As many executives leading professional services firms are simultaneously wrestling with keeping their businesses alive and staying on top of their kids’ homework, there are some valuable lessons we can learn from a category of firms we at Hinge call “digital disruptors”: professional services firms that generate 66% or more of their new business pipeline through digital means. It’s not that digital on its own is the secret sauce. The secret sauce is relevance. Digital just helps bring instant, 24×7, no travel required, cost effective visibility to that relevance.

Even in the days preceding Covid-19 and the new business environment this pandemic has created, we’ve been studying the behavior of an elite group of professional services firms that have managed normal marketplace ebb and flow and achieving high growth – to the tune of 20%+ annual growth for 3 consecutive years or more. While firms in this high-performing category have different business models, serve different audiences, and span across all of professional services (i.e. consulting, IT, AEC, accounting & finance, government contracting), they have one habit in common: digital disruption.

Of course none of us really knows how much of what we’re all experiencing today is going to be here for the long-haul. One of our recent studies reports on certain patterns that began emerging 3-5 years ago that have not only prevailed, but have become more prominent in this pandemic environment and are likely to stay.  Here are a few of those:

  • Finding firms through referral is on the decline. In 2013, more than 70% of buyers reported turning to their network when they needed a new service provider. While referrals remain the top search method, in today’s world, less than 60% of today’s buyers ask for referrals — a 15% decrease.
  • While referrals are on the decline, they are still the primary search method of professional services buyers. But, finding firms through online search has surged in adoption. Nearly 1 in 5 buyers today look for firms to address their key challenges through online search – an 11% increase from 2013.
  • Expertise seals the deal. At the end of the day, while firms use several different criteria as they are looking for firms, building their lists and then narrowing those lists, when it comes to final selection, expertise is the #1 criteria over reputation, cost, and relationship.
  • It’s all well and good when you know you’re the top expert, but the sad reality remains that it’s hard to get others to know that. In fact the last trend I want to bring up is that it’s getting harder to be visible. Beyond an intuitive feeling, buyers validate this. Today, a mere 16% of buyers think their service provider is highly visible in the marketplace — a more than 25% decrease from the 2013 study.

Now back to the digital disruptors.

Professional services firms that caught onto these trends and then built their marketing programs with digital disruption in mind are in fact the firms that not only have high visibility, they have meaningful visibility – visibility around the type of expertise relevant to their client’s top challenges. Findings in our recently release High-Growth Study illustrate the characteristics and habits of these digital disruptors:

1 – New business pipeline is primarily digital

Firms that generate more than 66% of their leads from online sources grow more than twice as fast as companies that generate less than 33% of the leads from online sources.

2 – Marketing teams have stronger skills in social media, research & and SEO

Marketing departments of digital disruptors have a skills advantage in 3 areas that are critical to successful online lead generation. They are savvy social media dialoguers, they understand the science around keywords and use SEO to build visibility for their firms and their content, and they know how to get their content published in outside publications where their audiences are reading (outreach). They also have a strength in audience research, so they are bringing key insights around their audience behavior that helps drive efficient and relevant marketing.

3 – Marketing programs prioritize promotion of expertise

Marketing programs of digital disruptors prioritize educating audiences and providing valuable, informative content over promotional and overly salesy collateral. Relatively speaking, these firms are 3x more likely to invest in digital advertising, almost 2x more likely to offer downloadable content, and make greater use of social media, email campaigns, SEO, and open-access content such as blogs.

4 – Traditional marketing techniques act in concert with digital techniques

Digital disruptors aren’t all or only digital. These firms incorporate traditional marketing techniques that complement their digital campaigns, and vice versa. The investment they make in traditional techniques such speaking and networking for example brings excellent visibility to their digital assets (who doesn’t look up a speaker’s website after an impressive performance?), and the stronger their digital footprint is, the easier it is for them to be tapped as speakers. They also show a propensity to reinforce their digital marketing initiatives with phone marketing and strategic partnerships.

There are a couple of overarching lessons we can take from these digital disruptors.

First and foremost, there is a strong case for going digital.  Our data shows a strong positive correlation generating leads through digital means and rapid growth. Buyers of professional services now more than ever need fast, efficient ways to learn about you, connect with you, and ultimately work with you.

Second, going digital is only part of the story. Equally important is building your marketing program around a set of digital and traditional techniques that work in concert to support each other. If you blog and that’s all you do, that will not get you anywhere, even though it’s one of the marketing techniques digital disruptors adopt. A blog must be supported with well-researched keywords, a website that makes your expertise abundantly clear, and exposure for your blog though channels other than just your website, such as social media.

Lastly, if you’re not relevant, even the best digital marketing will have little impact. Digital disruptors prioritize researching their audiences so that as they develop their marketing programs, they have assurance that they are writing, speaking, and using messaging in a way that gets at the heart of what those audiences are grappling with and reflects how they make their buying decisions.

If you’re interested in seeing more of the findings around digital disruption in professional services you can find the study here.

Elizabeth Harr