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Marketing for Captioners

By Gary D. Robson

Here are 10 tips for building your captioning business.

Marketing is an oft-overlooked skill that's vital for running a business. It's actually easier for a business to survive with good marketing and mediocre services than the other way around. I'm sure we all have examples of such businesses, but we won't pick on anyone in particular here.

In this article, we'll explore some of the marketing fundamentals you need to make your captioning business a success. Since the big companies can afford professional marketing people of their own, we'll focus on low-budget tactics and strategies for smaller captioning firms.

Choose a niche

When you have dozens of captioners doing hundreds of hours of programming like the big guys do, you can afford to present yourself as the solution to everybody's captioning problems. As a smaller firm, you can't compete head-to-head with the big national companies, so you have to find yourself a corner of the market where you know you can win.

For many companies, this means a geographical niche. If you're the only ones that can put a captioner on-site at the local sports arena, capitalize on that. If you have an in-depth knowledge of the local area that helps you caption local cable channels better, market to those people heavily.

You can also pick a specialty. People have built successful captioning businesses by specializing in sports, conventions, bilingual work, business meetings and local news. When you become known as the experts in a specific field, it will be much easier to get in the door. You'll also have fewer potential customers to work on, so marketing costs will be lower.

Don't compete on price

You may be tempted to make low price your niche. Don't. Unless you're extraordinarily well funded, you simply won't have the resources to win a price war in the long term. Either you'll end up going out of business, or your competitors will end up matching your low price. Neither solution is a good one for you.

Having the lowest price also means less credibility ("If they're that cheap, they can't be very good."), and it means you've got less money available to pay captioners and less money for marketing.

Many companies have made a selling point out of being expensive. Nobody buys Starbucks coffee, shops at Nordstrom or drives a Rolls-Royce because it's the cheapest option out there.

Focus on free press

Advertising is expensive! A full-page ad in one single issue of a national broadcasting magazine like Post, TV Technology or Film & Video is more than the whole annual marketing budget for most small captioning firms. While you should always look for good opportunities, advertising is rarely a good option for the niche players.

Instead, work on getting your name out there for free (or at least cheap). Write articles for magazines and newspapers. Send out press releases. Sponsor charitable events. Join your customers' trade associations to get into their directories. Many trade association newsletter editors are hungry for material and will happily print any well-written article that doesn't sound like a sales pitch. Don't forget to place those articles and press releases on your Web site. The more information you present, the more it builds your reputation as an expert.

Any day that you're not captioning is a day you can spend marketing your services. Get out and demonstrate what you do. Take your equipment to deaf groups, special education schools and anywhere else someone will let you show off. The whole key is to be visible.

Be consistent

Pick one logo, one company name, one set of colors, one set of fonts and one tag line. Make sure your Web site has the same look and feel as your brochures, business cards and letterhead. If your logo is in the top right corner of your cards, put it in the top right corner of everything else, too.

In advertising, professionals follow the "rule of three." It says that an ad in a periodical must appear three times before people really notice it and begin to react to it. If somebody spots your company's name or logo in three different places and recognizes that they're the same, that counts! If they don't make the connection, you won't lock yourselves into their minds. It might as well be materials from three different companies.

This applies to the credits line in your captioning as well (the "Captioning provided by ABC Captioning Company" caption at the end of a show). If you can tweak colors, italics or other parameters to make it look similar to your other company materials, then by all means do so. Just stay away from red and blue. The NTSC color encoding system for television in the United States smears bright reds, and it can be hard to read on many televisions. The deep blue is so dark on many sets that you can't even see it. Cyan (light blue), yellow, magenta and green all show up well.

Don't overcommit

If you take on more jobs than you can handle, you run the risk of performing badly and losing all of the accounts. Accept what you know you can do, and explain to the others that you're fully booked, but you'd love to do business with them in the future. If you must turn down a job, do it with a nice letter or phone call. Don't just fail to respond.

Follow up

After you complete a job, send a thank-you letter stating how much you enjoyed working with them and how much you look forward to an ongoing business relationship. Handwrite the letter. A typed letter is typically read and recycled (or maybe filed). I've visited customers who had handwritten thank-you cards or letters on their bulletin boards years later.

If you're hired for an annual event, make a note on your calendar to call again the next year to see if you can do the job again. If someone calls you for a job you can't do (for whatever reason), send them a letter thanking them for calling, and enclose a brochure listing the types of work that you can do. Even if they can't use you, they might pass the letter on to someone who can.

Track what works

In the course of running your captioning business, you're going to try a lot of marketing approaches. You'll set up booths at shows, send out flyers, run ads, distribute brochures, send out press releases, put your firm name into directories, set up a Web site, do pro bono jobs, set up referral agreements with other firms and much more.

Every time a potential customer calls you, ask where they heard about you. Keep track. As you start to build up data, patterns will emerge. Focus your efforts on the approaches that work, and abandon the ones that don't. If you get lots of customers from directories, and nothing from trade shows, then stop exhibiting at shows and get into more directories. After a while you'll find that you don't need to spend as much money on marketing.

A sure sign of success is when the majority of your business is coming from referrals from happy customers. That's the best marketing you can get.

Focus on customers, not competitors

When you have a successful competitor, it's always tempting to look at what they're doing and try to emulate it. This approach, however, violates one of the basic tenets of marketing: Always battle on your own turf, not someone else's. You should pay attention to what your customers need and work to meet their needs. As long as you do that well, you don't have to worry about competitors. As soon as you start reacting to your competition and emulating what they do, you'll wind up playing second fiddle (unless your company is much larger than your competitor).

This doesn't mean you can ignore the competition. If a competitor comes after your customers, you have to fight back. When you do, always keep it positive. Never bad-mouth your competitors or try to point out their shortcomings. You'll look bad to the customers, and it can backfire badly.

Case in point: Once when I was in the software business, my company had just shipped a new release of our software, adding a plethora of new capabilities. A large potential customer was shopping for software and called me for information on our product. He began quizzing me about features that our old release had lacked, and each time, I said, "Yes. We can do that."

After a few minutes of this, he asked if he could get a demonstration. I agreed and showed him what the program could do. He told me then that a competitor of mine had given him a sheet listing our shortcomings (he gave me a copy), and that we could do all of the things our competitor said we couldn't. To that customer, everything on the page was a lie. He stopped returning my competitor's phone calls, and we got a large, lucrative contract.

If you tell people what your competitors can't do, then sooner or later this will happen to you, and you'll lose a potential customer. It's impossible to keep track of everything your competitors are doing, so keep your focus on your customers and what they need, and when asked about competitors, say, "I'm not sure if they can handle that, but I know we can!"

Don't stop improving

There's no such thing as staying still in business. You're either moving forward, or the world is moving forward without you. Always watch for innovative ways to improve your products and services. Each new innovation is fodder for press releases and announcements and gives your customers one more reason to deal with you.

Sometimes, you have to innovate even when it doesn't appear to generate money for you. If you have a chance to work with someone on producing DTV captions, or interactive TV links, or embedded XDS data, or displays on specialty signs, or captions in another language, or realtime to the Internet, or captions in a movie theater, then jump on it. Even if all you get from the deal is a press release and another bullet item on your brochure and curriculum vitae, you've enhanced your credibility and reputation, and that will make it easier to get work in the future.

Don't stop selling

Court reporters spend their careers being the silent parties in the legal system, quietly and unobtrusively getting their job done. When you are selling your captioning services, you can't be that silent party. Even if it's uncomfortable for you, you have to talk about yourself. You have to sell your services all the time.

Don't go anywhere without business cards. Keep brochures in your car. When you squeeze into your seat on the airplane, strike up a conversation with the person next to you and see what that person does. It's possible to look for leads all the time without being obnoxious about it. If someone isn't interested, drop it, but if they are, get their name and number and follow up.

Good luck to you, and may all your press be free!


About the Author
Gary Robson is a Contributing Editor for the JCR. He has written several books, including Alternative Realtime Careers, which was published by NCRA Press in July 2000. He developed the Gemini ergonomic steno machine and taught at a court reporting school for several years. Gary and his wife founded Cheetah Systems in 1987 and sold it in 1997. More information about captioning can be found on his Web site at www.robson.org/gary.