Maybe you’ve just been promoted to the Director of Marketing role in your firm, maybe you’ve been marketing professional services firms for some time and just accepted a new post in a consulting firm, or maybe you’re a seasoned B2B marketer who’s fairly new to the consulting industry. Regardless of what brought you to this moment, you may find yourself stuck with the same question, “Now what?” This article lays out a sequence of 5 things I believe any new marketing leader in a mid-sized consulting firm should be thinking about.
For any marketer to be successful, they need to start with clarity on the types of clients they hope to attract. While most consulting firms already have positioning figured out long before they endeavor to hire a non-consultant to lead the marketing post, there are occasional exceptions so it’s important we start at the beginning. If the principals of the firm can’t offer you clear and concise answers to most of these questions you may have a positioning problem on your hands:
- What markets are we in and why have we chosen to compete in them?
- What expertise do we have and where is it most relevant?
- What proof do we have that our expertise is both relevant and valuable? – Examples include marketable case studies and outcomes, fact-based research, and any other “in market” application of our recommended remedy.
If the answers to those questions seem a bit fuzzy in your firm, here are a few other resources you may find useful:
What differentiates one consulting firm from the next in the eyes of a potential client? While positioning is quite often the root of differentiation it’s still just one aspect of what differentiates one firm from the next. Even for the most specific business problem, clients generally have at least a handful of viable alternatives to solve it.
Differentiation is about strategically aligning critical aspects of the firm’s business against its positioning such that it creates something unique and valuable to the firm’s ideal clients. That said, we can’t invest in everything. Generally, a firm has to make decisions about where to invest resources (and where not to) in order to build something tangibly different and uniquely valuable to its ideal clientele.
Usually it’s some combination of these things that works:
- Process and methodology — Maybe your firm has developed a unique process or methodology that has proven to produce tangible results against a specific set or type of business problems. The WorkOut methodology developed by Schaffer Consulting in partnership with GE is a good example of this.
- Proprietary systems, data and techniques — Or, perhaps your firm has built proprietary data or systems you use in your work. SalesBenchmark Index literally built its entire sales and marketing consulting practice around its proprietary benchmarking data.
- Hiring and training practices — Often, the way a firm hires and trains its people is a critical aspect of what makes it unique. For years, much of Accenture’s success was built around the intense learning and teambuilding activities that occurred during the first few months of employment for new consultants at its St. Charles education facility. This bootcamp-like experience was the backbone of the firm’s client engagement process. It was the place that smart people with little technology background became smart technologists with the skills to apply the firm’s rigorous process.
- Culture and philosophy — Rattleback client, Definity Partners, cultivates a “roll up your sleeves” philosophy that earns the trust and respect of their clients. Consultants have an uncanny ability to connect both with firm leaders and their frontline manufacturing workers. In describing the firm’s culture, one client remarked to me that he’d never seen a consultant interact with frontline people this way — “You could see the impact on our team; he was there at 5AM working right alongside them; they actually respected him; I’d never seen that before in a consultant.”
- Brand and communications — While it’s virtually impossible for a consulting firm to differentiate on brand alone, there’s no doubt that the way a firm presents and communicates itself are critical components of how a client perceives the firm’s value.
In most cases, one of these things in isolation is not the basis for meaningful differentiation; generally a firm must invest in multiple areas in order to build something that’s truly unique and tangibly valuable.
Another resource related to differentiation you may find helpful:
#3. Thought Leadership
These days, the intelligent cultivation, development and dissemination of thought leadership has become one of the most important and effective tools in marketing a consulting firm. Done right, thought leadership can become one of a firm’s most effective and valuable tools for attracting potential new clients. Yet, doing it right is quite hard. And, with the rapid explosion of content, cutting through the noise has become harder than ever. What topics should the firm own? What perspective does it have related to those topics? Is that perspective new or unique? Does it solve the given problem in a better way? A more effective way? A less costly way?
For thought leadership to work you need to build a body of work around a handful of topics you’d like to own in the marketplace. You need a clear and proven approach to thought leadership development and content generation. You need a clear editorial process to ensure you have the ability to produce an ongoing flow of content in a sustained and timely manner. You need a clear strategy on how you plan to distribute and promote it. And, you’ll need to support the whole effort with the resources (people, money and technology) to do it effectively. (Oh, is that all? Yes, it’s a lot. But, firms that truly invest themselves in the process of thought leadership can attain extraordinary results — case in point, the growth of CSC Index from a $30M firm to a $250M one in less than a decade due to its development of the concept of Reengineering the Corporation. To learn a bit more on that story, take a look at Bob Buday’s short summary of it).
Other useful resources related to thought leadership strategy, development and promotion:
- The Bloom Group: Seven Hallmarks of Thought Leadership
- Making Thought Leadership Work in Consulting Firms
#4. Website and Systems
A consulting firm’s website is its most important marketing asset. It plays a pivotal role in positioning and differentiating the firm, but it also plays an increasingly critical role in client acquisition. Leading edge firms recognize that their website is just one component of a system of technologies used to attract potential clients, nurture them over time and connect with them when the time is right. At Rattleback, we call it the integrated lead development system and it combines a selection of technologies in a relatively seamless way — CMS, marketing automation and CRM. When built correctly and used together these technologies enable a firm to:
- Attract potential clients it doesn’t know by enabling it to appropriately search optimize its thought leadership.
- Earn the right to market to potential clients through the use of effective calls-to-action.
- Market to clients based on what interests them most.
- Identify potential late stage buyers from their sea of web visitors through the use of behavioral lead scoring.
- Prioritize those clients that appear most likely to engage with a firm like yours and ensure senior partner time spent in business development is as productive as possible.
- Attribute opportunities and won business to specific thought leadership and marketing activities.
- Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t through more effective measurement of outcomes.
Other useful resources related to consulting firm websites:
- Your Website as an Integrated Lead Development System
- Should Marketing Automation Be On Your Consulting Firm’s Agenda?
- Selecting the Right Web Agency for Your Consulting Firm
#5. Marketing Planning
You’re in luck — if you’ve made it this far, we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. You’ve tackled the most strategic aspects of marketing and growing your firm, you’ve invested in the systems necessary to do so, now you need to drive into the tactics and details of how you’ll drive the engine — the marketing plan. Ultimately, we’ve found that an effective marketing plan for a consulting firm needs to cover three macro aspects of the firm’s client acquisition efforts:
- Thought Leadership — What topics do we seek to own? What formats will we produce and when? What is the editorial review process? How will we distribute our thought leadership once it’s developed? We covered most of this above, but the planning process seeks to formalize these things for internal audiences. An effective thought leadership plan should establish both an editorial calendar and a set of editorial roles defining who’s going to do what when.
- Strategies & Tactics — How will we get our firm, its principals and subject matter experts in front of the clients we really covet? What tactics online and off should we use promote the firm? What events should we attend? Where should we seek speaking opportunities? Your plan should take into account all aspects of firm promotion, advertising and events.
- Measurement & Outcomes — Finally, any good plan needs to outline what we hope to accomplish and how we hope to measure it. Ultimately, the plan should establish a link between marketing activities and business development activities. How many quality opportunities will it take to generate the new project opportunities needed to meet the firm’s revenue objectives? What percentage of qualified opportunities have we historically won? How many quality initial meetings does it take to generate that number of opportunities? Historically, which marketing tactics have been our best sources of quality interactions and initial meetings. If there are no established answers, make some inferences and establish a baseline for the next planning cycle.
Other useful resources related to marketing planning:
- A Four-Part Process for Marketing Planning in a Professional Services Firms
- The Effectiveness of a Consultancy’s Marketing Activities
- Where Consulting Firms Spend Marketing Dollars vs. Where They Should
- Should You Be Measuring Your Marketing?
While this blog is far from a “how to market a consulting firm” list, I hope it serves as a useful resource as you embark on your new endeavor.