PI MARKETING: How to Survive and Thrive in Business 

Fail, Fail Often and Fail Better

What? This column is about getting it right and making tons of money while you are on the golf course. What is all this talk about failing?

Let’s be clear, you have to keep trying things until you get it right and then when that stops working for you, you try something different.  Many PI’s build a static website, create a three-fold brochure and print up business cards and wait for the phone to ring off the hook. They might copy another PI or take the advice from their Uncle Joe at the furniture store and make a nice advertising splash, only to see zero return on the investment. They lick their wounds and don’t try anything else out of fear in getting burnt again. 

Constant improvement doesn’t have to be about massive marketing lift-offs where you drop lots of hard-earned cash and then crash and burn. Your mindset is about being curious how best to get the message out to the people who need to hear it and who will pay you a premium for what you do. 

My message to you is to test and tweak, test and tweak. If you frame the marketing initiative as tests, you won’t see them as failures and more importantly, you don’t feel like a failure. 

Many government investigators, corporate investigators, and police officers have a hard time admitting mistakes, especially on the witness stand. Upon retiring from their old careers, admitting mistakes is still a hard habit to break. They won’t take chances which might lead to making mistakes. They took plenty of courses in their area of expertise, but none in how to run a business or how to market their skill sets. Those are the exact skills they need to learn to progress in the business of private investigations. What I am about to say may be news to some readers, but private investigators that have survived and thrived know this one secret:

 Marketing is about making mistakes until you get it right. 

The story of Thomas Edison failing 10,000 times before he found the right filament for his lightbulb was really about Edison not seeing the first 10,000 attempts as failing, but as ruling out which substances didn’t work, until he got the right one. 

 But before you start marketing you must:

First, you have to find your company’s True North and head towards it, one step at a time.

Thanks, John, but what do you mean by True North?

True North is why you chose to be a Private Investigator in the first place. Twenty-two years ago, mine was to prove that I could train a team, with no prior Law Enforcement experience, to become highly-skilled investigators in my methods of investigating insurance fraud. I had the idea of growing my company into a super Regional – “From Bangor to Baltimore.” 

Yours might be to provide the smooth stones for David’s slingshot when he does battle with the Goliath insurance companies or District Attorneys office. 

You may want to provide insurance companies or corporations with an above-average service at an average price and by improving processes (reducing expenses), you positively impact your bottom line.

Your True North may be as simple as finding enough customers to augment your pension and to keep you out of your spouse’s hair during the week.

What is your True North? 

Secondly, you match your skills sets up with the customer’s needs or learning the skill sets needed to attract new customers that you want to serve. 

Your marketing plan becomes your roadmap. 

This is where failure comes in. Contrary to conspiracy theorists, America did land a man on the moon in 1969, but before they could do that, they blew up a lot of test rockets. Expensive lessons for sure, but through time, they felt confident enough to start putting humans onto rockets in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. 

  • I will do a deep dive in future columns about your website, but ask yourself right now, who does your website honestly speak to, you or others? If it is others, is it to your target audience or are you speaking to everybody? (which really means you are speaking to nobody) 
  • Do you have a CTA, that’s marketing lingo for a Call To Action. Why would a lead want to take the next step in becoming a prospect that you will then qualify to become a customer?
  • Do your brochures and banners talk about how wonderful you are or do they talk your target audience’s needs?

This is where getting the right message to the right people becomes your test rockets or trial balloons. 

 Finding the right audience with the right message has driven marketers crazy for years. Does anybody remember what GEICO did before the Gecko, Caveman or Camel? 

When Coca-Cola was getting its butt kicked by Pepsi’s Pepsi Generation, it freaked out and pushed out New Coke. Yeah, that went over really well. These are massive corporations with plenty of Super Bowl ad money to burn and they don’t always get it right. That is why smart companies test and tweak. They fail and they fail often. What does that have to do with a PI getting ready to launch or one that is struggling to make ends meet? You don’t have to spend massive amounts of money or time on reaching your target audience.  Here is the good news, you don’t have to get it right from the start. Test and tweak. Test and tweak. Fail, fail often and fail better.

Your Marketing plan is launching test rockets until one doesn’t explode and starts gaining altitude with your customers. 

As you begin attracting more customers, check to see if they are your target audience and you are listening to their other needs as well. 

Not sure who your target audience is? Unless it is the Fortune 500, major insurance companies or other private investigators, visit your Local Rotary meetings, BNI, (Business Network International) and Chamber of Commerces leads groups regularly for six months. Follow up within 24 hours on all leads, offer “new assignment introductory pricing”. 

In those six months, count how many leads you receive and how many you will convert to prospects and how many prospects become customers? You may get customers three years after you put business cards into the lead’s hands, so don’t think that the test period is the closeout date or that you will only get just those cases. You also have a possible repeat and referral business from this test. The secret of this testing is that customers will tell you what their needs are and after a while, you can find better-paying ways to meet their real needs with more value.

Don’t be bashful. Ask the business people to comment on your website, brochures and business cards. I am constantly tweaking my website and have thrown out trash cans full of brochures and business cards over the years. 

Thinking that you must stick with a message that doesn’t work is like holding up a “will work for free” cardboard sign at the stoplight next to a liquor store.

Track the numbers, track the numbers and don’t forget to track the numbers.

Otherwise, how will you know if that message is falling on deaf ears? You should realize pretty soon if what you are selling is resonating with what they are buying. 

*For my business, I am gradually shifting from cold call telephone scripts to testing carefully worded emails as my first-time contact.

I will send out test email subject lines to 10 leads at a time, by addressing the email to myself and then BCCing the ten leads. Each group of ten receives a slightly different worded subject line and I watch to see which one works. You could segment these lists with Constant Contact in Mailchimp or with Mailerlite. 

To all the leads, I follow up with the same short success stories a couple of weeks later and then I update each grouping with a different special offer, a month from their first contact.   

By the time they meet with us or decide to try us with their first assignment, they already know us. I then add them to my customer list kept in Google Sheets

Eventually, I will find out what email subject line works best with which special offer. Test and tweak. Fail. Fail often. Fail better. 

But please understand my website is talking directly to my target audience. Everything has to work together. The message in the emails has to match what I am saying on my website. I can’t be playing Heavy Metal Music to Country Music listeners.

You may think of adding a new business line, the same thinking applies, but what you do is what is called a Proof of Concept. It has a project feel to it with a limited duration for the test and is funded just enough to see if you can align new skill sets with an existing customer base or your regular skill sets to a different target audience. 

Again you want to mix and match messages to the target audience with a decent call to action and an introductory offer. Using a landing page instead of a home page of your website for the test, you can see if there is a need for your proposed services with the target audience. 

I did this in the summer of 2011 and found that Critical Locate Solutions, a high end locate service with a no-hit no-fee guarantee geared towards the corporate counsel of the Fortune 100 was a bust. I had a paid marketing intern to reach out with a 5-question survey and I learned that they were generally happy with their present solutions and were not feeling enough pain from occasional poor results to change. Am I glad that I didn’t go “all in” on that business launch? The proof of concept showed that I couldn’t light that audience’s lightbulb, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to give up.  Eventually, the processes I created for CLS became the basis of my best-selling flat-rate for a totally different target audience six years later.

By failing, failing often and failing better, you will come up with the solutions. 

Like Apollo 13 you will learn how to fix the problem, stay alive and complete the mission.