If yours is like most professional services firms, this is the time of year when you are scrambling to finish up your marketing plan for the new year. I know, you had intended to have it wrapped up by the end of last year, but here you are.

In the spirit of helping you make those last few decisions, I thought it might be helpful to pass along three questions that may give you a better perspective. At Hinge, we have been doing a boatload of marketing strategy reviews, and we have found that these questions help put things in perspective. If you answer them honestly they may make your choices clearer.

Question 1. How well do you really know your target client group?

Try to resist the easy answer here. I’m not talking about the kind of knowledge that comes from working with individual clients or attending industry events and reading trade pubs. I’m talking about the knowledge that comes from systematic, structured research. 

Our own research shows that firms that do this kind of research grow faster and are more profitable. Why? Because they uncover trends in the market that their competitors don’t know about. They can adjust and anticipate. They can talk about issues from the perspective of their potential clients.

If you don't see the tremendous value that comes from research you've probably never experienced its results. Plan to set aside about $15-20,000 to do it right.

Question 2. Do you have a clear and compelling message that sets you apart from competitors?

You may call this your competitive advantage or unique selling proposition. We tend to think of it as your market positioning and messaging, but what you call it is not as important as what it is.

This compelling message is the reason that potential clients will choose you over a competitor. Unfortunately, it is devilishly difficult for some professional services firms to get this right.

Saying you have great people or really care about providing exceptional value for your clients just won’t cut it. Your competitors say these things, too. To benefit you, your message has to be different. Of course, just being different isn’t enough. You have to be perceived as different in a way that is important to your potential clients.

Finally, this message needs to be believable. If you say you specialize in a single industry and your website and materials reflect it, that's believable. If you say you specialize in a dozen industries with nothing compelling to back it up, no sale.

Why is messaging so important? High growth professional services firms are three times more likely to have a strong, easy-to-understand, believable differentiator. It gives potential clients a compelling reason to select your firm over an apparently similar one. Don’t be afraid of losing business because your message is exclusive. You should, in fact, generate more business. Set aside $10,000 in your marketing plan budget to answer this one. You’ll be glad you did.

Question 3. Are you putting your best foot forward online?

Is your website designed to generate leads? Does it reflect the best of who you are and what you do? Is it optimized for search engines so you can be found for the terms that your best clients search on? What's that? Your clients don’t check firms out online? Guess again.

A recent study of online marketing for professional services firms, found that firms that generated at least 40% of their leads online grew 4X faster than firms that did not generate online leads. They were also 2X more profitable. Think about that for a moment. That is a tremendous advantage for them.

Tempted to put off a web redesign? Consider this. About two-thirds of firms will be increasing their online marketing budgets over the next 12 months. The average increase? 57%. Time to get cracking if you don’t want to be left behind. Set aside about 50% of your marketing budget to accurately seize this opportunity.

So there are your three key marketing planning questions. Answer them honestly and I predict you will have a great year.