Asking for free advice and favors from people we don't know doesn't come naturally for many—especially business owners, who are accustomed to doing it all themselves. If an owner does get around to finally asking, many times they fumble for the right words, jumble their points or, conversely, are so direct and to the point that they come off as rude and arrogant.
As a longtime member of the media, I have had plenty of people try to approach me—via email or otherwise—to review this product, endorse this app or help in another way. Out of the thousands, just a few inspire me to consider doing more than simply including a mention in a story, or tweeting out a link to something. If you want a favor from someone, especially someone you have no relationship with, follow these steps to increase your odds and get your question answered.
1. Plan first so you can ask later. Years ago when I wanted to ask Guy Kawasaki to write the forward for my first book, I knew I didn't have a personal connection to him. My solution was to enter a presentation into a contest on Slideshare that he was judging. My only goal was to create a good enough presentation that might get noticed by Kawasaki. The presentation won an honorable mention, and months later I referenced it when sending my unsolicited request to Kawasaki—and he did kindly agree to do the forward. No one likes or responds to a person who immediately asks for a favor. You need to build a relationship first.
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2. Join the right networks. This year at SXSW, I had the pleasure to join in "Office Hours" sponsored by the Startup America organization. It's an amazing group that fosters connections between entrepreneurs, and they routinely ask people like me from the the industry to offer 10- to 15-minute consultations for up-and-coming businesses. Thanks to the ecosystem they have built, it's easy for me to connect with entrepreneurs and offer a small piece of my time without worrying about the logistics of how to do it.
3. Do your homework. Nothing is worse than an irrelevant pitch or note that's clearly sent out to a mass level. The best unsolicited communications I get pay attention to what I am writing about and relate their request to that. The smart pitches reference an idea I have talked about, or a belief I have shared, or something I am passionate about. The best way to get someone to pay attention is to be relevant. And there is no better way to establish relevance then listening and doing your homework.
4. Learn the art of "non-creepy cyberstalking." One of the facts of social media is that many recognizable people like to share updates about what they are doing or who they are with. Paying attention to this stream can give you insights into what they care about right now. Are they asking a question? Traveling to a new city? Each of these moments are opportunities to add value for the person you are trying to reach. Answer a question, offer an insight or just help them with a challenge. You would be amazed at how often unreachable people actually respond directly on social platforms like Twitter.
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5. Ask for something specific. The biggest mistake I see most is that someone will send me an email or note without being completely clear about what they are asking for. If you don't ask for something specific, you aren't going to get it. Instead, be clear about what you're asking for—and make it something that doesn't require a heavy investment of time or money right away. Think of your first interaction as offering a taste of wine. If it's good, your chances are far higher that someone will come back for more.
Regardless of what your small business does, getting the right advice from people who can help is always critical. You may have a great board, or set of advisors—or you may not. The powerful thing about social media is that you have the ability to reach people who were once unreachable. It's up to you to be among the lucky few who use the right approach to actually get a response.
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Rohit Bhargava is author of the recent bestselling book Likeonomics. After spending the past 10 years leading marketing strategy for some of the largest brands in the world, he recently founded the Influential Marketing Group and now advises several startups on brand strategy and routinely offers free advice to small businesses.
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