Most businesses, even if they are purely online endeavours, will still have a base of customers in their local area. Crunch, for example, is an online service, yet we still have a very high concentration of clients in the Brighton area, which is where we are based.
Very few start-ups have the capital to launch a national marketing campaign as soon as they open for business, and so will concentrate their marketing efforts in local areas they know well. For this reason even large businesses may still see a glut of customers in their local area long after they expand nationally.
For freelancers and contractors this concentration of customers can be compounded by local events they attend, or word-of-mouth from satisfied clients. Working your local area can be absolutely key to success, and your local client-base can provide a solid foundation on which to expand, should you choose to.
But how do you get started? Having done it ourselves, we thought we’d run through the various ways you can make the most of your local area.
Chambers of Commerce
Local Chambers of Commerce can be a great first stop. These organisations are set up and run by the local business community with a view to furthering the interests of all local businesses. Some Chambers run into many thousands of members, and larger cities often have individual organisations for different boroughs.
Chambers of Commerce will often hold networking events for local businesses, and can offer advice and resources for businesses of all sizes. To find your local group, check out this website.
All large cities and most big towns will have some kind of job-specific business groups – especially for technical disciplines where the support of your peers can really help grow your expertise. For example, specific programming languages will often have monthly or weekly meet-ups and things like writer’s clubs are never far away.
Google your location, your area of expertise and “group” or “meetup”, and you’ll likely find something. In Brighton we have a local Java usergroup (run by one of our team, no less!), a regular meetup for WordPress users, a Big Data group – the list goes on.
Most sectors will have some kind of representative body. Designers have the Chartered Society of Designers, consultants have the Institute of Consulting, photographers have the British Institute of Professional Photography – you get the picture. Even if your specific area of expertise doesn’t have a representative body, there are things like the Institute of Directors or the PCG that can offer more general support depending on the make-up of your business.
These bodies offer guidance, support, contacts, and will often come with additional perks such as members-only discounts on insurance and other business essentials. They will help connect you with peers in your local area and grow your professional network.
You may find many local networking events are organised by the groups mentioned above – but there will be other independent events for local businesses that are just as relevant and useful.
Networking events by-and-large are centred around meals. You will find business breakfasts for the early-birds, business lunches for those who don’t mind taking an extended lunch break, and business dinners or drinks for those who like to do their networking accompanied by a glass of wine.
The breakfast and lunch events will usually have more of a business focus, and often come with presentations, discussions and if you’re lucky, a competition. The evening events are often more of an opportunity to mingle and tend to be less structured (we’re generalising here somewhat – every event is different).
Again, a good place to start is to Google your locations and “networking”.
Co-working is a relatively new phenomenon which has taken off in concert with the rise of freelancers and contractors. Co-working events are where groups of people who work from home come together – usually in coffee shops or community spaces – to get some work done and have a bit of company – working from home can be a lonely existence sometimes.
It’s important to remember that there is a subtle distinction between networking events and co-working. At a networking event nobody will mind if you pitch your business to them – they’re probably even expecting it. However co-working events are for people to get work done. If you start pitching to people they may get annoyed, as they came to the event to work – not to be sold to.
Co-working can be great for making contacts and exchanging business cards, but don’t turn up expecting to emerge with a fistful of leads.
Also a fairly recent phenomenon, co-working spaces are offices where desks or rooms can be rented on an hourly, daily, weekly or monthly basis. Although not particularly prevalent in smaller towns, you’ll most likely find a few co-working spaces in most cities.
Proponents of co-working spaces say they often find themselves more productive in an office environment than at home (with no pesky dog or TV to distract them). You may not be working with the people you share your office with, but they can prove welcome company nonetheless.
Co-working spaces will usually include office amenities (printers, scanners, kitchen facilities) in their price, as well as high-speed broadband. Some will also include 24-hour access, meeting rooms, a dedicated mailing address and even a telephone answering service in their monthly fee.
Co-working spaces run the gamut of price ranges. Some small businesses rent out spare desks in their office to supplement their income, whereas in central London you’ll find huge spaces that can accommodate many hundreds of freelancers, contractors and small businesses. As a general rule, the more access and amenities you require, the more you will end up paying.
Be on the lookout for annual events in your locale. It could be some kind of business fair, or perhaps a festival celebrating your industry. Attend events that are relevant to your work, and, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, organise one yourself.
Look for conferences that are relevant to your interests. If you’re lucky there will be a reasonable sized conference local to you. Bear in mind conferences can be expensive – especially if you have to travel to them and pay for accommodation – however if you’re looking for some inspiration and to do some hardcore networking they can be invaluable.
It may be more expensive and time-consuming than online advertising, but physical advertising in your local area can be an effective and cheap way of drumming up some initial business.
Print fliers and put them where your target audience will be. If you are marketing your services to other freelancers, ask to put some fliers in your local co-working spaces, for example. If you can’t pin down where your potential clients are likely to be, go generic and put fliers in local coffee shops or Internet cafes.
Think carefully about where you put your expensive marketing materials. Although a heap of fliers on an outdoor pub table may seem like a fine idea when there are fifty people milling around, they may not be so well positioned when people go home for the night and it starts raining.
Try to put your materials in high-traffic areas, especially if people will be hanging around with spare time on their hands. Train stations, waiting rooms and shop counters are all good contenders.
Work those contacts
If you attend plenty of networking events you’ll rack up a stack of business cards in no time at all. The key to getting more local business is to work these contacts. You can encourage businesses with complementary services to suggest you to their clients with a referral scheme, wherein you give them a lump sum or a percentage of the value of the work when a new client comes your way through their recommendation.
The local press can be your best friends when starting up or growing a business. Make sure you get to know the journalists who run the business section of you local papers. When your business launches get a press release out to them – everybody likes a positive business story. In fact any time you do something even vaguely noteworthy like hold or sponsor an event, or raise money for charity, send a note their way – you’ll be surprised how often a story will come out of it.
Offline vs Online
Although we have been concentrating on ways to build your business and your network of contacts offline, an online presence is still a vital tool. Using online services with location elements such as Google Maps, Yelp and certain social networks can help make your business more accessible.
These days if you don’t exist on Google, you don’t exist full stop. Luckily, getting your business listed on Google Maps is as easy as going to Google Places for Business and adding a listing. This means people can find your business if they search for it, add reviews, and find it using the “Nearby” function if they are in your local area.
There are many other listing and review sites you can use to make your business more visible, such as Yelp, Qype, Yell.com, or Bing.
Although it may seem like a purely online activity, social networks – especially Twitter – are becoming increasingly used by local business groups. Search for your town as a hashtag on Twitter and you’re bound to find some activity. Attach this hashtag to your tweets to let people know where you are.
Follow other local businesses on Twitter and interact with them when you can. Think of it as another form of networking.
Twitter users are also coming full-circle and organising real-life events (called Tweet-ups), many of which have a business slant.
Optimise your website
Google is increasingly prioritising local search results – they want to give searchers results relevant to where they are, not just what they’ve searched for. This means, as a local business, you need to be clear about where you’re based. Include things like your address and local phone number – these help Google learn where you’re based and show you to the right people. Check out our Brighton page, for example.
We’ve just barely scratched the surface of local marketing here, and hopefully you’re feeling inspired to get out there and promote your business. Remember – the best way to learn is just to dive in!
Have any other handy tips to share? Drop them in the comments below.
Photos by Matt Batchelor, .dh, and The Tech Hub