Marketing the Private Investigations Business
Posted by Writing PIs on October 30, 2009
“Let me explain something to you, Walsh. This business requires a certain amount of finesse.”
–Jake Gittes in Chinatown.
A private eye is a business person. Has to be. It’s not all about running after felons and solving cases, it’s also about paying the bills. Even Sam Spade carefully extracted money from his clients, and Phillip Marlowe spent a lot of time worrying about money. Although writers shouldn’t write pages and pages about their fictional sleuth filling out a business credit card application, checking in with his/her CPA, revising contracts, ordering business cards (all that humdrum stuff!), managing a business is still part of the sleuth’s world. Understanding this means a writer can add a touch of reality/plausibility here and there. If the PI is wrangling with a testy bill collector, a critical CPA, or a disgruntled subcontractor, it could even be a humorous sub-plot.
Let’s take a brief look at how a private investigator (PI) markets a business.
Marketing the PI Business
As writers, think about all the ways you market your stories: ads in hardcopy and online publications, websites, blogs, electronic newsletters, giveaways to readers, etc. Pretty similar to what a PI does to market his/her business.
When we decided we wanted to start an investigations company, the first thing we did was sit down and brainstorm two plans: a business plan and a marketing plan. We worked both of these plans concurrently because we knew as soon as we were ready to open our doors (after following the business plan) we wanted to have customers knocking on those doors (hopefully, thanks to our marketing plan).
In our marketing plan were tasks such as:
- Designing and printing brochures, letterhead, and business cards
- Writing/mailing introductory letters about our business and services to attorneys
- Analyzing what information and focus we wanted on our website
- Hiring a webmaster we believed could fulfill our vision
- Advertising with numerous Internet PI sites
- Joining reputable PI organizations, some of which offered free advertising for its members
- Making cold calls to different courthouses and attorneys’ offices (with brochures and business cards in hand)
- Writing articles (with bios that advertised our business)
We’re living in a digital world, but interestingly enough, our first few clients came to us after receiving one of our letters or our brochure/business cards from a cold call. The latter is still one of our favorite marketing approaches whenever work gets slow–we’ll visit attorneys’ offices and/or hit the courthouses and pass out our business cards (think about your fictional PI–maybe he/she picks up a case while shmoozing in the halls of justice, or maybe he/she sees a criminal they once investigated–both have happened to us).
Marketing Never Ends
Advertising never stops, even after the PI business is up and running. Frank Ritter, a well-known California PI who specializes in personal injury investigations, regularly sent out newsletters to attorneys (he swears his cartoons are what pulled in new clients). One local financial investigator gives workshops on how to detect financial fraud, after which he personally hands out his business card to every single person in the room. Another local PI, who’s built an extremely lucrative business over the years, courts the newspapers with articles about his successful investigations (free PR!).
Branding the PI Business
What about brands? Does your fictional PI have a brand for his/her business? There’s power in a brand—the first American private detective agency, Pinkerton National Detective Agency, had the “all-seeing eye” as their logo (with the motto “We Never Sleep”). The term “private eye” came about because of their brand:
Marketing to an Audience
Just as writers should know their audience, so should PIs. Because our firm specializes in legal investigations, we primarily market to law firms and attorneys. A loss prevention investigator might market heavily to department stores. Or maybe an investigator uses his physical location as a launching pad for marketing—for example, an investigator who lives near a large, recreational lake or other large waterfront area might market to insurance companies who specialize in marine insurance (boats and watercraft).
Maybe Jake Gittes should’ve said, “This business requires a certain amount of finesse…and a lot of marketing.”