This article outlines the 9 external indicators of effective marketing in a small or mid-sized professional services firm.
Historically, in many small and mid-sized professional services firms marketing has functioned primarily as sales support — preparing proposals and scopes of work for partners. I get it. Sales is the lifeblood of most businesses. Without revenue this month and this quarter there’s nothing available to invest in anything that’s designed to create revenue next quarter or next year. The inclination is to lean on marketers to fulfill these tasks so you can go focus on the next big thing. That said, your marketing can, and should, be delivering a whole lot more than that to your firm.
Of course, every smart partner agrees with this. But, often they just don’t know what to expect. What does good marketing look like?
To start, let’s be clear on where marketing should be focused. Marketing has primary responsibility for stage one (learning) and stage two (vetting) of the client’s buying journey. Its most important job is not supporting today’s sale. It’s developing tomorrow’s sale. To that end, it should be primarily focused on shaping your firm’s reputation in the market. It does this by staking out a compelling point-of-view on the critical business issues of the day and working to ensure that your firm is known for how to solve them. So, when we seek to answer the question — what does good look like? — we operate from this lens.
We can’t always know exactly what’s happening inside a firm. But, there are 9 external indicators of marketing success. I would argue a great firm has covered off all 9 of these. A good firm has covered off at least 5-6 of them.
#1 – Understandable Positioning
For your firm to be successful with any marketing endeavor you must have a clear understanding of the ideal client you’re hoping to attract. This manifests itself as clear and concise positioning. Within 30-40 seconds of landing on your firm’s website I should be able to tell who you serve, what you provide, and the value you create.
#2 – Effective Messaging
Beyond just positioning, your firm should be able to tell a compelling story from top to bottom. This requires having a clear, firm-wide point-of-view that defines what you believe about the work you do and the clients you serve. If your firm serves more than one market you will require a POV for each practice. Ideally, your practice POVs derive from your firm’s POV. At the lowest level, every service you provide should be presented with clarity on the problems it was designed to solve and the benefits clients gain from solving them with your firm. An example of a firm that does this well is Rattleback client, TBM Consulting with its focus on bringing speed to manufacturers and their supply chains.
#3 – Great Named Case Stories
The most critical questions clients ask themselves in the vetting stage of their buying process are “Have you worked with companies like mine?” and “Have you helped companies solve problems like mine before?” They should be finding answers to these questions in your firm’s case stories. Ultimately, for your firm to be successful with marketing you need great client stories. These stories need to be told from the client’s perspective. And, they should follow a somewhat predictable pattern — describe the challenges the client faced, how they overcame them, and how your firm assisted them along the way. Rattleback client, CSRS, does this very well with the case stories it has published for its work with Raising Cane’s and LSU.
#4 – Foundational Thought Leadership
As highlighted above, successful marketing requires identifying and staking out a distinct POV. But, it’s not enough just to claim a perspective on an issue in the market. Your firm has to back it up with long-form foundational thought leadership content. That content is the proof that backs up the assertions you made. It adds depth and credence to what you have to say. It does this by presenting real-world examples and original research that substantiates your thinking. Rattleback client, Navalent, does this well with its Owner’s Manual on Leading Organizational Transformation.
#5 – Well-Published in Respected Places
Smart firms, like yours, seek opportunities to publish their thinking in notable business publications and well-respected trade journals. You do this to validate the efficacy of what you have to say and to reach larger audiences than you’d be able to reach on your own. Increasingly, we would argue that publishing articles directly on LinkedIn serves a similar purpose. As an open publishing platform LinkedIn does not confer the automatic credibility of publishing in a traditional 3rd party publication. That said, a LinkedIn author or article that receives wide appeal is essentially conferring a similar level of trust “via the crowd.” An example of a firm that’s had tremendous success with 3rd party publishing is FMG Leading, a client of both Rattleback and Bloom Group, with articles it has published in HBR and Fast Company. And, an example of an individual who’s had tremendous success leveraging LinkedIn as a publishing platform is Jody Padar of New Vision CPA Group.
#6 – Self-Publishing Regularly
Simultaneously, you firm needs to go deep in the topical areas you’d like to own by self-publishing a steady diet of quality content to your own website. This enables you to build a “body of work” around your thinking that clients expect to find when vetting your firm as one among a handful they’re considering working with. If I’m looking for an expert on organization design I expect to find a large body of thinking on that topic on the firm’s website when I’m vetting them as a potential partner. In this situation, whether I read it or not is largely irrelevant. The body of work exists to demonstrate depth in thinking. Simultaneously, it enables you to build your firm’s search authority. Ultimately, when clients are searching for the issues you’ve built your firm to solve, you’d like your thought leadership to be among the top results in a Google search. And, it takes a steady diet of high quality content to make, and keep, that happening.
#7 – Publishing with a Digital Mindset
Being good in 2019 means prioritizing lean-back over lean-in content. While clients expect to see a “body of work” around your thinking that doesn’t necessarily mean they have time to read it all. Nor, does that mean they’re actively searching for your thinking on a quiet afternoon from their office desktop computer. Just like you, they’re squeezing out every extra minute of productivity they can. They’re reading on their tablet over lunch, listening on their phone in the car, or watching a video with headphones on a subway. Good firms are no longer stuck in an offline publishing mindset. They’re not trapping content in long-form PDF booklets that are neither search valuable nor mobile-friendly. Your written content is live HTML. You’re accompanying that written content whenever possible with short-form videos. You’re using podcasts and other forms of audio content to connect with listeners. And you’re using interactive content whenever you can. An example of effective digital publishing is the recent research report on middle market culture published by Rattleback client, the National Center for the Middle Market.
#8 – Prioritizing Stories Over Data
In the world of thought leadership marketing you’re resisting the idea that the best idea wins. No. You recognize that the idea best told is the one that actually does. In order to tell better stories you’re using familiar storytelling models in your work. You’re bringing your thinking to life using real life examples not just assertions or data. And, you’re doing all this because you know it increases the likelihood that clients will actually retain what it is you have to say.
#9 – Good Promoters
There are a ton of different ways your firm could connect its thinking with potential clients — SEO, SEM/paid media, email marketing, LinkedIn, Twitter, Quora, YouTube, Podcasts, conferences. It’s tempting to think you need to be a rockstar on all these channels. Especially when you see larger firms casting a wide net across every medium imaginable. To be a good marketer, you don’t have to be great at all of these things. You just need to be extremely effective at 1-2 of them. Over time, you can expand your abilities from there. An example of a firm that’s done this exceptionally well is the Shelly Palmer Group. A LinkedIn top voice on technology, Shelly Palmer is focused primarily on marketing himself and his firm via email marketing, LinkedIn publishing and public speaking.
As a small or mid-sized firm it’s easy to lose focus when marketing activities don’t lead directly to leads or revenue opportunities. The expectation is that every 10 thought leadership articles will lead to 5 meetings the same way every 10 client conversations often lead to 5 project opportunities.
But, remember marketing is as much an art as it is a science. Clients form a fuzzy perception of your firm and its capabilities over time. Maybe they were referred to you by a peer. Maybe they heard one of your subject matter experts speak. Maybe they saw an article you wrote in a LinkedIn feed. Maybe they searched on a business issue and an article you wrote 4 years ago popped up. Chances are good that they did many or all of these things before they reached out to talk.
Rarely is successful marketing as simple as pulling a lever. But I’m confident if you focus on getting better at the 9 things on this list over time you’ll be rewarded with the results you want.