The Downside of Being A Digital Marketing Consultant
The Down Side Of Being Digital Marketing Consultant
The Down Side Of Being Digital Marketing Consultant

Being a digital marketing consultant, or any type of consultant for that matter, is exciting. Working for yourself offers you a lot of freedom. If you’re good … or lucky … you can make more money than you used to make working for someone else. And you can control everything from the types of clients you work with to the hours you decide to spend with them.

But it also presents some different challenges, too. There’s plenty of stress, particularly when you’re first starting out, have no capital and if one client misses a payment you’ll have to sell plasma to make the mortgage. It’s not the same kind of stress you had when you were working for someone else, but it’s there.

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Image by Caleb Alvarado via Flickr

You also go through the process of learning your strengths, weaknesses and, most importantly, your limitations. Biting off too much can be disastrous. There’s no sick feeling like the one you get when more than one of your clients are mad at you. But not biting off enough can also be disastrous. You’re back to the plasma thing again.

I’ve had two unfortunate experiences in my now year-and-a-half of experiencing, “life on my own.” One was a shortcoming of a client. The other was, at least I think, a shortcoming of mine. Neither were fun to experience, but both were necessary to help me learn my limitations.

About halfway through year one of Social Media Explorer (the business, not just the blog), I signed a neat client. They engaged me for a fair amount of work and I was able to budget 4-5 months out with them and another couple of accounts so that I could take some time to work on a bootstrapped side project after their busy beginning months were complete. But three months in, the client stopped paying. And by the time I reached my “time off” to focus on my project, the deficit caused by the client’s unwillingness to pay nearly bankrupted me.

But I recovered and let the legal system tend to the issue. I hated that the relationship had to go south, but I don’t work for free and when your lack of concern over your bills affects my children’s ability to eat or live in our home, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for you. I learned the value of contracts, due diligence on accounts receivable, my accountant and a good attorney.

More recently, I came to the end of a year-long engagement with another client and gave them an assessment and recommendation of where we should go next. After getting the go-ahead to submit another contract proposal, they abruptly ended our partnership without much explanation. While we went through some odd challenges together, ones neither of us could have prevented or predicted, and were behind schedule on what we’d set out to accomplish, I can only assume they weren’t happy with my ability to help them.

In retrospect, I keep thinking I could have done more, focused more time or attention to prevent it from turning out the way it did. But you learn to take the client’s wishes and move on.

Dealing with the bad news in client work is never anyone’s favorite thing to do. I’ve always tried to be confident and proud, but understanding and service-oriented when the fit hits the shan, as it were. Do I have shortcomings and limitations? Absolutely. Am I generally pretty effective and well-received by my clients? I sure think so.

At the end of the day you learn more from experiencing the bad than you do from the good. I’m a better person, professional and consultant because I’ve had to fire and sue a client, and because I perhaps didn’t do enough for another. But it doesn’t take away the sting and self-doubt.

How do you handle the bad in your job? Is there a better way to cope and deal than wallow in self-doubt until you smack yourself and have an internal locker room tirade with your confidence? I’m all ears. The comments are yours.

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About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at
  • Bonini Kusano

    3 years later, your experience is still so relevant. I should have read it before. Thanks for giving me some sort of assurance that I’m normal and really not that incompetent as I was beginning to think.

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  • when i’ve launched my website, i thought i was going to get a lot of leads but i’ve found out as a digital marketing consultant that the leads you get them by word of mouth. It’s kinda of funny you would think that you need a solid content marketing strategy but at the end, just a phone call makes the difference.

    • nikko

      So true! I started working as an independent marketing consultant about a year ago after resigning my position as an Operations Director for a large multi-national contracting company. I thought I’d have all kinds of inbound traffic, given that I was a marketing business. All of my initial work came in via word of mouth. So much so that now the primary focus of my work is to help my clients (mostly small businesses) build powerful referral systems. In many ways it kind of all still comes down to picking up the phone (email, or whatever) and connecting with other humans :)

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  • Going through a few of the above things myself at the moment. Its about being positive and re-assuring yourself about your knowledge and the believing in yourself that things will work out as long as I keep moving forward. It’s always good to re-evaluate things every six months as well to see what happened, what things I could do better and what went well that I can keep doing. Thought I share a few of my thoughts. Thanks.

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  • ranjan

    Digital Marketing
    yours post is so enlightening. Privileged to have your guidance about digital marketing…Thank you so much, Sir.

    Digital Marketing Agency
    Digital Marketing Company

  • Jason, it certainly is that time of year for some reflection about what to do differently. Sometimes the answer is that you couldn't have done anything differently. There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes that you can't be privy to: They get a new hire who wants to bring on their friends to do the work; They know what they need to do to make it work is too expensive, so they just try to weather the storm and hope to grow revenue anyway. The downside for me is that I then feel invested in their company and then have no way to change the outcome. Harsh.

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  • Jason – Great post. Not many people can speak so honestly about the travails of working for yourself. Have you ever spoken at an office of SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives)? Or have you gotten to know any of their consultants? My dad works for them, advising people about how to start a business. Your post could be very helpful to a lot of entrepreneurs. Have a great holiday season and hope to see you at SXSW again. (PS – My book just came out on the kindle/iPad/iPhone – would love to hear your thoughts –

  • Val Swisher

    Hi Jason;

    Congrats on being brave and putting it out there for the rest of us.

    I, too, started out as a lone independent consultant…back in 1994. I am very happy to say that 16 years later, I'm still out here doing my thing. I cannot imagine ever going back to work for someone else's company, putting in long hours for the same base pay rate. It is truly fulfilling to see a direct correlation between how hard you work and how much you make – at least, usually. Unless you find yourself in that tough position of not getting paid.

    After starting my business, I quickly had more work than I could do myself. Fast-forward all of these years and my company ( now has a staff of 15 employees and we work with over 1,500 consultants. I have gone from writer, to salesrep, to client services manager, to chief cook and bottle washer, to…finally…CEO. My current job is to plan the strategy and direction for the corporation. It has been an extremely fulfilling ride – replete with its ups (2006/2007) and downs (2008/2009). All in all, though, I wouldn't change it for the world.

    In the 16 years of Oak Hill, there have been 3 times when the customer did not pay us. Once, about a year ago, the startup went belly up (so we could get in line with everyone else who didn't get paid), and twice because the customer…well…I don't know…simply decided they didn't have to? Sad to say that in both of those cases, I took on the work because an old colleague was at the company. In both cases, that person was nowhere to be found when the bills went unpaid. Quite infuriating, as you well know.

    Even after all of these years, almost 100 clients, and hundreds of projects, I still take each customer's experience very personally. If a customer is unhappy with the work we have done, I want to know about it so I can fix it. If a consultant has a negative experience because project expectations have shifted (or the project has gone on and on and on and on, like one you describe), I want to know about it. At the end of the day, my job is to make sure everyone is successful.

    And when we are not, it still gives me a stomach ache. I am greatly bothered when we fail to meet expectations, even if the expectations have shifted and the situation was not our “fault”. Any time I have an unhappy customer, it bothers me for a while. As the years have gone by, I have realized that there are some customers who I cannot satisfy. I wish them well and move on. (Then quietly hit my head against a wall when no one is looking.)

    To you I say, “Bravo!” and continue moving forward. I hope that in a decade, you will look back on this time as the learning period and that each experience pushes you to be a better you.

    Happy Thanksgiving!


  • Hey Jason,
    I finally got to this post and I think it took a whole lotta guts to put it all out there.

    As someone who has been consulting and running my own business for the last 4 years I can certainly relate. It is enticing to do what you love and be your own master, but it all comes with a great price of patience and determination.

    I can honestly say that when a client chooses another company over mine it is still a rough blow for me to take. A few things that I keep in mind to remind me that it's all good and I'm on track:

    – I am holding my ground and maintaining a successful business during on of the toughest economic times in the last century.

    – I am doing what I love and working with a lot of great clients

    – I get the opportunity to help people who want to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads and do so for my family at the same time

    – If/when something happens to my company that causes me to seek employment I will be far better off and prepared for whatever an employer can toss at me than if I had never attempted to run my own business.

    What you are saying is not unique to the social media consulting space, but the fact that your working in an area that you get to help define and move the needle is a blessing and a curse.

    When your everything (the salesman, CEO, CMO, janitor, etc) your not insulated from anything that that happens. Count on facing more obstacles over the next year. Also count on far more victories due to what you have learned from overcoming those obstacles.

    • Thanks for the sharing and reassurance, Adam. Good to know we're not alone.

  • Timely post Jason. Thanks for putting it out there.

    I've been applying for jobs since I got laid off in September of 2009. Two of the most well-known agencies in my area were hit hard by the economy. The one where I was laid off closed its doors not long after that. The other regrouped. Perhaps this sort of thing is leading to more of us going the solo route?

    I recently decided that if I couldn't join something, I would create something – at least for the time being. I've got a 10 week old baby and a wife who I was hoping could be a stay at home mom – talk about pressure.

    I'm in the “first starting out” phase where most clients are “potential” clients and I get excited over a meeting. The toughest part to me might be finding clients outside of my immediate sphere. It's not as easy as full-time work at an agency where you had projects being brought in by sales staff or account executives. Now I'm all of them!

    While it can be stressful to secure work on your own, it's also rewarding in the time that I've had to spend with a new child. It's worth the “Your always on the computer” remarks I suppose. I am a dude of faith and I've been blessed. When self doubt begins to creep in, it's nice to know that the superheroes of social media share some of the same struggles. Thanks for inspiring us to keep moving forward.

    • Thank you, Michael. I'm sorry to hear your job situation changed so. But I'm glad you've been able to take on a new role with such faith and enthusiasm. I'm glad my little tome could shed some likeness on the situation. Hopefully, it will help keep you centered on kicking butt for your clients, which will help you weather this storm. Be well, my man.

  • That took balls. Good luck in the New Year!

  • Thank you for sharing this very honest look at your experiences. I think all of us who have worked for ourselves have at one time or another run into similar situations. Years ago I had a small client that just needed a small project done. I completed the project on time and within budget and everything seemed to be great. However, for the next year, this client continued to call me with requests for small upgrades to the project.

    I hadn't scoped out a maintenance plan in the project, which was entirely my fault. I ended up performing a lot of free work on their project after the fact, trying to keep the client happy, but finally had to put my foot down. When I told them that I required money to make any more updates, they ended the relationship. It was a tough experience, as I really wanted them to be happy with the project that we created.

    I wallowed in the failed relationship for a while, but that really didn't help. Now I look to find what lessons I can learn when issues like this arise. It's not always easy though, and sometimes you just want to kick something. :)

    • Thanks for sharing, B. Sounds like we've all had those ups and downs.

  • dfdsf

    • Nail. Head. Hit it.

      Thanks for chiming in Beth, and sorry I didn't see your comment earlier than now. You're absolutely right – it's not easy and it's scary as hell sometimes. And no, not every client you come across is willing or able to pay, work with you, listen to your counsel, etc. Like a couple others here, too, you've pointed out that it's not social media exclusive, either. It's just business.

      Thanks for chiming in.

  • Thank you for sharing your experiences. It's easy to get swept away and believe some people don't experience pain or inconvenience, or get faced with adversity. As much as I hate that you had poop to wade through, I love that you thought your readers could benefit from it, and you took one for the team. And the self-awareness/growth part? Awesome. A road we all need to travel more often.

    • Thank you, dear. Glad you got something out of it.

  • This is an important cautionary tale. Thanks Jason.

    • You're welcome Mark. Thanks for saying so.

  • Jason,

    As someone who is relatively new to this whole freelancing world (doing it as a full-time, self-support career option only for the past 6 months or so), this post is incredibly encouraging. No matter how many blogs or books we read or how many people we talk to, there are some lessons that we have to learn on our own.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences – both this specific entry and your blog in general.

    • Thanks for saying that. I just hope it's useful for someone.

  • This post made my morning MUCH better.

    Nothing to add but my thanks. Off to see if anyone else had a better coping tool. :)

    • You're certainly welcome! Thanks for stopping by!

  • I think so much of it comes down to managing expectations on BOTH sides. It's a tricky balance sometimes between explaining what social media can and cannot do and being perceived “making excuses.”
    Additionally, you have to be realistic as a service provider that despite what a client may say, they may actually be looking for a magic bullet. The number of times one client in particular tells me that the number facebook fans they have is irrelevant is then contradicted in EVERY SINGLE conference call where they begin by announcing how many fans we have. LOL

    Losing clients, for whatever reason, sucks. We always feel like we could have done better but, like I try and tell my kids, “All you can do is all you can do.” If you know you busted your ass, had a couple of lucky breaks and were honest at all times, you gotta kind of let it go.

    Not sure if there are any golfers among your readers, but everything relates back to golf in my view: you check your lie, you check the wind, you know your yardage and then you put the best swing on the ball you possibly can. Sometimes it goes where you want it to and sometimes it doesn't. But you have to accept the results and try and do better the next time. Because there is ALWAYS a next time.

    • Very well said, Mr. C. Thank you for the words of encouragement. You've left some good thoughts for the folks to chew on. Appreciated, sir.

  • The balls to go it on your own…

    The courage to identify and embrace your limitations…

    The integrity to share the experience/truth with others…

    I can hang with that Jason, and learn from it. It pretty much sounds like a recipe for success to me.


  • Hi Jason! What you are describing has nothing to do with social media. It's just part of business partnerships in general. The product you are selling might be your time, your intellectual property or a hard good. You make a sale, sign a contract and off you go. Occasionally, people try your service or product and change their mind or feel its not a fit for them. I'm sure the ladies can relate to the analogy of the must-have shoes of the season. You see them in the magazine, you just have to have them, you buy them and realize you hate them because they hurt your feet. Sometimes people think they just HAVE to have what you are selling and then they realize once they are in the middle of it, that's it's not a good fit at all.

    Sometimes partnerships end because you didn't do a good enough job of explaining the process or setting expectations. Either way, I try to not take it personally, find out specifically why they are severing the relationship, learn from my mistakes and just move on (after they pay to negate the contract, of course). It's unrealistic to think you will retain every client you ever contract with.

    You are an amazing talent. Who wants to work with people who don't “get” or appreciate what you do anyway… Cheers!

    • Very much appreciated. And you're right … it's less about social media/digital marketing and more about business in general. Appreciate the centering.

  • JackieTEwing

    Firstly, thanks for baring your “consultant” soul and sharing with us other social media and marketing consultants. It helps to know that what we are going through ourselves is pretty similar to others in the same area of business.
    Secondly, I do tend to agree with you that we learn more from the things that go wrong – key point is that we MUST learn from these to be more successful. I didn't have a plasma TV to hock when I lost my first few clients at very short notice – it was a scary time! But, I soldiered on, continued my networking and found some other clients that paid and understood what our objectives were.
    Look forward to seeing others like you develop and grow as great examples for others to follow.

    • Thanks Jackie. Glad my muddling might help keep some folks positive.

  • Jeremy Mace

    I agree with Ralph. It is a journey of educating clients at the same time trying to accelerate ideas and implement strategy. I have found that by reaching out to those in marketing first, getting them to understand and advocate for you to the executives works much better. There can be a lot of self-doubt involved when things don't go as planned with a client – in my case it has been because I did not clearly define objectives or did not communicate effectively. One issue I have is the balance of going after the big fish, while trying to catch little ones to stay alive. Jason – how much time to you allocate to going after “Jaws”, rather than catching the smaller ones for survival? Anyone else?

    • Good question, Jeremy. I've been very fortunate to have been painted in a

      “Jaws” box since I came onto the scene in social media working with large

      brands. While I still have to pay the bills and large brands have a tendency

      to want you for short projects rather than long engagements, I've never had

      to take on a lot of smaller projects just to make ends meet. Yes, I'm

      blessed and understand how fortunate I am. Lots are not so.

      I think what I've done is offer my services very clearly to people and at a

      price that is fair for me and them. For those that don't agree with the

      fairness assessment, they don't call back or get the proposal and say

      they're going another direction. And that's fine. If I got more of those

      responses than positive ones, I guess I'd either adjust my price or follow

      back up to find out what I could do to work with that client.

      But I don't know that I'd ever go after the big fish. I just go after work

      that offers intellectual challenges. If it happens to be a small business,

      awesome. If it's a mega brand, cool. If it helps me pay the bills and

      challenges me as a thinker, then I'm happy.

  • I have recruited, hired and trained 4 full time Social Media Marketing Consultants to serve our client base this past year, and the job is a lot more difficult than it would seem to be at first… Nobody prepares you for the dissonance in business organization that is so fueled with a passionate polarization between the “Fan” of social media, and the “Haters” of social media. It seems that half the battle is reconciling the apparent war going on in many companies over whether or not the business should have ANY involvement with social media from a marketing perspective… Heck, most of our clients have their Internet access blocked from any visits to any social media sites! And these are companies that hired us to deliver a very robust social media marketing and reputation management BPO deployment… Amazing.

    Enjoyed your article and look forward to reading more!

    • Can't say that I've had much different experiences, Ralph. The internal

      struggle is going to be there in various measures. There is still and awful

      lot of pushing the stone uphill for social media enthusiasts, consultants or

      not. Thanks for sharing.


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