Discoverability: How To Find Clients & Customers
"If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" -- ancient philosophers ponder the importance of discoverability
What is discoverability?
History is awash with businesses that had excellent offerings, yet never made a profit.
The truth is that customers must be aware of goods and services before any purchase can be made.
Discoverability is a measure of whether or not potential customers know that you're open for business and your offerings have the potential to meet their needs.
It's also one of the four pillars of pricing power.
What discoverability is not
Discoverability is not about convincing customers to buy from you. It's not even about convincing customers that you're one of their best options. It's merely a matter of making them aware of your offerings and convincing them that your offerings could potentially be a suitable match for their needs.
Once you're able to attract customers, you can focus on your messaging, adapting it as needed.
Discoverable by whom?
One of the biggest mistakes made by new business owners is to consider discoverability as a goal in and of itself. Such thinking almost always leads to inefficient (and less profitable) outcomes.
The reason for this should be clear. It's difficult to attract the attention of everybody, and everybody includes a lot of people who probably wouldn't be anything like your ideal customers. In fact, most people probably wouldn't be an ideal customer for whatever it is that your firm offers. So why not just focus on attracting your ideal customers: the ones who would be most interested in buying and most willing to spend big for the privilege to do so?
As an example, a veterinarian in Alabama would likely find little value in becoming discoverable by Nigerians who don't own pets. It would be far simpler and less costly to focus on becoming discoverable to pet owners in his hometown. They are his ideal buyers. They are the people most likely to need his services.
The trick is to figure out whom you want to discover you, before you start spending time and money making yourself discoverable. The better you understand your target market, the more efficiently your resources can be allocated to attract your potential customers' attention (and hopefully their wallets).
One terrible mistake made by firms is to focus only on attracting their ideal users. As I've pointed out many times, the user of an offering isn't always the person paying for an offering or even the person making the buying decision. Think about baby food. Babies are the people who eat it, but do they pay for it? Do they decide which baby food to buy?
Here's a general hierarchy of targets for discoverability, from most-worthy to least-worthy of consideration:
- Someone who is a decision maker
- Someone who can strongly influence a decision maker
- Someone who can indirectly influence a decision maker
- Someone who is isolated from decision makers (useless)
Of course, decision makers can be difficult to contact, and this can complicate matters immensely. The ease of becoming discoverable to a single strong influencer may well outweigh the value of becoming discoverable to a single decision maker, if that influencer has a strong network and is willing to promote your offerings.
Help! I've been discovered. Now what do I do?
Sometimes customers have an immediate need and are hoping to make a purchase as quickly as possible. For instance, customers who are suffering from termite infestations, mold damage, or a broken leg will likely be ready to move to the purchasing stage soon after discovery. Customers who have a less immediate need, such as people thinking about going on vacation, or shoppers looking to purchase a new car, will likely wait weeks, months, or even years before making a purchase.
Thus, building ongoing relationships and maintaining lines of communication is often the most lucrative choice in the long run. For this reason, businesses should make sure to either collect shoppers' contact information, plan for future means of communication, or (preferably) both. Relationship building can always be automated, but (for high-ticket items) a personal touch might be the most effective course of action.
- Cold contact
- Free advertising
- Live networking
- Paid advertising
- Shock & awe
- Social networking
- Working for free
- Being at the right place at the right time
Many businesses make fortunes using this method. The process has been historically treated as a numbers game that works as follows:
- Acquire a list of leads from a secondary source
- Contact each lead
- Try to make a sale
There are several reasons why this method is increasingly unpopular with new entrepreneurs:
- It results in many strong rejections from annoyed recipients
- The laws around such practices are becoming increasingly restrictive and punitive
- It is difficult to establish a premium branding via cold contacts
As a result, many firms have found it wise to turn this strategy on its head. Instead of a shotgun approach in which firms focus on the quantity of communications, they focus their efforts on a small number of tailored communications to a relatively small number of highly qualified recipients.
For instance, many independent consultants have found success in providing customized analyses for specific businesses in the hope that their labors will entice firms to pay for follow-on work.
Others offer free coffees or even lunches in order to entice recipients to "speak about their industries." The key to a successful cold contact is to warm the relationship slowly, rather than push for an immediate sale.
Finding contact information can be relatively straight forward, what with the ubiquity of "about us" pages on corporate websites, complete profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn and even email "guessing" services such as Voila Norbert.
- Door to door sales (read up on trespassing laws)
- Unsolicited emails (read up on the Can-Spam Act)
- Unsolicited phone calls (read up on the National Do Not Call Registry)
Often you'll find that you just don't know (or come in contact with) the right people. Many business folks share this problem.
Electricians are commonly asked for someone who can do plumbing work. Plumbers are often asked for someone who can do electrical.
If there were only some trick so that each could direct buyers to the other party.
Actually, no trick is needed at all. All you need is a business technique called cross-promotion.
Here's how it works:
- Find vendors that provide an offering that targets the same group of people that you do.
- Remove any vendor from the list that competes with you.
- Contact the remaining firms and ask whether they'd be interested in promoting your firm in exchange for a solemn promise that you will promote theirs.
This is very different from the paid advertising strategy, as no party in the exchange is losing anything of value.
In many cases, each participant will become better off from the exposure to the other's audience. Meanwhile, neither will lose, because neither party is a direct competitor to the other. If a cover designer and a writing coach agree to cross-promote, neither one will cannibalize the other's business.
That said, there are many cases in which one party is far more famous than the other, yet both receive value from cross-promotion. For instance, many entertainers (singers, comedians, speakers) find great value in bringing in an "opening act" to warm up the audience and get it in the best spirit to appreciate the main event. Meanwhile, the openers receive a ton of promotion (and potentially even monetary remuneration) in return.
At the extreme end, cross-promotion can lead to integration. Agencies and full-service firms often begin their lives as independent specialists who wish to join forces in order to take on bigger, more complex, and more profitable projects.
- A pet groomer and a pet photographer exchange guest posts on each other's websites
- A vineyard and a cheese shop co-host a wine and cheese festival
Attracting attention can be very difficult. Wouldn't it be great if you could just ask influencers to push people in your direction?
Here's a secret: you can!
Curation is a simple technique that will increase your discoverability while at the same time create an aura of expertise around you.
The tactic involves the rounding up of externally-generated content such as news, events, reviews, or interviews that are related to your core business offering. By doing so, you'll begin to attract the attention of search engines, customers, and firms in your marketplace.
With a bit of luck, the linked sources will provide you with a steady stream of promotion and backlinks. Why wouldn't they? After all, you're making their offerings appear desirable.
Ideally, you'll be able to establish a feedback loop. The bigger an audience you are able to build, the more strongly influencers will clamber to be a part of your curated garden, and the more strongly they will be willing to promote your organization.
The key is to find information that is related to, but not competitive with, your offering. For instance, a vendor of BBQ grills would not want to aggregate materials about grills from other vendors. He would, however, want to aggregate information about meats, cooking techniques and grill accessories.
Someone once said that the best things in life are free.
Many firms don't realize that their offices, their equipment, and even their employees are visible to potential customers. With a bit of thought, visibility can be turned into discoverability.
Customers with problems (especially urgent problems) will often seek out vendors who make themselves known.
More than one personal trainer has built a career by working out at gyms while wearing shirts advertising his services.
- Business cards left in coffee shops
- Stickers on laptops
- T-Shirts & jackets with company logos
- Vinyl car wraps
Do you remember how Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities? He wrote "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
Those famous words can also describe live networking. Ask business owners about live networking, and they'll tell you that "it's the best of methods and the worst of methods."
What's the cause of the difference of opinions?
It's often a matter of venue.
Many vendors hear that they should be networking, so they spend their time at networking groups. Such collections are full of people specifically looking to network.
There's just one problem. Such outings are usually missing one thing: buyers. Buyers are too busy working and avoid such events like the plague in order to sidestep any possibility of being swamped by legions of desperate and annoying vendors.
The secret is that networking is best performed in locations that are not specifically designated for networking.
So what's the best way to identify a good networking venue?
Think about where your ideal candidate would spend time, and then go there.
Here are some suggestions, ranging from best to worst:
- Be where someone is looking for a solution (conferences about a related topic)
- Be where someone who has a problem performs related activities (coworking spaces)
- Be where someone who has a problem is doing something enjoyable and not related to his problem (a social club)
- Be where someone who has a problem is doing something not enjoyable and unrelated to his problem (worst choice)
Many vendors will find that focusing on the building of relationships, rather than focusing on selling, will lead to higher levels of success in the long term. In nearly every case, repeated interactions will serve to strengthen the bond between you and your potential buyer, allowing the buyer to feel more confident about making a purchase from you. One of the most common strategies for fledgling freelancers is to speak to former employers and coworkers.
The effectiveness of this method will depend, to a large degree, on the density, needs, and population of an area. If you're an aspiring actor, live networking in Monowi, Nebraska may not be the best choice for increasing your discoverability.
If you want to sell to businesses, go to business networking events(Don't do this)
- If you want to sell to engineers, spend time in makerspaces
- If you want to sell to rich people, spend time at polo matches
- If you want to sell to sailors, spend time at marinas
Earning mindshare can be a challenging endeavor. Either due to a lack of experience, creativity, money, or time, it may make sense to outsource the effort to a third party. In many cases, the experience and abilities of the contracted party will more than make up for its added cost.
There are several risks that a firm takes on when outsourcing its discoverability efforts:
- Selection of a poor marketer - many marketers (aka "growth hackers") are simply hucksters
- Misalignment of incentives - many contracts contain perverse incentives that may push contracted firms to act in ways that do not benefit their customers or are not in their customers' long-term best interests
- Increased barriers between customer and vendor - adding third parties between buyer and seller can complicate communications and weaken relationships
- Learned helplessness - the firm will never gain the skills and confidence needed to acquire customers on its own
Even when the outsourced party is 100% trustworthy, it is vital to be as specific as possible about the firm's ideal customers. The more specific the descriptions, the better the marketer will be able to zero in on the perfect customers. Even if a firm's managers know exactly whom they are targeting, a lack of explicit instructions will hamper the promoter's efforts.
- SEO consultants
- PR firms
Paid ads represent the ultimate shortcut. Businesses can trade money for discoverability. Rather than relying upon guile, creativity, effort, or even a strong value proposition, firms can simply buy their way to the top.
This strategy can be used with great success by a variety of businesses. That said, the following types of firms may find it to be the most appropriate:
- Firms that need to ramp up very quickly
- Firms that have more money than time (VC-backed firms and established players)
- Firms that are testing hypotheses that have not been fully explored
One of the dangers of paid advertising is that price can be bid up to levels far beyond their actual worth. Companies with lots of venture capital funding and firms headed by marketers who are poorly trained are often willing to spend thousands of dollars in order to earn tens of dollars in revenue.
In many cases the venues that offer the greatest returns will be non-obvious, as they are practically invisible and unknown to the majority of marketers within a field. For instance, a highly specialized blog would likely yield a higher ROI than a series of investments on Google AdWords.
It is important to note that not all paid advertising appears as such. The average person has long been trained to see billboards, banner ads, and commercials as forms of marketing. Fewer see corporate sponsorship in the same light. This makes them a very tempting avenue of discoverability.
Such methods can prove surprisingly inexpensive, incredibly persuasive, and potentially tax-deductible. At the very least, sponsorship will often lead to an increase in goodwill, even if the actual level of discoverability remains unaffected.
- Avvo - ads for lawyers
- Google AdWords
- Podcast and blog ads
- Scholarships and sponsorships
- Yellow pages
Building a portfolio is a long-term play in terms of discovery.
A portfolio is simply a collection of past work that can be used as a signaling device to consumers. Essays, photographs, software systems and other creations placed in a central location can provide potential buyers with a wealth of knowledge about you and your capabilities.
It will require significant time and effort to create an impressive portfolio. Ironically, it will also require significant time and effort to promote.
Whether these efforts involve keyword optimization, backlink generation, or even good old-fashioned networking will depend upon the nature of the portfolio and the type of customers one is attempting to attract.
That said, even when a portfolio is not useful for purposes of discovery, it will often prove essential as a credibility-enhancing tool in later stages of the sales process. For that reason, the value of a portfolio may be significant, even when it provides little value as a means of discovery.
It should be noted that the shelf life of any portfolio piece is limited. As techniques are updated, styles change, and customer preferences shift, firms have to ensure that their portfolios are updated to match the needs of the marketplace. In addition, a stale, unchanging portfolio may lead customers to question the abilities, dedication, and continuing successes of its owner.
While many firms may feel the need to create large numbers of items to impress visitors, it should be noted that discoverablity (especially with respect to SEO) will often function according to a power law. One excellent and in-depth piece may be worth far more than dozens of mediocre works.
Note that the less competitive the niche, the less impressive a portfolio needs to be in order to dominate the topic. For that reason, it's often best to be in fields that are under-served. In some cases that's a result of over-specialization and in others it's a result of selecting a blue ocean strategy. Building a portfolio in a highly competitive field (such as bodybuilding) will be exceedingly difficult and expensive. Specializing, by being the expert in Dutch vegan bodybuilding, may prove significantly easier.
- Blogs (for example, mine)
- Case studies
- Photographs and design images
One of the most desirable methods for companies to increase their discoverability is through recommendations of previous and current customers.
Interestingly, some firms are reluctant to rely upon this to any great extent because they fear losing control of their messaging.
The first step to acquiring recommendations is to surpass the expectations of one's customers. Often, a single happy buyer can lead to many additional customers in the future.
However, sometimes even customers who are thrilled with a purchase will not recommend it to others. This is not out of malice, so much as a lack of initiative or gentle push to do so.
When one provides an offering, it is important ask for leads, or to let customers know how much it would be appreciated for them to spread the word. Do be careful, however. Some firms exert pressure or offer payment in exchange for recommendations, and such activities may violate certain laws and regulations. Even in cases when such practices are fully legal, they may prove irritating to one's buyers.
While recommendations tend to come from customers, referrals tend to come from other vendors.
One of the biggest mistakes companies make when soliciting referrals is to believe that merit is the primary driver.
As observers become impressed with another firm's abilities and experience, they will become more likely to recommend your firm.
In many cases, referrals can even be garnered via means other than pure merit. Some organizations maintain lists of relevant service providers that are distributed to buyers. The trick is to identify these list owners and convince them that one's firm is "list worthy." The relevant organizations can be broadly categorized as follows:
- Generally respected organizations (Better Business Bureau)
- A monopoly in a field (the state bar association for lawyers)
- A vendor that provides a complimentary service (a software firm might have a list of software consultants)
- A vendor that provides services that are somewhat similar (an attorney working in elder law might refer potential customers to attorneys who specialize in disability law)
- A vendor that deals in high-ticket sales might be willing to be able to refer less wealthy clients to a firm targeting smaller customers.
Some referrals are a case of "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." Readers of my blog may remember my research into a real-world "referral network" in which many independent vendors recommended each other's services.
Sometimes this benefit can even be monetary in nature. Many companies pay for referrals made by other parties. This may be illegal for certain types of firms in certain jurisdictions, so please entertain caution when considering this technique.
When thinking of referrals, many people forget that referrals can take place within a single company as well. For instance, if an engineer impresses the manager of one department, his name might be spread to other departments via referrals.
As a final note, don't discount the power of nepotism. Many businesses succeed because a parent, relative, or friend knows the right people and is willing to put in a good word.
- Industry experts
- Other vendors
- An employee to another employee
- Curators who are willing to point others in your direction
Shock & awe
Shock & awe is a military doctrine first codified in the 1990s. Interestingly, the same strategies used in warfare could also be used to enhance a firm's discoverability in the world of business.
In short, shock & awe is all about doing something so remarkable, and so unusual, that it generates a significant level of buzz. Do you know what put Monowi, Nebraska on the map? People come from all over the world for the sole reason that its population is exactly 1.
Shock & awe is a lot like fire. While powerful, it can also be dangerous. There is always the risk that whatever garners attention will be irrelevant or counter to the business intent of the party that employs it. For instance, a journalist could make up an outlandish story in order to achieve fame, however, his career could be damaged, or even ruined, if his story were not true.
Even shock and awe that result from excellence can place a target on one's back. Those with greater authority, power, or notoriety may see any successes as a direct threat. Rumor has it that FBI superstar Melvin Purvis, for instance, found his career destroyed by FBI Director Edgar J. Hoover. Rumor has it that Mr. Hoover grew jealous over his subordinate's public success.
That is not to say that shock & awe should be avoided. Asian car manufacturers came to the USA and were noticed for their unheard of warranties that were years longer than those of domestic brands.
Similarly, the movie Star Wars shocked and awed by including special effects that were light years ahead of those found in other films.
There are several sources of shock and awe:
- Who you are / who you can convince people that you are (Arch Motorcycle Company received press due to a co-founder being Keanu Reeves, others have received fame for accomplishments while young, old, uneducated, etc.)
- How you did it
- What you attempted / accomplished (Charles Lindbergh became famous for his flight over the Atlantic)
- What kind of obstacle you overcame or were held back by
In business, they teach differentiation. Shock and awe is differentiation on steroids. Set yourself apart to the extreme and see your potential for discoverability increase.
- Blendtec's outrageous Will it blend? advertisements.
- Ozzy Osbourne grew his fame after biting the head off a live dove. The incident tainted his persona for decades.
- Shock jock Howard Stern became a household name for his off-color and irreverent content.
- Harley-Davidson went so far as to trademark the sound emanating from its motorocycles' loud pipes.
- The Heart Attack Grill - an establishment made famous for offering food "so bad for you it's shocking."
The internet is a big place - and it's full of potential customers.
Many firms have found that social media is a goldmine, just waiting to be exploited. Sometimes it's all about contacting others directly. In other cases, a well-placed comment here or there may yield benefits for months or even years. While responding to current discussions seems quite obvious, adding to older discussions that still show up in search engines can be valuable too.
Ironically, although it's a method for discoverability, it also requires a bit of discoverability to work. Many platforms, such as Facebook, are making it increasingly difficult for the average Joe to get seen by the masses.
There are a few tricks to success in online networking:
- Find the right network to exploit
- Don't spread you attention across too many platforms - A dominance in a single platform can be worth far more than a weak presence in many
The more mature the platform, the more difficult it will be to attract significant attention. For this reason, it is always a good idea to be on the lookout for the next up-and-coming social network.
- Hacker News - an online discussion board for software developers
- Various Slack communities - real-time discussions on a wide variety of topics
- HARO (journalists looking for sources)
Teaching is a powerful means of garnering attention.
Not only will it increase discoverability, but it will establish credibility, and push teachers to continue their self-education at the same time.
There are several benefits to focusing on teaching as a means of discovery.
- Material can be reused and refined over time
- There is usually no monetary cost to prepare and present a lesson
- Teaching will often result in a handful of web links (which will further strengthen discoverability via SEO)
It is important to note that not all training opportunities are desirable.
Many firms seeking corporate trainers, for instance, will require speakers to sign non-compete contracts. In such cases, the increase in discoverablity may yield little direct financial benefit.
Often, many of the best opportunities for discoverability are in paid venues. Even if the payment is not directed to the teacher, it acts as a filter to ensure that those in attendance are willing to pay for value (and potentially for follow-on offerings).
One mistake that teachers make is to turn their noses up at smaller venues. Even excellent teachers can benefit from small class sizes, treating them as laboratories to test content changes, learn common areas of confusion, and establish an intimate relationship with audience members (both during and after the presentation).
Another mistake is that they believe they need to teach something revolutionary. Don't get me wrong - revolutionary is great. It's just not required. In many cases, the people in charge of making buying decisions are not experts. As such, they don't always require (or even understand) advanced material. Often mediocre generalists who can communicate well will appear superior to brilliant specialists to the general populace.
- Conferences (technology conferences looking for speakers)
- Corporate training
- General Assembly
- Professional organizations (for example, Project Management Institute chapters)
- Podcasts and webinars
Working for free
Many enterprises encourage service providers to work for free, in exchange for the possibility of exposure and discoverability.
Here's how to maximize your benefit from the transaction:
- Don't do it
Requests for free work often result in little more than a demanding client in exchange for an insignificant increase in discoverability. The resources required for such transaction would be better spent on more useful endeavors.
That said, providing a small bit of work for free can be effective, in order to demonstrate utility and enhance credibility. For instance, many lawyers will provide short consultations to prospective clients prior to closing a sale.
Such spec work must be limited in scope, and address only a small portion of the needs of the buyer. Consulting firms have historically limited their free work to general problem identification, rather than analysis and solution design.
Efforts to automate free work (either through tool creation, checklists or defined processes) can often reduce internal costs to near-zero, but use of other methods (such as portfolios) may invalidate their need altogether.
Being at the right place at the right time
This method is the most powerful and also the most difficult to implement.
Many success stories begin with an individual being plucked out of a crowd.
The only advice for increasing the effectiveness of this method is to focus on the other methods listed in this guide, and to be someone who can be noticed.
This method doesn't seem fair - and in many ways it isn't. Nevertheless, a person who has worked to ensure that he is discoverable is still a bit more likely to be discovered than one who has not.
- Ronald Speirs - World War II soldier promoted to company commander because he was the first officer in view of the battalion's executive officer.
- Sarah Michelle Gellar - Discovered at a restaurant when she was four years old.
- Pamela Anderson - Spotted while wearing a t-shirt with the Labatt logo at a football game and hired as a company spokesman.
Remember, this page is a work in progress...
- Spot a problem?
- Noticed a section that needs more detail?
- Know of a method that wasn't mentioned?
Tell me! I'll update the document accordingly!
Found this page useful? Please share it! I could use a bit of discoverability myself.
Oh, I'm also available for consultations.