In this post, we’re only going to look at the 2 stages of buying where the web appears to have its most active role in the buying process — Researching and Evaluating. And, we’ll outline the sections of the consulting firm’s website that play the most critical role during each phase.
The framework for this post is outlined in my recent article on the 8 Stages of the Buyer’s Journey and the Professional Service Firm Website. Here’s an image from that article that shows how the web fits into the buying process at a high-level:
1. Researchers and the Consulting Firm Website
The research stage in advance of a major consulting engagement could easily be just a few months to well over a year or a few years. During this earliest stage of the buying process, there’s really two types of research activities that occur:
- Issues-Based Research
- Firm-Oriented Research
This is research driven towards the fundamental challenges the client is facing in their business. It’s often problem-oriented and conceptual in nature. Clients use issues-based research to frame their thinking about a concept. Essentially, they’re looking for objective perspective on how to diagnose a problem based on a set of indicators they see in their business or they’re looking for answers to how to solve a problem they’ve already identified. Issues-based research can be driven by challenges related to the prospect’s industry or category, their role within the corporation, or an area of the business for which they’re responsible. Issues-based research is generally organized in the form of a series of questions. Some examples could be:
- What are the prevailing models for structuring a software company’s sales force? What are the pros and cons of each?
- What factors drive success when introducing advanced manufacturing techniques to a production line?
- What are best practices for introducing lean manufacturing techniques?
- What are the most critical success factors for an effective CEO succession?
- What are the defining characteristics of today’s most innovative companies?
- What are the primary drivers of employee engagement?
- Why do acquisitions in the pharmaceutical industry fail? Why do they succeed?
Relevant Site Content: Knowledge Centers and Thought Leadership
Issues-based researchers will find a home inside your firm’s knowledge center and thought leadership channels. In fact, there’s a good chance they’ll spend virtually all their time inside this area of your website. If you have sound research and well articulated thought leadership on the right issues, it can often be the client’s first entry-point into your firm. Even in the world’s largest most reputable firms, the majority of site visitors do not enter through the homepage — they usually enter through thought leadership pages via web search.
Maybe your firm has a structured research program, maybe it publishes a quarterly publication, or maybe you rely on a collection of issues-based blogs. Regardless your thought leadership positions you as a value-added resource for the client BEFORE they even think about talking with a consulting firm.
Roughly 70% of your firm’s website content development efforts should be focused on producing this type of issues-based content.
This research generally occurs towards the latter half of the stage. Once a client has done the due diligence to feel they have a sense of what’s driving their problem AND have formulated their opinion of how best to solve it, they begin to identify and seek potential partners. While clients tend to first turn to trusted colleagues inside and outside their company for advice on potential partners, online search tends to be the fifth most important resource for clients looking for firms (see Bloom Group 2013 Study on Social Media Uses in Consulting Firms). So, clients do specifically seek consulting firms online. Some examples of questions a client might be asking in relation to a firm at this stage could be:
- Who are the leading sales and marketing consultants to the software industry?
- Who are the leaders in the firm’s Operational Improvement practice? Have they written or spoken on issues related to advanced manufacturing recently? What have they done in that area?
- What types of succession situations have they led? What types of companies — public, private, both? Do they have examples of companies in my industry? Companies like mine?
Relevant Site Content: Case Studies, Firm and Consultant Profiles
Once a buyer has framed the issues driving their investment, they start to shift toward formulating preliminary impressions about which firms they might be interested in working with on the project. At this point in time, they start to migrate away from the firm’s thought leadership towards more traditional marketing content.
They generally look first toward case studies to get a sense of the firm’s past experience and the impact of its work. Then, they spend time within the firm’s actual marketing content — practice area overviews, explanations of disciplines and services, profiles of lead consultants within those practices, and any other content related to how the firm tells its corporate story. Keep in mind, the buying stage that directly follows research is the resolving stage. Essentially, once a client has established a perspective of what needs to be done, they look to build the confidence and organizational commitment to move forward. To the extent possible, these elements of your site should be structured to inspire your clients about the prospect of working with you. You’re looking to offer a vision of a better reality, both for the client personally and for their organization.
During the stages of resolving and planning, clients tend to go dark relative to their interactions with a firm’s website. They may make short site visits here and there, but they’re not meaningful interactions. However, once a client emerges from the planning phase, they enter the evaluation stage and go back into learning mode. They’ll likely to return to the site for at least a few more meaningful visits. The site plays a critical role in the pre-evaluation stage of a client’s journey. This is the informal stage of evaluation where clients vett the collection of firms they identified during the research stage to determine whether they’d like to have more formal interactions with them.
Relevant Site Content: Thought Leadership and Consultant Profile
Contrary to what you might think, at this point in the process, clients are likely to spend less time in a firm’s example case studies . The research phase already largely weeded out the firms less qualified to do the work. If your firm’s still in the consideration set, the client has already largely concluded that the firm’s reputation and experience meets their expectation.
At this point, the client is trying to get a sense of what it might be like to work with you. They’re looking for any cues that might describe the culture, the firm’s orientation towards client service, and how an engagement might be delivered. To our surprise, the evaluative buyer tends to return to the firm’s thought leadership channels. Yet, they’re not squarely returning in a learning and educational capacity as much as they are with an eye toward what the firm’s people are like based on what interests them and how they write. And, clearly, they will spend much of their time with the people-oriented aspects of the site. They’re essentially validating the people they might work with. This is often true even if they’ve already had conversations and potentially, face-to-face meetings.
So, how can you use this information to make your website a more effective selling tool for your firm and advisory tool to your clients?
- Psychological States — As you look at each stage, you’ll notice that the buyer is in a different psychological state at various points in the buying cycle. This can have an impact on the style, media and tone of communications. Content targeted towards the issues-based researcher should focus on being educational, objective and thorough while content targeted towards the firm-oriented researcher should focus on quickly communicating outcomes and impact. Finally, content targeted towards the evaluator should focus on making the firm’s people feel personable and real.
- Better Call-to-Actions — Ultimately, when you extrapolate the buying process further it becomes abundantly clear that firms need to think about the progression of calls-to-action more thoroughly. Instead of that static “contact button”, firms should consider a variety of different points of conversion such as subscription offers, targeted content offers, and showcasing critical personnel.
- Identify Buyers at Different Points in Their Journey — This insight can help you allocate business development resources towards people based on where they appear to be in their buying process. With marketing automation and lead scoring mechanisms, a firm has the ability to identify later stage buyers based largely on their behavior. At first, you’ll use this solely as a tool to prioritize potential clients for targeted, proactive business development outreach. Eventually, you’ll use this information to help you deliver a more personalized web experience based on what interests people and where they are in their buying journey.
Other Useful Information