This article outlines the common reasons demand generation efforts stall in professional services firms and provides a list of questions to help you diagnose the root cause of a stalled thought leadership marketing program.
Over the course of a year I talk with a lot of firms that are looking to start their demand generation efforts. I also talk with firms who’s demand generation efforts have stalled. On the surface, they’re doing the right things. But, the results just aren’t happening. Or, more frequently, they’ve stopped happening for one reason or another. Of course, the question is why? We’ve taken a number of these firms through our marketing review. And, as I reflect on those engagements I see 3 major issues that tend to block demand generation from happening:
- Marketing is not properly positioned in the firm
- Thought leadership is not up to par
- Poor delivery modes for thought leadership
#1 – Marketing is Not Properly Positioned in the Firm
In my recent post on the 7 Behaviors of Demand Generating Firms I highlighted the importance of a strong, senior marketing leader in making demand generation successful. So, it might seem easy to say if demand generation isn’t happening, that it’s a talent problem. While that may be the case, more often it’s not. Often, the marketers are perfectly capable of doing what needs to be done, there are just structural and cultural issues that block them from doing so. So, let’s look at both.
In a lot of firms the marketing function is pigeon-holed as a sales support function. We see marketing teams that report up through the human resources or administrative function. And, we see marketing teams that are 2-3 layers removed from the senior leaders in the firm. Marketers in these firms simply don’t have the organizational mandate to create demand for the firm. Additionally, they’re generally not given the resources (space and time) to do so. Ideally, marketing should be led by a marketer (not a professional turned marketer) and should report directly to the senior leadership team.
Simultaneously, we see a lot of firms where marketing lacks the cultural support to be successful. In these firms, marketers and marketing is seen as a distraction or expense when it should be seen as a opportunity and a source of advantage. In a firm like this, at least a few of the senior leaders simply don’t respect the discipline and therefore fail to give marketers the organizational permission they need in order to be successful.
The indicators of these structural or cultural issues are fairly obvious:
- Marketing lacks seniority and control over what thought leadership gets developed and how it gets promoted. This stands in stark contrast to our past research showing that demand generating firms are more likely to make the marketing function responsible for these decisions.
- Firms lack foundational strategies necessary to make thought leadership work. They lack formalized brand strategies that define where the firm competes and its unique value proposition in those domain areas. And, they lack effective thought leadership strategies that identify the core issues the firm would like to own in the market.
- Most importantly, they lack process and rigor in the thought leadership development process. It’s much easier for a marketer to take a pragmatic approach to determining which topics to pursue than it is for a practice leader. For a marketer, It’s a simple business decision that’s not bound by the inherent conflicts of partner dynamics.
#2 – Thought Leadership is Not Up to Par
Senior leaders rarely want to hear this and even more rarely want to believe it, but sometimes the thought leadership is simply not as good as it needs to be. This manifests itself in a couple of ways:
- The firm’s content is too focused on clients’ current problems and not nearly focused enough on clients’ future issues. The simple way to think about this is that a current problem is a need and a future issue is a want — while meeting a client’s needs is a requirement to pay the bills today, clients will pay more to work with firms that can help them realize what they want for tomorrow. Additionally, content that focuses on future issues helps the firm shape the very nature of the conversation on the topic. As I’ve said in the past, it helps the firm to not just “skate where the puck is going, but actually define where it’s going to go.”
- Their content over-relies on the personal experiences of the firm’s subject matter experts. And, it under-relies on original primary research (both quantitative and qualitative). Clients value research-driven insight.
- Finally, it fails to align to the core tenets of what clients say they value in thought leadership content — content that is highly relevant to their issues (think specific to their industry and role), that shows depth of knowledge (not just 300-word sound bites), and that cites specific best practices examples of the thinking applied (proof this stuff works).
#3 – Poor Delivery Modes for Thought Leadership
Even when a firm has high quality thought leadership, demand generation can fail if it doesn’t have an effective plan for how its going to get that thought leadership into the hands of senior client decision-makers. This is usually visible in a number of ways:
- The firm publishes lots of long-form content and not a whole lot of web-friendly content. Often, firms simply fail to effectively deconstruct their long form thought leadership content into a variety of different formats for different stages of the client’s buying process. They’re not using the Content Marketing Wheel to deliver content to potential clients based on their attention span at various points in time. And, they’re not structuring their content to stair step clients into higher forms of engagement.
- They’re not publishing in enough places or they’re publishing in way too many places. Some firms don’t do enough — they think they can get by with solely speaking at industry events. And, others do way too much — they’re producing 7-8 types of content and spreading their delivery resources across a whole range of online and offline media. They’re spreading their resources way too thin. Most small- to mid-sized firms should focus on 2-3 delivery methods they feel they can do exceptionally well.
- They’re simply not taking digital seriously. Some firms are digitally averse — senior leaders “just can’t imagine a client going on Google to look for a firm like ours.” Yet, we know senior executives use the web all the time to research and understand issues that will affect their business. And, they make inferences about a firm’s ability (or lack thereof) based on where the firm appears in search results and the quality of its web presence. Other firms, simply haven’t fully come to terms with the growing role of digital (and specifically search) in their marketing mix. They see the web as a side show to other things they’ve always done. Yet, when it comes to thought leadership marketing, the web has become THE show.
Getting Demand Generation Back on Track
If your firm has been committed to thought leadership marketing for more than a few years, but simply aren’t getting the results you’d like, it’s tempting to jump to tactical issues — we’re putting too many resources into social, we’re speaking at the wrong events, we need more research! While all these statements may be true, take the time to fully diagnose the situation. Look back upstream, and ask yourself some of these questions:
- Have we organized our firm to create future demand?
- Are we giving our marketing leaders the cultural support needed to be successful?
- Are we clear where we compete and what our unique point-of-view is on what we do?
- Have we translated that into a thought leadership agenda that’s actionable?
- Is our thought leadership content high quality? Are we leveraging original research? Are we citing best practices examples?
- Are we producing our thought leadership in an appropriate number of forms? Are we delivering it in appropriate number of channels? Are they the right ones?
- Are we really embracing digital media as much as we could be? As much as we should be?