Anthony Stark hit the jackpot when he became one of the first to join a new users group a few years ago. Stark, a 20-year-old IT consultant and TechRepublic community member based outside St. Louis, says he knew he needed to start marketing and networking efforts to grow his consulting business. So he became a member of the Four Rivers Computer Users Group, which attracted consultants and programmers from the area.

One consultant became Stark’s mentor and friend. Within a year, the mentor had taken a job at Microsoft, leaving Stark 40 client contacts and 10 ongoing projects.

“That has helped me to get a good start,” Stark said. “A couple have actually paid the bills, and those are really my core clients.”

While Stark’s networking results are not typical, his experience underscores how marketing and networking efforts can pay off, even in a strained economy amid slashed IT budgets.

For many, though, such work can be a burden. As Portland, OR, consultant Michael McGee put it: “To me ‘networking’ means LAN, ‘industry groups’ refer to chips and fabs, and ‘classes’ are an attribute of Object Oriented Programming.”

Even as marketing-challenged as some may be, several marketing experts and consultants suggested the following five steps to create a marketing plan of action.

Describe your market position
One of the most important steps in any marketing effort is determining a clear, concise message that describes your service, according to Karen Chakmakian, a veteran IT marketing consultant focused on guiding startup firms in Silicon Valley.

This “message” is really what Chakmakian calls a positioning statement and helps to differentiate you and your service from competitors. Such a statement answers the following questions:

  • Who is the target customer? Who is the service for?
  • What kind of customer would need this service?
  • What is the product or service name? What is the service category?
  • What is the statement of key benefit? What is the compelling reason for a client to buy?
  • What is the primary competitive alternative? What is the service unlike?
  • Make a statement of primary differentiation. What is truly unique or different about what you do?

Chakmakianstresses that answersto the questions should be straightforward and simple. And the statements should be used in written and verbal communications.

One example of part of a positioning statement focused on the differentiation aspect is the company motto Stark created for his company: “Internet and Microsoft Windows Application Development and Consulting.”

The company’s primary differentiator—what it can offer customers that competitors cannot—is its direct link to Microsoft via Stark’s mentor, who provides Stark with research and direct access to top-notch programmers when needed.

“If I ask him for a professional ASP.NET person, he is able to weed through all the bureaucracy and find me a person with a name and telephone number,” said Stark. “It’s proved to be a great asset to my company. It’s been the number one thing that has set us apart.”

Establish business goals
Once you’ve created a positioning statement, the next step is to devise a marketing plan for the next three, six, or 12 months, Chakmakian said. The plan should support your top three business goals, the most common of which involve:

  • The amount of revenue you wish to generate in a time period.
  • The number of clients you would like to add.
  • The type of clients you wish to work with.
  • How much you would like to improve margins per client.

The goals should be measurable, Chakmakian said. For example, one goal for the coming year for Stark and his firm is to add 10 clients and to work on multiple projects for each of those clients.

Outline your marketing strategy
Now the challenging part: outlining how you will achieve this measurable level of success. Some of the most common marketing strategies for IT consultants include:

  • Advertising with direct mail or other types of ads
  • Attending trade shows
  • Joining industry or networking organizations
  • Joining lead-generation or business-related groups
  • Community-related involvement: mentoring, teaching, sponsoring teams, etc.
  • Starting your own industry groups
  • Regular follow-up with individuals met at networking events

To add 10 clients to his roster, Stark decided to purchase a 1,000-person mailing list of businesses within a 50-mile radius of his location that could potentially use his Web and programming services. He reasoned that a 1 percent return would more than justify the cost of the mailing list, because each client could add between $5,000 and $150,000 to his bottom line.

To further entice potential clients, Stark decided he would offer a free one-hour, in-person consultation with companies or businesses interested in Web development.

“Most prospective clients say, ‘I’ve never really thought about it and right now is not a good time.’ But I am willing to talk with them, for free, for an hour, so all they have to pay is their time,” explained Stark of his strategy. “So I am hoping with that added value, we can get a couple more clients.”

Stay visible and join
Part of Stark’s marketing plan is to keep the company name in the public eye. Because he is motivated by the desire to show high school students that the science and math they are learning today can benefit them tomorrow, Stark wants to establish a mentoring program at the local high school.

“In a way, it is marketing to me because it gets our name out and shows that we are part of a community. We’re here to stay, we’re not just here for the money,” said Stark.

The goal of rebuilding his network after an absence from consulting motivated Toronto-based software and project management consultant Glen Ford to join a number of networking organizations in the last several years, including the Project Management Institute and Business Network International (BNI). But Ford credits his actual participation in the groups as an executive member as what has helped build his contact database.

“The thing with networking is that you have to be visible; it’s about participating,” Ford said. “A lot of members are with PMI. For example, in our group, it has 400 members, but only about 40 attend meetings. A lot of people will join it to access the information, but not participate.”

Ford’s efforts recently paid off. One contact at BNI was able to connect Ford to a consulting company that needed to outsource project management duties. But Ford’s larger network was so on top of things that a half-dozen other people contacted Ford about the project when it was listed.

Another marketing effort Ford uses is to send out regular mass e-mails when he publishes an article or has been a part of a noteworthy event. The announcement serves to remind his contacts of his name and expertise.

Prepare your marketing materials
To help support your marketing goals, having sales materials prepared when you’re faced with a potential lead can help push your name to the top of the pile. Business cards, portfolios, Web sites, client testimonials, and case studies show your experience.

Admittedly, for some, creating marketing materials is a hurdle. Chicago-based Web and marketing consultant Lisa Holden says that after six months as an independent consultant, she is still at work to get her own Web site live. “If you’re a Web designer, you should have a Web site to show or some samples of your work. Right now, I am a classic example of someone who does for other people but not for themselves.”

While Ford relies on his Web site, business cards, and resume as sales tools, he also has a brochure available and is considering putting together a more detailed portfolio of client case studies.

Besides business cards, Stark relies on his Web site, which lists his experience and a detailed page of client projects.

Aside from the standard sales tools, sometimes creating small, unexpected materials can hold a prospective client’s attention. As a Web development and design consultant out of New York, Sharon Troth uses postcards often in lieu of business cards. The postcards—which were fairly cheap to have printed—include a 25-word description of her company and services, along with several designs and her contact information.

“It’s something I can put on a table at a networking event,” said Troth. “And if I give it to someone, it’s less likely to get lost in the shuffle.”