This article highlights the findings of our research with the Bloom Group on how the world’s most successful thought leadership marketers behave differently.
The recurring theme for this quarter has been demand generation. We’ve written about the push/pull of marketing and business development in a professional firm and the importance of building an internal demand generation engine. And, to paint a picture of what this looks like we shared a story of “unlikely allies” by showing what demand generation looks like in other non-professional services sectors.
But, what does an internal demand generation effort really look like in a professional services firm? What does a demand generating firm do differently? How do the leaders and marketers in these types of firms behave relative to their peers in other firms? What do you need to do differently to become one?
What a Demand Generating Firm Looks Like
As we pointed out in our story of unlikely allies, thought leadership is the tool of demand generation for a professional services firm. While a firm can be highly successful solely with relational selling skills, it cannot meaningfully influence the future demand for its services without a robust thought leadership marketing program. Now, to be clear, I’m not just talking about a content marketing initiative. A content marketer seeks to answer potential clients’ problems. A thought leadership marketer seeks to shape the market — to fundamentally change the dialogue on a substantive topic.
The good news — we have a robust data set to pull from in order to identify and define these types of firms. Last year, we conducted a research study in partnership with the Association of Management Consulting Firms and The Bloom Group. The research sought to identify what the most successful thought leadership marketers do differently — it identified nearly 20 characteristics and behaviors of demand generating firms.
In all, we surveyed nearly 120 consulting firms and grouped the respondents based on the performance of their thought leadership marketing efforts. We identified a group of top performers — roughly 30% of the respondents. And, compared them with a comparably sized group at the bottom of the data set (firms that presumably have nascent or fledgling thought leadership programs).
The analysis found that a demand generating firm delivers:
- 3x as much traffic to their websites
- 3x as many business leads (6x more online)
- 2x more won projects through their digital properties
Additionally, in partnership with the Bloom Group, we identified a wide range of defining characteristics and behaviors of these demand generating firms (in this article we share 7 of 20). In fact, we found that demand generating firms are:
- More Focused
- Client Storytellers
- Multi-Dimensional Marketers
- Digitally- and Search-Minded
- Committed to Continuous Improvement
Let’s take a look at each one in a bit more detail.
#1 – More Focused
Demand generating firms are much better than their peers at staying on task. They don’t just invest in thought leadership, they do a better job of consistently staying in their lanes. They almost always focus on topics where they have deep expertise and avoid developing content that is scatter shot in nature.
#2 – Process-Driven
Additionally, demand generating firms recognize it’s their responsibility to bring rigor to the process of thought leadership development. They can’t just rely on senior principals and consultants to “write about the questions their clients ask.” Nor, can they just leave subject matter experts to their own devices to produce original ideas. No. Demand generating firms are much more likely to force their consultants to summarize their ideas and develop outlines of their thinking before beginning the writing process.
As part of that process and rigor, demand generating firms are much more likely to utilize original primary research as the basis for their thought leadership in the first place. In fact, a much larger percentage of demand generating firms cite research as their most effective source of thought leadership content:
#3 – Client Storytellers
While many consulting firms cite client confidentiality issues as a substantial barrier to marketing their work, demand generating firms find ways around this. They largely accomplish this by highlighting their clients’ successes — by telling stories from their clients’ perspective rather than their own. And, by featuring their client work as an example of a best practices way to solve a problem without specifically stating that the client hired them to do so. As a result, demand generating firms are more likely to cite real world examples in their thought leadership marketing efforts.
#4 – Multi-Dimensional Marketers
Demand generating firms recognize that it’s becoming more difficult to get their thinking into the hands of senior client executives. Clients are simply more compressed for time than they’ve ever been. As a result, marketers can’t just rely on one or two of the same old tactics they’ve always used — speaking at industry conferences, perhaps. Demand generating firms tend to be much more multi-dimensional in their content delivery practices. Yes, they’re speaking at conferences. But, they’re also publishing blogs, testing podcasts, and developing interactive content. In total, demand generators are 20% more likely to leverage at least 3 content types in their major thought leadership initiatives than their peers.
#5 – Digitally- and Search-Minded
While all firms still tend to spend slightly more of their marketing budgets offline than they do online, demand generating firms still invest more online than their peers. In fact, demand generating firms allocate 6-7% more of their budget to digital marketing efforts than typical firms.
Digging a layer beneath the macro spend, demand generating firms allocate their digital marketing efforts differently. In contrast to their peers, the demand generators invest more of their budget towards SEO and SEM and less of their budget towards social media. In total, demand generating firms spend 1.5X more on these activities. This is largely consistent with our opinion that search is the closest thing your firm has to a mass-media advertising channel for your thought leadership (and your services).
#6 – Technology-Oriented
Over the course of a year, I talk to hundreds of professional services marketers. If I had to characterize, I would say the majority of professional services leaders and even some senior marketers are technology averse. While they may express a desire to measure their outcomes at least at a broad level, they’re often reticent to invest in the marketing technologies needed to do so. Often, they hide behind “relational selling” and consistently ignore the bad selling behaviors of their senior partners (think: resisting firmwide CRM initiatives or resisting attempts to follow sales process). They routinely tell themselves, “these things can’t be measured” and they give partners a free pass when it comes to using CRM on a regular basis.
By contrast, demand generating firms are much more likely to measure their marketing efforts and they embrace marketing technology (specifically marketing automation and CRM) to do so.
#7 – Committed to Continuous Improvement
Demand generating firms operate with the mindset that perfect is the enemy of good. They’re more likely to regularly A/B test their digital marketing efforts on all levels — from email subject lines to headlines and images on web pages. Simultaneously, they’re more likely to conduct regular usability studies of their web properties. In fact, nearly 40% of the demand generators study their site’s usability once each year (by contrast, 40% of other firms never have). Collectively, these behaviors demonstrate not just a desire to be better tomorrow than they are today but a set of processes enacted to increase the likelihood of that actually happening in reality.
The Final, and Most Important Characteristic of Demand Generating Firms
Up until now, everything I’ve shared with you has been largely rooted in the data of our past research into these areas. That said, one of the more interesting aspects of this study to me was the propensity of demand generating firms to put marketing in control of thought leadership development. In fact, 56% of demand generators have done so. By contrast, only 41% of other firms have done the same.
While the data set doesn’t tell us this, my intuition and experience tells me the real difference in behavior lies in who (and potentially how) demand generating firms hire. Demand generating firms are more likely to invest in strong senior marketing leaders – they’re not turning an existing ‘professional’ into a marketer nor are they pigeon-holing their marketing team as a support function. They’re hiring strong senior marketing leaders, giving them a voice at the table, and handing them the keys to do what they do best:
- Bring focus, process and rigor to the marketing effort
- Make smart decisions about where and how to invest in digital properties
- And, lean into the marketing technology necessary both to prove and improve the firm’s overall marketing performance.
This article owes a great deal of gratitude to Bob Buday and his thought leadership marketing experts at the Bloom Group. While I may have written the words, much of the insight underlying these behaviors comes from the time we’ve spent together on the phone, working with clients, and in our annual thought leadership marketing event — details of the 2017 event to follow in the next month or so.