— January 10, 2019
A wave of digital technology is transforming industry after industry, and professional services are no exception to this trend. Potential clients now have new ways to learn about and vet potential service providers. This change is forcing firms to rethink their digital marketing strategies if they wish to remain competitive.
In this post, we will review the role of digital marketing in professional services firms’ growth plans and suggest an approach to develop a winning digital strategy for your firm. Let’s start by reviewing some key concepts.
Digital Marketing Strategy Defined
A digital marketing strategy is a plan for using digital marketing tools and techniques to achieve a firm’s strategic marketing objectives, such as brand building or new business development. Digital marketing strategy is often a part of an overall strategic marketing plan that incorporates both digital and traditional (offline) approaches. Common digital techniques include search engine optimization, digital advertising, email, webinars, social media, websites and mobile apps.
In the growing digital marketing space you will often hear people talk about strategy and techniques interchangeably. While this practice may be fine in the consumer products market, it misses some important distinctions relevant to professional services marketers.
Digital Marketing Strategy vs. Digital Marketing Techniques
Digital marketing strategy is the high-level planning and strategic choices that set the direction for positioning your firm in the marketplace and the key messages you will deliver to your audiences. Your high-level strategy should be the same in both the digital and offline worlds.
Digital marketing techniques are the specific digital platforms and tactics you use to deliver those messages and engage your audiences. An example of a common digital technique is using search engine optimization to draw online traffic to specific sections of your website.
From LinkedIn postings to webinars and podcasts, potential clients are finding new ways to educate themselves and evaluate professional services providers. Digital techniques and tactics are fluid and can change quickly.
Strategy is more stable and covers the long term view. While a strategy may require minor adjustments along the way, its fundamentals should change little, if at all, in the course of a year. That said, occasionally major disruptions — such as mergers and acquisitions or intensified marketplace competition — can shake up the marketplace and require you to reassess your strategy. But that is the rare exception.
Later in this post when we talk about how to develop your digital marketing strategy we will address both strategy and techniques. Both are important when it comes to producing measurable results with your digital marketing efforts.
Digital Marketing vs. Traditional Marketing
Since the advent of digital marketing for the professional services there has been an ongoing debate: which is better, digital or traditional? Over time, it has become clear that this is a false choice. Most professional services firms need a mix of both.
You have some important choices to make. You will need to balance your offline and online presence.
Figure 1. Many traditional marketing techniques (blue) have online counterparts (green).
As Figure 1 illustrates, most traditional offline marketing techniques also have digital analogues. Traditional speaking engagements have a corresponding webinar alternative. There is print and digital advertising. Each marketing approach has advantages and disadvantages.
Figure 2. Strengths and limitations of digital and traditional marketing.
Our research has shown the fastest growing and most profitable firms tend to use a mix of both. But be cautious. Don’t spread yourself so thin that nothing you do has an impact. Dabbling doesn’t work well. Going deeper with fewer techniques typically delivers better results.
When selecting the best tools for your situation, consider which approach is most likely to reach your target audiences. Also take into account the effectiveness and efficiency of your various options. We’ll discuss this selection process below when we cover researching your target audiences and selecting marketing techniques.
How to Create a Digital Marketing Strategy
In many ways, the process of developing a digital marketing strategy parallels the process for developing your overall strategic marketing plan or your marketing budgets.
Start with your business goals
Strategic marketing, whether digital or traditional, starts with your firm’s strategic goals. What are you trying to achieve? Do you want to grow the firm? Are you trying to gain visibility for your brand? Position the firm for acquisition?
You’ll want to understand which segments of the practice are you targeting with your digital strategy. Most firms have a range of client types that buy a variety of specific services. Which ones are you targeting with your digital strategy? Which segments will be the easiest to reach? Once you have narrowed your choices, it is time to get a deeper understanding of your target audience.
Research your target audiences
The next step in preparing a digital marketing strategy is to identify and research your target audiences. The value of this research is evident when you consider that high-growth professional services firms are three times more likely to perform frequent research as their slow-growth peers.
Your target audiences are the groups of people you need to reach to execute your digital strategy. Here are a few common examples of target audiences:
This target audience could be further segmented by industry, role or other persona characteristics, if those distinctions are important.
Individual influencers, and sometimes a formal selection committee, often advise the final decision maker and can be valuable targets in a digital campaign.
In some circumstances, referral sources can be so influential that they become de facto decision makers. Industry analysts and influential thought leaders can also pay a pivotal role.
In many industries, talent shortages can severely impact a firm’s ability to deliver on its promises. This makes potential employees or subcontractors important target audiences. Think of these efforts as building your digital employer brand.
After considering all the possible people you need to reach, you may find that you have more target audiences than you can reasonably address. So how do you prioritize and select audiences?
How do you prioritize audiences?
Many firms conduct research on multiple potential audiences or market segments to help them choose the most responsive markets. We call this Opportunity Research and it goes well beyond simply looking at the growth rate of different segments.
Research questions might explore the competitive environment, potential clients’ buying behavior, your firm’s brand strength within various markets and other factors that might illuminate the likelihood of success within alternative market segments.
Your level of experience with a segment can be important as you prioritize your audiences. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. The firm that believes “everyone” is the right target for its service is at a distinct disadvantage. Its efforts will be spread so thin it will have no impact on anyone.
In most cases the target audiences for your digital marketing strategy will be the same as your overall marketing targets. Once you have identified your target audiences it’s time to learn more about their behavior and digital footprint.
How do you research target audiences?
There are two broad types of research that can help you develop a winning digital strategy. The first approach is called secondary research. In this approach you search for research studies that have already been conducted by another organization. Trade associations or publishers often release studies about specific industries. Similarly, there are many organizations that sell relevant research on market size or trends.
For example, Hinge publishes research on marketing practices for professional services firms that provides useful marketing budget benchmarks and lists the most effective marketing techniques.
The second approach is primary research. In this type of research, you commission an original study of your target audiences. Primary research is more expensive, but it has the advantage of addressing the critical questions that are most relevant to your specific circumstances.
When you combine primary research with high-quality secondary research, you get the best of both worlds: a full, well-informed view of your audiences. This market intelligence dramatically reduces risk and makes marketing more of a science than an expensive guessing game.
Develop your digital marketing strategy
An effective digital marketing strategy framework has four key elements. If you have already done this work for your overall marketing strategy, it will likely be very similar for your digital strategy.
What sets your firm or practice apart from your competitors? Often, the research you performed earlier will help you discover differentiators that you may not have been aware of before. For example, you might learn that the unique way you deliver the findings of your assessment is unusually helpful to clients. Alternatively, you might choose a differentiator. For example, you might decide to specialize in a specific industry or type of service.
The next element of your framework is the market positioning of your firm. How is your firm positioned relative to key competitors? Is your firm the low-cost alternative? Are you the specialists that command top dollar? Your positioning is built upon your differentiators. They are the bricks that build the house that is your market positioning. Your positioning gives your audiences the cohesive and compelling story they need to prefer your firm over your competitors.
What key messages do each of your audiences need to hear? These will likely vary from audience to audience. For instance, potential employees are probably going to be interested in different things than your referral sources. But be careful. Key messages must not contradict each other — and all should all be consistent with your firm’s overall market positioning.
Content is at the heart of most professional services firms’ digital strategy framework. Content is the way you communicate your expertise, build trust and demonstrate to potential clients how you can help them. This is the section of the plan where you specify what issues and topics you will focus on. This content becomes the fuel for social media, webinars, blog posts, emails and other digital marketing techniques.
Once you have documented your overall strategy, it’s time to select the digital marketing techniques and tactics you will use to deliver key messages to your target audiences.
Select your digital marketing techniques
Which new digital technique should we try this year? This is where a lot of firms begin their digital marketing planning — and it’s almost always the wrong place to start. Unless you make the effort to understand your business situation, audiences and high level strategy first, you will almost certainly make some counterproductive choices.
Your research into your target audience will tell you which digital platforms your different audiences are already using. Why choose Twitter if no one in your target audience is on it? And do you really want to ignore the platform that 60% of your target audience uses?
Also, different techniques tend to have different levels of efficiency and impact. Our research on high-growth firms shows that some techniques simply work better than others. (We’ll discuss this below in the section on the effectiveness of digital techniques.) When presented with two competing alternative techniques to reach your target audience, you can choose the option that has been empirically shown to deliver more impact.
How often should you publish blogs or offer webinars? What effort will be required from your internal team? What sort of external resources will you need? What about training? How about software or a new website?
Answering these questions often involves wrestling with both your business goals and the resources required to achieve them. Reality has a way of imposing limits, and inevitably you will strike a balance between what you want to achieve and what is possible in your situation.
In today’s professional services firm, marketing is a team sport. No individual or even department can do it all. That means that you need a range of resources to help you execute your plan. The marketing team, billable professionals and outside resources must work together to produce the desired result. Many configurations are possible as long as you have the necessary time and skills at your disposal.
Once you have selected your marketing techniques and have determined their required frequency and level of effort, you can anticipate if you will need any new marketing infrastructure, training or outside support to make the plan a reality. You are also ready to set specific goals and tracking mechanisms.
Set specific goals and determine how you will track them
You might think that it makes logical sense to select goals before techniques. But here is the catch. Each technique lends itself to certain tracking mechanisms.
While some high-level goals, such as acquiring ten new clients per month, applies to all of your marketing, other goals, such as getting 20 LinkedIn shares each week, are technique specific — you have to know you will be using LinkedIn before you can set that goal. Modern technology makes some metrics easy to track, so when it makes sense, take advantage of what is readily available to you.
How do you set specific digital marketing goals?
Knowing where to set goals is something of an art form. On one hand, you must take into account the current level of baseline performance. What is reasonable to achieve given your situation?
On the other hand, you must consider what it will take to achieve the business outcome you desire. The level of impact you need from a marketing technique will also influence how much effort it will require. You can’t expect a major impact from a minimal effort.
How do you know what to track?
At a high level there are four areas of tracking that makes sense for most professional services firms. Let’s take a look at each of them.
- Business Outcomes. Business outcomes are based on the high-level business goals that we explored in the first step of the digital marketing strategy. Revenue growth, number and type of new clients, profitability and new leads are all examples of business outcomes. In many ways, these measures track the success of your digital marketing plan. These metrics can typically be tracked in firms’ financial, CRM or marketing automation systems.
- Visibility.Most professional services firms want to increase the visibility of their expertise. In our experience, the single most representative measure of visibility is external website traffic. The more people who know of your firm, the more website traffic you will receive. This measure can be further refined by looking at traffic to certain sections of the website. For example, you might monitor traffic to the careers section of your site to track the visibility of your recruiting campaign. Other measures of visibility might include traffic to your social media pages or the growth of your email database. You might even develop an index that incorporates all of these yardsticks.
- Expertise. Tracking changes in your perceived expertise can be tricky, but it is possible. To do so, you need specific, tangible indicators. For example, you could track how many people download your white papers, view your blog posts (assuming that your blog posts demonstrate your expertise) or attend your speaking events. After all, people who consume your educational content are showing an interest in your expertise, and by quantifying that interest you can get a measure of how much people trust your ideas and perspectives.
- Implementation.Another variable to track is how well you implement the marketing techniques in your plan. Are the events happening as scheduled? Are your designated articles actually being published? Often, the reason a technique is not working is that it is not being implemented as planned. This kind of information is also very helpful in problem solving and adjusting your implementation.
How do you develop a digital marketing budget?
At this point in the process, you should understand your firm’s business goals, have researched your audience and have developed an overall strategy for your brand. You should also have selected the best techniques to reach your audience so you can deliver appropriate messages at the appropriate frequency using the appropriate resources. In addition, you should have determined how to measure results against your goals.
The next step for many folks is to develop your digital marketing budget based on this detailed plan. On one level, this is a relatively straightforward exercise. You can ask specialized vendors to provide estimates for one-time infrastructure projects such as a website or a new marketing automation platform. But don’t make low cost your primary deciding factor. Many firms have wasted precious resources on “cheap” marketing tools that were woefully ineffective.
Estimating costs for recurring activities, such as blogging or article placement, can be a bit more challenging since many more people may be involved over a longer period of time. For instance, one of the biggest challenges can be tracking down busy subject matter experts and managing their critical role in the marketing process. Estimating costs like these can be tricky.
Once you have collected these cost estimates, you should have an overall spending level that you can benchmark against your industry peers or against high-growth firms. How do they compare?
If you find that they are relatively well aligned, you may be done with your budget. If, however, you find that your budget is significantly lower than the relevant benchmark, look first for missed items. Did you forget something important? Are your costs unrealistically low? Are you planning frequent enough marketing activities to meet your goals? Is the quality of your planned resources adequate to return the desired results?
If your budget comes in much higher than the benchmark, make sure you aren’t double counting some expenses. Next, see if the discrepancy is the result of one-time expenses (such as a research project or a new website). Also, are you are planning reoccurring activities more frequently than you need?
If you find that you need to reduce your budget, try eliminating one whole technique or initiative rather than trimming across the board. In our experience, it is more effective to do fewer things but do them better.
Which Digital Marketing Techniques Are Most Effective?
The effectiveness of a digital marketing technique is related to its level of adoption by your target audience. If your potential clients aren’t on Twitter, why spend resources on it? If your audience does not use it, the technique simply cannot work.
Similarly, if the technique is not used correctly you may not see the impact you seek. Digital marketing is not immune to incompetence. Training and experience do matter.
Those two cautions aside, some digital marketing techniques enjoy high levels of adoption and impact by the fastest growing professional services firms. According to our ongoing research on high-growth firms, here are the top five digital techniques:
- Educational webinars
- Keyword research/search engine optimization
- Downloadable, gated premium content
- Blog posts
- Email marketing campaigns
One thing that is apparent from this list is that most of these techniques are heavily dependent on high quality original content for their success. What types of content work best?
Three types of content seem to have the greatest impact:
- Product or service demonstrations
- Case studies (written or video)
- Original research
As we discussed earlier, this puts content marketing at the center of most professional services digital strategies.
Content Marketing and Your Digital Strategy
Content marketing is a strategy designed to make your expertise more visible by producing and distributing material that is interesting and valuable to your target audience. This content can come in many formats, such as blog posts, articles, white papers, webinars, videos and e-books.
In most cases, your content should be educational, useful or entertaining, rather than promotional or sales-oriented. Educational content gives prospects a taste of your firm’s expertise and what it might be like to work with you (do you come across as authoritative and formal or friendly and approachable?).
Useful, high-value content is the fuel that propels successful SEO, social media and lead generation. And importantly for the professional services, it is a very effective tool to build trust and engagement.
A Final Thought
Digital marketing is changing the way professional services firms go to market. It has made it easier for firms of any size to compete against larger, more established players. And for firms that want to reach new markets, it practically eliminates geographic barriers. Digital marketing gives firms new and exciting ways to communicate their expertise and value proposition to their most prized target clients — and find the specialized talent they need to grow and prosper.