Referrals. For years they were the foundation for professional services growth. Yet, working for the research-based branding and marketing firm for professional services, I can tell you that we and our clients are seeing a decline in referral usage. Our research validates the trend. While referrals remain the top search method for buyers in need of a new professional service provider (as shown in Figure 1), the use of referrals as a search method has dropped by 15% over the last five years according to a study from the Hinge Research Institute, Inside the Buyer’s Brain, Second Edition.
Figure 1. Professional service search methods
The research also shows that while clients are more willing to be referral sources, they are making fewer referrals. The rate of actually making a referral is down almost 5% over the last few years. This suggests that prospects are using other methods to find professional services rather than asking a friend or a colleague for a referral. One of these methods is online search. In fact, our research shows that today, online search is used by nearly one in five professional services buyers—and continues to be adopted as a primary search method.
So how can your firm grow if there is less dependency on referrals? I would recommend demand generation programs and activities.
B2B Demand Generation Versus Lead Generation
I am not talking about lead generation—although that effort is very important as well. I see lead generation as those activities that collect information on target audiences and then uses that information to convert those audiences into some volume of leads. For those of you that follow a marketing funnel or waterfall model, lead generation is typically identified as a top of the funnel initiative.
Demand generation is a longer commitment and focuses on creating a want or need for your services. The activities, campaigns, and programs are designed to drive sales engagement and opportunities, not just leads, for net new or up-sell/cross-sell deals. With demand generation, your efforts cover the entire funnel or waterfall but there is more focus on the middle of the funnel or bottom of the funnel stages.
I see lead generation as an important subcomponent of demand generation. Both approaches may use similar tactics, but they use them differently. For example, content used in a lead generation program will typically collect contact information somewhere along the process. With demand generation, the content is used to increase engagement, create conversations, or enhance the reputation of the firm or an internal subject matter expert—we call this person a “Visible Expert.”
Most marketers focus on lead generation activities first to show activity. But it is demand generation that will nurture the majority of leads that are not ready and move them on as sales opportunities at the appropriate time. Demand generation requires more strategy, time, and commitment.
Hopefully these few paragraphs have provided some clarity around lead generation and demand generation.
Technology to Support a Demand Generation Strategy
As I mentioned earlier, demand generation takes time. It is not implemented overnight nor do you see the results overnight. You should really prepare for demand generation with an on-going, phased mindsight. Depending on what your overall growth and revenue goals are, you may need some tools and technology to help you scale your efforts. In our 2019 High Growth Study for Professional Services, we found that high-growth firms are investing more in marketing and technology as shown in Figure 2. Some of your early martech stack considerations may be a social media management tool, an email or marketing automation platform (MAP), and a customer relationship management system (CRM). There are a lot of good ones on the market these days so be sure you not only look at price but also the features that you will grow into over the next few years. Typically, firms evaluate their large-scale technology purchase decisions every three years or so. As you become more sophisticated, you may want to consider a content management system, a business intelligence platform, data solutions, and more.
Figure 2. Median Marketing Budget by Growth Category
If you are considering a technology platform to help you with your firm’s growth, plan for the future. Some questions that you will need to answer early on include:
- Do we want an all-in-one platform that claims it has a number of the features we are looking for (CRM, email/MAP, social media, etc.) on one platform?
- Do we want to integrate best-in-class point solutions to create our tech stack?
- Should we leverage an open architecture that allows us to plug in various applications via APIs?
Also, please plan and budget for a worst-case scenario. Implementations always take longer than projected. You may not have the right skill sets in-house. You may not have dedicated resources. Processes may be few and far between. Content may be scarce. Reporting may not be consolidated on one platform and may require manual data collection. Be sure that you account for all of these types of variables and leverage outside expertise to get your firm up-and-running.
“Social media management is the most popular stack option at 83%, search management is at 80% and email marketing automation sits at 73%.”
Six Key Demand Generation Activities
Many of these activities overlap but they should be designed independently to be implemented collaboratively.
1 . Strengthen your brand identity and differentiate yourself
Before you can expect significant results from your demand generation efforts, you have to make sure you have a brand that stands out from your competition. Every market is crowded. What makes your firm different? Truly think about it. I have spoken to two cybersecurity firms over the last month and when I asked them that question, they both gave me almost the same answer!
I believe that truly impactful differentiators must possess three qualities. They must be:
- True—Your differentiators have to be grounded in reality.
- Relevant—If it does not matter to your clients, it does not matter.
- Provable—Anyone can claim a quality. You have to be able to prove it.
To help you get started, we have a great blog resource entitled, Find your differentiator: 21 ways to gain a competitive advantage for your firm.
2 . Raise the awareness of your subject matter experts
Chances are, your firm has staff with experience and expertise that others do not have. Your Visible Experts can be game-changers at your firm. Do your prospective clients know about your visible experts? Making this expertise known will get your firm into more sales conversations and on more short lists for vendor evaluations. Other practitioners and media will seek them out for their perspective and subject matter expertise. Let your expertise shine! Learn more in our blog entitled, The Visible Expert: How Ordinary Professionals Become Thought Leaders.
3 . Segment your audiences
Either because of a lack of time or data, too few marketers segment their audiences. This oversight has a definite negative impact on email open rates and client engagement. Gone are the days of sending one email message to your entire contact database. Today’s client is more sophisticated and is expecting a higher level of customized and personalized messaging. You need to take the time to create some groupings of buyer personas and be able to speak to each of them differently. What are the challenges, goals, needs, and journeys of these personas? Investing the time to segment now will pay off later.
“Recipients are about 14% more likely to open an email if it’s a part of a segmented campaign vs. traditional email.”
4 . Map out your content and conversion pathways
You have segmented your audiences, built buyer personas and identified buyer’s journeys. You are now ready to develop a content strategy that takes all of this hard work into consideration. Write your content in different formats to meet the challenges, goals, and needs of your personas. Also, if you use a sales and marketing funnel, map the content back to the various stages of the funnel. Take the time to run through various buyer scenarios and see if the content that you are offering is compelling and engaging—and prompts the potential buyer to move further down the pipeline. Be honest with yourself.
You may want to experiment with display advertising, paid search, guest blogging, and third-party blog contributions to see if you can reach a wider or a harder-to-reach audience. When possible, be sure that your content contains or is associated with calls-to-action (CTAs) that will drive your readers or listeners to your website for more information and engagement. Learn more in our video blog, Communicating With Clients During the 4 Stages of the Buyer Journey.
5 . Measure demand generation campaign performance
This is an area where many marketers drop the ball. They are so concerned with getting the campaign out the door that they do not set up campaign metrics to follow. How can you correct or optimize your campaigns if you are not measuring how well they are doing in the first place? This is actually a consideration for the technology you evaluate and choose as well. Make sure that the platform or system you buy provides you with reporting that you will use and appreciate. It is really just data or information until you can turn into insights and make it actionable.
Spend time truly considering the metrics that you want to monitor on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis. Start out with six or seven of them that you can analyze and study. You may not be able to get all the metrics you want from one platform. You may need to do some manual compilation on a regular basis to ensure that you have a reporting dashboard that all key decision makers understand. As you become more sophisticated your metrics will change from number of followers or amount of website traffic to behavioral or engagement metrics that show more impact on sales opportunities and revenue.
If you are using a sales and marketing funnel model, keep track of lead volume and velocity at every stage of the funnel. By creating a baseline of conversion rates, you can later adjust demand generation programs to improve your funnel volume and velocity numbers to increase and accelerate revenue.
6 . Listen to your clients, not yourself
Original research—this should actually be your FIRST demand generation activity. It is the foundation or compass for all of your other activities. How can you differentiate your firm until you know what your clients and others think of it? I have had on more than one occasion a client tell me, “I have been in this business a long time. I know my clients. This is what they think of us.” Yet, after the research is done, it is always these folks who are surprised by the results and are most grateful that the research was done. Do you really know who your competitors are? Do you know who your perceived competitors are? Do you know why people are not buying from you? There are so many questions that need to be answered to ensure that your future marketing efforts are as successful as possible. Don’t leave it to chance or your gut feel. Learn more in our free, Professional Services Guide to Research – Second Edition.
Four Proven Demand Generation Program Tactics
1 . High-Impact, High-Performance Website
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, nearly one in five people is using online search to find professional services firms. That usually means that they are going to check out your website if your firm does well in the Google search rankings. In fact, our research shows that 82% of buyers of professional services check out a firm’s website. This can be a “Make it or Break it” moment. Your website visuals, text, navigation, tone etc. all play a role in whether a prospective buyer remains engaged long enough to fill out a form, send an email, make a phone call. We live an “immediate” society. We do not want to wait. If your website pages take too long to load, we are gone. If you are using too much text and not enough video, we are yawning. If your web pages do not have prompts to guide us to some sort of action, we are not moving forward. Today’s website must satisfy so many senses and categories—and do it quickly.
Chances are if you have not updated your firm’s website in the last year or two, this is probably where you want to start with demand generation—after you have done your original research. Even if you have recently updated your website, I would do a quick audit and compare it to some competitive websites—and other websites you like in general. Again, be honest with yourself. Does your website make you feel like you want to engage further? For most, a website is the first impression of a firm. What is your website saying about you?
While your firm is making a first impression, your website visitors are leaving impressions as well around preferences, pain points, interests, and more. Are they responding to online offers? Which blogs did they read and comment on? Which content was valuable enough for them to fill out a small form to download it? Answers to these questions and others will affect your future demand generation programs.
Get more website tips in our blog, 7 B2B Website Best Practices to Enhance Your Online Presence.
2 . Content Strategy
Content is still king. It is the main influencer in the world of professional services. There are so many content formats available to marketers today. The key is to research and study your prospective and current clients to see how they like to consume content. Find out how they make their buying decisions. Where is their pain? Are you listening to their objections? The more relevant you can make the content, the better. While email should be a core piece of your content delivery strategy, you may want to expand this year to include a few others. For example, if your target audience includes commuters who live near San Francisco; Chicago; New York City; or Washington, DC, you may want to add podcasts to your content mix as these cities—and others—have workers who commute an hour a day each way and often use that time to listen to content. For others, an infographic on social media goes a long way. Continue adjusting your content strategy until you come up with an approach that gives you the return you want. Do not give up. You will see the payoff.
3 . Lead Scoring and Lead Nurturing
For those of you who have made the investment in a marketing automation platform, now is the time to take advantage of lead scoring and nurturing. Most professional services firms who have a marketing automation platform use it to “batch and blast” out emails. This is really a lead generation function. To make your marketing automation platform more of a demand generation tool, start setting up some basic lead scoring rules to monitor lead behavior. The beauty of lead scoring is that you can quickly change the rules depending on whether you need more lead volume or more lead quality. Lead scoring is a great way to measure the effectiveness of your content as well.
Lead nurturing is the perfect way to work with the 75% of the leads generated that are not ready to move forward as a sale. Lead nurturing allows you to apply what you have learned about segmentation, buyer personas, and more and push out personalized content that creates service demand and compels readers to take action. Too many marketers buy a marketing automation platform with the best of intentions but never leverage features such as lead scoring and nurturing. They then become frustrated when they cannot show ROI over a reasonable period of time.
When implemented correctly, marketing automation can be a powerful tool in your demand generation arsenal. But, as I mentioned early, there are factors beyond the technology cost and purchase that have to be considered such as skills or lack of skills, processes or lack of processes, content or lack of content, and more.
Learn more on how to leverage marketing automation in our three-part video blog series, Top 10 Marketing Automation Strategies.
“Organizations that use lead scoring see a 77 percent increase lift in their lead generation ROI.”
4 . Social Media
Platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter are great vehicles to make introductions, showcase content and opinions, and build relationships and loyalty. According to Forrester, fully 100% of business decision makers use social media for work purposes. Most marketers assume that social media is only used for brand awareness or top-of the-funnel activities. However; I have seen social media be used for lead generation campaigns, vendor selections, and even buying decisions. When leveraged properly, social media can be part of a demand generation strategy that impacts all the stages of a sales and marketing funnel.
Just be careful on how you use it. I use it to stay in touch with prospective and current client needs. If you listen, you can hear a lot. I also use it to educate. When I say educate, I do not mean pushing out sales and marketing materials. I mean reposting or retweeting articles or infographics—produced by others—that are informative and relevant. I read everything before I post it. If I am interested in a topic or article, I am hoping that my followers are as well. My social media followers have come to expect a certain level of quality from me. They get tips, techniques, and actionable information that they can use immediately. In fact, I have had followers ask me more than a dozen times, “How do you select or write your content?” I always tell them that they are topics that interest me. I am always learning. Once you have been posting for a while, you will earn the trust of your followers. Never take that for granted or abuse it by posting opinions that you should keep to yourself, etc.
I hope that this discussion around B2B demand generation strategies, programs, and activities at least got you thinking about the technology, skills, and processes needed to build out framework that will generate more sales opportunities and revenue for your firm. Remember, roll out your demand generation in a phased approach. Do not get overwhelmed. It is worth the investment of time, resources, and budget. The payoff is there. Let’s continue the discussion on LinkedIn, Twitter, or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Get recommendations and practical steps to make your website more effective with a free website planning review.
- Download a free copy of the Lead Generating Website Guide for a high-level overview of the Lead Generating Website concept
- Check out our webinar, How to Build the Perfect Professional Services Website and learn how your website can produce a dependable flow of qualified leads and new revenue.
How Hinge Can Help
Your B2B website should be one of your firm’s greatest assets. Our High Performance Website Program helps firms drive online engagement and leads through valuable content. Hinge can create the right website strategy and design to take your firm to the next level.