Once upon a time, creating a marketing plan for your professional services firm was relatively easy.
Which conferences were you going to attend? Which local events were you going to sponsor? How much discretionary networking budget were you going to allocate to each partner?
For the adventitious, you might try putting on an educational event or dabble in some advertising. Oh, and don’t forget to redo your firm brochure. It’s been two years since the last update.
Ah, the good old days. Gone but not forgotten.
Creating a Marketing Plan is Getting Harder
Creating a marketing plan for a modern professional services firm is an entirely different matter.
How prospective clients go about understanding the challenges facing their organization is very different than even a few years ago.
With the rise of instant global communications, potential clients have a world of possibilities before them. No need to settle for the firm down the street just because they happen to be local. It’s just as easy to hire the leading specialist from Seattle or Singapore.
And clients’ expectations are changing. They expect free education and total transparency. And by the way, can they get more and pay less? After all, that is what your clients are being forced to provide. Why shouldn’t they expect the same from their professional services firm?
What’s a marketer to do?
Four Approaches to Marketing Planning
While most firms are faced with the task of planning for growth, they do not approach it in the same way. We have observed four general methods:
- Ad Hoc. Many firms do little, if any, forward planning. The marketing tactics they choose are tied to their immediate needs (e.g., “We need more business NOW!”) or random opportunities, such as being approached for a sponsorship. With this approach, consistent results are often elusive.
- Legacy Budget Planning. At other firms, change is hard: “This is the way we have always done it, so let’s make a few minor adjustments and do the same thing next year.” Or, “We always exhibit at this conference, so we’ll do it again.” Usually, there is little analysis of prior results or interest in whether the competitive environment has changed.
- Consensus Budget Planning. In many partnerships, the owner group will “brainstorm” marketing ideas and build a budget and plan based on the accumulated suggestions. While everyone gets some of what they want, consensus-based marketing planning tends to be overly ambitious and unfocused — and doomed to ineffectiveness.
- Strategic Marketing Planning. In this approach, a firm develops a systematic plan based on its strategic business goals and an informed understanding of its relevant target client groups. The firm allocates its budget in a way that maximizes the probability of success and harnesses efficiencies. Over the course of the year, the firm tracks results and uses them to adjust the plan going forward. This is the approach we recommend — and the one we describe in this post.
How Much Should You Spend on Your Marketing Budget?
There are two basic ways to determine your overall marketing budget: bottom-up and top-down.
In the bottom-up approach, you identify which strategies and tactics will allow you to achieve your marketing goals. You then determine the likely expenses associated with implementing that strategy. The sum of these expenses becomes your marketing budget.
The top-down approach involves benchmarking your spending levels and allocations against firms that are similar to yours. For instance, you might model your marketing strategy and tactics on those used by market leaders.
In fact, most firms tend to use some of each approach. The top-down approach can be used to set overall spending levels, while the bottom-up approach can inform how you will fund specific initiatives.
Below, we recommend a process for developing your marketing plan and associated budget. But first, there are some things to keep in mind as you benchmark your budget against comparable firms.
Benchmarking Your Marketing Budget
Your first challenge is to decide which peer group firms to benchmark yourself against. To make the right choice, you need to consider several factors:
Industry Group. Industries within the professional services universe can spend quite differently from each other on marketing (see Figure 1*). Some of these differences are driven by the way their services are used. Ongoing compliance-based services, such as accounting, tend to have lower expenses. Segments whose buyers have fewer recurring needs, such as some consulting or technology services, require greater investment to capture a sufficient stream of new clients to drive growth.
Hybrid Firms. Some firms defy easy classification, offering a wide range of services across different professions. For example, many large CPA firms also offer consulting, technology and human resource management services. When we produce budget benchmarks for these complex firms, we typically develop a composite benchmark using a service mix that reflects their unique offerings.
Firm Size. Smaller firms typically spend a higher proportion of their revenue on marketing. The reason is that marketing a firm of any size requires a similar set of tools (a website, for instance) which can eat up a larger slice of a small firm’s marketing budget. Also, larger firms tend to have more visibility in the marketplace and a larger referral base — so it’s easier to sustain their momentum. A strong brand is easier to maintain than it is to build.
What’s Included. Different firms include different expenses in their marketing budgets. For example, some include staff salaries while others don’t. And infrequent, large expenses — such as a firm rebrand or a new website — can drive significant variation from year to year. So make sure you understand what is included in your benchmark.
Timing. The level and pattern of marketing spending also changes over time, so it is important to have current data. At Hinge, we have seen marked variations in year-to-year spending trends across the professional services industries. This is why we collect fresh spending data each year to advise our clients.
Comparison Group. Most benchmarking data compares your firm to averages. This allows you to measure yourself against typical firms in your industry. While such a comparison is helpful, we believe that you should also compare your marketing budget to the fastest-growing, most successful firms. So we recommend benchmarking against both average-growth and high-growth firms. This practice is very helpful when deciding how to allocate funds across a variety of strategies.
How do you access this type of specialized benchmarking data? One source is industry trade groups. Another common source is firms that do this sort of benchmarking research. For example, the Hinge Research Institute (a division of Hinge) provides this sort of data for the professional services. Once you have a set of budget benchmarks to inform your decision making, you are ready to develop a marketing plan and budget for your professional services firm.
How To Develop Your Marketing Plan
1. Start with Business Goals
Strategic marketing starts with your firm’s strategic goals. What are you trying to achieve? Do you want to grow the firm? By how much? Over what time period?
But business goals go beyond the overall numbers. You’ll want to understand which segments of the practice are the best targets for growth. Most firms have a range of different client types that buy a variety of specific services.
Here is a simple three-step process to organize your growth planning:
Step 1: Consider Existing Strengths
What industry verticals are already strengths? What kind of services are you good at delivering? Most established firms have a large number of industry/service combinations to consider, since past growth has often been opportunistic. But, where do you offer the most value and enjoy the greatest success? Strengths offer a great starting place.
Step 2: Identify Possible Growth Areas
Your target audiences may or may not be high-growth industries. Committing resources to a target audience with limited growth opportunities may not be a good long-term strategy. This task may require some basic secondary market research. Research allows you to move away from what you think to what your prospects think. It reduces risk. We’ll discuss the research process in more detail in the next chapter.
Step 3: Start Where You Are but Build Toward Opportunities
Consider which services you are best prepared to offer today. Think about which industries your clients are in. Look at your service offerings. In which areas do you already excel? By now, you may have several promising practice areas. You may offer a service that is unique, or one that offers greater value than your competitors. Take note of these, but don’t pick a winner yet. Your next task, described in the following chapter, will set you apart because so few firms do it.
Where can you deliver the best value? Which segments will be the easiest to grow? Where are you already experiencing growth? Once you have narrowed your choices, it is time to get a deeper understanding of your target audience.
2. Research Your Target Audiences
The next step in preparing a strategic marketing plan is to identify and research your target audiences. Let’s start by explaining the concept of a target audience.
Who Are Your Target Audiences?
Your target audiences are the groups of people you need to reach to execute your marketing strategy. Potential clients are an obvious example. But of course, this audience could be further segmented by industry, by role, or both. And of course, it is not just the final decision maker that is important here. Individual influencers, and sometimes a formal selection committee, often advise the person who makes the ultimate buying decision.
Then there are potential referral sources that open doors for you. In some circumstances, referral sources can be so influential that they become de facto decision makers. There can also be outside influencers who shape widely held opinions of your firm. Examples include journalists, industry analysts and influential thought leaders.
In many industries, raging talent wars can severely impact a firm’s ability to deliver on its promises. This makes potential employees or subcontractors important target audiences, as well. Think of these efforts as building your employer brand.
After thinking through all the possible people you need to reach, you may find that you have more target audiences than you can reasonably address. So how do you prioritize and select audiences? Many firms conduct research on multiple potential audiences or market segments to help them choose the most responsive markets.
The Real Benefits of Research
There are multiple benefits associated with researching your target audience. The first and most obvious of these is that research provides greater insight into the people you want to reach. This insight allows you to reduce marketing risk and accelerate growth. This is especially important in turbulent and rapidly changing marketplaces.
In fact our research shows that firms that do regular research into their target audiences grow faster and tend to be more profitable than their peers who go with their gut instincts and anecdotal experience.
The second major benefit of research is that it also makes exceptionally valuable content. Prospective clients love to know what is happening in their industry and compare themselves to their competitors.
3. Develop Your Marketing Strategy
We believe that an effective strategy should have four key elements.
- Targets. As we introduced in the section on research, identifying and understanding your target audiences are key to the success of your plan. Any firm that feels “everyone” is the right target for its service is at a distinct disadvantage. Its efforts will be spread so thin as to have no impact on anyone. This is the section of the plan where you specify what target audiences you will focus on. Resist the temptation to try to be everything to everyone.
- Differentiators. What sets your firm or practice apart from your competitors? The research we described in the Research Your Target Audiences section above will often help you discover differentiators that you may not have been aware of before. For example, you might learn that the unique way you deliver your findings is unusually helpful to clients. Or you might choose a differentiator. For example, you might decide to specialize in a specific industry or type of service. In either case, each differentiator must pass three critical tests: it must be true, provable and relevant to your clientele.
- Positioning. Next, include the market positioning of your firm. How is your firm positioned relative to key competitors? Is your firm the low-cost alternative? Are you the specialists that command top dollar? Your positioning is built upon your differentiators. They are the bricks that build the house that is your market positioning. Your positioning gives your audiences the cohesive and compelling story they need to prefer your firm over competitors.
- Messages. What key messages do each of your audiences need to hear? These will likely vary from audience to audience. For instance, potential employees are probably going to be interested in different things than your referral sources. Having said that, the key messages must not contradict each other — and they should be consistent with your firm’s overall market positioning. We find that it’s also very helpful in this section of your plan to capture common objections that you encounter in the marketplace, as well as how to overcome them.
Once you have documented your overall strategy, it’s time to select the marketing techniques and tactics that will deliver the key messages to your target audiences.
4. Select Your Marketing Techniques
This is where a lot of firms start their marketing planning and budgeting: “Hmm, which new marketing technique should we try this year?” Bad idea. Unless you understand your business situation, audiences and strategy first, you will almost certainly make some counterproductive choices.
The research you do into your target audiences will also tell you which communications channels they are already using. Why choose Twitter if no one in your target audience is on it? And do you really want to miss the conference that 70% of your target audience attends?
You still have some important choices to make. You will need to balance your offline and online presence. As Figure 2 illustrates, most traditional offline marketing techniques also have digital analogues. Traditional speaking engagements have a corresponding webinar alternative. There is print and digital advertising. Each format has advantages and disadvantages.
Our research has shown that the fastest growing and most profitable firms tend to use a mix of both. But be cautious. Don’t spread yourself so thin that nothing you do has an impact — dabbling doesn’t work well. Going deeper with fewer techniques typically delivers better results.
Also, different techniques can have different levels of efficiency and impact. Our research on high-growth firms shows that some techniques simply work better than others. Equipped with this information — and when trying to choose between two competing techniques — you can select the options that empirically deliver more impact.
5. Set Specific Goals and Determine How You Will Track Them
You might think that it makes logical sense to select goals before techniques. But here is the catch. Each technique lends itself to certain tracking mechanisms. Modern technology makes some metrics easy to track, so when it makes sense, take advantage of what is readily available to you.
At a high level, there are four areas of tracking that make sense for most professional services firms. Let’s take a look at each of them.
- Business Outcomes. Business outcomes are based on the high-level business goals that we explored in the first step of the budgeting and planning exercise. Revenue growth, number and type of new clients, profitability and new leads are all examples of business outcomes. In many ways, these measures track the success of your marketing plan. These metrics can typically be tracked in firms’ financial or CRM systems.
- Visibility. Most professional services firms want to increase the visibility of their expertise. In our experience, the single most representative measure of visibility is external website traffic. The more people who know of your firm, the more website traffic you will receive. This measure can be further refined by looking at traffic to certain sections of your website. For example, you might monitor traffic to the careers section of your site to track the visibility of your recruiting campaign. Other measures of visibility might include traffic to your social media pages or the growth of your email database. You might even develop an index that incorporates all of these yardsticks.
- Expertise. Tracking changes in your perceived expertise can be tricky, but it is possible. To do so, you need specific, tangible indicators. For example, you could track how many people download your white papers, view your blog posts (assuming that your blog posts demonstrate expertise) or attend your speaking events. After all, people who consume your educational content are demonstrating an interest in your expertise, and by quantifying that interest you can get a measure of how much people trust your knowledge and opinions over time. You could add another dimension to this view by tracking how many people consume multiple pieces of your content. Those who consume it on an ongoing basis are likely to consider your firm highly authoritative.
- Implementation. Another variable to track is how well you are implementing the marketing techniques in your plan. Are the events happening as scheduled? Are your designated articles actually being published? Often, the reason a technique is not working is that it is not being implemented according to the plan. This kind of information is also very helpful when you run into problems or need to adjust your implementation.
Setting Appropriate Goals
Knowing where to set your goals is something of an art form. On one hand, you must take into account the current level of baseline performance — what is reasonable to achieve given your situation? On the other hand, you must consider what it will take to achieve the business outcome you desire (see below). The level of impact you need from a marketing technique will also help you decide how much effort to put toward it.
6. Identify Effort Levels and Required Resources for Success.
What will it take to be successful? How often should you publish blog posts or offer webinars? What level of effort will you need from internal sources? What sort of external resources will you require? How about software or a new website?
Answering these questions often involves interplay between your goals and the resources required to achieve them — reality has a way of imposing limits. Many of the steps you will take are iterative until you reach a balance between what you want to achieve and what you can achieve.
In today’s professional services firm, marketing is a team sport. No individual or even department can do it all. That means that you need a range of resources to help you execute your plan. The marketing team, billable professionals and outside resources must work together to produce the desired result. Many configurations are possible as long as you have the necessary time and skills at your disposal.
Coordinating all of these activities can be quite a challenge, too. One tool that we have found helpful is a marketing calendar. A calendar lays out what you will be doing and when it will happen. While you don’t have to be overly rigid with your schedule — it’s usually a good idea to accommodate some amount of flexibility — having a tool for advanced planning eliminates excuses and allows you to coordinate many resources.
7. Identify Any New Tools, Infrastructure and Skills You Will Need
New techniques require new tools and infrastructure. It’s time to add any new ones you may need or upgrade those that are out of date. Whether the tool is a new website, marketing automation or revised marketing collateral, having the right tool for the task at hand will make all the difference.
Even the best strategy will falter if you don’t fully implement it. And that takes specific skills. Leaders can find it difficult to build a full marketing strategy that has just the right balance. And it can be especially challenging to keep teams abreast of today’s ever-changing digital tools.
Figure 3 shows some of the skills you may need to implement your plan. Your choices are learn, retain or hire. Modern marketing is complex and requires a wide-ranging skillset. There is no shame in outsourcing some or even all of these skills. In fact, according to our research, the fastest growing firms use more outside talent than their no-growth brethren.
8. Develop Your Budget
At this point in the process, you should understand your firm’s business goals, have researched your audience and have developed an overall strategy for your brand. You should also have selected the best techniques to reach your audience, so you can deliver appropriate messages at the appropriate frequency using the appropriate resources. In addition, you should have determined how to measure results against your goals.
The final steps are to develop your marketing plan budget based on these detailed assumptions and produce an operating schedule that documents when and how you will deliver on your plan.
On one level, your budget should be a relatively straightforward exercise. You can ask specialized vendors to provide estimates for infrastructure projects such as a website or a new marketing automation platform. But don’t make low cost your primary deciding factor. Many firms have wasted precious resources on “cheap” marketing tools that were woefully ineffective.
Estimating costs for recurring activities, such as blogging or article placement, can be a bit more challenging since many more people may be involved over a longer period of time. For instance, one of the biggest challenges can be tracking down busy subject matter experts and managing their critical role in the marketing process. Estimating costs like these can be tricky.
Once you have collected these cost estimates, you should have an overall spending benchmark (see Benchmarking Your Budget, above), as well as a detailed “bottom-up” budget that addresses your specific needs. How do they square with each other?
If you find that they are relatively well-aligned, you may be done with your budget. If, however, you find that your bottom-up budget is significantly lower than the relevant benchmark, look first for missed items. Did you forget something important? Are your costs unrealistically low? Are you planning frequent enough marketing activities to meet your goals? Are the quality of your planned resources adequate to return the desired results?
If the bottom-up approach has come in much higher, make sure you aren’t double counting some expenses. See if the discrepancy is driven by one-time expenses (such as a research project or a new website). Are you planning activities more frequently than you need?
If you find that you need to reduce your budget, try eliminating one whole technique or initiative rather than trimming across the board. In our experience, it is more effective to do fewer things but do them better.
9. Document Your Operational Schedule
Your operational schedule is a detailed calendar that describes when and how often you will use each marketing technique. By formally documenting this information, you can hold your team accountable for delivering on the plan. There can be no ambiguity when each activity is clearly defined and scheduled.
Begin by listing each technique and defining the frequency you will deliver it. For example, you might decide that members of your team will produce a new blog post every two weeks, publish a guest post once a month, promote your content on LinkedIn twice a week, appear on a podcast every two months, deliver a webinar once a month and speak at a conference once a quarter.
Once you know how often you will use a technique, you would be wise to make your schedule even more specific. You can do this by adding the techniques to your content calendar — those items that don’t already appear on it, that is. For instance, if you will be attending a conference next month, put it down on the calendar. Make a note of when you plan to produce that webinar, even if the date is approximate.
By getting specific and applying a date (and even a time of day, when appropriate) to each technique, you build in accountability and tangible reminders of what is coming up. At least once a month — and perhaps as often as weekly — your team should review the upcoming activities and make assignments. You should also look back at the weeks or months that have passed and determine if everything you planned was actually accomplished. While this kind of scrutiny can be uncomfortable, it provides the visibility and pressure we as human beings need to stay on track. It also gives you an opportunity to reflect on your experiences and the efficacy of specific techniques.
You do not need to build out an entire year’s calendar. You can plan out a quarter at a time, if that is more practical. Just don’t forget to add any outlier, infrequent events (such as annual trade shows) during your planning sessions. You might want to keep a separate list of these items so that they don’t get lost and forgotten.
A Final Thought
Planning and budgeting are much easier when markets are stable and predictable. That is no longer true for large chunks of the professional services marketplace. As our recent research on professional services buyers demonstrates, the entire marketplace is undergoing rapid change.
New competitors are entering the market and new technologies are revolutionizing how the work of professionals gets done. And the way buyers research issues and find and select providers has changed. The digital revolution is reshaping this industry just as it has with so many others.
The stakes could not be higher nor the pace of change more rapid. If you don’t want to learn your lessons the hard way, it’s time to get serious and do your planning and budgeting the right way.
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