Until the famous Arizona court case of 1977, professional service firms did not – and could not – market their services or advertise their firms. Once that changed based on a US Supreme Court ruling that reinforced the importance of professional service firms having the opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competitors, the flood gates opened to launch a new career path called “professional services marketing.”
Unlike traditional corporate marketing which is often based on business to consumer communications, professional services marketers brand and promote the intangible versus the tangible in a business-to-business culture. There is no “product.” Therefore there is no strategy regarding shelf placement, end aisle promos, coupons or even much of a concern about the ‘packaging’ (although one could make the case here that professional services reports and written documents are indeed part of the ‘packaging of the services they offer). Instead professional service firms have always applied their branding and marketing communication tools to build relationships that can result in referrals and thus new business. Word of mouth marketing (WOMM) has been the primary process that firms have relied on for business development over the decades.
While somewhat new to the game, professional services marketers quickly began adapting the initiatives that work so well for their corporate colleagues including the use of public relations, websites, social media, promotional materials, email alerts, direct mail and ad campaigns. Many firms were quick to realize that they could use a range of effective resources leveraged by corporate marketers. They did not ignore the power of WOMM but they also found new and innovative ways to broaden the scope of the firm’s outreach.
Branding and communications strategies change constantly in any industry, and professional service firms are no exception. But while some things change, many core strategies remain the same.
Unparalleled client service will always be the best way to attract new business. It just makes sense. Clients who are super satisfied and loyal not only use more services from the firm (and stay longer, resulting in high retention rates) but they are quick to tell others about the firm as well. Their willingness to refer business and offer heartfelt testimonials on the firm’s behalf has a valuable that is worth its weight in gold.
Along with creating an extraordinary client experience, today’s professional service firms often are now relying on additional processes:
First there is still a major focus on the website. This means that the firms embrace a genuine dedication to ensuring that sites are search engine optimized (SEO) so that they are easily found by the firm’s target audience. Websites are the core of most firms’ marketing efforts – serving as the portal to resources, industry KPIs, events, bios and much more. It is the place where the firm has the opportunity to tell its story, tout its services and differentiate itself from its competitors. Even social media platforms and other communication efforts should be crafted so as to point viewers to the website as the main source of information.
Secondly, there is an increasing effort to provide relevant and timely content comprised of those insights that business owners and organizations find essential to their own success. The firm that presents critical content builds credibility while gaining exposure, gaining attention from the business and media communities and penetrating their ideal audience. Content is delivered via the website, and is also accessed through blogs, tweets, LinkedIn updates, white papers, articles and other social media and traditional channels.
Lastly, I believe that one of the most effective marketing strategies for 2017 is also one of the oldest opportunities for professional services – and that is “networking.” Firms that have a sincere commitment to building relationships with individuals, business colleagues, centers of influence (COIs), within key business and civic organizations and industry trade associations will have an advantage over those professional firms that do not develop and maintain a visible presence in the community.
While on-line activities provide greater reach, the power of face-to-face interaction with a meaningful and narrowly defined market should not be under estimated. There has been a significant amount of discussion and reliance on building communities on Twitter, or amassing LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends. While these are vital components to any balanced marketing and branding plan, they do not represent the sum total of the entire plan. Ignoring or giving short shrift to relationship and influencer selling may be (at least over the next three to five years) somewhat limiting.
The key for professional services marketing is for the firms of 2017 and beyond is to think of themselves as a media company – in addition to being a professional service provider. Firms are growing in new ways and employing new tools – and if they do not embrace the philosophy that marketing and media outreach is essential, they will most likely be left behind in the future.