This election shined a spotlight on 3 fundamentals of marketing any professional services firm — the need to have deep understanding on the demographics, psychographics and behaviors of your client base.
“It’s the economy, stupid!” That’s a slight variation on a phrase coined by James Carville to describe the strategy put forth by his campaign team in the 1992 Presidential election. While George H.W. Bush was busy making character attacks and talking about foreign policy, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was cutting right through the noise and speaking to the most prescient challenge faced by America’s middle class. Simultaneously, his team was studying polling data and digging into the Microtrends to identify under-represented segments of the U.S. populace that could be swung in a general election. I was in college at the time, and I watched with curiosity as a sitting President became unseated — seemingly out of touch with the real, daily challenges of the people he represented.
Fast forward 24 years. A lot has changed. We have smart phones and a pervasive commercial Internet. A 24×7 news cycle and blossoming social networks. Yet, it feels like we just witnessed the same thing — only in reverse. As a parent of 4 and a small business owner, I watched this campaign with a lot more interest and curiosity than that one of 24 years ago. But, in some ways, I feel like I watched the same thing, albeit with a very different economy, electorate and media lens. While Hillary Clinton was busy talking about values, Donald Trump was talking (for the most part) about the economy. The result was the same.
Now, I’m not a political strategist. I’ll leave it to the media to say why and how Trump won this election (though, for my money, The Voters Who Gave Trump the White House by Bloomberg Business Week really sums it up and uses some fabulous interactive infographics to boot). I’m a marketer. Our agency makes its living helping professional services firms find new and better ways to attract and cultivate new client relationships. For me, this election was like a massive, always-on, picture window into a modern marketing machine. And, it gave us a ton of learning we can apply to marketing just about any professional practice. In this post, I’m going to describe the 3 big ones that jumped out to me between the hours of 8P on election night and 10A the next day as I watched it unfold:
- Demographics: Know Your Clients
- Psychographics: Know Their Problems
- Behaviors: Mine the Data
#1 Demographics: Know Your Clients
Just about every professional services firm I’ve ever met overestimates their level of “client intimacy.” It’s understandable. Unlike most consumer businesses you have direct interactions with your clients all the time. Senior partners cultivate trusted advisor relationships with senior leaders on the client-side. Project managers work directly with client managers on a daily basis. Many consultants are literally on-site for weeks at a time. But, we must not confuse frequency of interaction with deep client understanding. Just because you’re talking every day doesn’t mean your clients are actively sharing the details of their most pressing challenges. And, if yours is a diverse practice, this problem is compounded by the fact that many of your clients don’t always share common problems. The fundamental business challenges of a large manufacturing business don’t really look much like those of a mid-sized retailer. As a result, it’s difficult, even for senior leaders, to extrapolate what they’re seeing into large, meaningful trends.
What Trump Did
As this election unfolded it became abundantly clear that Donald Trump, or at least his campaign team, had a very clear understanding of who they were hoping to attract — mostly white, often rural, slightly older, often less-than-college educated voters. And, they did a phenomenal job turning out the vote in that segment no matter where they reside in the country (and, it’s not just here in the Midwest, folks).
What It Means for Your Professional Services Firm
For a professional services firm, knowing your client starts strategically with positioning. Effective positioning is about making choices — choosing both where you will and where you won’t compete. Then, building deep, accretive knowledge about the fundamental challenges of clients in those sectors. On the surface this seems simple, but it’s fraught with positioning mistakes. Often, firms will say they work with the middle market or with Fortune 500 companies. Or, maybe they’ll just say they’re an engineering firm or an architecture practice thereby entirely absolving themselves of making any choices at all — anyone who needs design services can hire us. But, usually those frames of reference are simply too broad. You can’t serve the C-suite in large corporations. You can’t even really effectively serve the CIO of large corporations. You can, however, serve the COO of large consumer products companies. In today’s economy you can only afford to be as broad as you are deep.
Tactically, knowing your client is about setting clear account targets. Every firm should have a Top 25 list — a list of key target accounts that you’d really like to do business with. And, you should be actively cultivating a list of people within those accounts for your marketing efforts. Ideally, this list is derived both demographically (companies you’d like to work with) and behaviorally (people that appear to be demonstrating at least some interest in working with you). Building a high quality Top 25 list is one of the many reasons you should be investing in marketing automation — to help you build that list more effectively.
#2 Psychographics: Know Their Problems
Unfortunately, a lot of firms market themselves more like a solution looking for a problem than the other way around. Practice areas and service lines are routinely presented as a collection of service offerings or disciplines without any clear articulation of the problem the service was designed to solve. Content marketing programs struggle to gain traction because firms are looking for ways to reframe their client work rather than looking to shine a spotlight on fundamental client problems and presenting original solutions. Clearly this is an extension of lesson #1. If you don’t really know who your clients are it’s pretty difficult to drive deep into fundamental business challenges.
What Trump Did
Honestly, this is where Trump was astoundingly good. As he dialed in on that largely white, largely rural, slightly older, less-than-college educated segment of the population he repeatedly drove down into the frustrations of that group. For readers of this blog who don’t know, our agency is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. And, I can tell you that when you drive into the rural areas of Ohio everything that Trump says is absolutely true. These sections of our state have been completely left behind by globalization. Just look at this map of unemployment rates in Ohio from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services:
Unemployment in many of the rural counties in our state are still above 7% and we’re over 5 years into an economic recovery. For many of the folks with jobs in this area their wages are probably lower today than they were 10 or 15 years ago. And, that’s in nominal dollars.
These communities have been bleeding jobs for decades, and quite frankly it feels like nobody is listening. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that our politicians don’t care. But, it’s incredibly hard to help. One of my good friends is from the Zanesville area (about 1 hour East of Columbus — unemployment rates in this area are 1.5 – 2.5 points higher than in Columbus or the national average). One day he told me this, “If you think it’s difficult being poor in a city, try being poor in a rural area. No one wants to help you because it’s so difficult to do so. In a city, we can deliver services within a tight, geographic area. But, in a rural area the people who need help are spread all over the place. How do you help them?” This conversation was over 10 years ago. And, when I drive through these parts of our state nothing has really changed. A lot of people are still without work and they’re frustrated with what the modern, global economy has brought them. Trump understood that. You heard him say it all the time. “People who’ve been ignored. Who haven’t been heard. Your voice will be heard.” For a segment of the economy that’s been virtually neglected for over 30 years, he drilled right down into their most base frustrations. And, he hammered that message home time and again — “I can help you.” He rarely offered specifics. Arguably, he still hasn’t. But, this really didn’t matter. He was speaking to their base concerns. The simple acknowledgement of the problem and the candid statement of “I can help” was something they hadn’t heard in a very long time.
What It Means for Your Professional Services Firm
So, what does this mean for marketing your practice? It means you should be digging deep into qualitative research. You should be looking for every opportunity you can to have objective, quality conversations with clients and non-clients to really understand the challenges they face in their business. You should be looking to develop a clear answer to the question, “What is the fundamental business problem we solve?” on behalf of your firm. And, then you should be anchoring that question against everything you do from developing thought leadership content, to designing new services, to formalizing your delivery processes and to writing client case stories. Everything you do as a business should be framed around your client’s overaching business problem(s) that you can solve.
#3 Behaviors: Mine the Data
Anybody who’s heard me speak in the last month has heard me talk about the book, The Seventh Sense, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Now, I haven’t even finished reading this book but it’s profoundly changing the way I look at the world. The fundamental premise of the book is that we’re living in a network economy. The very nature of everything is being shaped by networks. In marketing, the most obvious ones are information networks (think Google) and social media networks (think Facebook). These networks have power structures (nodes). And, they have data. Lots of it. You ever wonder why Apple spent millions creating the technology underlying the smartphone and then Google copied the software and gave it away for free to all the hardware manufacturers? The short answer is so they could sit as the power node in the network and own the data. They knew the data was more valuable than the operating system itself.
What Trump Might Have Done
Now everything I’ve written up until now is pretty clear and apparent. There’s plenty of polling data from Bloomberg, Pew and other media outlets identifying who voted for Trump and why. But, how his campaign team went about deriving the insight used to frame the strategy is still a bit of conjecture. Now, I started to formulate this opinion in the early mornings of the day following the election, and Bloomberg loosely confirmed it in its article last Friday, Trump’s Data Team Saw a Different America—and They Were Right.
As I watched the election results unfold I was struck by something quite interesting. The media folks kept talking about Trump’s decisions to campaign in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in the run-up to the election. This was widely seen as a flawed strategy. Many of these areas had almost always voted Democratic. Michigan had been a blue state for over 30 years. Just look at this Tweet from 11/7:
Why in the world was Donald Trump campaigning in Pennsylvania and Michigan this late in the election cycle? On the surface, it made no sense. As it turned out, the real question to ask was, how did the campaign team know to go to these places? Especially, when polling data kept saying it was a losing proposition? Well, they were looking at different data in a different way.
I think David Meerman Scott was one of the first people to point out Trump’s ability to control the news cycle and his ability to leverage social media to his advantage. As of the writing of this article, Trump has amassed 14.5M twitter followers. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has accumulated 10.9M. This difference may not seem like a lot. After all, it’s only 3.6M people in a country of 300M. But, when you consider that Trump has delivered over 34k tweets to Hillary’s 9,800. He’s simply turned himself into a much larger node within the social network that is Twitter. Essentially, he’s communicated 3x as often to 33% more people. And, he used them to amplify his message.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Big deal, he generated like 20M more retweets on his 3AM twitter rants. But, I think that’s missing the point. While the amplification of the message was probably valuable, my hunch is that the real value of the effort existed within the data. Why was Trump campaigning in all those areas nobody thought he could win in the last 2 weeks of the campaign? My suspicion is that the network data (likely coming from Google Analytics, Twitter and Facebook) was telling him to do so. Or, rather, I should say, I’m willing to bet this was at least a piece of the data being used by his data team (Cambridge Analytica) to forge a path to the White House.
While the traditional media was talking about the tremendous value of the Clinton ground game, the Trump team was playing a network-driven data game. According to the Bloomberg BusinessWeek article, as recently as 3 weeks from election day his data team had identified only a 7.8% chance of victory. Yet, ultimately, their ongoing analytis revealed that the polling data relied upon by the traditional media was virtually missing the potential turn out of what turned out to be Trump’s core demographic audience — if that segment was feeling ignored by politicians, it was being ignored by the pollsters too. The data revealed the seemingly strange path of rallies across New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in the last 3 weeks of the campaign that turned a 7.8% likelihood of victory into a motivated core base and a seat in the White House. That’s truly remarkable.
What It Means for Your Professional Services Firm
Now, I get it. A lot of professional services firms are skeptical of digital technologies, marketing automation and really data in general. Much of their success has been built by establishing deep client relationships and leveraging those over years. But, if a Presidential candidate can use data to shift his chances from less than 8% to sitting in the Oval Office in less than 3 weeks and to win an election in which he lost the popular vote by over 200k people, I think it’s time you seriously took notice.
How many times have you lost a deal only to be told something along the lines, “everyone agreed that you were the best choice, but we went with X because…” I’m willing to bet that you could’ve predicted that outcome with behavioral data long before it happened. Data should be a lever you use to dramatically improve your chances of winning your next project pursuit.
As I’ve written before, we’re in the early stages of a large client transition. The decision-makers you’ve worked with for over a decade are being replaced by a new generation of senior executives. This group is more likely to hire based on knowledge and expertise. More willing to reach across geographies to find solutions to their problems. And, more likely to leverage digital technologies to seek, select, vet and hire professional firms. Those digital activities leave a trace. One you can study to improve your chances of attracting clients and winning new business. You’d be foolish not to look.
Now is the time to get serious about content and digital marketing. To understand how to use data. To study and understand networks. To invest in marketing technologies like marketing automation and CRM. And, to do everything you can to ensure your firm is a digital marketing leader in the years ahead.
Love him or despise him, during this election cycle, Donald Trump proved himself to be a very talented marketer and communicator. He knew his audience, he spoke to their pain, and his team leveraged networks and data to bring home the win.
As a professional services marketer, I hope this gets you thinking more deeply about the positioning of your firm, the big fundamental business problems you solve, and the investments you’ll need to make to become a digital marketing leader.