An Interview With Brian Willingham
President of Diligentia Group
Brian Willingham is a New York private investigator, Certified Fraud Examiner, and founder of Diligentia Group. His website, which contains 6+ years of archived blog articles, attracts thousands of readers per month. He tackles ethical issues, writes about interesting facts, and creates thoughtful articles about the industry. Some of his articles spark debates that get shared thousands of times, others simply bring the PI industry to light. He’s not afraid to share industry tricks or secrets, which makes him a great subject for us to interview. As he told us during our conversation: “I know who I am and I am not the least bit ashamed about speaking my mind.”
1) Do you feel that your website affects your business enough to make it worth your time and investment?
Having a website is not only worth the time and investment, but it is absolutely essential for a number of reasons. First, speaking from personal experience, doing some simple back-of-the-napkin math, our website has generated more than 20x our investment. It doesn’t take a CPA to determine that a pretty minimal investment can go a long way. And I am certainly no Warren Buffett, but I can’t think of many things that are going to give you a 20x return on your investment.
Having said that, setting up a website doesn’t mean just putting one page up on GoDaddy and hoping for the best. A well-designed website takes planning but can go a long way. You need to develop content and guides, conduct market testing, and create calls to action, and you may also want to invest in AdWords or include blogging. Success might mean using just one or a combination of these tools.
But the biggest thing that a website needs to do is to establish credibility. The first thing that most people do when they are considering hiring any type of service is conduct some online research. Even if a prospect has been referred by someone important, the first thing he or she is going to do is look at your website.
I can’t tell you how many inquiries we have received just from the simple fact that we “looked legitimate” and that our “open and honest approach” was greatly appreciated. That’s not a high bar.
Your website is your first impression; you’d better make it a good one.
2) You write on the regular basis, how long did it take for your blog to start attracting visitors?
It took a good six months of solid blogging to start attracting a big enough audience to start moving the needle. By the end of my first year of blogging, I had generated more than $10,000 in business, which more than paid for my initial investment. In fact, the first version of my website was completely self-designed – and pretty poorly I might add – but I was one of the early adopters in the space, which made it pretty easy to get some good traffic. It’s not going to happen at the flick of a switch, but it will happen.
3) When a person visits your website, how does the website help convert visitors into clients?
There are a number of ways that visitors can be converted into clients. In marketing terms, we have several “calls to action” on our website that encourage visitors to take a certain action. For example, it might point people to download a guide that answers common questions about how to hire a private investigator. From there, we capture that person’s email address and start sending them emails offering some helpful blogs to assist them in their journey toward hiring an investigator.
Throughout this email campaign, which is spread over several weeks, we offer these individuals ways to connect with us on social media and an invitation to join our email list. We also offer opportunities to reach out to us directly with any particular questions that they may have.
In addition, we prominently display a “Talk to an Expert” call to action in the top right corner of the website. Here, we hope to have potential clients submit a form with some of their questions, then we respond to them by email and provide additional direction and guidance.
I have found that it’s much easier to qualify potential leads by email, instead of spending a lot of time on the phone with them prior to qualifying them.
4) Where do you find the inspiration for your topics?
I would say that most of my inspiration comes from inquiries that we get on a daily basis. Marcus Sheridan of the Sales Lion is a big promoter of blogging about the questions that you get most frequently in what he describes as the “they ask, you answer” marketing strategy. It’s brilliant and really easy to come up with some great topics.
Some natural questions that arise are things like private investigator fees, whether it is legal for a private investigator to follow someone/do surveillance on private property or how to find a person. I am sure you have hundreds of questions that you have heard over and over again. Probably so many times that you are sick of talking about them. Those are exactly the ones you should be talking about. And if anyone ever asks you that same question again, just send them a link to the article!
I also keep up with a number of investigative blogs and trends in the industry, and have set up a number of alerts about topics that interest me. While some of the blog articles that ultimately get written end up being more industry-related rather than with an eye toward attracting clients, they still have great benefit in that they give me credibility in my field.
5) Do you feel that social media and the internet have shaped the perception people have of private investigators?
I don’t. Actually, I haven’t been around long enough to really know.
6) What is the biggest mistake you see private investigators make when they start to market their services online?
Easy. Self-promotion. This is not just true of private investigators, it’s true for everyone. Social media is not natural for everyone, especially someone who is just starting out. But for whatever reason (that is completely unexplainable to me), when people first jump on social media, they love to talk about themselves. “BUY OUR SERVICES!” “WE ARE PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS IN NEW YORK!” “WE DO SURVEILLANCE!” “WE ARE THE BEST!”
Nobody cares. You know the guy who walks into a party and can’t stop talking about himself and everyone hates him? It’s pretty much the same thing. You wouldn’t do that in person, so why would you do it on social media?
Also, you need to give it time. There is nothing worse than not showing up. Don’t be active for a few months and totally fall off the face of the earth because you didn’t get that $10,000 case you were hoping for. It’s a grind, and you’ve got to understand that before you even start.
7) What is the best way you have found to get leads besides getting referrals from other clients?
Referrals and personal relationships are still the most critical way to obtain leads and clients, but hands down, the most effective use of my time is writing blog articles. I enjoy writing, so that’s an easy sell for me. I realize that it might not be for everyone, but hear me out. Blog articles have an evergreen effect. They never go away. Blog articles I wrote years ago still get tens of thousands of page views a year. Imagine spending a few hours writing an article that can give you dozens of leads for years to come.
Also – and this is one of the most important points here – my network of potential clients extends way beyond the people I know and can meet. All of a sudden, the leads that are contacting me are from all over the world. Most of my clients are not anywhere near my geographic area and some have come from as far away as Pakistan. The world is shrinking, and the ability of potential clients to find me from anywhere in the world in a few clicks of a mouse is a powerful thing.
Others may be better with podcasts or videos, which I think also present some real opportunities. I’ve gone all-in on blogging because that’s what I am good at, but your mileage may vary.
8) I think that you’re more than a creator – you’re a curator. On social media you share content about the investigations industry. Do you find that this affects the way people perceive you on social media, and for the better or worse?
I think that it has a huge effect. First, it shows I care about the industry and have a level of interest that a lot of people can relate to. I’ve been called an expert in my field by numerous people whom I have never met, just because I share some interesting things on social media and have written a few blogs. Don’t get me wrong, I am pretty damn good at what I do, but the only reason they consider me an expert is the experiences I have had. Some of the truly special investigators I have met over the years are people nobody has ever heard of, simply because their investigative expertise never leaves their small group of colleagues.
For many people on social media, there may be a fear of pissing off too many people. Personally, I never post anything that will alienate people, whether it’s about religion, politics, sex, nationality or whatever. It’s just poor taste. I like to share articles or blogs that I find interesting. Whether that’s some new technology, a list of famous white-collar criminal cases or news on the latest fraud. But mostly, I am just sharing things that interest me.
9) When you decide to write a blog post, do you do it with an end goal in mind – to attract one particular type of person or client – or do you simply write it and see what comes out of it?
That’s a great question. I should write with intent more often, but for the most part, I write about things that interest me. If my post happens to generate some leads, great. Even if it doesn’t, it’s providing a value to my audience.
I used to write when work slowed down, and I would do some keyword research and analysis and some critical thinking about the goal of the post, but fortunately, over the past year or so, my work has been steady and hasn’t afforded me the opportunity.
But I do give it some thought. For example, I have just recorded a lengthy training session that’s going to be part of PIEducation.com and will be released over the next couple of months. I will probably craft some blog pieces around investigative training, which can drive some traffic for that.
10) How do you deal with online trolls that attack your work or try to make you look “weak” in front of a possible future client?
I cry myself to bed.
I am joking, but I did take things a bit harder than I used to.
I wrote an article a few years ago, talking about how I was a bit embarrassed about the reputation of private investigators. One investigator commented that I should quit the business. The comment got me so angry and actually made me question whether or not I wanted to share some of my more intimate thoughts on my blog given some of the comments that I would have to face.
But I gave it some thought and decided against it. Instead I doubled-down and began writing even more. That hasn’t stopped the trolls, but I’ve developed some thick skin.
I know who I am and I am not the least bit ashamed about speaking my mind.