How do you reach professional services buyers? This should be one of the first questions that any professional services marketer should ask themselves. Hinge Research Institute (our research arm) has just released a new study that tackles that issue head on. 

One of the questions we asked the over 800 buyers in the study was how they would go about finding a new professional services firm. The results are shown in the figure below (buyers often use multiple strategies, so the numbers add up to over 100%).



How Professional Services Buyers Search

The first thing that jumps out at you is the dominance of “Network/Ask a Friend or Colleague,” with 71% of buyers citing it as part of their strategy. Clearly this needs to be a central consideration for any plan. If your potential buyers are ever to become actual clients, two conditions need to be met.

First, when buyers ask for a referral, their friends and colleagues need to know that you exist. No visibility, no new client. Second, when they do ask about you, your reputation needs to be strong. This combination (your reputation and your visibility) is, in fact, a way of defining your brand. And without a strong brand it is difficult to generate new clients. We'll return to this issue a little later.

The next interesting finding, at 24%, is the group that says they already know all the service providers that they need. And their cousins, at 4%, are buyers who feel that they don’t need to look for firms because “they find us.”

There is also a somewhat related group that is constrained by a structured buying process (11% of responses). Many of these buyers hail from government entities or very large institutions.

Whether or not these three groups of buyers have a sufficient range of potential firms from which to choose is beside the point. They think they do, so they are not inclined to look further. We’re going to explore this group (which I have lovingly labeled “the know it alls”) a bit more in a future blog post.

The next most prominent response is to search online, with 11% of the professional services buyers reporting this strategy. This may come as a shock to many firms. At that level, it is as prominent as the formal institutional buyers described above and second only to asking a friend or colleague for a recommendation.

Now, compare online search to traditional business development techniques, such as checking with associations (3%), tradeshows or conferences (1%), or business and trade publications (1%). Anyone who still believes that online marketing is not relevant to professional services buyers is in for a rude awakening.

What’s Not There

When I shared these findings with a colleague, he asked about about what was not in the data. Where is the buyer who hears a speaker, reads a book or article, or has worked with someone before? Good question. The answer is in the question we asked.

We were not asking how people first learned about a service provider. Nor were we asking how they evaluate a firm (that comes later in the research). Many other marketing activities are important in winning the business. Instead, we asked how they search for new alternatives.

And when it comes to being found, the two key drivers are clear. First is brand and second is online search.

Building Your Professional Services Brand

Let’s return to the topic of building your professional services brand. We know from other findings in this research study that a firm’s reputation is very important in the selection process. We also know that most firms have low marketplace visibility. The challenge becomes how to enhance a firm's visibility while also building its reputation. 

To further complicate the picture, a firm must also strive to be found in online search. What’s a marketer to do?

Fortunately, there are some approaches that make sense and some that don’t. First, trying to increase visibility without improving reputation is a waste. That’s why space advertising and many sponsorships don’t produce great results.

Instead, try combining visibility with a reputation boost. That’s why speaking at a conference is a much better strategy to reach professional services buyers than sponsoring the conference. And writing an article in a magazine is preferable to placing an ad. It enhances your reputation and increases your visibility. And as an added bonus, when these activities are also published online they can improve your SEO. 

It is this combined impact that is the driving force behind the rapid growth of content marketing.

Below are links to four industry-specific research reports on professional services buyers. They are free. Enjoy.


Free Book: Online Marketing for Professional Services