The Real Danger (and Opportunity) of Pro Bono Consulting


Much has been said about the dangers of consulting pro bono: it may diminish the perceived value of your brand or service, it can lower your short-term and long-term revenue growth by creating a reputation for free service.

All of these warnings are valid.  But I think that they can be easily navigated without completely doing away with pro bono work altogether.  From my (albeit limited) experience, I believe there is a way to leverage the offer of free service to help build a portfolio, build clientele, and open up potential relationships with future clients.

The actual danger of pro bono work is serving clients that provide no indication of grasping the real value of the service rendered.

Even more concerning are the slightly more severe case in which a client responds to the “free” offer as if it was really just an implicit admission that “any college student could do this in like 30 minutes.”  Graphic designers and web developers are painfully familiar with this attitude.

So how do you avoid this situation?  First, you need to come up with ways to interview your clients without them realizing it.  As you walk them through your past work or concepts for the project at hand, listen carefully to the responses you receive.

For myself, I have learned to nix the discovery process after a few soft attempts to persuade a client of my value.  At that point, I just politely suggest alternatives and end it there. It is not because I don’t believe in my work and it is not because I don’t want to put up a fight.  It is because I will ultimately fail any client and fail my reputation if I decide to move forward with a client who thinks my work ought to be provided for free.

“Free” makes sense if, and only if, a potential client meets these requirements:

  • Client sees the need for your service or at least willing to learn more about the potential benefits you offer of and threats (of doing without you)
  • Client is willing to provide constructive feedback at the outset and responds positively to an informal interview questionnaire.
  • Client shows some interest in learning how to contextualize your service within the broader context of their business and maximize the potential benefits.
  • Client is unable to move forward with a project financially and the project is light-weight enough to tackle for free (or can be scaled down appropriately)

That’s it.  It sounds too simple.  But from my experience, it is really the attitude and willingness to partner that counts.  It isn’t readiness to spend money or eagerness to get a project underway.

It is the simple things on which communication is built that have defined my best pro bono projects and developed into the most valuable and enjoyable business relationships.

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The Psychology of White Space


You can tell a lot about a person by how they fill the empty space in their home… or anywhere.  Even in conversation.

People talk too much when they’re nervous, if they talk at all. Often, the nature of this talk is haphazard, a little too loud and somewhat self-centered.

I think it often ends up that way with insecure brands as well.

But insecurity isn’t always the cause.  Some people talk excessively because they think it will help them control their surroundings and manipulate people around them. Some have a gift, and can usurp unsuspecting victims, wowed by charisma.  But many are completely put off by such shameless displays of narcissism. 

Why Space Matters

It is a tragedy that we respond to empty space on a page, in a conversation or in our daily routine with angst. Something in us tells us to hastily fill every trace of quiet with noise, because that space challenges us to become aware of our environments, our spaces, both internal and external. 

Empty space also challenges us to give up control and to assume a receptive attitude. Space frees us to become focused and mentally present, a precondition to any relationship. 

Your Brand has a Persona

If you want any semblance of a relationship between your brand and your customer, however abstract that relationship may be, you had better dignify your audience with space – in video, radio, graphic design, messaging, typography and any other possible means of communicating.

Attracting qualified customers and retaining them requires an art for communication.  You can’t spam or shout yourself into capturing marketshare.  You have to woo and, however far-fetched it may seem, find ways to use creative mediums and methods to converse and listen to your customers.

For better or worse, your brand has a perception, one associated with a persona – real or imaginary.  How you engage your target audience will determine whether they like this individual or not.

Listening is how good friendships are formed. And what marketer really enjoys shouting constantly?  I don’t.

The Careful Craft of Building a Brand


The most pivotal lesson I have learned in my short experience discovering and building an online brand is patience.  In fact, the valuable things I learn as a marketer can usually be reduced to some elemental virtue.

In my first months as a web marketer I encountered industry “experts” who tended to view websites as mere transaction machines.  They did not see it as a way to drive engagement, provide rich and relevant content and cultivate relationships with customers.  Most of all, the concept of a larger, far-off goal of brand loyalty was not on their radar at all.

Now, I can understand, at first glance, where they were coming from.  They’re probably thinking of transactional conversions as the most valuable metrics for evaluating the health and success of a website.  These marketers were, after all, not aware of the robust variety of measurements possible online. From their point of view, you slap up some nice stock photos, put a left-hand nav, some bold “buy now” buttons, and you’re done.  Pretty simplistic.

I tried to see the web as a transaction machine. But this short-sighted view seemed only to obscure the customer-brand relationship. Not only that, but even our short-term goal – more transactions – was failing!  That was a red flag.

I became quickly convinced there was a better way and that it was possible to approach the customer relationship as something more than a transaction; as something, well, relational.

My rationale was this: If you want to build a brand, you can’t just stop at getting people to prefer your brand.  You have to drive them up to the point where they actually identify with your brand, where they view themselves differently (even if in some small way) as a result of associating with your brand.  This high-level of brand loyalty will guarantee retention of a company’s market share through the years, empower customer evangelists and even, if you are lucky, bring your target audiences close enough to learn from them desires and needs you couldn’t have possibly uncovered in a rigged focus group or broad market research project.

After conducting some research, my first small step (working with almost no budget) was to run A/B tests holding the performance of emotive/conversational copy I wrote up against the traditional direct-response up-in-your-grill copy we had usually been provided by consultants.   Through these tests I obtained vital insights into the motivation of my audience.  First, I found that they were twice as likely to respond when I spoke to them as individuals in a tone that was emotive and conversational.  Additionally, response rates would go through the roof when I addressed the customer’s connection to the brand and recognized it in a meaningful and authentic way.

What was pivotal for my discovery process was patience.  It took time and the willingness to reflect deeply on the core identity of my organization and gain insight into the feelings and motivations of our target audience.

I recognize that I spoke to my audience in a very specific way, given the caused-based nature of the organization I work for and the very particular profiles making up the bulk of the organization’s constituency.  The conclusion I drew from my tests was not that speaking emotively disproves the value of direct marketing.  It only provides support for the idea that everyone has a unique audience that needs to be spoken to in a way that builds a relationship extending beyond a mere monetary exchange.  There has to a be a mind exchange, an emotional exchange, a personal conversation.  Particularly when communicating through web media, I am convinced it is essential to view customers in this light.

It didn’t stop their.  We began to survey our constituents and ask for their advice on improving specific products.  On social media channels, we began to ask pointed questions to gauge the health of our brand awareness online.

But all of this takes patience.  Under the pressures of revenue goals, threats of budget cuts or even the fear of losing your job, how does one take up such a fight?  It is easy to change email copy, but how is one supposed to go about investing the time and resources in building such a cohesive, intentional and relational brand online?  Well, it isn’t easy and it is a never-ending dynamic process, at least as far as I can tell.

I don’t have a simple answer, but I do have an encouragement: marketing is so much more fulfilling when you allow yourself to see customers as humans. I can’t vouche for measuring my theory across offline channels.  But I can present the little experience I have in web marketing and emphatically state that there are plenty of industry reports to support my case.

When you acknowledge the potential of converting customers into valued members and people who just buy your product into people who buy into who you are (social media is already forcing some to wake up to this fact), it can revolutionize your product or service and even influence the company culture around you.

To be a healthy person requires acute self-awareness and an ability to understand the unique needs, wants, feelings and thoughts of those around you.   The same is true of a healthy brand.   Both take patience.

Get behind your product or service, discover your core identity, build your brand around it, listen to the voice of your customers and learn to open a valuable two-way conversation online.  You will see results.