Elements of Modern Professional Services Marketing 3: Content Marketing

By Aaron Taylor

The professional services marketplace is undergoing fundamental change. Today's buyers are relying on the power and convenience of the Internet to find and vet professional services firms. As marketing moves away from traditional referrals and toward a practice of sharing knowledge, a firm's reputation depends increasingly on its command of ideas. In this third of a multi-part series, we describe how content marketing is changing the way professional services are bought and sold.

Move over referrals. Step aside networking. There's a new kid in town. And boy, does this kid have a lot to say!

Today, the Internet has become so much a part of our personal and professional lives, that it has begun driving the way businesses find and select service firms. The web is no longer just a place we shop for shoes, books and electronics; it's becoming the first place many businesses turn when they need a new accountant, lawyer, architect or consultant.

But the web is more than a digital shopping mall for services. It's also become a rich educational resource. And that's where a true revolution is taking place. Educational content is becoming the new currency of the professional services marketplace. And content marketing is the strategy that turns knowledge into profits. To better understand what's going on, let's first take a look at some traditional ways services are sold and bought.

Traditional Marketing 101

In traditional services marketing, a firm goes out into the world — through networking, public speaking and word of mouth referrals — and slowly but steadily builds awareness and trust. Eventually, someone who has had exposure to the firm and needs the firm's services sets up a meeting to learn more. It may take many weeks or months before the relationship matures and a decision is made.

A common way services are bought involves sending out an RFP to a broad swath of prospective service providers. Responses flood in. The buyer then spends the next two to three weeks reviewing the proposals before scheduling interviews with the most promising firms. Several weeks later, a decision is made and work begins.

In both of these scenarios — the first from the perspectives of the service provider and the second from the buyer's point of view — the process of matching a firm to a buyer is fraught with inefficiency. In both cases, for instance, the firms are not seriously vetted until relatively late in the process, which means a lot of time is wasted communicating with firms or prospective clients that may not be a good match.

Content Marketing — A Better Way

In the Internet Age, a firm can communicate its expertise in a more direct and engaging way. And in the process, it can reach a much larger audience. Buyers can get to know a firm and its approach to problem solving in a much more intimate way, so they understand what they will be getting before they make an inquiry.

The key to building these virtual relationships is “content marketing” — an online strategy that takes thought leadership to a new level by publishing free, valuable, educational content on a regular basis and using that content to attract new leads, nurture existing leads and build preference for the firm.

When a firm writes about topics that are relevant to its target clients, it accomplishes three things:

  1. Demonstrates a deep understanding of issues its prospects care about
  2. Engages its audience
  3. Builds trust

The more often a firm produces relevant content, the more engagement it creates — and the more trusted it becomes. In many cases, leads nurtured through content marketing become converts to a particular firm's approach and way of thinking. And sometimes they will even hire a firm they have been following without soliciting competitive bids. Bottom line: a firm that builds a loyal readership has an easier time closing sales.

We find that the most effective approach to content marketing is to provide a wealth of freely available material. Most of this material will be short-format pieces, such as blog posts and articles. (Though at Hinge, we freely distribute our research studies — arguably the most valuable content we produce. We do so to generate valuable buzz and inbound links — but more on that in a future article.) We recommend that longer pieces require registration. That way the reader trades some basic contact information (sometimes little more than their name and email address) for the piece. The reader gets a valuable information and you build your list. A fair trade.

What is Content?

So how do you get started? What kinds of content can you create?

For most firms, blogging is the easiest and most productive way to get started in content marketing. Because blog posts can be any length and less polished than, say, a magazine article, they can be produced and published quickly. If commenting is enabled, blog posts also provide a great way to interact with your audience.

But blogs only scratch the surface. Here are some other important content marketing vehicles to consider as you retool your marketing plan:

Webinars — By themselves, they offer a good way to demonstrate your firm's expertise, educate your audience and cultivate interested leads. If you record your webinars, they can be added to your library of content so that web visitors can view them at any time.

Articles / White Papers — Perhaps the most familiar form of thought leadership, these medium-length pieces are still valuable. Unfortunately, they have a reputation for being dry. So do your best to make them an easy read.

Social Media — Social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter, can be important channels to speak directly to your audience, answer questions and promote your educational material.

E-newsletters — Many people love to receive educational content delivered to their email inbox. In return, you get their email address and the ability to expose them to more of your expert material.

Ebooks — For the ultimate credibility boost, publish an in-depth study of a topic. Usually, you will want to put something this valuable behind a short registration form.

Kits / Guides — These medium-length pieces make terrific offers on your website, in pay-per-click ads and in email marketing campaigns. Put them behind a registration form so that you can collect leads.

There are many other formats you can use to package information, but these are some of the most popular and effective.

What to Write

What do you write about? Won't you be giving away your secrets? Well, you have to use your judgment here. If you have a proprietary process or technique that gives your firm a tangible competitive advantage, then you might want to keep that under wraps. Most firms, however, don't have such an advantage. Whatever your situation, there are almost always things you can write about that won't compromise your competitive edge. In fact, most market leaders aren't successful because they have a secret sauce. They are successful because clients and prospects perceive them as the most qualified choice. And the best way to influence perceptions is to demonstrate your mastery of the material. Content marketing is perfect for creating leaders.

Writing is a lot easier if you have a pool of ideas to draw from. And an easy way to come up with ideas is to think about the problems you solve for your clients every day. You can probably think up a list of ten or twenty issues without even trying. If you are having trouble, however, try brainstorming with your colleagues. You don't have to tackle big, philosophical questions. A practical answer to a common question can be pure gold.

The Importance of SEO

For content marketing to work, the pieces you write have to be findable. And on the Internet, that means being found on Google. As you write material, you will want to keep this fact squarely in mind. That means you will need to learn how search engines work and what search terms you have a chance to rank for. I will talk more about search engine optimization (SEO) and its place in online marketing in the next issue. For now, understand that SEO is critical to the success of your content marketing initiative.

Don't Drop Everything

Content marketing should be a major component of your marketing plan. It's the future of professional services marketing, and it's here to stay. But does that mean you should abandon the tactics that have worked so well for you in the past? Absolutely not. At least not yet.

Professional services are defined by their people, so that means there is always value in face-to-face interaction. The credibility you generate online through the quality of your content can be enhanced further when people meet you in person. Our own research shows that firms that generated 40 to 59 percent of their leads online tended to grow the fastest — outperforming even firms that generated 60 to 100 percent of their leads online. At least for now, a balanced approach to marketing is probably your best bet.

Further Reading


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