This post provides 8 reasons for a professional services firm to make the web core to its business strategy going forward.
These are the facts, and they’re largely indisputable:
- We buy music online (in fact, globally, roughly 50% of all music revenue is “digital”).
- We stream shows and movies online (over 40% of all households do now).
- We find dates online (15% of us have).
- Increasingly, we find our news online (it’s been the fastest growing news source since 2006).
- We buy insurance online (even as far back as 2009, 21% of people bought life insurance online).
- We find jobs online (34% of job seekers say online resources were their most important resource when looking for a job; compared to only ~20% saying it was personal connections).
- And, many of us find the love of our life online (28% of us between the ages of 45-64 know someone who has).
In virtually all these categories, the Internet, either as a source of simply researching and learning or as a source of actually conducting commerce is growing, while more “traditional” means of doing things are shrinking. Yet, often, when we broach the subject in the context of a professional services firm we act as though somehow the laws of physics don’t apply. Somehow, these web-enabled interactions we have in all other forms of our daily lives won’t spill over to the way we operate and make decisions in a corporate environment.
As an agency that makes its living helping firms attract clients online, we regularly hear comments like these — “I can’t recall us ever getting a client through our website” or “I just can’t see our clients going to Google to look for an engineering firm.” And, while I’m sure these comments feel 100% true because they’re based in past personal experience, can’t you just hear a record executive in a board room somewhere 15 years ago saying, “These file-sharing networks will never impact music sales!”
As human beings we have a tendency to look backwards in an attempt to look forwards. We look at how things have worked in the past and use it as a proxy for how things will work in the future. When we drive we use a teeny, tiny rear view mirror to remind us where we’ve been. But, when we grab the helm of a business we use a mirror the size of a billboard that shows us where we’ve been and then we cut a small hole out of the middle to peek at what might be coming. When we widen that opening just a bit, we see a whole lot interesting things on the other side.
8 Reasons the Web Needs to Be Core to Your Business Strategy Going Forward
Beyond just business intuition, here are 8 reasons why I think you need to make the web a top priority going forward:
- Consulting Clients Tell Us Websites are Important — In our 2015 Thought Leadership Best Practices Report developed in partnership with AMCF and The Bloom Group, clients told us that 2 of the top 5 ways they find consulting firms involved firms’ websites.
- And, They Tell Us They Consume Thought Leadership Online — In that same study, clients told us that virtually all their most frequented sources of learning (providers of thought leadership content) were online.
- Leading Consulting Marketers Spend More Online — Digging deeper into that same study, we found that the consulting firms that generate the most leads from marketing spend 12% more of their budget online.
- And, They Told Us That SEO Works — In fact, collectively the marketers in the study told us that search engine optimization was their most effective marketing tactic in 2015.
- A/E Firms Are Attracting Clients Online — While there’s less substantive data for this segment, we have anecdotal examples of firms that are having success with web-based thought leadership (For 4 specific examples, see page 5 of our eBook on content marketing in the A/E practice).
- Clients are Retiring — This year marks the pivotal transition year for the C-suite: in 2016, the youngest Boomers are now 51 and the oldest members of Generation X are also now 51. The average age of the CXO is 51-57. So, the C-suite is officially in transition. The limited research we have (in addition to our own experience) tells us that this new C-suite is more likely to value knowledge and thought leadership in their buying process than their predecessors. Also, many of them got much of their early career or management experiences in the mid-90s, which was widely considered the birth of the commercial Internet. The Internet, as a tool, has been wired into their daily business life as long as they’ve been working.
- Increasingly, We Start at Google — A Pew Research study into how we read and research information in the digital age found that students’ first source of research for an assignment is Google. And, it’s not even close: 94% of students start with Google. Well down the list at 42% are students that start by asking their peers. Clearly these numbers wouldn’t like be as stark for people in their 40s or 50s, but the shift is still there. According to IBM, members of GenX place more value on what they garner from articles, papers and blogs than on what they learn from the advice of colleagues.
- And, We Trust Google — In a way, Google is changing the way we perceive expertise. More than once I’ve had a potential client say to me, “I Googled XYZ, and your agency came up. I Googled ABC, and your agency came up again. So, I figure you must really know something about this topic.” Think about that for a minute. Clients are literally inferring knowledge and expertise from the results provided by Google’s algorithm. Increasingly, when Google tells us that content belongs at the top of an organic search we’ve come to more readily believe it has value. If Google says it’s good, it must be. Therefore, whoever produced it must be good too. It’s as if Google has become your new “trusted advisor” — except it’s a faceless algorithm.
But, We Don’t Hire a Firm Like We Buy Music
Okay, I get it. You can’t just click a button and buy a multi-million dollar advisory relationship. That said, we have to realize that a client’s journey to hire a firm is just that — a journey. And, their journey has a variety of steps along the way that we have the power to influence.
For a client to hire a professional firm they need to have a problem. For instance, they need to expand a production facility, build a new corporate campus, or streamline an operating process. Whatever the problem is, they seek to understand it before they act. In the past, maybe they talked to firms or went to industry events. These days, they have the additional option of going online. They can go to online industry journals, firm websites, or Google to research and understand their situation.
They can extend that journey to identify and pre-evaluate some potential service providers. If it’s a really big investment likely do meet and talk with existing firms they’ve worked with or are working with to understand it more clearly. Regardless, they’re exploring their options and seeking clarity. The role of marketing is to educate the client during this phase of research and exploration. This should be the bulk of your marketing investment.
Once they’ve established some clarity around what they’re trying to accomplish, they begin to evaluate potential firms who can help them. This is the moment when they begin to have conversations in earnest. Maybe they have a formal process for evaluating and selecting a firm. Maybe they don’t. Either way, this is the time when your business development effort kicks in. Meetings and conversations happen. Proposals are generated. And, all those relational selling skills you’ve cultivated over decades come to bear.
For a lot of firms, especially A/E firms, the marketing effort has historically been driven primarily at this moment of evaluation forward. Virtually all the resources have been applied to the effort that is required to turn a potential opportunity into a project and a client. While this is understandable, it leaves the firm largely blind into the early stages of a client’s buying journey. And, it significantly reduces the firm’s ability to influence the buying process. Sure, a talented principal or business development person can “get left” of an opportunity at times, but it’s going to be harder and harder to do through traditional selling skills when the client’s new advisor is Google.
So, no, client’s can’t really hit “buy” on your website. But, you can, and should, place your firm in the path of your client’s research path. And, increasingly, the best place to do that is through your own website or through other trusted online publications.
Finally, You Should Know, The Best Firms I’ve Hired, I Found Online.
Yes, I’m a marketer. Our agency provides marketing advice and services to professional services firms. But, I’m also a business owner. Wearing that hat, I’ve hired more than my fair share of professional services firms. And, I’ve hired them in a variety of different ways:
- Architecture — In 2007-2008, we hired an architecture firm to lead a massive renovation of our office building. After interviewing a handful of firms referred to us, we eventually found the firm we hired online.
- Construction — Shortly thereafter, we hired a commercial construction firm to do the work. The firm was referred to us by the architect.
- Consulting — Around 2009, I hired an operations consulting firm that came to me via a cold call and introductory meeting. The results of that engagement were tepid at best.
- Consulting — Not long after, I hired an organizational development firm that came to me via a referral. The results were decent though short-lived.
- Consulting — A few years later, I hired a strategy consultant that I found online. Within the first 12 months, he easily delivered a 25:1 return on his work. I’ve recently begun working with him again and have seen a similar return within just 60 days of our 2nd engagement.
When I look back at those experiences, I feel like they shape the way I make business decisions. They form my “rear view mirror.” And, what my mirror tells me is that some of my very best, most successful business relationships started online — that doesn’t mean all of them have. But, it does mean that the web has become a meaningful place for me to learn, to research, to seek, and to select professional services firms. My intuition, and much of the available data I’ve shared in this post, tells me that the incoming C-Suite very likely feels much the same.