When Annie Franceschi started her brand consulting and business coaching company a decade ago, she looked at how to grow her business as quickly as possible. She studied others in her field and in doing so found volumes of advice for making herself an internet sensation and skyrocketing her business, Greatest Story Creative, into the stratosphere overnight.
But were those realistic objectives? There are plenty of entrepreneurial superstars who live their lives in the public eye and manage multimillion-dollar media empires, but that isn’t an attainable goal for the average small-business owner. “I felt the pressure that so many of us do, where we’re taught these get-rich-quick schemes to get a million followers and make a million dollars,” says Franceschi. “We’re sold this bill of goods about how we have to market ourselves 24/7, self-promote all the time, and put our lives on the internet. I tried that, I did not see results, and I felt really burned out. I wondered if there was even a place for me.”
Franceschi switched tactics to emphasize the business-building methods that made sense to her, primarily by doubling down on relationship building and enhancing her client experiences. This may not sound so revolutionary, but it’s the reverse of what many modern-day marketing gurus teach, which is heavy on self-promotion, attracting cold leads, building lead funnels, and automating sales processes.
“I don’t focus on cold leads. I focus on the warm connections I already have. My theory is that when you optimize the people who already know who you are and think you’re great, you’re going to get more clients faster.”Annie Franceschi
“I go backward from what other people teach, which is this idea of getting more and more people who’ve never heard about you to suddenly love you and want to work with you,” says Franceschi. “I don’t focus on cold leads. I focus on the warm connections I already have. My theory is that when you optimize the people who already know who you are and think you’re great, you’re going to get more clients faster.”
Franceschi details the approach in her book, “Establish Yourself.” Her online audience of about 1,500 contacts fuels a six-figure business that maintains steady and sustainable growth. For photographers wishing to follow a similar path to sustainable growth without marketing themselves 24/7, Franceschi recommends a three-part plan (with a bonus step at the end).
Embracing your story means owning your area of expertise and putting it front and center in your branding. Attract people who are seeking the thing that you do best. Don’t think of this as pigeonholing yourself into a narrow niche; instead, consider it curating your best services to provide the most value to clients.
Franceschi uses a food analogy to illustrate this concept: “Be the chef, not the salad bar.” When you list all the things you could possibly do, you’re like a salad bar. You’re telling clients to show up and pick from a wide assortment of things that may or may not be your best offerings, and you’re not giving them any guidance. Instead, be a gourmet chef who creates the ideal salad with the most delicious mix of ingredients. Build your offerings around your specialties using the options that best align with your special skills. This puts you in control. You’re curating your services for the best possible client experience and the best representation of your work.
Before you jump into marketing and promotion, it’s important to have a well-run business. Set it up for success. Build up profitable services, establish good boundaries, determine your criteria for taking on clients who are a good fit, and price for profitability. If you do those things first, then you’re more likely to be successful. If you don’t have those elements in place, all the marketing in the world won’t help your business. At this stage, you’re not seeking more leads; you’re building a foundation for success.
Franceschi uses another food metaphor to illustrate this point. Let’s say you’re baking cupcakes. If the underlying cake tastes terrible, no amount of frosting and sprinkles will save the flavor. But too often, that’s what people do in their businesses. They fixate on marketing tactics too early, exerting their energy on podcasts or TikTok videos or social media ads. That’s just frosting and sprinkles. You need to bake an amazing cake first, and then all those other things can augment the foundation you built.
With the right business fundamentals in place, you can start marketing, and when leads come through, they’re more likely to become clients who have a great experience. They’re going to sing your praises, refer you to their friends, and your business will grow in a sustainable way.
Many entrepreneurs need to broaden their definition of marketing. Marketing is any action that brings opportunities to your business. Marketing doesn’t have to be a lead-generating funnel or a social media blitz or a podcast. It can be as simple as treating your clients well and creating the best possible experience for them. It could be having a friendly and consultative sales process that educates clients. It could be making it easy to work with you and building great referral partnerships. That’s how you encourage enthusiastic referrals.
Once all those pieces are in place, you’re ready for the elements that people typically consider general marketing. It’s important to take care of clients and maintain warm connections, says Franceschi, because your treatment of people will have a ripple effect.
“I can’t tell you how many experiences I’ve had working with creatives who overdeliver to their prospective clients and under-deliver to their current clients,” she says. Instead, the priority should be the connections you already have because they will have the most profound impact on your business. Once you’ve taken care of your biggest fans, then it’s time to go out and find new leads. The bonus is that you’ll have plenty of real-world testimonials to back up the claims you make in your marketing.
The secret ingredient in this three-part plan is commitment. The world of marketing is full of people teaching strategies to land quick wins. Entrepreneurs have been fed a fantasy that they’re just one viral social media post away from riches. They try a few social posts or host a webinar or run a few ads and they get frustrated when there isn’t a big reaction. And then they stop.
Overnight success is exceedingly rare. Commitment and consistency are the hallmarks of success in any marketing program. “Often, you have to stick with things for six months to a year to know if a particular message or offer is going to work,” says Franceschi. “Before that, you don’t have enough data.”
For good measure, Franceschi shares another food metaphor. This time, it’s popping popcorn. If you’ve ever popped popcorn on the stove, you know it’s more tedious than throwing a bag of instant popcorn in the microwave. And it’s also tastier if you do it right. You have to get the oil, pan, and popcorn ready then put the popcorn over the heat. Nothing happens for a while. If you’re particularly hungry, it may seem like nothing is ever going to happen. But suddenly, one pop. And another. And another. And then the corn is popping up everywhere and the kernels are overflowing the pan.
“I think that’s the best metaphor I’ve found for what it means to hang in there in business,” says Franceschi. “You can do everything right and be patient, and it seems for a while like nothing is happening. And then, like a popcorn kernel popping, something good happens. And then it happens again. And again. But if you don’t stick with it, you’re never going to see the bowl overflowing. At the end of the day, it’s all about making smart choices around how you embrace your story, how you shape your business, and how you translate your value. And once you’ve made those choices, commit to them.”
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large.