Over the past decade the marketplace has undergone fundamental change. However many firms still haven’t adapted to the new ways buyers find and select their professional services providers. Even firms that have embraced marketing technology and content marketing can struggle to deliver a cohesive, well-coordinated marketing program.

As you consider your marketing priorities for 2018, it’s important to take a close look at what’s really happening in the marketplace, and then invest in the activities that are going to position your firm for future growth.

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In this post, I’ll help you identify some of the trends that are shaping the professional services marketplace today — and tomorrow. I’ll also provide you with five marketing planning tips to help you stand apart from your competition.

What to expect in 2018

While I can’t claim to predict what will happen to the economy in 2018, I can offer — based on Hinge’s ongoing research into professional services marketing — a couple of observations about where marketing appears to be headed in the year ahead.

  1. Buyers will rely more than ever on online tools. Buyers are increasingly looking online for professional services providers. The tools are simple to use (think Google and LinkedIn), powerful and can generate more options more quickly than traditional techniques, such as asking colleagues for referrals. Of course, today’s younger generation of buyers and influencers have grown up with these online tools, so they reach for them reflexively whenever they need to answer a question or find a resource. As a result, the advantage will go to firms that can be found — and are being talked about — online.
  2. Recruiting won’t get any easier. With employment levels at their lowest level in 16 years, the job market is a challenge for employers. In fact, 3 out of the top 5 business challenges identified by participants in our most recent study were related to recruiting and talent retention. We don’t see this trend abating any time soon. Firms that want to hire the best people need to devote serious marketing resources to attract and keep them.

So with those two themes in mind, let’s get to the main event. Here are my 5 top marketing planning tips for professional services firms:

Tip 1. Find out what you don’t know

If we’ve learned one thing at Hinge — through our work with hundreds of professional services clients and while marketing our own business — it’s this: you don’t know as much as you think you do about your buyers. You will never know what’s really going on in the marketplace until you do the research.

Firms that conduct regular research on their target audience are much more likely to have higher than average rates of growth and profitability. In our 2017 High Growth Study of 505 firms, not one of the no-growth firms in the study did research, while over a third of the high-growth firms conducted research at least 4 times a year.

This correlation between research and growth makes sense. When firms are guided by empirical evidence rather than anecdotes, assumptions, and hunches they can detect changes in the marketplace sooner, and more accurately.

How to take action: Plan to interview a representative sample of clients and prospects to learn about their biggest challenges, how they view your firm, who they think your competitors are, and other issues critical to your business. Pro tip: while you can conduct interviews yourself, you will get better, more honest feedback if a skilled, impartial third party does it for you.

Tip 2. Raise your content marketing game

Expertise wins new business. But if nobody knows you have it, they won’t be beating down your door. The trick is to make your expertise broadly visible to your target market. And the way to accomplish that is to share your knowledge freely.

Content marketing is a process that exposes your firm’s expertise to a wide audience — by blogging (on your own site and on others’ sites), writing articles and books, conducting webinars, speaking at events, investing in search engine optimization and more.

It’s the best way to spread your reputation, online and offline.

And if you aren’t doing it in a consistent, systematic way, you aren’t competing in the modern marketplace.

How to take action: If you are already doing some content marketing, ask yourself if it’s creating the exposure and opportunities that you are looking for. What do you need to do to raise the level of your content development and promotion? You also need to decide if outside assistance can help you achieve your goals. It’s okay if you don’t do all of it yourself — many firms get help writing and promoting their content. And if you aren’t doing any content marketing yet, it’s time to start developing a plan to get into the game.

Tip 3. Give your employer brand some love

Let’s face it. It’s a tough market for employers. Finding good, highly qualified professionals can be a real challenge right now. And to make matters worse, head-hunters are always dangling enticing job offers in front of your team members.

That’s why over a third (35.8%) of firms in a recent study said that making their firm attractive to potential employees was a top marketing priority. And I expect this percentage to grow as employer branding becomes a more familiar concept to professional services executives, marketers, and HR professionals.

While branding has traditionally been a client-facing activity, it is now being used by many firms to promote their workplace and build loyalty.

When we asked job candidates what they wanted most in their next job, their top three criteria were:

  1. Great company culture
  2. Good compensation and benefits
  3. Good reputation in the marketplace

A strong employer brand can directly influence two of these!

How to take action: Start with your workplace. Have you created a workplace that energizes people and provides opportunities for them to grow? Next look at your website. Do you have a section, or microsite, that creatively promotes your culture and work environment? Do you have a clear value proposition? Do you have other recruiting materials that need to be updated? Finally, consider your firm’s brand. Does it position you as a leader, innovator or up-and-comer? Is it a place that would excite prospective employees (and clients)? Of course, you not only need to answer these questions, you need to be willing to make some changes. Don’t be afraid to start small. Even a few initial changes can make a big difference.

Tip 4. Don’t waste your time and money (spend it on what works, instead)

There is more data than ever about what actually works in marketing. But are you using it?

Many firms today still rely on the old standbys to drive leads — in-person networking and referrals.

While there is nothing wrong with those techniques, they come with built-in limitations.

You can only meet and nurture a finite number of people, and you have a limited number of clients and influencers who know your firm and can refer you to others.

Online marketing busts through those barriers, and high-growth firms know it.

Based on Hinge’s high-growth research, here’s where the best-performing firms are spending their marketing dollars compared to their no-growth peers:

Techniques with greatest marketing impact

How to take action: Look at the list of marketing activities and compare them to your current marketing program. Use this as a guide as you retool your 2018 marketing plan. Clearly, many of the top techniques are content marketing tactics, so be sure to revisit your content marketing plan, as well (see Tip 2, above).

Tip 5. Measure, adjust, repeat

The future of marketing is all about getting more from your data. There is a plethora of marketing analytics tools out there that you can use to understand how various aspects of your marketing are performing — so many, in fact, that I couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface in this post.

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In the future, as machine learning and AI technologies mature, these tools are going to get incredibly powerful.

Many professional services firms are beginning to take marketing metrics and analysis seriously, and it’s giving them unprecedented insights into the marketplace and which tools and techniques move their audiences to action. It’s also gives them levers they can pull to change course or test new approaches — to improve their marketing effectiveness over time.

Unfortunately, even more firms today are doing nothing. And it’s possible that the success these firms have seen is going to erode away if they don’t make changes soon.

How to take action: Rather than recommend specific tools to use, I’d like to simply ask you to begin thinking analytically about your marketing. To what degree are you measuring your results? Start developing a culture of curiosity — one that wants to understand why different marketing tactics work or don’t work. Test different approaches, and don’t hesitate to abandon the poor performers. However, be judicious when testing. If you test too many approaches or elements at once, you run the risk of changing something that’s working because it’s not clear what the anomaly may be. Finally, experiment with a variety of analytical tools to find out which give you the best insights into the marketing tactics you use.

That’s how you’ll become a high-performing firm.

I hope I’ve given you at least a couple of valuable marketing planning ideas that you can incorporate into your 2018 marketing budget.

The professional services landscape is undergoing a lot of change, and smart marketers will be watching this evolution carefully — and adapting to the new environment.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, check out Lee Frederiksen’s post, Marketing Planning for Professional Services. Or download some of our free resources below.

Happy planning!

Additional Resources:

  • Keep pace with the marketplace, generate leads, and build your reputation all at once: Marketing Planning Guide.
  • Find out what tools and techniques are used by the fastest-growing firms. Download The Visible Firm® Guide and start emulating the best-performing professional services businesses.
  • For more tips and insights specific for professional services firms – check out Hinge University.

How Hinge Can Help:

Hinge has developed a comprehensive program, The Visible Firm® to deliver greater visibility, growth and profits. This customized program will identify the most practical offline and online marketing tools your firm will need to gain new clients and reach new heights.