While most firm leaders’ perceive their website as a late stage affirmation tool, clients actually use a firm’s website as an early stage learning tool.
Over the years, I’ve come to the realization that there are 4 stages a client goes through in hiring a professional services firm. And, we’ve found that there is a direct relationship between what clients do during each of these stages and what you should be doing as a firm to enable them along their journey. For example, during Stage 1 clients seek learning to understand the context of a problem they face. In response, your firm should be developing an ample supply of high quality thought leadership that provides answers to those challenges. In short, you should be mapping a client’s objective at each stage to the activities you perform within marketing and business development to enable them.
Coinciding with each set of activities are a set of tools you can use as a professional services marketer to be successful. The tools in your arsenal range from your website, to marketing automation, CRM, Intranets, DAM and ERP. There are, of course, many more, but those are the big ones in most firms. You may be using all these technologies or you might just be using a few. Regardless, they are the primary tools at your disposal that can help advance the success of your marketing and business development activities while enabling your clients’ to successfully accomplish their objectives at each stage of the buying process.
I’ve also noticed that firm leaders’ perception of one of these tools— the corporate website — is often in the wrong place. They see it as a late stage buying tool, when it really should be an early stage marketing tool:
Websites Don’t Belong on the Right Side of the Model
A lot of firm leaders see their corporate website as little more than a late stage affirmation tool. The site exists primarily to provide proof of the firm’s credentials. Leads and new client conversations occur primarily via referrals and outbound business development activities. It is largely, and often falsely, believed that the first time a client would actually visit a firm’s website is quite late in the buying process. In these firms, senior partners see the website primarily as a tool clients use to evaluate a short list of firms they’re considering hiring. They’re already in the sales dialogue and the site is seen as a reference tool.
This is readily apparent based on the content these firms prioritize on their web properties. Much of the existing site real estate is used to showcase the firm’s past experience in a wide range of projects and client types — to build confidence in already engaged prospects. Simultaneously, the firm goes to great lengths to articulate its key points of difference from other firms like it — “we use only seasoned people, you’ll have access to senior partners, we guarantee our work unconditionally.” The firm is trying to create separation in a late stage buying process therefore these messages are seen as highly important. As a result, they’re often found directly on the homepage or are linked from a page in the main site navigation labeled “Why Us.”
Websites Belong on the Left Side of the Model
The problem is that virtually all our experience and the data from our site (and our clients’ sites) tell us this is not when or how clients use firm’s websites. Actually, as it turns out, clients use websites much earlier in the hiring process. They use them first and foremost during the learning process. They find firm’s websites via search when they’re seeking answers to major challenges they face in their business. They might physically seek what your firm has to say on the topic (“What is McKinsey saying about AI?”) or more likely they’re generally researching a topic (“What are the best opportunities to bring AI into supply chain planning?”). Usually, they’re finding these answers, through Google, within a firm’s thought leadership. Or, they’re finding them through industry journals or events that often point them back to your firm’s thought leadership in one way or another.
Second, they use websites during the vetting stages before they initiate many (or any) meaningful conversations with firms. Often, they know some of those firms coming into their learning process (we’re going to invite TBM consulting into a conversation about operational excellence). But, usually the learning process yields new firms they might not otherwise have considered (huh, I didn’t know Arup had an operations consulting practice?) In both situations, the website plays a critical role in migrating the client from their very early stage of learning into their next stage of vetting.
This is also readily apparent based on the content these firms prioritize on their web properties. Thought leadership is the most critical asset on the site, hence, it has a place directly in the corporate navigation bar and represents the vast majority of new content added on a regular basis. Firm and practice descriptions are less about conjuring a comparison with peers and more about demonstrating how the firm has developed clearly defined solutions to the problems so well articulated through its thought leadership. In short, the site’s content is client-centric rather than competitor-centric.
What Needs to Change
If you find that your site exists primarily on the right side of this model and you want to pull your site back where it belongs (squarely on the left), where can you start?
First, you’ll have to do some change management within your leadership team. You’ll have to face down the prevailing mindsets and beliefs within the firm. Face the stiff resistance of “we’ve never had a client find us via the web” with even stiffer resistance. Remind partners that they’re ignoring a whole lot of independent data about how clients buy while over-relying on their inability to conjure specific examples from within the autonomous portion of their brain (they’re suffering from the availability heuristic; more on that another time). In short, just because they can’t recall it happening this way doesn’t mean it’s not happening this way all around them. They’re simply blind to logic and new information due to their inability to quickly recall specific personal experiences.
Second, change the conversation about the very nature of your marketing activities. Take the high ground. Restate the mission of your marketing effort. Spend less time talking about lead generation and revenue gain. And, spend more time talking about the big issues clients are struggling with and the new insight you’ll bring to the table. Make the mission of your firm’s marketing effort to educate clients on issues that really matter to them. And, remain firm and confident that as long as you do that, leads will eventually follow. We proved this in our first survey on content marketing back in 2012.
It’s easy to be dismissive of a website’s increasingly critical role in attracting new clients and opportunities to your firm if you’ve never directly experienced it before. It’s even easier to become despondent if you’re 12-18 months into a new content marketing initiative and aren’t seeing many of the results you’d hoped at this stage of the game. But, don’t give up. As we’ve said over and over again through the years, success in digital marketing looks a lot more like a marathon than a sprint.