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What is the Key to Marketing Yourself as an SAP Consultant?

Too often, SAP consultants focus only on skills. Yes, you need the skills, but learning how to get visibility for your skills is essential. That involves mastering all the aspects of job hunting, interviewing, and most importantly, self-marketing. If you’re an independent consultant, or aspire to be an independent SAP consultant, then marketing is essential. Marketing is also crucial if you are looking to eventually build your own consulting practice. Let me go over some key aspects to successful SAP marketing as well as some good and bad news about marketing over the web. Recently, I did a webcast on "Best Practices in Building Your SAP Consulting Business" that covered many of these points as well.

  I’m not going to repeat everything from that webcast here, but I recommend anyone who is interesting in learning more about success in SAP and also SDN Software Subscriptions to check it out. This blog entry will complement the web cast material and give you a framework for thinking about self-marketing. I’m going to approach this as a topic for independent SAP consultants, though many of these tactics can and should be used even when you are a salaried employee of a consulting firm.

The most successful SAP consultants I know have figured out two key things about marketing. One is that they have developed an overall marketing plan that fits their overall goals and skills. Second, they have taken advantage of the Internet as a way of building a marketing platform where they can get the word out about their services to an interested audience.

Understanding the power of the Internet means understanding some good and bad news about marketing online. First, the bad news: it is very hard to throw money at conventional marketing approaches (like advertising for example) and get good results. And it’s getting harder and harder to simply spend your way into a great search position on Google by simply paying a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) expert to rig your web site. You can’t just rig web sites with meta tags anymore. Google now has a sophisticated way of evaluating which web site deliver quality content.

The only way these days to get great search results in Google, which is the dominant search engine, is to create quality content that is so highly thought of by those in your industry that they link to your content without asking for reciprocal links. The good news is that just about anyone can create that content. The bad news is that it takes time, and not all SAP consultants have the time to develop and manage a feature-rich web site in addition to their client work (though I should add that many of the most successful ones have done exactly that).

So, you have to put energy and time into building your "platform" and your public identity. Quality content takes work, but in the age of the Google-driven information demand, the work you put into such efforts pays off. Not only is conventional advertising expensive, but it doesn’t usually work for smaller consultancies.

Developing original content that positions your specialties as a consultant (or small consulting firm) does work, but takes effort. Investments in content development and a web site content management system (CMS) almost always pay off! Note that using a CMS or simple blog structure can make it easy for you, and other key players in your firm, to post helpful and interesting updates without having to wade through HTML code.

Of course, building a successful and appealing web site is not something everyone needs to do. It’s better not to do a web site at all than to make a half-assed one that is rarely updated. Remember, it’s not necessarily about building a great web site, but it IS about building a "marketing platform" in your industry.

In the SAP consulting business, think of your marketing platform as your ability to:
- quickly get the word out to an audience of clients about your availability
- brand your expertise in the market so that you have a high level of industry recognition and an easily-remembered "skills niche."

Depending on the person and the specialization, the components of your personal marketing plan will be different, but there are some common themes, and not all of them involve the Internet. Here are some tactics to consider:

Attendance at SAP conferences and trade shows. There is no substitute for getting in front of SAP customers and partners, and that’s what the conference circuit is all about. If there are vertical trade shows in your area of focus, that’s another option. If you are the kind of person who is comfortable speaking or presenting, it’s an ideal way to enhance your visibility. Most of the top shelf SAP independent consultants speak regularly at trade shows. Remember also that volunteering to help organize shows, such as being an ASUG volunteer, is another terrific way to improve your visibility and get to know new people.

Participation in SAP’s online communities. SAP’s online communities, SDN (SAP Developer Network) and BPX (Business Process Expert community) are a terrific way of expanding your SAP know-how while getting more visibility through participation. We are already hearing anecdotally about folks who have landed new projects through their BPX and SDN activity, and I expect to hear more success stories along those lines. Remember that you don’t have to do your own blog on SDN or anything that ambitious, you can start by adding to the discussions and comments and wiki threads that have already been started.

Participation in other online sites and social networks. There are all kinds of SAP-related interest groups on all kinds of sites. Many offer possibilities for interaction and leaving helpful comments. Whether it’s SearchSAP.com, sapfans.com, ERPgenie.com, or even my own blog at JonERP.com, there are lots of places where you can add your comments and get your name out there. Most blogs allow links back to your own site also. There are also social networks to consider. LinkedIn, in particular, has a very active SAP community. You can definitely get more visibility and make valuable connections through time spent there.

Add valuable content to your own SAP website. Many SAP consultants have their own SAP websites, but often they are more like online brochures, with simple "About Us" and bio pages. Consider adding some kind of useful content, such as a blog or project diary or "best practice" tips in your focus area. Search engines like Google reward sites that create content deemed useful to others with "organic" search traffic. You can also then link to and reference this content from larger web sites you participate in.

Write articles for SAP publications. You can also gain visibility by writing articles for SAP publications. Whether it’s the SAP Insider Magazine, or SAPtips, or the B2B Workforce Consultant Newsletter (http://www.b2bworkforce.com/industry/newsletter/archives.htm), there are plenty of opportunities to write for SAP-related publications. Some of them will link back to your site from their online versions. Third party articles add a lot of credibility to how you are perceived, and you can eventually look to turn those articles into book form, which will take you up another major notch in terms of your credibility.

To me, these are the five main aspects of a successful marketing strategy for independent SAP consultants. I’m sure there are others that could be added to this list, but the ones I have cited here are proven to be effective. Note that aside from trade shows, all of these options are really affordable (though sometimes web site development can be costly if not managed properly). Remember too that trade show costs can be minimized when you get speaking gigs, which often reduce your expenses through reimbursements or appearance fees.

Of course, many of these items take some time to pursue, but a well-executed marketing strategy will reward the time you put into it with a stronger pipeline of projects and a better network around you. And when you have a better pipeline, you’ll have better choices for skills exposure, and you’ll also be able to maximize your rate knowing you have many options to consider. As a result, your overall negotiation position will be strengthened.

Then again we do have the time question to consider. Here’s an example of the kinds of questions I get about not having the time to develop a good web site:

I’ve got a web site for my consulting business, but there isn’t much there. I get too busy to work on it. What could I do to improve that part of my marketing with limited time?

Here’s what I said to this individual: The first thing is: don’t bite off more than you can chew in your self-marketing. A bad looking, poorly maintained web site is actually a drawback in my opinion. Some consultants honestly need to take down their neglected and, frankly, sorry looking web sites and just stick with a profile they can maintain, such as an SDN/BPX profile and maybe a LinkedIn profile. It’s a lot easier to maintain an active profile on an established site than to keep your own site up to date. So, the first step, if you’re going to have a web site, is to keep the information up to date.

Once your web site is updated and it looks fairly decent in its appearance and organization, consider adding a blog. But don’t let the blog be about anything and everything. Make it about your specialty area. Set clear expectations for visitors in terms of how often you update it, and encourage user commenting on the blog. Even if you’re busy on a project, once you have the blog set up, you can update it once or twice a month or do shorter entries more regularly. This kind of original content is the best time you can put into marketing these days.

Then, you can tie your web site into other online activities, for example, link to your blog from your social networking profiles, and possibly tie in your blog entries on your site to the online posts you might do on SDN and elsewhere. The key is to take on a time commitment to marketing you can handle for the long term. Create a structure where steady, consistent efforts are rewarded.

If you are not a fast HTML programmer, and your site starts to gain momentum, consider putting in a content management system (CMS) in the back end. This will allow your firm’s business leaders to also easily post content when needed. My site, JonERP.com, has a CMS back end, and this allows me to update it with far more content than I ever could if I had to hack through HTML all the time.

Of course, we understand that word of mouth is always the best source of project referrals. But there are times where word of mouth doesn’t generate enough leads when you need them. I believe that every successful independent consultant should have a well-thought out marketing plan, preferably in writing. Not only will you get more opportunities, but you may even be able to command a better rate if you are perceived as an SAP conference speaker, industry leader, or even frequent blog contributor.

How you are perceived goes a long way to determining your ultimate SAP consulting success. Nothing will help ensure your success better than a well-crafted marketing plan that you can realistically follow through on.

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