Many years ago, I taught a class at the Learning Annex in New York City on how to make a six-figure income as a freelancer.
One student, JR, wanted to break into writing TV commercials for Madison Avenue, and he had devised what was (according to him) a brilliant marketing strategy for getting hired.
In actuality, it was the second-worst marketing idea I’d ever heard in my life.
JR had, he told the class, written some “brilliant” TV commercials.
The Super Bowl was only a few weeks away at the time.
JR’s marketing strategy would be to show up at the offices of Madison Avenue’s biggest ad agencies and show the copy for his commercials to the creative director.
The creative director, he reasoned, was under tremendous pressure to produce a great Super Bowl commercial for the
By bringing those great commercials with him, JR would save the day—and be hired at an enormous salary to write for the agency.
Of course, this is a terrible idea for all the obvious reasons:
>> With the Super Bowl only a few weeks, all the commercials had been written and shot weeks or months earlier—and were already in the can.
>> The creative director has never heard of JR. She doesn’t know who JR is or whether he has any qualifications or talent. So the chances of the creative director agreeing to see JR are miniscule to none.
>> JR has no knowledge of which of the agency’s clients actually are running Super Bowl spots. Even if he did know, he hasn’t been briefed on the product positioning or the campaign strategy…so how can he possibly write a commercial that achieves the client’s marketing objective?
I gently told JR—and the rest of the class—that doing work on spec for a client who hasn’t asked you to do so is an absolute waste of time.
However, stupid as it is, there is a marketing strategy that’s even worse: giving an unsolicited critique of something a potential client has done—a new product design, an ad campaign, a website—in the hopes of being hired to fix it.
Why is giving a critique even worse than doing work on spec without prior agreement by the potential client to review it?
Well, think about it.
You send a letter to a business telling them their website stinks…or their customer service people are idiots…or their product is lousy.
There’s a good chance that the recipient of your letter is the person responsible for approving that website, training the customer service staff, or designing the product.
So right away, you have begun the relationship by insulting them—saying, in effect, “You don’t know what you are doing.”
They probably don’t agree with you that they’ve done a bad job…or else they wouldn’t have produced the site, training, or product in the first place.
You come along and give a contrary opinion—highly critical and negative.
They think, “Who the heck are YOU, bub? Why should I listen to what YOU say?”
As they see it, your opinion is subjective, not objective.
It’s also self-serving: you are a vendor, so your goal in reaching out to them is to get them to hire you and spend money on your services.
Worse, here you are, spending your time reviewing websites, calling companies who aren’t your client, and telling them how bad their sites are—without being paid to do so.
This causes them to think that if you were really any good at what you do, you’d be swamped with projects—and not cold-calling strangers trying to rustle up work.
I’ve frequently been on the receiving end of this “you’re doing it all wrong and we can help you fix it” marketing strategy—especially from web designers.
And speaking as a prospect, I can tell you it not only doesn’t work with me, but it’s also annoying and offensive.
Just last week, I got yet another such call from a web designer.
“I was looking at your site and it really is poorly designed,” TN, the Web designer, told me. “I would love to help you improve its performance.”
“Do you know my marketing objective for my website?” I asked TN.
“Uh, no,” he admitted.
“Well, TN,” I said quite reasonably. “If you don’t know what I want the site to do for my business…and you don’t know its current performance metrics…how can you possibly know that you can improve it?
I let him stutter and stammer for a few seconds, before politely ending the call.
My friend RA, who once ran a mail order business selling information products for gamblers, was also a victim of the “you’re doing it all wrong and we can help you fix it” marketing gambit.
SH, a newbie freelance copywriter, wrote RA an unsolicited 2-page critique of his latest DM package.
SH closed his letter by suggesting to RA that his marketing results would be greatly improved by letting a “professional copywriter” (like SH) work his magic on it.
RA and I both had a good laugh over this…because RA is universally acknowledged (except by SH, who didn’t recognize his name) as one of the top direct response copywriters working today.
Irritated, RA sent SH a testy letter pointing out this fact…and also noting that the package SH thought was so terrible was in fact a blockbuster control—making SH look stupid and silly.
Conclusion: doing a critique OR work on spec for a potential client who has not asked for it seems, on the surface, a sensible approach to marketing your services.
But it is not. In fact, it’s the least effective marketing strategy for selling professional services ever devised.
My advice for you when marketing your professional or technical services is as follows:
>> Never give unsolicited advice or criticism.
>> Don’t offer solutions until you really know what the problem is—and the only way you can really understand the problem is for the potential client to tell you.
>> If you want to show the potential client how smart you are, stop pontificating. Instead, ask intelligent questions and listen to the answers.
Bob Bly is the author of “World’s Best Copywriting Secrets” and has written copy for more than 100 companies including IBM, Boardroom, Medical Economics and AT&T. He is the author of more than 75 books and a columnist for Target Marketing, Early To Rise and The Writer. McGraw-Hill calls him “America’s top copywriter”.