more clients — and better clients — from activities at the opposite pole of the marketing iceberg from advertising. The focus of their marketing is on building relationships, following up personally with contacts, nurturing referral sources, and serving as a resource in their area of expertise.

You may not always see all that these professionals are doing to get clients, but if you could look over their shoulders in a typical week, you would find them attending networking events, having coffee with colleagues who might refer business, speaking at conferences, writing blog posts, getting to know prospective clients through social media, and more. They may be placing ads or writing sales letters, too, but this is only a small part of their overall marketing plan.

Just because advertising is what you see the most doesn’t mean it’s the most effective. The next time you’re tempted to substitute advertising for marketing, perhaps you should remember these words from Bob Dylan:

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

Successful marketing consists of a blend of not-always-visible activities that are going on all around you every day. Don’t be fooled by the ads.

C.J. Hayden

C.J. Hayden, MCC, CPCC, is the author of the bestseller Get Clients Now!: A 28-Day Marketing Program for Professionals, Consultants, and Coaches, Since 1992, she's been helping self-employed professionals survive and thrive. C.J. is the author of five other business how-to-books, and has taught marketing at Mills College and John F. Kennedy University. Find out more about C.J.'s books and courses or attend one of her upcoming programs.

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