- Business Insider turned to 10 successful marketing professionals for their best advice for breaking into marketing consulting.
- They suggested testing the waters before jumping in, such as freelancing on the side, and finding clients by poaching full-time opportunities and leaning on your network.
- And they said that the best way to make a substantial amount of money is to define a specific niche you’re an expert in.
- Don’t be afraid to stick to your set rates or ask for help, either.
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Running your own business, being your own boss, setting your own rates, and determining how much you want to make each year — sounds thrilling. And perhaps a tad intimidating?
That’s just what some marketing consultants do. While marketing consulting jobs are available “in house” (that is, in a given company’s marketing department), some are on the “agency side” (that, is for agencies that specialize in marketing), and yet many other marketing consultants are their own employers, running their own businesses as teams of one or launching their own agencies.
Business Insider turned to 10 successful marketing professionals with up to 20 years of experience who work with clients of all sizes and offer services across the spectrum for their best advice for breaking into the field of marketing consulting.
Salary-tracking websites like PayScale and Glassdoor place the annual income of marketing consultants in the mid-five-figure range — both reporting about $60,000 annually or about $37 an hour on average — but some specialties and solo consultants report much higher hourly rates.
SEO specialists — that is, those who specialize in optimizing websites to come up high in search engine results — often charge between $100 to $150 an hour for their services. And a 2019 survey conducted by freelance blogger Jennifer Goforth Gregory of 90 freelance marketing writers found that most (85%) earn $50 an hour and many (48%) earn $100 or more per hour.
Many of the people Business Insider contacted earned six-figure incomes — here are their top tips for success.
Test the waters before going head first
Start off small to get a taste of client services and get results you can share with future clients, suggested Carissa Lintao, founder of Apptuitive, who fell into freelance marketing consulting after graduating from high school and throughout college when she couldn’t land a “real job,” as she put it.
By setting up profiles on freelance sites like Upwork and Fiverr — with her first two projects paying $7.50 and $50 — seeking out advice from independent marketing consultants and agency professionals, and experimenting with her pricing and service offerings, Lintao eventually built her work into a five-figure side hustle while she was a student. Now that she’s graduated, she consults full time, running her own agency focused on app-store optimization, which is a method of formatting app page descriptions so they rank well in app stores (similar to search engine optimization for creating web pages that rank well in search engines).
Poach full-time job opportunities and convert them into freelance clients
“As a consultant, you are essentially a one-(wo)man business and you can’t just sit around waiting for business to come to you,” said Aarti Gala, who’s now the vice president of marketing services for marketing agency NetStrategies and previously worked as a freelance marketing consultant for eight years, earning about $80,0000 annually.
One tactic that worked for Gala? Looking at companies that were posting jobs for marketing positions and instead approaching them as a consultant. Her advice for cold outreach includes:
- Look at the job description to understand what the business’s main challenges are and how you can help. For example, if there’s a focus on paid campaigns, maybe they’re looking to impact revenue. If there’s more of an emphasis on social media, maybe they have an awareness problem. Dissect their needs to best craft your outreach.
- Highlight the benefits of having a consultant versus a full-time employee. Full-time employees are expensive and their skills may be limited, while consultants, on the other hand, can partner up with others in their network (such as photographers and graphic designers) to the benefit of clients.
- Ask for a meeting. Close your note by asking to meet in person or via phone to chat more about opportunities.
Contact your network to start
After more than a decade working at national nonprofits, agencies, and a major Chicago-based corporation and obtaining her MBA in marketing management, Megy Karydes, founder and owner of Karydes Consulting, decided to start her own marketing consultancy business. She attributes her network to her business success.
“As soon as I decided I was going to start my business, I sent out an email to all of my contacts and within 30 minutes I had my first client,” said Karydes. “It’s often touted but somehow regularly forgotten that this is a business of people and relationships … You absolutely need to know what you’re doing, but those doors will open easier if you’re willing to put in the time and energy to form genuine relationships.”
For more advice, check out this email template from freelance consultant Adrian Granzella Larssen that brought in 100% of her clients when she first started her business.
Pick a niche
Marketers can specialize by industry, such as business to consumer or business to business, and by type of services, offering everything from social media strategy and content production to event planning and brand strategy.
Ann Gynn, who founded her own consulting agency G Force Communication where she earns a six-figure salary working with nonprofits, foundations, and small businesses with small or no marketing communications staff, suggested picking one to three industries to specialize in.
“Most marketers can’t truly be exceptional if they don’t narrow their focus,” added Coleen Hanson Smith, who launched her own marketing consulting business, Oak City Communications, this year after 20 years of experience working for agencies and on the in-house marketing team for WakeMed Health & Hospitals, which helped her bring in a six-figure income while having flexible hours. “It can be very difficult to market a gas station, a B2B tech company, and a real estate firm at the same time because you’re not truly getting in the head of the customer for long enough to understand where they’re coming from. By finding a niche that involves working with only those clients you are passionate about, your work will always be better and that’s where real success comes in.”
Hanson Smith has carved out her niches from personal and professional experiences working in the areas of healthcare technology, general health and wellness, and parenting (a fit as she has three young kids ages three, five, and seven).
At the end of the day, “If you don’t have a unique differentiator, you’ll get lost in the mix,” said Gala.
Evaluate your own business’ marketing like you would a client’s
Heard the saying doctors make the worst patients? Matt Seltzer, a marketer who founded his own market research and strategy consulting firm, S2Search, in the middle of last year after gaining 15 years of experience working on both the client and agency side, believes marketers make the worst clients.
“We counsel our clients on innovative strategies that incorporate digital, PR traditional advertising, direct marketing, etc., but then when it comes to our own businesses, we often find ourselves struggling to think of the next step,” he explained.
If you’re an aspiring marketing consultant launching a business, you need to think about how you’d counsel a client launching their own business, said Seltzer, who’s on track to earn six figures in his first year of business. “You really need to focus in on your own marketing with the same level of innovation and scrutiny you would give to any of your marketing clients in the future,” he explained.
Seltzer has focused on reaching his audience — decision makers at ad agencies and in-house marketing teams — wherever they are. “I’ve considered where those individuals are every day, and how I can start to be a part of their thought process,” he shared. To do that, he’s leveraged PR, social media, digital advertising, search, email, and networking. On the PR side, for instance, he’s tapped into a network of bloggers, marketing writers, and podcast hosts whom he’s worked with over the years who have provided a platform for him to speak and write guest posts, allowing his name and company to be part of marketing conversations his target audience may engage with.
Learn to sell yourself on and offline
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to anyone you know for an introduction,” said Jackie Freiberg, who markets her personal food Instagram account @bon_nappetit as a microinfluencer (and brings in up to $2,000 in monthly income from brand partnerships and sponsored posts on her account), and serves as an account manager and social media specialist for a boutique marketing agency Foxglove Communications — their clients include celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez, Philadelphia Magazine, and more.
Freiberg advised being bold (and vocal) about your business goals. She’s aimed high and sold her services often by offering up business cards to businesses in the hospitality industry she comes in contact with and sending direct messages to major food brands on social media. One successful Twitter message to a national food brand resulted in her earning $1,000 in paid social media influencer work. Handing out business cards has helped her make connections to companies that have ended up becoming recurring clients and earn several one-time photoshoot and consultation projects.
Be persistent in closing the deal — and collect case studies
Clients want to know not only that you’re able to do something, but how you’ve done it and what results your work has generated. Being able to share specific stats — for instance, saying you helped increase a blog’s traffic by 25% — will help tell your story, said Gynn.
“The one skill I wish I had honed earlier was sales, as with any new business, the ability to close clients is a critical one,” said Ryder Meehan, who worked for in-house marketing teams and agencies for 12 years before switching to independent digital marketing consulting and eventually becoming the cofounder and CEO of his own digital marketing company, Upgrow. Meehan, whose company currently manages $6.5 million in ad spend annually and has 34 clients, tries to collect as many client testimonials as possible, create case studies, and ask for referrals to benefit from the wins he’s already had to use when selling to new clients.
After successfully collaborating with telehealth brand Nurx, Meehan’s team put together a case study that has generated interest from other brands in the telehealth industry. The team tailors case studies to industries and by channel (such as SEO or social media) to demonstrate an understanding of the field and the most relevant outreach channels.
Even if you don’t close a deal the first time around, follow up, said Gynn, who transitioned from a career in journalism to marketing for a law firm before starting G Force Communication. One time, she followed up on the launch date for a project she didn’t land, and “it turned out the consultant they hired wasn’t working out and they asked if I was still available. I was, and the launch turned out great.”
Here’s a sample similar to the email she sent:
If you’re close to the timeline we discussed a few months ago, I know you’re coming up on the grand opening. I just wanted to congratulate you on all the work you’ve done to get here and wish you the best on your launch.
I look forward to visiting [location].
Set your rates and stick to them
You need to know how much you’re going to spend to be able to best set your rates without going into debt. Think about health insurance, business expenses, and the going rates for your services or geographic location, said Gynn.
Then, once you have enough to cover your expenses, “bid every job like you don’t need the money and soon, you won’t need the money,” said Hanson Smith. After eight months of running her business, Hanson Smith was able to let go of one client — while it accounted for about 8% to 10% of her income, she realized she could drop them because she was no longer excited about the topic and generating enough income from other sources. Now she only works on projects she’s passionate about.
Don’t offer discounted work early on, added Keith Hernandez, founder and partner of Launch Angle, a marketing consulting agency, where he’s worked with major brands including Chobani, TripAdvisor, CAA Sports, WarnerMedia, and The Infatuation to help drive marketing growth. Once you’ve decided your rates, stay firm — unless you can negotiate soft value such as a public testimonial or a referral, he added.
Hernandez learned this lesson after trying to land a new client, who after initially agreeing to the agency’s proposed rates asked for a 50% discount. Even though Hernandez’s agency calculated they would lose money on the project, they accepted anyway.
That turned out to be a mistake. “Even though the clients were looking for a discount on the pricing, they were not expecting a discount on the work,” said Hernandez. “Timeframes didn’t change, deliverables didn’t change.” The agency team found themselves stretched thin and resenting the client for asking for such a discount.
Trust your gut
“The most painful clients were the ones I had a bad feeling [about] from the start,” said Vivian Chen, who made the switch from corporate marketer to independent marketing consultant a few years ago and was earning about $300,000 annually before founding and becoming the CEO of her own company, Rise, a flexible work platform for women. “The first interaction with a client can be a telltale sign,” she added. Watch out for overly demanding, distrustful, or stingy behavior. “It will likely continue or even get worse,” Chen explained.
She learned this the hard way after accepting work from a client who was “super condescending from the start.” Throughout their collaboration, the client belittled Chen’s knowledge, in one instance, telling her he knew what women wanted rather than listening to the research she’d prepared. After that project wrapped up and he offered her additional work, she politely declined. “Turning down that one toxic client freed up my mental space to pursue projects and brands that fueled me with energy,” said Chen. “More importantly, it built up the confidence and power to say no. I realized that I had control over my destiny.”
Manage client expectations with detailed documentation
Getting everybody on the same page — understanding what work is expected and by when, and defining the client’s and the consultant’s role — is complex, said Gynn.
To manage expectations, Gynn includes a detailed scope of work, outlining deadlines and what the client needs to do in her contracts, and provides ongoing status updates.
Here’s a short example from Gynn:
Scope of Work: PR and Communication Outreach Strategy
[This includes detailed deliverables, such as:]
- Interview X members of team to better understand agency, specialties, service approach, business goals, target audiences, etc. To be accomplished in up to two visits to office, email, and phone.
- Interview X clients (prefer one in each target industry). To be conducted by phone and/or email.
- Research and analyze X target industries with an emphasis on targeted area
- Create draft PR and communication outreach strategy
- Review with client team and revise strategy accordingly
Timeframe: [amount of weeks]
Know when to get help and say “no”
Marketing is collaborative and doesn’t need to be done solo.
“With the number of marketing channels out there nowadays, it’s virtually impossible to be an expert in all areas of the field,” said Hanson Smith, whose business has grown to include a virtual assistant, who helps with research, and paid intern, who she’s mentoring and having help with the workload for one client. She realized it was time to get help when she was working more hours than she wanted to (a reason she’d left the corporate world to begin with) — both extra sets of hands have helped significantly reduce Hanson Smith’s stress load.
Another skill Hanson Smith has learned in her first year of going solo is knowing when to say “yes” and “no” to opportunities.
“For a while I told myself I was too busy for networking (plus, I just don’t love it!) but doing so has definitely helped me become more successful more quickly than I ever anticipated,” she said. Thanks to a former colleague extending a meeting invite and a separate coffee meeting with another contact, she’s landed one new client and a full-time job offer she considered but eventually turned down to be able to continue running her own business.
In another instance, she learned to say “no” to a potential opportunity that offered her work she wasn’t as interested in from a company that wasn’t willing to pay the rates she requested. Turning down that opportunity freed her up to work on another project that was willing to pay a higher rate.