Strategic marketing sounds like it would be a good idea for a professional services firm.
And in fact, it is. Whether you are an accounting firm or a technology powerhouse, you face a lot of competition from many directions. New technology, commoditization, and unrelenting price pressure add to the fun.
The way to escape this pressure is to develop a sustainable competitive advantage. A strong competitive advantage can help you win more business and command premium fees. It even increases the value of your firm.
But how do you pull it off? That’s where strategic marketing comes in.
What is Strategic Marketing?
Strategic Marketing is the use of marketing disciplines to achieve organizational goals by developing and maintaining a sustainable competitive advantage. It addresses high-level considerations such as what markets to target, which services to offer, and how to price and promote them.
The strategy and its associated tactics are often documented in a marketing plan. Marketing management is the process of implementing that plan — delivering the strategy at the tactical level.
In my experience, most professional services firms focus on marketing management and rarely engage in big-picture strategic marketing. The results are predictable: their so-called “marketing strategy” is a series of poorly planned, opportunistic activities that do little to establish a true competitive advantage.
Strategic Marketing Examples
To help you understand how strategic marketing works, let’s take a look at an example of non-strategic marketing and then compare it to a well-executed example.
Strategic marketing, gone bad. Imagine a mid-sized accounting firm. They are eager to grow but have no real plan for how to accomplish it.
Their “marketing plan” is little more than a list of activities and their associated costs. There is no overall strategy that ties these activities to their growth objectives. They have tried a variety of marketing ideas drawn from conversations with peers and trendy techniques they have read about. There is no systematic strategy or process that guides their use of marketing resources.
The firm offers the services their clients routinely ask for, and they look to competitors to gauge the effectiveness of their pricing and marketing materials. They believe that superior client service is why clients choose them, but they have never done any systematic research to verify this assumption.
This follow-the-herd marketing mentality, of course, does nothing to differentiate the firm from all the other mid-sized firms out there. Sadly, this way of thinking is all too common.
Now, let’s contrast this approach against a similarly sized firm that has taken a strategic approach to its marketing.
Strategic marketing done right. Now imagine another mid-sized accounting firm. They also want to grow organically. But they have decided to do that by differentiating themselves from other accounting firms to gain a sustainable competitive advantage.
They start by conducting systematic research into their best clients. This knowledge allows them to identify existing strengths they can build upon. Based on this business analysis, they decide to specialize in the hospitality sector — an industry where they have a solid track record of success and a handful of high-profile clients.
As their understanding of the sector grows, they begin to offer specialized bundled service/software packages to complement their full suite of traditional audit, tax, and consulting. Their fastest-growing segment is their new, high-value operational consulting practice for hospitality businesses.
The firm identifies topics of intense interest to their target clients, and they write and speak on these issues regularly at industry events. Their superior knowledge of the industry and specialized services give them a distinct advantage when they speak with prospects.
Today, the firm offers regular industry-focused webinars and has clients all over the country. They command premium fees and are growing at about 5X the industry average.
As these two examples show, strategic marketing can affect many aspects of a firm’s policies, priorities, and operations. These changes can transform a firm’s fortunes.
New Marketing Strategies for Higher Growth
Professional services buyers are changing. As consumers, we have grown accustomed to searching online to educate ourselves and find products and services. We expect transparency online, and we are used to finding exactly what we are looking for. Many of us also rely on social media and peer reviews to validate our choices.
It’s no surprise, then, that these changing expectations are transforming B2B sales. Potential clients are looking to solve their problems and determine who has the specific expertise they need. To get answers, they search online, attend webinars, talk with peers and attend conferences. Because online research is quicker and easier than soliciting advice and referrals the traditional way, it is becoming increasingly popular.
So what do these changes mean for professional services marketers? Simply put, our marketing strategies need to reflect the new realities of buyer behavior.
Let’s look at ten of the most promising new marketing strategies to consider for your marketing plan. Some involve new technology, while others are a fresh take on an evergreen idea. Each of them addresses some part of the new normal and is worth considering.
Increasing the visibility of your expertise
Expertise is the fundamental product that your clients buy. It is the top selection criterion and drives the final firm selection in three out of four new firm searches. But expertise is invisible. You can’t see it, touch it, or measure it directly. A potential client must experience it.
While some experts have become highly visible in their fields, their rise to prominence is often a gradual process over the course of their careers. In our research, we have learned how prospects come to encounter and judge expertise — and we uncovered specific strategies and tactics that dramatically accelerate the visibility of true expertise. Many firms use strategic marketing to build the visibility of their experts.
Professional services have always had specialists and generalists. But practical limitations such as geographic location and marketing reach have limited specialists’ advantages in the past.
That is changing. New communications technology (such as free video) and the widespread adoption of remote working have changed the playing field. Niche specialization has gained the clear upper hand.
“Be everywhere potential clients look for help” is more than a slogan. It’s the foundation of most marketing strategies. But where clients look is changing. Increasingly, they are looking online — so the obvious conclusion is that you need to be online, too.
Our research has shown that firms that use a balance of both traditional offline and online digital marketing techniques grow the fastest and are more profitable than those that employ only traditional marketing strategies. So while face-to-face marketing should be part of your marketing equation, an uninformed belief that “our clients don’t go online” can be dangerous to the health of your firm.
Clients need to find solutions to their challenges. Sometimes that solution takes the form of a software and services combination. Increasingly, professional services firms recognize that by pre-packaging a product/service combo they can create a lot of value for their clients.
Of course, you don’t have to bundle software with a service. It could be hardware or training, just as easily. The key is to come up with an integrated solution that saves the client time and money or produces another important benefit.
Perhaps you’ve noticed another market segment that you could serve easily and profitably. But there is a problem. Serving that market would dilute your brand positioning. What do you do?
For an increasing number of firms, the answer is to develop a separate brand devoted to the new market segment. Often, these new brands have some relationship to the parent brand, hence the sub-brand label. While common in other industries, this marketing strategy is now gaining more traction in professional services.
New business models
Advances in technology have created the opportunity for new business models. In fact, technology has reshaped entire industries. From music to retail to transportation, the Ubers, Airbnbs, and Amazons of the world are redefining how business is configured.
Professional services are ripe for similar innovations. Artificial intelligence offers the possibility of dramatic changes in the cost and availability of services. Alternative pricing structures are obvious areas for experimentation, though there are many other avenues for creative exploration. The key is to think in terms of value to the client.
This is another area where technology has dramatically altered the marketing playing field. Firms now have access to a rapidly growing set of tools that can automate big chunks of the marketing process. The big challenge in professional services marketing has been to balance the need to remain billable with the need for personal attention to business development.
Marketing automation is addressing that challenge. With proper planning and preparation, the lead generation and nurturing process can be largely automated. This changes everything, including the individual professional’s role in the business development process. Marketing is evolving from an individual event to a team sport.
Stick with your core. Concentrate on what you really do well. For many firms, that area of competence does not include marketing. While many industries have already been deeply involved in outsourcing, professional services have lagged behind. Some firms are still warming up to the whole concept of marketing.
This makes outsourcing an interesting alternative. Firms that lack a well-established marketing function can adopt outsourced marketing with relative ease. And because modern marketing demands a wide range of specialized skills, outsourcing to a sophisticated marketing agency can deliver a strategic advantage.
Historically, advertising has not worked well for most professional services firms. Many B2B markets are difficult to target, and traditional ads have not been good at conveying expertise. But all of that is changing.
Today, online advertising can target specific companies or positions within well-defined niches. And, of course, you can easily link to downloadable content that demonstrates your expertise. This means that you can hyper-target a message that communicates your firm’s expertise. New strategies are emerging that would have been impractical even a few years ago.
Signature content refers to content that is unique to your firm and of high value to potential clients. Examples include annual industry surveys or a ranking of companies in your target industries. Many firms have also been built around a best-selling book. A few firms have even published their own print magazines or journals.
More recently, we have seen the emergence of specialized series, such as podcasts or webinar series, as another route to signature content. And while blogs have become quite common, some firms have gone above and beyond to make their blogs “must-reads” for their prime targets.
The key to using signature content as part of your marketing strategy is to make sure that it is truly valuable to your target audience.
Next, let’s turn our attention to how you turn these new ideas and insights into a coherent strategic marketing plan.
Creating Your Strategic Marketing Plan
Creating a strategic marketing plan can be daunting, especially if you are new to it. In a previous post, we broke down the marketing planning process into seven essential steps. Here’s a summary of those steps:
Understand the business situation your firm is facing
Marketing should help you achieve your business goals. If you don’t have a clearly defined set of goals, then your marketing is likely to be unfocused and unproductive.
Once you have goals in your sites, you can use them as a compass to steer your marketing program in the optimal direction.
Research and understand your target clients
It’s all too easy to fool yourself into believing that you already understand your clients’ needs and priorities. But like so many things in life, clients are in a constant state of change. Last year’s top challenge can easily be trumped by some new disruptive force. The only way you can find out what’s going on between the ears of your target audience is to conduct periodic research that’s designed to uncover these insights.
Without this kind of research, you might build your marketing strategy around a flawed set of assumptions — with potentially disastrous consequences. And client research almost always uncovers a few surprises. Often these can play a pivotal role in your market positioning or messaging. So think of research as the foundation upon which you build your entire plan.
Position your brand in the marketplace
Positioning is about staking out a place in buyers’ minds. It’s about creating a connection between your firm and an idea — for instance, a specialty or some other distinctive quality of your business. At the same time, it’s about creating a contrast between your firm and competitors who might otherwise be perceived as similar to you. In the end, positioning is a boon to buyers, giving them a reason to pluck your firm from a poorly differentiated pack.
Your positioning begins with a set of differentiators, which your research can help you identify. A differentiator must pass three tests. It must be:
- True — Clients can smell a made-up differentiator a mile away.
- Provable — It must be supportable with evidence.
- Relevant — Your clients must care about it. There’s no room for differentiators that offer no obvious value to clients.
Once you’ve got a list of differentiators (most firms can identify 3-5), you can develop your positioning statement — a short paragraph that cooks your brand down to its essence. It should describe who you are, who you serve, how you are different, and why clients choose you. As you move forward, your positioning statement will be your brand compass, providing guidance as you talk and write about your firm.
Define and refine your service offerings
If your clients are changing, then your services need to evolve with them. That’s how you create and maintain your competitive advantage.
This could mean revamping existing services or creating all-new ones based on your research findings. You might even automate some of your processes so they can be delivered more efficiently and at a lower cost.
Identify which marketing techniques you will use
Research can help you understand not only what challenges your clients to face, but how they consume information, as well. Insights like these can help you select what channels you use to promote and distribute your expert content. This powerful strategy, which we call building visible expertise, leverages your firm’s natural expertise to create greater exposure and generate trust.
Achieving a high level of visibility requires a balanced approach to marketing. According to our research into high-growth firms, a 50/50 blend of offline and online techniques generates the best performance. Whenever possible, you should use both types of marketing techniques to demonstrate your expertise, rather than always pursuing a conventional selling strategy.
Here are some examples of offline marketing techniques:
- Print Publications
- Direct Mail
- Cold Calls
- Print Advertising
- Associations/Trade Shows
And here are a few online technique examples:
- Social Media
- Blogs/Online Publications
- Online Advertising
- Groups/Online Conferences
As you choose your portfolio of marketing techniques, make sure you address all stages of the sales funnel — getting new prospects, nurturing existing prospects, and turning prospects into clients.
Identify the new tools, skills, and infrastructure you will need
As your marketing evolves, the tools you use will also need to change and keep up with the times. Here are some common tools you may want to evaluate or upgrade:
- Marketing Collateral
- Marketing Automation
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
- Social Media
- Speaker Kits
- Proposal Templates
Don’t forget to upgrade your skills, too. Even the best strategy will accomplish little if you don’t fully implement it.
Document your operational schedule and budget
A plan worth carrying out is worth putting down on paper. In detail. Be sure to include specific deadlines, expected results, and how long each task should take so that you can assess your progress. Then pause periodically to make adjustments and optimize your processes.
Your plan should include both a marketing calendar and a marketing budget. The marketing calendar should describe every activity required to implement your plan. Whether your calendar covers the current quarter or an entire year, it should include every upcoming marketing opportunity, such as:
- Conferences & tradeshows
- Speaking events
- Blog posts
- Marketing emails (single & campaigns)
- Ad campaigns
Of course, you know what happens to the best-laid plans. Be prepared to update your plan frequently.
Your marketing budget should try to account for the costs associated with each tactic. In some cases, these costs will be known, while in others you will need to estimate. It’s always wise to plan for contingencies, too — adding 5-10% to your overall marketing budget should account for unforeseen expenses and marketing opportunities.
Strategic Marketing Management
No strategy, however well-conceived, can succeed unless it is actually implemented. This is why marketing management is so critical to the fate of your plan.
As you may recall, marketing management is the process of translating your plan into results. It is also where we see so many professional services firms stumble. In this section, we will review the key steps in managing your strategic marketing campaign. We’ll put special emphasis on how you can overcome some of the most common challenges you are likely to encounter.
1. Identify appropriate resources
This is where a lot of campaigns have problems. They never get the appropriate resources to fully implement their strategy. The two biggest shortfalls are time and skills.
Let’s start with professionals’ time. In theory, it should be easy to allocate some of your subject matter expert’s time to marketing and business development. And doing so can increase the visibility of your firm’s expertise. Yet these requests run into two major hurdles.
First, many firms incentivize their professionals to value billable time over business development. While this is understandable, it can be short-sighted. This problem can be overcome by either changing the underlying policies (which may be very easy or very, very difficult) or engaging other resources to minimize the expert’s time. For instance, you can hire a professional writer to interview the expert and draft a blog post for him or her.
The second hurdle is that some experts lack critical skills in writing, public speaking or networking. To remedy these challenges, you can either train your experts to overcome their weaknesses or, again, hire relevant talent to support them.
Many firms do not have the full set of skills needed to run a contemporary strategic marketing campaign. This poses the challenge of securing the skills you need. One option is to hire and train individuals in the relevant skills. An increasingly popular alternative is to outsource some of the requirements to an outside organization. While a full discussion of the pros and cons of outsourcing is beyond the scope of this article you may want to check out our discussion of outsourced marketing for a fuller treatment.
Whichever alternatives you choose, the key takeaway is that you have to provide sufficient resources to make the approach successful. Fewer initiatives, fully implemented, always outperform a slew of under-resourced activities. Do less, but do it well.
2. Track implementation
What gets implemented? Did your monthly webinars all happen as originally scheduled? Are your weekly blog posts published on time, or do they always slip?
Tracking the actual implementation of your strategic marketing plan serves two important functions. First, by making the tracking public, it motivates people to deliver on their promises. Social pressure is an important tool to make things happen.
Second, tracking helps you identify choke points and troubleshoot problems. It also saves you from making misjudgments, such as concluding that a technique is not effective when in fact it was never fully implemented.
Implementation tracking does not have to be complicated. Simply tracking whether activities happened or did not happen is a good start. Later, you can get more sophisticated and track other important variables, such as attendance at events or the quality of presentations. You’ll also find that the implementation track sets the stage for tracking the performance of your entire marketing program.
3. Track results
Marketing results are the outcomes you want your marketing plan to deliver. For example, you may have a strategy to increase the visitors to your website or to increase the number of new leads you generate each month. Both of these would be considered marketing outcomes.
One of the most important considerations is to make sure that you are tracking the entire marketing funnel (see below). This is critical because it gives you information on the full cycle of marketing results and allows you to troubleshoot the implementation of your strategy.
A common challenge is understanding which metrics to track. We recommend that you monitor several types of metrics.
- Visibility metrics — These will help you gauge how visible you are to your target audience. Common visibility metrics include total website traffic (web traffic rises with increased visibility), social media traffic, and attendance at events.
- Expertise metrics — These tell you if your audience is exposed to your thought leadership content (i.e., are you successfully demonstrating your expertise?). Common expertise metrics include blog views, downloads of your premium content, guest posts, webinar attendees, and attendance at speaking events.
- Leads — These can include raw (not yet qualified) leads or inquiries, “sales-ready” opportunities, and actual proposals submitted. Your firm may describe these stages differently. It does not matter how you define your lead stages as long as you are consistent and capture the full new-business cycle.
- Wins and losses — This data can help you understand how proposals turn into new clients (you might call this your “closing percentage”). Be sure to track this metric separately for new and existing clients. Existing client proposals should have a much higher closing rate.
4. Troubleshoot issues
The next step in the strategic marketing management process is troubleshooting issues that arise during implementation. The most common type of problem is a marketing technique that fails to deliver the expected results. While there is no single way to troubleshoot an issue, asking the questions below can reveal the root cause of the disappointment.
- Was the technique well implemented? This is often where the search begins and ends. In my experience, the top reason that strategic marketing programs fail is that they are not fully implemented. If it’s not implemented, it will not work!
- Has enough time passed to evaluate it? Not all marketing techniques deliver their full impact right away. For example, a typical nurture campaign could take several months and involve 6-8 touches.
- Were there any impacts? Were there any impacts at all? You might just need to recalibrate your approach. For instance, an activity designed to generate qualified opportunities might produce raw leads, instead. Knowing that there were some results, even if they were not the ones you were hoping for, can be useful in making program adjustments.
- Where did the chain of impacts end? One result (e.g., visibility of your expertise) may produce another impact (e.g., new leads raising their hand). This, in turn, leads to another impact (e.g., opportunities). Think of this as an impact chain. So the key question is, where does the chain break down? Are you getting enough traffic but not enough leads? That signals a problem in your conversion mechanism. Are you getting enough leads but they are unqualified? Probably a targeting issue.
Once you have completed your troubleshooting, you can move on to making appropriate strategy adjustments.
5. Make adjustments to strategy
Adjustments to your strategic marketing plan typically take one of three forms:
- Build on areas of strength. What tactics are working as planned? Which are most effective and efficient? If you have a technique that is producing the desired results, you will undoubtedly want to do more of it. You may also consider using related techniques to build on your success and make implementation more effective and efficient.
- Rebuild or replace areas of critical weakness. Where has implementation faltered? Some of these will be important for success. For example, you will need to communicate on a regular basis with prospects who are in the nurture phase of the marketing funnel — so making email work may be central to this effort. We call these critical weaknesses, and they need to be improved. You have two choices. First, you can repair areas of critical weakness. This might involve replacing or retraining staff. Second, you can replace that function with an outsourced solution.
- Drop areas of non-critical weakness. Finally, you have areas of weakness that are not critical to the overall success of the program. Given that you can work around them, the most prudent course of action may be to replace these techniques with others that are better aligned with your strengths — or simply drop them altogether.
Once the adjustments to your plan are complete, you are back to the beginning of the management cycle
Strategic Marketing offers professional services firms a chance to control their own destiny. Rather than waiting for lightning to strike, you can systematically create an environment in which you have a true competitive advantage. At last, you will be able to serve clients that are a good fit — and which produce the greatest rewards. And after all, isn’t that what marketing should do for your firm?
The Marketing Planning Guide for Professional Services Firms
Marketing Planning Guide - Third Edition
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