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Digital Branding for Professional Services

The digital transformation that has reshaped industry after industry has come to professional services — profoundly impacting how a firm’s brand is shaped and communicated. Digital branding is here to stay.

Digital Branding Defined

Digital branding is the process of creating and promoting the online identity and brand story of a firm or individual. It typically involves using online channels such as websites, social media, webinars, search engine optimization, online reviews, guest blogging, earned media and digital advertising to build engagement and drive greater exposure.

In the context of professional services, you can think of your brand as the visibility of your reputation. This broad concept includes both digital and traditional offline approaches to brand building. So the obvious question is, “How important is your digital brand?”

The Importance of Digital Branding

In our increasingly connected word, it is safe to say that digital branding is more important than it has ever been. But how important is it?

Two recent studies from the Hinge Research Institute shed some light on this important question. They investigate how professional services buyers’ behavior has changed and what strategies are driving exceptional growth in today’s professional services firms. Together these studies demonstrate the central role of a firm’s digital brand throughout the buying process.

Researching Business Issues. The professional services buying process starts well before a buyer considers specific providers. It starts with a business problem. Business issues and concerns arise all the time, so each must be evaluated and prioritized. Is this issue important enough to focus on? What are my competitors doing about it? What are possible solutions?

How does a busy executive investigate these topics? It usually starts with a simple Google search. But if you aren’t writing on the topics that your prospective clients are searching for — and optimizing your content to appear in their search results — you are invisible to a significant portion of your market. And you aren’t building an online reputation as an authority in your area of expertise.

In fact, when we looked at all the information gathering techniques employed by professional services buyers, we found a 70% probability that today’s buyers will use a digital source in the early stages of their research into business challenges. (See Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Probability buyers will use each channel type to research a business challenge

Identifying Service Providers. Once these fact-finding executives conclude that their problem is worth solving — and they realize they can’t fix the problem themselves — they become professional services buyers. They begin looking for providers that are well-qualified to address their issue and start drawing up a list of potential vendors.

Now, if during the Google research phase your content helped these executives understand and diagnose their issue, your firm will make it onto that list. You will have established credibility — and will be perceived as an authority on the very problem they have.

If your firm did not surface during that search, however, you will need to be found some other way to even be considered. Traditionally, this has been where buyers turn to a friend or colleague to ask for referrals. But requests for referrals have decreased by 15% in the past 5 years. In the same time period, the use of online search to identify possible providers has increased by 65%.

Firms with a weak digital brand are at a clear and growing disadvantage when it comes to making that list of possible providers. For the lucky firms that made the list, the next step is surviving the evaluation process.

Evaluating Service Providers. What role does your digital brand play in the final selection process? As it turns out, it’s pretty important.

For starters, 87% of buyers have ruled out a firm before even talking with them. Ouch! So if you are counting on your charm and sales skills to carry the day, you may be in for a big letdown.

For most buyers, their first stop is your website. But that is only the beginning. Across all channels, there is a 72% probability that buyers will evaluate you based on interfacing with your digital brand, compared to a 28% probability of evaluating you based on traditional methods.

 

Figure 2. Probability buyers will use each channel type to evaluate service providers

Your digital brand impacts your business development process in many ways, and it is a critical factor in driving or limiting growth. A similar case can be made for its impact on talent acquisition.

Examples of Digital Branding

Real-world examples of digital branding aren’t hard to find, if you know what to look for. In this section, we highlight three digital brands at businesses of different sizes: an individual expert and a large professional services firm.

Case Story 1: Seth Godin

At Hinge, we call them Visible Experts®— those individual experts that rise to prominence in their fields. And Seth Godin, the guru of marketing, is a prime example of a Visible Expert who uses digital branding to maximum effect. His blog, which was named one of the top 25 blogs by Time Magazine, is read by more than a million marketers. His Twitter account has 672,000 followers. And he’s delivered multiple TED talks.

Visit his website, blog, Twitter page — or anywhere he dwells in the digital landscape — and his brand is instantly recognizable. From his bald pate and distinctive glasses to the egg-shaped headshot that has become his personal signature to the yellow and orange colors that appear on all of his online platforms, there is no mistaking whom you are dealing with. But his brand is more than visual. Seth’s “voice” — his entertaining, approachable style of writing — is as much a part of who Seth is as his face or his color palette.

Figure 3. Seth Godin’s website

 

Figure 4. Seth Godin’s blog

 

Figure 5. Seth Godin’s Twitter page.

Case Story 2: S&ME

S&ME is an ENR Top-100 engineering firm with over 1,100 employees and 36 offices across the US. As part of a comprehensive rebrand, our firm tackled key aspects of their digital brand, including their website, social media platforms and brand voice. Bringing unity and consistency to S&ME’s brand was a tremendous challenge for such a far-flung enterprise. We developed a new website and matching social media branding. And as part of a company-wide brand rollout, we developed a brand book and video to explain their new positioning, brand personality, voice and other features of their new identity.

Figure 6. S&ME’s new website is the most widely visible component of the firm’s digital brand

 

Figure 7. S&ME’s Twitter page

 

Figure 8. We documented key characteristics of the firm’s brand — online and offline — in a brand book

Developing Your Digital Branding Strategy

Your digital brand and your offline (or traditional) brand are not two different things. Rather, they are components of a unified whole — at least they should be. They are simply two different ways to communicate your reputation and tell your story.

That means the process you would use to brand your firm applies to both components. But it’s not quite that simple. Many firms have neglected or under-resourced their digital branding initiatives. This puts them in a position of having to synchronize their digital strategy with their offline branding and accelerate digital brand building.

Here’s how to get your digital brand strategy up to today’s standards.

  1. Start with your business goals.

Digital branding should not be done in a vacuum. You need to consider your overall strategy: What business goals are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to attract new clients? Reposition your firm in a competitive marketplace? Attract top talent?

Knowing your specific business goals will help you set priorities and make the best use of your limited resources. Once you have your end objectives in mind, you can determine which metrics to watch so you have the intel to make course corrections along the way.

For example, if your top goal is to drive new business, you’ll want to monitor the number of new leads you receive and how many proposals you win. If talent acquisition is your goal, you will want to track how many qualified candidates you get.

  1. Research your target audiences.

Skipping this step is one of the easiest ways to get your strategy wrong. Why is it so important? As we discussed above, buyer behavior is evolving rapidly. A lot of firms have an outdated view of digital branding and have little idea how their clients and referral sources behave in the online world.

You need a good grasp of what issues and topics your target audience is interested in, as well as which digital platforms they use in their business. Potential buyers will visit your website and use online search, but what else? As you increase your understanding of your clients’ top issues (to inform the content you produce) and usage patterns (to inform where you reach out to your audience), your digital brand will become more relevant and powerful.

  1. Synchronize differentiators and brand positioning.

Differentiators and market positioning are central to a strong brand. At this step, you are trying to ensure that both your digital and traditional brand are in synch. It may seem obvious that they should be aligned, yet at many firms they have drifted apart, sometimes to an alarming degree.

How does this happen? Sometimes, firms ignore key aspects of their digital brand, such as their website or social media. Other times, an individual takes one aspect of the brand in a direction that is at odds with the rest of the brand. Are you serious or fun-loving? What will it actually be like to work with you? Mixed messages are destined to confuse. 

  1. Build a consistent brand identity.

Is your brand visually consistent? Is logo usage the same in the digital and non-digital worlds? Do you look like the same firm when someone visits you online as when they visit your office?

Achieving and sustaining a consistent brand identity is not easy. The natural pattern is to devolve into mismatched chaos. Don’t let that be your fate. One practical tool is to create brand usage guidelines. They should cover not only the visual elements of your brand, such as logo usage and colors, but describe your brand’s tone and style, as well.

  1. Synchronize your content strategy.

Most firms understand that it’s important to keep their visual brand consistent. But when it comes to delivering a consistent content strategy, well that’s more elusive. What issues will you will write or speak about? What tone and approach will you take? These are the sorts of questions you need to answer up front.

It’s one thing to claim that you have certain types of expertise in your marketing collateral or web copy. But demonstrating that competence on social media or in your blog is quite another. The goal is consistency. You should strive to be consistent in approach and competency, no matter where a prospect interacts with your brand. 

  1. Develop your brand-building plan.

This is the exciting part of your digital brand. Our research on the fastest growing professional services firms has shown that digital brand building is exceptionally efficient and scalable. So it is actually easier and less expensive to increase the visibility of your digital brand than it is to build your brand the traditional way.

And in many ways, it makes intuitive sense. Consider networking on social media versus attending a live networking event. Or consider the expense of a webinar versus an in-person seminar. Cost and convenience do matter. If you have done your research in Step 2, you will have a good fix on which digital channels are the best fit for your target audiences.

  1. Monitor and adjust implementation.

There is more good news on this front, as well. Monitoring the impact of digital branding is also easier than its traditional counterparts. Many digital tools have built-in tracking analytics. Want to track website visitors? No problem. How about social media engagement? Clearly a lot easier than tracking engagement at a live networking event.

As with any marketing activities, tracking and adjusting will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of your marketing. Since digital branding is easier to track and control, it is arguably easier to improve than tradition brand building activities. This has certainly been my personal experience.

A Final Thought

Your digital brand is central to the success of a modern professional services firm. It impacts the entire buyer’s journey and can be instrumental in winning new business and securing top talent. Getting it right can make all the difference in the world.

Additional Resources

How Hinge Can Help

Hinge specializes in all aspects of the branding and brand building for professional services firms. Hinge’s Branding Program can help your firm stand out from the competition and build a distinctive brand that drives sustained growth.

Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D. Who wears the boots in our office? That would be Lee, our managing partner, who suits up in a pair of cowboy boots every day and drives strategy and research for our clients. With a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, Lee is a former researcher and tenured professor at Virginia Tech, where he became a national authority on organizational behavior management and marketing. He left academia to start up and run three high-growth companies, including an $80 million runaway success story.

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