I much enjoy listening to the Developer On Fire show, and found episode 142 with Philip Morgan especially relevant. Its topic is marketing, something that many developers view as spin, hype, or deception. Done right, however, marketing is a way to help clients understand what you do. A way to position yourself and have direction in your career.
The show centers on the somewhat counter-intuitive notion that to fill one's pipeline, a narrow focus is better than a wide focus. Instead of mindlessly attending networking events to make connections, there's a more effective way to fill your pipeline.
Some points that I think are worth keeping in mind:
We as developers tend to think of our experience within software development as riding a rocket ship up. Compared to other professions, we aren't used to things not going so well.
Don't avoid to do marketing, and depend on others to bring you work, just because you don't know how to do it. As tech-professionals we tend to think it's all about technologies, and that when focusing on our expertise, clients magically appear for the service we provide.
Specializing is better than generalizing. Having many skills across a wide spectrum gives a false sense of security. For instance, being a generalist technical writer, you may think that you can do anything related to writing. While that may be true, generalist skills produce a low-value value proposition to potential clients. Knowing a lot about a lot of things means your skillset isn't focused enough to provide dramatic value in a single area.
Instead of spending most of your time thinking about your skillset, your personality, and how that makes your business different, think more about things from the perspective of the client, and what creates value for them. Instead of being easy to get along with, flexible, and so on, there's more value to be delivered by going deep into a topic.
Use the notion of how much value it creates for clients as a world view within which you evaluate decisions. If the value of something is more self-evident, it's also easier to sell. Instead of getting clients excited about the means by which results are produced, get them excited about the results themselves.
Freelancing is a relationship business. The irony is that many who get into these areas aren't actually so great at relationships and will have to figure it out. As a freelancer, the relationships are your most valuable assets or currency.
Think of positioning as a Venn diagram with two circles. One circle is the things you can do, your skills. The other circle is the things your clients need, the things that they may be willing to pay top dollar for. Clients not in the sense of working for now, but those that in the future you could get access to. Is there a part of your skills that you don't think is that sexy, important, or interesting that actually is in the intersection? If there's an overlap, this represents your business' ideal market position. And be aware that a large part of your skills will be outside that intersection. Don't stop doing those things, but shift marketing focus to talk about the things that clients value.
Another way of thinking about positioning is to gradually increase the value you deliver to clients by becoming more focused over time. Because you've specialized, as you go deeper, it'll unlock new ways for you to create value for clients. As you understand your clients business better, you see something that needs a technical person to find new ways to deliver value.
With marketing, focus on that one thing that we can lead with and open a door to get somebody's attention. Once that one thing has done its job, how can we then build a relationship over time that delivers regular, steady value to clients so they understand our depth, capabilities, and strengths, and think of us when they have a need. Done right, marketing can be a vehicle for increasing trust.
Stay deep in the problem domain by doing pro-bono micro consults. If someone comes to you with a problem that you can't help with over email, offer to get on the phone for free for 30 minutes.
Don't think of narrowing your marketing focus as a high-stakes, low-certainty decision where you risk going down the wrong path and painting yourself in a corner by picking the wrong specialty. In reality it's a process, something that's iterative.
In conclusion, being narrow or wide isn't a binary, but rather a continuum which may need constant adjustment. In any event, make sure the give the episode a listen.