This article provides a 7-part framework for building a high performance marketing engine for any small- to mid-sized professional services firm.
Driving repeatable and reliable growth in a consulting firm requires building a strong marketing engine. A strong marketing engine enables you to reach beyond your referral network. It helps you become known for your ability to solve certain types of client problems. And it helps you get found and hired by clients, especially ones you may not even know, to solve them.
Marketing is Educating
Building a successful, modern marketing engine is not about making big, broad investments in advertising or brand building. Nor is it about bombarding the market with projects you’ve completed or press releases on “client wins.”
Modern marketing is the exact opposite. It is a systematic approach to becoming known by the clients you’d like to do business with. It positions you as the leading expert on their most pressing business challenges. And it puts you in a position to systematically drive conversations beyond your known network.
The framework has 7 parts:
- Ideal Client
- Pressing Problems
- Content Strategy
- Editorial Process
- Organic Promotion
- Expanded Reach
Let’s look at each part of the framework at a high-level.
#1 – Ideal Client
The most important step in building a marketing engine is agreeing on who you’d like to do business with in the first place. Sometimes this was determined at the firm’s founding and is simple – “we’re a healthcare strategy firm.” Other times it’s difficult – “we’re an analytics firm that can help organizations of virtually any shape or size make better business decisions using data.” … which companies should you prioritize? Why?
Regardless of how you get there, every firm must come to grips with who its best clients are before pursuing any marketing initiative. Ambiguity here will lead to sub-optimal outcomes later. We’ve written a lot about this in the past including how to identify and how to locate your ideal client.
To start, we recommend thinking about this on 3 levels:
- Firmographics – The types of organizations you’re most suited to help.
- Demographics – The individuals within them who are most likely to hire you.
- Psychographics – The most pressing business concerns of those individuals.
#2 – Pressing Problems
Next, every firm must fall in love with their clients. This means making it your never-ending mission to advance their interests. Falling in love with their most pressing problems. And, relentlessly seeking out more effective and more efficient ways of solving them.
At its core, this lies at the heart of developing a thought leadership or intellectual capital strategy. If your goal is to build a marketing engine, then thought leadership is the fuel for that engine.
#3 – POVs
The cornerstone of professional services marketing is a firmwide point-of-view (“POV”) that speaks directly to the hearts and minds of your ideal clients. This master POV describes your firm’s world view. It describes, philosophically, how you see the world and how that philosophy enables your clients to advance their mission.
As an example, operations consulting firm TBM leverages the POV “speed wins” to describe its world view. The mission of the firm is to make every manufacturing client it works with operate faster. Speed reduces costs, improves operations, and generates free cashflow to pursue other growth initiatives.
In a perfect world, your firm’s master POV cascades down to practice-level POVs that address the issues of specific functional buyers or specific industries. A practice-level POV explains what’s happening in your client’s reality, what it means to them and their organization, and how they can win going forward.
#4 – Content Strategy
An effective content strategy breaks down the clients you serve and the problems you solve into a set of discrete, actionable topics for you to own for the foreseeable future.
A small to mid-sized firm is best served by pursuing a handful of master topics and a near infinite collection of sub-topics. If you have more master topics than fingers, you have a problem on your hands. Inversely, if a master topic only provides the opportunity for a handful of subtopics, you also have a problem on your hands.
The best firms use a thoughtful approach to identify and pursue master topics that align with their firmwide POV, that offer addressable white space, and offer “tentacles back into business” (a line coined by my friend, Bob Buday).
#5 – Editorial Process
Once you have clarity on the topics you’d like to own for the foreseeable future, you need to establish a content development process in order to build a “body of work” around those topics. Handing off a list of topics to a junior marketer and asking them to start writing isn’t going to work.
The best firms pair a seasoned content strategist and content developer with their subject matter experts. They work each topic through an “argument shaping” process that works from a structured outline to bring out the consultant’s best thinking and differentiate it from other voices in the market.
Next, they use the outline process to ensure that before any prose is written a compelling argument has already been made. They work the outline aggressively before going to draft so that the actual writing/editing process can go much faster than it otherwise might.
#6 – Organic Promotion
Wow! It’s step 6 of the framework and we just arrived at the things most firm leaders think of as professional services marketing! Let’s jump in…
Before publishing anything make sure you’ve taken the time to search optimize it. Use your content topics, subtopics, and expertise to build a keyword bank of search phrases you might want to be known for. Put them into a system like Moz to identify your best search opportunities. Then, optimize the Page Title, URL, Headline (H1), and Meta Description for every piece of content you publish.
Next, build a process for sharing your content through social media. Assign a marketer to manage the corporate LinkedIn handle. Encourage partners and subject matter experts to share on their own handles to activate your thinking within their networks. Make this as easy as possible by writing the posts for them or using a system to let them easily pick a post and publish on their own quickly.
Finally, build a plan to promote your content via email marketing. We recommend building a regular cadence of delivery … once a week or twice a month. The goal is to deliver into the inbox with extreme predictability. You’re building a relationship with your subscribers, prospects, and clients such that they come to expect and look forward to receiving your email.
#7 – Expanded Reach
Once your firm has largely mastered the first steps in the framework, you can start investing new ways to get your thinking into wider audiences further beyond your network.
To start, we recommend investing in earned media strategies. At Rattleback, we work with the folks at Expert Press to help our clients build an understanding of the news cycle and get their thinking published in high authority publications like Forbes, Fortune, and Business Insider.
For additional reach, we turn to paid social advertising. Remember all that hard work you did on defining your ideal client? LinkedIn advertising lets you target those decision-makers directly and easily. Use LinkedIn campaigns to target your ideal clients with all that interesting thought leadership you’re developing on the problems you’re helping clients solve.
Usually, we recommend pairing paid social with paid search advertising. Remember that keyword bank you built in Moz? Now’s the time to tap into it and use it to develop targeted advertising for search phrases around the topics you’d like to own, but don’t suspect you’ll be able to anytime soon, at least organically.
Take the First Step
This professional services marketing framework probably feels a little bit overwhelming, particularly if your firm lacks an internal marketing champion. But it doesn’t have to be. My goal was to offer you a glimpse of what everything looks like when it’s firing on all cylinders. For now, just start at the beginning. Download our ideal client template. And spend an hour with a peer writing down what you already know about your best clients. Then just take one step at a time. If you need help, reach out anytime.