There's an old saw in business that says the success of a company depends not on size but on filling a void in the marketplace. A small 24-hour convenience store can't compete with Safeway or K-Mart, but then Safeway and K-mart can't compete with the convenience store, either; they serve different needs.

One way to create that need is to find a gap in the marketplace and fill it. That's what Mark Hulbert did when he launched his own stock market advisory service. At first he realized there were hundreds of similar services out there — so many, in fact, that Hulbert could not understand how anyone could choose which advice to follow. Hulbert took a survey and found that other investors were just as confused about the conflicting market advice as he was. Instead of starting his own advice letter, he decided to create a market letter that would not promise financial advice; it would instead simply and accurately track the records of all the other advisors. Four years later, by the time Hulbert was 29, his newsletter business was grossing $1 million annually.

New Thinking on Marketing Plans

Corporate cliché artists call that “thinking outside the box,” which is just a fancy way of saying Hulbert saw an opportunity and ran with it. That, experts say, is the heart and soul of an effective marketing program — and financial services professionals, especially independent ones, should be paying attention.

“Sensing what people want and crafting a way to tell them you can give them what they want is what good marketing is all about,” says Martin Baird, president of Phoenix, Ariz.-based Advisor Marketing and author of The 7 Deadly Sins of Advisor Marketing. “Once you're able to do that, you have to replicate the process so you can do it again and again. That's what McDonald's does — they make crappy burgers no matter what.”

Others experts agree, adding that the goal of any financial services marketing campaign is to turn short-term customers into lifelong customers.

“That's a key,” says Bryce Sanders, president of Perceptive Business Solutions, a New Hope, Pa.-based financial services consultancy. “Sure, you can depend on referrals — and many advisors do. But more often you have to find customers on your own.”

That's not easy for busy financial services professionals, many of whom don't have the time or the resources to build a marketing campaign from scratch.

“It's hard to sell yourself without a dedicated marketing department, but that is the reality for the independent investment advisor,” says Paula David, senior vice president of marketing at Fidelity Investment's registered investment advisor group. “When I speak to advisors, I ask how many of them have marketing departments. I also ask them how many have marketing budgets in excess of $50 million annually. They look at me like I'm crazy. But I'm just pointing out that they need help in reaching affluent consumers.”

A Plan That Makes Sense

Marketing gurus say financial advisors should be out there marketing themselves every day — whether they have the time or resources or not.

“Marketing yourself is not a luxury; it's a necessity,” says Baird. “You have to figure out what people want and then give it to them.”

From Baird's point of view, the building blocks for an effective marketing campaign that “gives people what they want” include:

Fill a Need

The most important fundamental of marketing and prospecting is to find a need and fill it.“For any product or service to succeed in a free-market economy, it must fill a need,” says Baird. “Identify that need, and people will come to you looking for your solution.”

Listen Up

One of the best ways to identify a need is to listen. “Clients and prospects will often tell you what they want,” Baird notes. “It's good if this need is expressed in an emotional way because that means it's very important.”

Sense a Trend

Are multiple clients asking for the same service?That tells you more than one person is looking for the same solution or has the same need — a need that could signal a new trend for you to harness to gain more business.

Steady as She Goes

Be consistent with your marketing message. “Companies that do well have a consistent message their target market identifies with and they keep that message on their prospects' radar screen over time,” Baird explains. “Consistency in your message and repetition of your message are critical to reducing your prospecting or doing a better job of it.”

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Strive to get your message heard through the marketing buzz. “Everyone is bombarded with marketing messages all day long,” Baird says. “It can take as many as eight to 10 impressions before a prospect remembers seeing your particular message. It could take even more additional impressions than that before they act or consider action.”

Once a Day

Get up every morning and market yourself. “It doesn't have to be anything complicated, but doing one marketing activity a day will generate amazing results,” Baird notes.

Call a Client

“You can have an amazing impact on your business over time if you just call one client a day,” Baird says. “Even advisors who have a real aversion to prospecting should be able to do that.”

New Wrinkles

Once you address the macro issues like identifying needs and staying disciplined, it's easier to do the “micro” things that can actually land you business.

“The tools I use are the ones that originate from my overall marketing concepts,” says Jonathan McSurdy, a financial advisor with PNC Financial Advisors in Doylestown, Pa. “It's a combination of things that have always worked, like referrals and seminars, and some new things like using the Internet and getting creative about it.”

Ask advisor and marketing experts, and they'll emphasize how the tools for implementing marketing programs are changing. While old perennials like cold-calling, referrals, display advertising direct mail and promotional events are still very much in vogue — and still very useful — some new ideas are creeping into the mix. In an informal survey, they listed the following tips for adding some juice to your marketing program:

Write a Book

That's what Sanders did with his recent tome Captivating the Wealthy Investor.

“It's a great way to establish your expertise and give you a platform to reach more people,” says Sanders, who self-published the book. “You can give it out to potential clients, bring it to seminars and either sell it or give it away, and use it to increase your exposure via media interviews. When you write a book, people perceive you as an expert. And investors like to hire experts.”

Become a Media Maven

Try getting yourself on television, radio, or in the newspaper.

“You could become the new financial source the news media turns to,” says Baird. “Develop a list of media outlets that have your target market as an audience. Let these outlets know who you are and that you're available for interviews. If you have insight into developing news, put it into a press release and send it. Send story ideas to the media with enough facts to get them interested.” Baird says a good public relations outfit can help you do so. Expect to pay around $5,000 for a good media PR campaign.

Go Back to School

A productive — and inexpensive — way to market yourself is to set up a scholarship program at your local college or even high school. An investment of $500 or so can open doors to the school's marketing teachers, who can assign their classes to create you a customized marketing program of your own. “There are a lot of very talented students out there with great marketing ideas,” says David. “And you can get some good media coverage out of it, too.”

Host “Nonfinancial” Public Events

Baird is a big advocate of drawing crowds with expert speakers who can bring qualified leads to your business. “Advisors can hire a fly fisherman or a golf pro to come in to a hotel ballroom and speak to clients,” he says. “Hold the session at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday if you're trying to reach the affluent retiree, or Friday night when you're trying to reach a younger audience.”

Buy Leads From Niche Magazines

Another idea from Baird: “If you're trying to reach, for example, an affluent male audience, go to a fishing or golf magazine and buy their subscription lists. Buy different lists from different magazines. That will help you identify your “highly targeted” list of prospects. It goes beyond just ‘seniors’ or ‘high-net-worth’ audiences. Subscription lists can help you pare down prospects and find out what they do for a living, what their interests are, even how many grandkids they have.”

Hire a Matchmaker

WiserAdvisor.com has a new service that matches financial advisors up with good clients. The service enables investment professionals to access the Internet and work with a highly targeted yet expansive nationwide pool of potential clients who are specifically seeking financial expertise. Firm president Tom Murcko says that WiserAdvisor.com guarantees the quality of its leads (they pay for top-shelf Google.com access). So far, advisors are impressed.

“I pay about $50 per lead from WiserAdvisor,” says Russell Winthrop, an advisor with Portsmouth, R.I.-based advisor with Linsco/Private Ledger. “And I've been averaging about one client lead a month in eight months. So I've converted two of them.”

Another advisor, Martin Wilhelmy of Cincinnati, says he has converted three of the eight leads he has gotten over a two-month period. “I've been astounded,” he says.

Teach a Class

Donald Duncan, a Downers Grove, Ill.-based financial advisor, teaches personal finance classes at nearby Lewis University and at De Paul University's continuing education program.

“I've gotten plenty of great leads that way and I'm giving back to the community.”

It's also a good idea to reach out to clients — new ones and even former ones — to find out what elements of your marketing plan are working and what aren't.

“It's a trial-and-error process,” says McSurdy. “But you've got to stop and check your progress. You don't want to keep using strategies that don't work.”

Ways to check your progress include: calling the last 10 clients you lost and asking them why they left; calling the top 20 percent of your clients every week and finding out what they want (it's a great way to stave off competitors looking to snap up your clients); sending personal financial tips once a week to your clients via email (but no spam); and using Internet search engines like Google to place your name in their search engines for easy reference for existing clients and potential clients. (Studies show that new customers often use the Internet to find financial advisory help.)

No matter what kind of marketing program you deploy, the experts interviewed unanimously agreed on one thing: Keep going.

“Any time of the year is a good time to breathe new life into your marketing plan,” says Baird. “There are many tried-and-true methods for doing this, but the most important thing is that you take action now to get your marketing back on track.”

When you do, remember to focus on the essentials — zeroing in on your target market, comparing your list of perfect-client characteristics with the areas of your book that have been generating business the past 12 to 18 months, using direct mail advertising, using seminars and going to the Internet to market your business.

“The most important part is that you take action,” he adds.“Studies show that those who keep marketing or increase marketing do significantly better than those who don't.”

Writer's BIO: Brian O'Connell is financial writer based in Bucks County, Pa. brian.oco@verizon.net